Provenance and binding

Further discussion about the acquisition by the Advocates Library:

In the draft of a paper he read to the Antiquary Society in London on 1 December 1791 the antiquary George Chalmers (1742-1825), who collected materials for a history of Scottish printing, gives a description of the volume based on his examination of it during a visit to Scotland: 'This is a volume in small quarto, which is covered with parchment. The binding is plainly modern; and seems to be thus bound by some curious person, in order to preserve the several tracts, which, form a miscellaneous collection in prose and verse. It is marked on the back, "Treatise of Noblenes"' (Edinburgh University Library, Laing MS.II.448, f.625). The earliest reference to the volume as in the possession of the Advocates Library is in a letter dated 12 August 1788 in which George Paton informs Richard Gough that this volume — described in unmistakable terms — has come to light. We know, therefore, that it entered the Library no later than August 1788. It certainly did not arrive before 1785, for James Chalmers, who was George Chalmers's nephew, possessed an extract, made 'from the Journal Book of Al: Geddes', whom he identifies as Dr Alexander Geddes (1737-1802), proving that the volume was in Glasgow in 1785: 'When in Glasgow, in 1785, I saw in the possession of Mr. Alston a collection of prose and poetry printed at Edinburgh in the south gait by Walter Chepman and Androw Myllar anno 1508. It is a small vol. in large 8o printed in the same character with some of Caxton's impressions ...' (NLS, Adv.MS.16.2.21, f.15). More information about this previous owner, Mr Alston, comes from a 'memorandum', dated Glasgow 14 August 1791, preserved by George Chalmers and addressed to him by Dr P. Wright of Glasgow, saying (contractions expanded) 'Mr. John Alston, of this place, had a printed copy of William Dunbars Poems, printed at Edinburgh 1508. in a small 4to. It is now in the Advocates Library at Edinburgh.' (Edinburgh University Library, Laing MS.II.448, f.542). The two apparently independent pieces of evidence from Geddes and Wright corroborate each other over the name Alston, and Wright's unique knowledge of Alston's Christian name as John stands a fair chance of being correct. The most likely identification is with John Alston (1743-1791), who had been a student at Glasgow University and followed his father (also John Alston) into business: a leading partner in a firm of West India merchants, Eason, Alston & Co., he is known to have inherited estates in Dunbartonshire and Glasgow in 1788, and to have purchased the estate of Ralston, Renfrewshire, in 1785 (see T.M. Devine, Scottish Historical Review, 57 (1978), 55). We know, from R. Dickson, Introduction of the Art of Printing into Scotland (1885), that David Laing (1793-1878) used to say that the presentation was 'made by a Dr. Farquharson on behalf of a Mr. Alston of Glasgow'. A suggested identification of this middle man is William Farquharson of Balfour in Forfarshire, a medical graduate of Aberdeen University who practised in Edinburgh, but further research is needed. As to the date of acquisition by the Library, that seems to rely on George Paton's evidence. In his revision of Joseph Ames, Typographical Antiquities, vol. III (London, 1790), William Herbert says in the 'Corrections and additions' (p.1815) that after the sheet in which he had given an account of the beginnings of Scottish printing had been printed he received from George Paton the following: 'Jottings taken at turning over an old book in Black Letter in the Advocates Library, sent to the faculty by a gentleman from Ayrshire in 1788: titled on the back TREATISE OF NOBLENESS ...' The date, 12 August 1788, of Paton's letter to Gough (see above) supports this, as also does John Pinkerton writing to the Earl of Buchan on 19 July 1790, 'Your Lordship has, I dare say, seen the curious collection of old Scotish poems printed 1508, lately lodged in the Advocate's Library' (NLS MS.Acc.5747). Words like 'lately' and 'recently' are difficult to interpret, but Pinkerton could be said to lend some support to the 1788 date as opposed to (say) 1785.