Credit: Sotheby's

Manuscript of Rob Roy to go on display for first time

For the first time in at least a century, members of the public will get to see the manuscript of ‘Rob Roy’.

Written in the hand of Sir Walter Scott, the manuscript will be on display at the ‘Treasures of the National Library of Scotland’ exhibition from March 2023.

The manuscript was among the many literary treasures that were held in a private collection called the Honresfield Library. Formed in the 19th century by mill owner William Law, the Honresfield Library’s contents were kept hidden from all but a few scholars until now. The items were due to be sold at auction in 2021. Fearing the items would be returned to private hands and possibly overseas, the library’s contents were purchased by a UK-wide consortium of organisations a year ago following an international fundraising campaign, and renamed the Blavatnik Honresfield Library in tribute to its majority donor.

The manuscript of ‘Rob Roy’ is one of the items that came to the National Library via this UK-wide acquisition of materials. Manuscripts Curator Ralph McLean, who worked with partners in securing this acquisition said:

“William Law formed a fairly close relationship with the Scott family, and was able to buy material from them directly. This is how the manuscript ‘Rob Roy’ came to be in his private collection. The manuscript wasn’t always in the Scott family’s possession however – its ownership tended to depend on how wealthy they were at any given time.

“When Sir Walter Scott and his business partners encountered financial difficulties after the crash of 1826 a number of his manuscripts were later auctioned off to reduce the debt incurred. ‘Rob Roy’ was sold, but was eventually bought back by Scott’s son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart, and returned to the Scott family in the mid-19th century. However once again, the family fell on hard times and it was purchased by William Law and added to his private library.”

‘Rob Roy’ was published in the early 19th century, the first run making up 10,000 copies which is a huge number for that time. Scott was still publishing anonymously, but the book was marketed as ‘written by the author of the Waverley novels’. As these novels were extremely popular, ‘Rob Roy’ sold out immediately. One of Scott’s most popular novels, it has never been out of print in the 200 plus years since it was first published.  

Ralph McLean adds:

“What’s interesting is that Rob Roy himself isn’t a central character in the novel – he only appears sporadically throughout. It was actually Scott’s publisher who suggested the title. The depiction of Rob Roy MacGregor as a character in the novel undoubtedly added to the myths surrounding this person, as has subsequent depictions since in various media. We expect this will be one of the star attractions at our Treasures exhibition next year.”

‘Treasures of the National Library of Scotland’ is on at George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, and open Monday to Saturday. Entry is free.

Contact Information

Barbara Burke

National Library of Scotland

+44131 623 3738

+447904 791002

Notes to editors

‘Rob Roy’ was written by Scott around 1817 and published late in the same year. It appeared as three volumes the first on 30 December 1817, published by Archibald Constable in Edinburgh. Set at the time of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, it is narrated by the character Frank Osbaldistone who encounters Rob Roy MacGregor on his trip to Scotland. The novel was well received and the Highland setting and scenes drew particular praise.

The National Library of Scotland owns the largest collection of Scott novel manuscripts in Europe: ‘Waverley’, ‘Heart of Mid-Lothian’, ‘Redgauntlet’, ‘Quentin Durward”, ‘The Abbot’. (Morgan Library, NY has more in total).

The Blavatnik Honresfield Library

The Blavatnik Honresfield Library was formed towards the end of the 19th century by William Law (1836–1901), a Rochdale mill owner, who created a collection of English and Scottish manuscripts and printed books which had the Brontës at its heart, as well as manuscripts in the hands of Jane Austen, Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott and a significant collection of printed books. It has been largely inaccessible for the last 80 years.

When the sale of the library in three tranches was announced in May 2021, the vendor was encouraged to postpone the sale to enable organisations to raise the funds required to save it for the public keep the items in public hands. A UK-wide consortium led by The Friends of the National Libraries, which included Abbotsford, the National Library of Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, was successful in raising half the funds needed from hundreds of individual donors, as well as the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Scottish Government, the Foyle Foundation, and other organisations, with the balance coming from the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

The National Library of Scotland

The National Library of Scotland is a major European research library and one of the world’s leading centres for the study of Scotland and the Scots – an information treasure trove for Scotland’s knowledge, history and culture.

The Library’s collections are of international importance. Key formats include rare books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, music, films and official publications.

The Library holds more than 30 million physical items dating back more than 1,000 years as well as a growing library of digital material. / @natlibscot / facebook