The Cabrach boasts one of the oldest circulating libraries north of the Tweed, it having attained its hundredth birthday on March 22nd of the year 1916. Long before the days of Carnegie, of Coats, and of School Boards, intelligent country people in Scotland were trying to add to their scanty store of book-learning and general knowledge, and to cultivate their minds as well as their fields. In many parishes there were Mutual Improvement or Debating Societies, and such a Society flourished in the Cabrach in the early part and middle of last century. The usual plan at the meetings was for one member to read a paper on some prescribed subject, which was followed by criticism and argument from the rest of those present. From what we know of the leaders, whose names are household words in the Cabrach, we may be sure that the papers would be interesting, and the criticisms free, and there is no doubt the "Mutual", as they called it, was both popular and useful. But such a society requires of its members a certain amount of study, and books were scare and dear in 1815. How then was progress to be maintained? To form a circulating library was to solve this difficulty, and the plan once thought of, was rapidly matured.
There were other reasons, besides, which made a library a
desirable thing. On many a night throughout the winter it would be
impossible to traverse the dark and snowy roads to a meeting, and
further, meetings like those of which we have been speaking called for
initiative and self-reliance, not found among the majority in a
scattered population who have little opportunity of sharpening their
wits by contact with others. On the other hand, books to be read over
the fire in the long evenings, and volumes of sermons, specially
desired by the older folk, to beguile the Sundays when no going to
church was possible, were of very real benefit.
The motto of the Library was "Add to virtue knowledge", and the reasons for its founding are set forth in the minute book:
"It is generally, if not universally allowed, that if the soul be without knowledge, it is not good. Yet on account of the high price of books, the smallness of their own funds, or their distance from a well-chosen circulating library, many, particularly in remote parts of the country, find it impossible to devote so much of their time as they would wish to the improvement of their minds. With a view to remove these inconveniences, and to bring the means of useful knowledge within the reach of themselves and others, a considerable number of people in this parish and neighbourhood resolved to erect a Library for the sole use of such as may obtain an interest in it by subscribing and conforming to the annexed regulations. In consequence of this resolution (after several intermediate steps had been taken), a meeting of the subscribers was called and held at Mains of Lesmurdie upon the 22nd day of March 1815, when the following Regulations for the establishment and management of said Library were passed".
The first rule decided for all time the character of the Library and it is still maintained, though recently the members have permitted themselves a few volumes of poetry and essays, some of Sir Walter Scott's novels and the plays of Shakespeare, which perhaps the early committees would not have allowed. The regulation reads-
"The library shall consist of books on Divinity, Natural, Civil and Ecclesiastical History, Biography, Agriculture, and Geography, and other useful books, to be chosen by a Committee of Subscribers as afterwards directed. But no plays, novels, romances, or any other book which has a tendency to unsettle the faith or corrupt the morals of Christians, shall ever be admitted".
Rule 2nd is-"The Library shall be permanent, unless some event shall arise in the course of Providence which shall render the dissolution of it absolutely necessary. In that case, the books, or the value of them, shall be equally divided among the subscribers or their heirs, who are then alive". The remainder of the rules chiefly concern the choosing, exchanging and replacing of books, the payment of subscriptions and the guidance of the Committee.
The entry money, which has now been abolished, was four shillings stg. For members who joined at the beginning, and six shillings for those who became subscribers after November 1815. The annual subscription was, and still is, one shilling. All money received in this way was to be spent in "buying new books, binding old ones, and defraying and incidental expenses, which may be incurred on account of the library". On looking over the accounts, there appears at intervals the item, "one candle", and it may interest you to know the original candlestick is still in use.
Rule 4th is as follows-"A Central Meeting of the Subscribers shall be held annually at the dwelling-house of the Librarian for the time, upon the last Friday of November, at which the oldest member of the Committee shall preside, for the purpose of examining the state of the Library and the Cash Accounts of the Committee ; for electing a Librarian, who shall also be Clerk, and a Treasurer, and lastly, for choosing a Committee of five members, who, with the Librarian and Treasurer, shall have the sole management of everything relating to the Library for the ensuing year. Should a member of the Committee die, or remove in the course of the year, the remaining members shall have power to choose one of the subscribers to fill his place till the first General Meeting".
With regard to the choosing of new books, the next rule states, "When the books are to be bought, every member of the Committee shall make out and give in to the Committee a list of such books as he would recommend, and the books which have the most recommendations shall be first purchased". The Committee had full power, but at the same time were restricted in regard to the accounts. The Clerk had to minute all proceedings, particularly the Cash Accounts, which were to be laid before the General Meeting ; further, no Committee had power to contract debt beyond the sum of ten shillings stg. on pain of being responsible for the payment of such debt.
