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‘they say that life’s the thing…but I prefer books’

March 10, 2010

Last weekend, I spent two happy days immersed in books. My talented friend Rachel Hazell was running a bookbinding workshop at Innefpeffray Library in Strathearn, Perthshire. While my family enjoyed a boys’ weekend, I headed south over the snowy hills for an intensive burst of learning, inspiration and creativity.

Innerpeffray is not your average small town library. For a start, it’s not in a town at all, but stands alone down a farm track in a field. For another thing, it was established in 1680 and is the oldest lending library in Scotland. From this modest room adjoining a family chapel, books on history, theology, law, geography, botany and more were borrowed by all ranks of society from ploughman to prelate; thus helping to sow the seeds of the Scottish Enlightenment in the fertile soil of a highly literate population.

Snowdrops and birdsong. The first lambs’ bleatings from fields where grass grows over the foundations of a Roman camp. Ancient gravestones lean gently in the modest kirkyard, shaded by huge old yews. Through hazy sunshine, a distant spire points out where the small town of Crieff crouches in the lea of great snow-covered hills. And here, up the stone stairs of the library, the smell of books: ancient, leather-bound books, some almost as old as printing, shelf upon shelf, a world of treasures in this little room.

Here is the pocket bible carried on campaign by the gallant James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose, the King’s General in Scotland during the Civil War of the 1640s. (It was his sister’s husband who founded the library.) There is Montrose’s favourite book, the History of the World by Sir Walter Raleigh. Here is a copy of a work that was a great favourite of mine during my time as a doctoral research student at Oxford: Topsell’s Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, published in 1607. Along with pages on the training and care of horses and ‘dogges’, it portrays such wonders as the rhinoceros and the camel-leopard, the satyr, the elephant and the unicorn. However fantastical some of these beasts may seem to those who have not seen them, says Topsell, they cannot be dismissed as myth: for who are we to prescribe limits to God’s creativity?

I could have spent a week in bliss just studying a selection of such books, but we had further delights awaiting us after our tour of the library. For then it was down to work in the schoolroom with Rachel, who introduced us to the craft of book-making. We began with the simplest concept: how to create a folded booklet out of one sheet of paper.

Then we moved onto cutting and stitching, more folding:

and pop-ups.

We sat and admired the shadows on the white paper. After that, Rachel taught us how to stitch several booklets together to form a book, and how to bind it with leather and cords.

On Sunday, we began to fill our hand-made books with our impressions of the library. I did not get very far with this, chiefly because of spending half the afternoon engrossed in a book on the art of calligraphy, published in St. Andrews in 1622. As well as being a very practical guide, it is full of pleasing maxims such as ‘Writing, Is a Literall Suppliment of the Voyce, in exponing of the Minde’: an appropriate saying for a blog, not that the author would have foreseen that in the reign of James VI and I.

The weekend was a perfect combination of learning, reading, practical craftsmanship and fun, with good company in inspiring surroundings. Even the journey home was magical: up over the hills from Crieff to Amulree, where the snow still lies two feet thick and the entire landscape was flushing pink in the evening sun. In a way I am glad that my book is only just begun. It means that I still have the delight of filling it. As the Art of Calligraphy advises, ‘Learne speedilie, but write slowlie’. (Yogi Tea, eat your heart out.)

See also: Rachel Hazell, Innerpeffray Library

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