The Blavatnik Honresfield Library: The Voyage Home Part I

21st September 2022

Collections and Interpretation Manager Kirsty discusses the exciting aquisition of the Blavatnik Honresfield Library by a consortium of libraries, literary organisations and museums including Abbotsford.

In May 2021, just as the dust was settling after the launch of WalterScott250, we were alerted by our friends at the Bronte Parsonage that something monumental had happened – the Honresfield Library collection amassed by the 19th-century mill-owner and bibliophile William Law (1836-1901) had surfaced in the public domain once again after the best part of 100 years. It was due to go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in July in one of the most high-profile auctions of its kind. It had been a closely guarded secret that this impressive private collection contained some of the most important manuscripts in British literary history, work by the Brontes, Jane Austen, Lord Byron, Robert Burns and Walter Scott.

What happened next was unprecedented. A Consortium of libraries, literary organisations and museums came together, determined to ensure that these items remain publicly accessible for all those who love literature and cultural heritage. With these friends and colleagues, spearheaded by the amazing team at Friends of the National Libraries who secured the postponement of the sale and co-ordinated a massive fundraising campaign, we began working through the curatorial case for where particular items within the collection rightfully belonged. 

This process was both careful and collaborative. In the course of our work with the National Library of Scotland (who care for a great many Scott manuscripts and letters), we considered where William Law originally acquired the Scott material from, how strongly it might relate to our existing ‘collecting strengths’ (by that we mean the makeup of our own collections), and how we could ensure fragmentary material from the Honresfield collection, such as loose leaves, were reunited with the rest of the parent manuscript. We discussed how best to balance local, regional, and national public interest and promote access. 

This process resulted in Abbotsford securing two of the star items from the Honresfield collection: the only surviving fragment of the manuscript for The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Scott’s first long narrative poem, and the author’s ‘Lighthouse diary’ of 1814. When this was agreed in September 2021 at Sotheby’s in what was undoubtedly one of the most electric experiences of my working life, I was utterly over the moon.

Seeing the first canto of The Lay of the Last Minstrel in person was incredibly moving. I couldn’t help but think about what penning that manuscript meant to the future of Scott’s life and literary career – it represents that magical moment where he was poised to unleash his original storytelling on the world, and it will make him a star.

The poem establishes that potent mix of story, history, minstrelsy and magic that was to become a trademark of Scott’s literature and research access to the manuscript will be absolutely crucial for the work of the Edinburgh Edition of Walter Scott’s Poetry, which I’m delighted to say has recently received AHRC funding to edit five volumes of Scott’s poems, including The Lay of the Last Minstrel, in a partnership project with the Abbotsford Trust.  The Lay is the most famous poem ever written about or set in the Scottish Borders and it represents a key cultural moment in the region’s history and the inheritance of its people. It is an honour to have helped to bring it home.

The other item represents a bit of a personal crusade, as I have been simply itching to recover the manuscript of Scott’s lighthouse diary for some years now! Scott scholars have no record of its contents beyond the version edited and published in 1837 by John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s first biographer, at which time the diary was still at Abbotsford. Scott actually departed from Abbotsford to join the Northern Lighthouse Commission for the summer and, unlike The Lay, this manuscript was preserved at Abbotsford by Scott’s descendants for many decades until financial difficulties forced its sale in the 1890s.

Abbotsford’s Blavatnik Honresfield manuscripts will now undergo digitisation at the National Library of Scotland before returning to the Borders later this year. We plan to exhibit our manuscripts, and tell you more of their fascinating story, in 2023.