Thorkelin Collection


Thorkelin Collection


The foundation of the Library's Scandinavian collections, this collection was once part of the library of the Icelandic scholar and antiquary Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin (1752-1829). Thorkelin was one of the few Icelanders to have an illustrious career as a civil servant in Denmark and also to gain a reputation as a scholar in Britain, particularly for his edition of the text of Beowulf. Thorkelin was a 'Britannophile' or perhaps more accurately, a 'Scotophile', who was awarded an honorary degree by the University of St Andrews in 1787. In 1790 he was offered a keepership in the British Museum but turned it down to take a post as archivist in the Royal Privy Archives of Denmark. His love for Britain was put to severe test in 1807, during the Napoleonic Wars, when the British fleet bombarded Copenhagen, almost completely destroying his first library and compelling him to build up a second collection. When the Faculty of Advocates was given the chance to purchase books from Thorkelin's library, they chose to acquire only works of Scandinavian origin or interest, amounting to over 1,500 printed items. These books were held in a room in the Advocates Library known as the 'Thorkelin Room'. Works on the history, law, religion, mythology, topography and natural history, language and literature of the Scandinavian countries are well represented in the collection. Particular strengths are early printed editions of the Icelandic sagas, and a number of examples of early Danish printing. Two important imprints from Hólar, the first Icelandic printing centre, are 'Lögbok Islandinga' (1578), the first printed edition of 'Jónsbok', the Icelandic code of laws, and the first printed edition of the complete Bible in Icelandic (1584).


The collection is part of the Advocates Library 'H.' shelfmark, among the books in the shelfmark range 'H.7-H.20.' (the bulk of the collection is concentrated in H.7-H.16.). The books have been catalogued individually.


The collection was purchased by the Faculty of Advocates in 1819 from David Laing (1793-1878), then a young Edinburgh bookseller and later to become librarian to the Society of Writers to the Signet. Laing had visited Copenhagen that year, where he bought a number of books from the collection of Thorkelin. Ownership of the non-legal books was transferred to the National Library after its foundation in 1925.

Related collections

The Faculty of Advocates also bought Icelandic manuscripts from Thorkelin and another Icelandic collector, Finn Magnússon, from 1812 onwards. The manuscripts are briefly described in the Library's 'Summary Catalogue of the Advocates Manuscripts', Edinburgh, 1971.

Correspondence between David Laing and Thorkelin can be found in the Laing papers held in the Special Collections of Edinburgh University Library.

Thorkelin sold over 700 Scandinavian books from his collection to King George III in 1788. These books later came to the British Museum with the King's Library.


'Norway in books and manuscripts, an exhibition' [exhibition catalogue], Edinburgh, 1963.

'Scandinavia, an exhibition' [exhibition catalogue], Edinburgh, 1970.

'Danish libraries in Britain', AA Calderwood, Denmark: a monthly review of Anglo-Danish Relations (June-July 1948), 8-9, 13-14.

'A note on the content of the Thorkelin Collection in the National Library of Scotland', D Wyn Evans, The Bibliotheck, 4 (1963-1966), 79-80.

'Inscriptions and bookplates from the Thorkelin Collection in the National Library of Scotland', D Wyn Evans, The Bibliotheck, 4 (1963-1966), 247-248.




Icelandic literature

Scandinavian literature