Books were to be exchanged "on the last Friday of November, December, January, February, March, May, July and September, at two o'clock p.m. for the five winter months, and at six o'clock for the other three months, and on no other day. Subscribers neglecting to return the books on the above-mentioned days shall be liable to the following penalties for every such offence, viz. : for a folio one shilling, for a quarto sixpence, for an octavo, threepence, and for all books below octavo twopence, to go into the Library funds". Pretty heavy fines. Apparently a book was valued solely by its size, and not by its interest or rarity. However, a loophole is left to escape the fines, "That no inconvenience may arise to Subscribers from the observance of this rule, any person, if he has not satisfactorily perused a book, may, if the Committee think proper, have the same book again. But no Committee shall have power to give the same book oftener that twice to the same person in succession".
No subscriber was allowed to have more than one volume of folio, quarto, or octavo, but two volumes under octavo were allowed at the same time. All books were scrutinised on their out-going and in-coming by two members of the Committee who attended in rotation for that purpose. No transferring of books from one subscriber to another was allowed.
The first General Meeting took place at Mains of Lesmurdie on March 22nd, 1815, and after the above rules had been drawn up the first Committee was chosen, to manage the concerns of the Library until the next meeting. Their names were-James Gordon, Bank, Preses ; William Taylor, Boghead ; James Horn, Newton ; Alexander Forbes, Invercharrach ; and the Rev. John Murray, Schoolmaster. John Gordon, Oldtown, was chosen Treasurer, and John Taylor, Mains of Lesmurdie, Librarian and Clerk, both of whom were members of the Committee. Later on these offices were combined, and one man did all the necessary work, his only reward being the remission of his subscription. In order that no one might feel his duties irksome, the Committee and officials were elected every year, and "no one could be forced to serve on the Committee for more than one year".
Apparently, at the beginning, the privileges of the Library were to be confined to male members, women no doubt being thought to be more profitably employed in household duties. In November 1815 this rule was added-"An unmarried woman shall be admitted upon condition of paying half the entry money, besides the annual contribution, but when she is married her husband must pay up the other half, and cannot transfer her right to any but a woman. When her husband pays up the one half, her right shall go to her husband". So, you see, these students of a century ago had very decided ideas about "Women's Rights", and when one of them married, he expected his wife to devote all her time to his needs, in return for which he would pay her dues, and possibly, if she asked him humbly at home, he would consent to give her information, in the true Pauline style.
From these regulations and minutes we gain a fair idea of the kind of people who founded this Library, and of the character of the Library itself. A further understanding is given by a study of the lists of books purchased from time to time. They include a large number of sermons, books on Church government and theological problems, memoirs and "remains", a sprinkling of history and biography, and a few books on farming, household medicine and domestic matters, while now and again an attempt was made to provide something in a lighter vein by "Religious Anecdotes", and "The Aberdeen Black List". Nowadays books of more general interest are found on the Library shelves. The best of the sermons, by such favourite preachers as Spurgeon, MacCheyne, Talmage, &c., remain, but the others have been replaced by works on elementary science, bee-lore, husbandry, flower and wild life, and modern history. But still no novels, romances, or plays are admitted, with the few exceptions before-mentioned.
In the winter of 1826-7 a "Disjunction" took place. There were then sixty subscribers, of whom only seventeen belonged to the Upper Cabrach. Having in mind the irregularity of their attendance and payments, on account of the distance between the districts, it was agreed to divide the books and to let each part of the parish have its own Library. That in the Upper Cabrach has gradually dwindled, and has not been used for more than twenty years, though the books still remain.
In the Lower Cabrach the Library continued to flourish. John Taylor, Mains of Lesmurdie, was the first Librarian, and he continued in office until 1837. In 1824 he assumed also the duties of Treasurer, and since then the two offices have been combined. John Taylor, Boghead, was Librarian from 1837 till 1867, and James M`Combie, Crofthead, from 1867 till 1883. In 1883 Mr John Sheed, Upper Ardwell, was appointed and continued to perform the duties of Clerk, Librarian and Treasurer till December 1914, when Mr Alexander Rattray, Burntreble, was chosen to succeed him. Our Librarians have thus always given long periods of service, there having been only four in the century.
The library was accommodated first of all at Mains of
and the General Meetings were held there from 1815 till 1823. In
November of the latter year it was removed to the U.P. Church as
Oldtown, and continued there till 1844. That was not a very central or
convenient place, so in 1844 another move was made to Milltown of
Lesmurdie. The books were kept in a large "kist", and on the appointed
evenings the Librarian would have them all laid out on the kitchen
dresser, while forms would be set against the wall for the
accommodation of subscribers who attended the General Meetings. These
General Meetings were dear to the hearts of the founders, but after the
first two or three it does not appear from the Minutes that anything
was done at them beyond the election of the Committee. Probably after
that business was over there followed an evening's friendly gossip.
In 1865 the Library was moved for the last time, and found suitable accommodation at the new school. There the books, which number about 500, are housed in bookcases, and a more up-to-date way of keeping the record of loans is used. The subscribers number between twenty and thirty, but far more people might with advantage become members.