The Wanlockhead Miners’ Library

Dr. Fiona Skillen, Glasgow Caledonian University

Dr Fiona Skillen is a lecturer in Sport and Events Management at Glasgow Caledonian University. Her research interests concern modern history, in particular aspects of sport, gender, and changes in popular culture. She is particularly interested in the influence which dominant discourses concerning gender and modernity had on women’s popular culture. Her PhD research focused specifically on the ways in which these discourses impinged on and were negotiated by women who wished to participate in sport within the interwar period. Her first monograph Women and Sport in Interwar Britain, (Peter Lang, Oxford, Forthcoming, 2013) is due out later this year.

Wanlockhead is a village in Dumfries and Galloway, and is perhaps best known for being Scotland’s highest village at 1,531 feet. However it is also home to the second oldest workers’ subscription library in Europe. This post summarises some of the highlights from a recent project undertaken by myself and funded by Musuems and Galleries Scotland to examine the social history of the library.

The Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead, or the Miners’ Library as it became known, was founded on 1st November 1756. The founding of the Society is an area of debate amongst historians and locals alike. The Society was only the second of its kind established in Scotland. The first having been established in nearby Leadhills. The primary concern of the membership was to widen their interests and improve their knowledge.

Although very little information exists from the early days of the library a version of the constitution has survived and highlights the well organised nature of the group from the beginning. However it is the amended and much extended constitution of 1783 which gives us a greater understanding of the functioning of the library. The new constitution, extended from seven articles to thirty eight, carefully explains not only the duties of each office bearer and the day to day administration of the Society, but also explores a myriad of possible events and the correct procedures to be followed.

The constitution stipulated that fines were to be given to members for breaking the rules laid out in it. These included various things, such as not attending meetings, refusing to take up a position on the library committee when elected, not returning books on time, damaging books or losing books.

If books were to be transported any great distance outwith Wanlockhead the member would be issued with a bag in which to carry the books. The bag would be sealed by the librarian and it was expected to be sealed by the member for the return journey – travelling without a proper seal would result in a fine.

Although the library was established to promote education, learning and self-improvement it is clear that this ethos only extended as far as its immediate membership. The constitution states that any member found to be lending out their books to other people, even other members, would be fined heavily. Moreover, the constitution explicitly states that anyone caught reading from their books for the entertainment of others would also be fined!

The library was opened once a month for the exchange of books during the first 100 years of its existence, thereafter it opened every Friday evening between 6 and 7 o’clock. There were set limits on the number of books which could be taken out at any one time by members. Members could have no more than four small duodecimo volumes or one of the folio volumes.


The Miners’ Library, like most clubs and societies, had clear regulations and systems for maintaining its membership. Members were expected to pay a joining fee and an annual subscription. Membership of the Society was not cheap. In the early years the entry fee was set at 3/- and the annual subscription, paid in quarterly instalments, at 4/-. In 1783 the subscription was halved to 2/-. The annual subscription remained 2/- until 1921 when again it was raised to 4/-. When you consider that a miner’s weekly wage during this early period was around 9/- to 10/- this was a significant amount to pay out.

From the founding of the Society there were regulations in place to enable members to bequeath their membership to a member of their family:

Any member of the society dying his heir, legatee, or assignee shall have a right to his place and privileges of the same without entry money and upon paying the arrears due by the deceased member if he owed any and the usual quarterly payments for the time being when he chuses to claim said right, if he be found agreeable to the society.

The family trees compiled for this project clearly show that this was common practice.

What did they read?

The collection grew in two ways; firstly through the donation of books and secondly through the purchasing of books. Member were asked at general meetings to suggest appropriate items for the catalogue, items were then shortlisted. The selection of books was subject to strict rules. Books had to be deemed appropriate reading material for the Society.

In April 1837 a book was discovered within the collection which cause a great uproar. The arguments contained in George Combe’s ‘Constitution of Man’ were said to ‘to corrupt the principles and undermine the faith professed by the established Church of Scotland and professed by us as members of said church.’ After consultation amongst the committee the book was passed on to Rev John Hope and Rev Thomas Hastings to seek their opinion. Their response left the committee in no doubt about what needed to be done. The Ministers sensationally declared it ‘the most dangerous book they ever saw and declared it not deserving a place in this or any other library.’ The committee took a vote about whether the book should be retained in collection or removed, the majority voted in favour of disposing of the book. The book was then, rather dramatically ‘committed to the flames.’

The members of the Society read a wide range of different types of books. Certain subjects are more prevalent than others within the catalogue, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that religion dominates the collection and latterly that fiction becomes an important feature. Extensive analysis of the collection has been carried out by Dr John Crawford and Stuart James at the time of the library’s restoration. [1] From analysis of the catalogues and minutes it is clear that the Society amassed a collection of around 3717 books, although only around 2572 are housed in the library today.

Other roles of the Library

Another important role which the library could fulfil was that of bank. The constitution indicates that the library could, if it had sufficient funds, lend money to its members:

If at any time the society shall have money in their hands for which they have not immediate use, the same may be let out at interest but not without consent and advice of the Preses and Committee.

This may have been a particularly important function given the nature of the payment system in place for many of the miners. As will be discussed in more depth shortly, many of the miners were part of the Bargain system which meant that they were paid once a year. Having this facility to fall back on when money was tight and the annual payday a distant prospect may have been very important to the membership. Sadly, there are very limited accounting records for the early years of the Society so it is difficult to know just how often this system was called on.

The library played an increasingly important role within the Wanlockhead community during the nineteenth century. The library was one of the only buildings in the village big enough in which to hold large meetings. In 1858 when the Rev Thomas Hasting applied to the membership for permission to use the library for church meetings while the church was under construction. Over the years several organisations applied to use the library building for meetings, these included the Free Church in 1873, the village band in 188, the Quoiting club in 1876 and the Young Men’s Association. The library was not however only used for meetings games were also played in it, from 1882 a carpet bowling club was established in the building. The accounts of the society also suggest that the library could be hired out for social functions as well such as weddings.

Further reading

Hidden Treasures Museum, Wanlockhead.

J Crawford and S James, The Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead, 1756-1979 (Glasgow, Scottish Library Association, 1981), p.24-45.

F Skillen, ‘Leisure, Recreation and Self-Improvement in a Scottish Mining Community. The Archives of the Wanlockhead Museum Trust’, Scottish Archives, (Issue 16, 2010, pp190-123)


[1] J Crawford and S James, The Society for Purchasing Books in Wanlockhead, 1756-1979 (Glasgow, Scottish Library Association, 1981), p.24-45.


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