A Mauchline Binding

An edition of Scott’s Marmion in Mauchline binding, bearing the inscription of its owner.

Contributor: Bill Bell

Location: National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

Description: This object is tied to Abbotsford, the home of Walter Scott, a globally famous literary tourist destination in Britain. It not only embodies the connection between literature and place, but negotiates, in quite explicit ways, some of the tensions between conceiving of literature in an age of mass consumption and recognising the intimate experience of the pilgrim reader.

This is a fairly common edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Marmion, printed and published in Edinburgh by the firm of Adam and Charles Black in 1873, and now held in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Marmion, originally published in 1808, remained at the end of the nineteenth century, along with The Lady of the Lake and The Lay of the Last Minstrel, one of the most popular works of Walter Scott and one of the most celebrated works of English Romantic poetry. Black’s was associated with the author through the multi-volume Waverley novels that they had produced in their thousands since the mid nineteenth century. In 1871, they had produced a lavish 25 volume centenary edition of Scott’s works.

What makes this item unusual in the first instance is its covers, and in the second an inscription by its first owner.

This is neither a bespoke binding nor a trade binding, but somewhere between the two. The conventional boards seem to have been separated from the book block, presumably by the souvenir maker, Smiths of Mauchline in Ayrshire. This firm was best known as a manufacturer of wooden snuff boxes, using a technique commonly called ‘transfer printing’. By the late nineteenth century they had branched out into all manner of wooden souvenir items. One of Smiths’ most popular products was the iconic Mauchline binding that it supplied to the tourist trade. The development of this line seems to have originated as a happy coincidence because the Smith works were located in a town long associated with Robert Burns tourism. On the front of the object is an image of Abbotsford, the house with which Scott had become associated, and the place where many of his most popular works were written. On the reverse is an image of Melrose Abbey, a nearby tourist location also associated with the author and his works. The book’s binding must have been applied sometime between the printing of the block in 1873 and its purchase in 1875 (though it is possible that the binder received it in unbound sheets to make up at a later stage). Another detail from the cover is the inscription, ‘From the Banks of the Tweed’. To those familiar with Mauchline products it implied that the binding itself was made from wood harvested from the area. It was not unusual for the firm to sell souvenirs allegedly made up from wood salvaged from famous literary locations. In other words, this romantic object was calculated to appeal to a thriving tourist industry at a time when the mass manufacturing of pseudo-relics was becoming increasingly common.

Another feature, one that connects this object with its first owner, is the inscription, ‘Sarah M Shafter Souvenir de Abbotsford.’ We don’t know who Sarah Shafter was, but that a French woman was at Abbotsford in the 1870s is not surprising. Abbotsford had been opened as a tourist destination in 1833, and by the 1870s was welcoming a steady influx of visitors. John Murray’s guide to Scotland for that period tells us that they could gain entry on any day of the week excepting Sundays, Christmas and New Year for the price of 1/-, courtesy of Mrs Maxwell Scott the proprietrix. The provenance of this book provides anecdotal confirmation of the European audience for Walter Scott in the 1870s. Scholars have recognised the importance of Scott’s literary influence on, for example, Balzac and Hugo. Library and printing records show that the Scottish writer outstripped both, even in France, at the height of their fame. Although Scott had died in 1832, his memory had been kept alive in several ways, of which the frequent reissuing of his works, often in translation, was perhaps the most obvious. The Walter Scott Memorial had been unveiled on Princes Street in Edinburgh in 1846, even today the second largest monument to a writer in the world. In 1871, just 4 years before Sarah Shafter’s visit to Abbotsford, the Walter Scott centenary celebrations had brought a quarter of a million Scott enthusiasts to the Scottish capital, Scotch airs were played on the bells of all of the churches, and salutes were fired at daybreak, noon, and at sunset.

This object shows how contemporary anxieties about the mass production of books were allayed through strategies of customisation (evident through binding made authentic by the use of wood from ‘Scott-land’ and its inscription, the intimate gesture through which Sarah made it her own). As a mass-produced object printed on steam presses in the metropolis, one of many sent out in their thousands by rail and sea, it has been transformed through its paratextual elements into a Romantic relic that speaks of the specific time and place of its encounter with its owner. Perhaps we will never know who Sarah Shafter was but, thanks to a scribal act she committed one day in 1875, she has left us a glimpse into the lived experience of the literary tourist in the late nineteenth century.

Date: 1873-75

Creator: Adam & Charles Black, Publishers; Smiths Works of Mauchline, souvenir maker.

Subject: Walter Scott

Media rights: Image by the author.

Object type: book/binding

Format: printed codex/decorative binding

Language: English/French

Publisher: National Library of Scotland

Catalogue number: NLS Bdg.S.939