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17 November 2023

Scotland’s oldest purpose-built library awarded conservation grant from heritage body

Scotland’s oldest purpose-built library is set to benefit from funding from Historic Environment Scotland (HES).

Two roofers working on a building next to Dunblane Cathedral

The category A-listed building, near Dunblane Cathedral, dates from the 17th century, and was commissioned through the will of Robert Leighton, a former Principal of Edinburgh University, Bishop of Dunblane, and Archbishop of Glasgow, who died in 1684.

In bequeathing a sum for a building to house his books, Robert Leighton gave his collection to the clergy of the Cathedral of Dunblane. The oldest book dates from 1504. Beyond the Bishop’s personal collection, the Trustees added to the collection from 1701 with many important books from the Age of Enlightenment. The building and collection has remained in use as a library (although closed from the mid 1850's until 1989) and, unusually, the books and many of the original library fixtures survive intact, including six Jacobean chairs and the original book presses that line one wall.

The HES funding will go towards a programme of restoration that includes repairs to the walls, stonework, chimneys, and roof to ensure the collection of rare and antique books can remain housed in their original building.

Central to the project is work to remove modern cement-based harling and replace it with a lime-based material, closer to that used on the original 17th century exterior, to allow the building to ‘breathe’. The project will also restore the marble cartouche ordered by the Bishop’s executors, his sister and her son, a wealthy City of London brewer.

The restoration project, started earlier this year, has already unearthed some unexpected finds. A fireplace and press, still with its original lime plaster, were discovered after the removal of harling applied around 1990. One notable find was a finely carved stone with the initials ‘MGK’ which had been reused to bolster a chimney. The initials have been identified as those of a Dean of Dunblane in the 1680s. One replaced crow-step stone was found to have carving beneath it suggesting it was reused from another building nearby, possibly the (then) ruined Cathedral or Bishop’s Palace.

Dr Susan O’Connor, Head of Grants at Historic Environment Scotland, said,

We’re thrilled to award funding to this project and to play a part in the incredible history of the Leighton Library and, by extension, Scotland’s world-renowned history of libraries and learning.

“Not only does this project conserve a historic building, but, through the care and patience of those involved in the work, we now know more about the library’s history and have a further insight into the centuries of change witnessed by this building.”

Alastair MacDonald, Restoration Lead from the Leighton Library Trust said:

“We are very grateful for the significant support HES has given to our wonderful library. The restoration work has revealed that the repairs we have now been able to undertake are in the nick of time, as the fabric had deteriorated badly over the years. This grant, and other generous donations, have made a significant difference to the project. There’s still a long way to go to ensure the collection and its unique building are saved for future generations.”

The Leighton Library Trust hopes that, following repair works, the library will offer increased opportunities for tourists and locals alike to visit and experience the remarkable building and collection for themselves.

Find out more about the Leighton Library

About HES Grant Schemes

HES grants look to support a wide variety of projects across the country that will benefit communities and places, by harnessing their historic environment and providing wider benefits including supporting jobs and skills. Get more information on criteria and the applications process

About Historic Environment Scotland (HES) 

  • We are the lead body for Scotland’s historic environment, a charity dedicated to the advancement of heritage, culture, education and environmental protection. It is at the forefront of researching and understanding the historic environment and addressing the impacts of climate change on its future, investigating and recording architectural and archaeological sites and landscapes across Scotland and caring for more than 300 properties of national importance. We are also the lead on delivering Scotland's strategy for the historic environment, Our Past, Our Future.
  • Historic Scotland, Scran, Canmore, The National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP), The Engine Shed, Stirling Castle, and Edinburgh Castle are sub-brands of HES.
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For further information, please contact:

Julia Woolman
Historic Environment Scotland Media Office
07721 959 962