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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Monkland Friendly Society

A library society in Dunscore parish, Nithsdale, for the founding of which Robert Burns and Captain Robert Riddell were primarily responsible.

On Riddell's instigation, Burns wrote on account of the society for Sir John 'Sinclairs Statistical Account. He sent it to Sir John in the autumn of 1791:

'To store the minds of the lower classes with useful knowledge, is certainly of very great consequence, both to them as individuals, and to society at large. Giving them a turn for reading and reflection, is giving them a source of innocent and laudable amusement; and besides, raises them to a more dignified degree in the scale of rationality. Impressed with this idea, a gentleman in this parish, Robert Riddell, Esq of Glenriddel, set on foot a species of circulating library, on a plan so simple, as to be practicable in any corner of the country; and so useful, as to deserve the notice of every country gentleman, who thinks the improvement of that part of his own species, whom chance has thrown into the humble walks of the peasant and the artisan, a matter of worthy of his attention.

'Mr Riddell got a number of his own tenants, and farming neighbours, to form themselves into a society, for the purpose of having a library among themselves. They entered into a legal engagement, to abide by it for 3 years; with a saving clause or two, in cases of removal to a distance, or of death. Each member at his entry, paid 5s. and at each of their meetings, which were held every fourth Saturday, 6d. more. With their entry money, and the credit which they took on the faith of their future funds, they laid in a tolerable stock of books at the commencement. What authors they were purchase, was always to be decided by the majority. At every meeting, all the books, under certain fines and forfeitures, by way of penalty, were to be produced; and the members had their choice of the volumes in rotation. He whose name stood for that night, first on the list, had his choice of what volume he pleased in his whole collection; the second had his choice after the first, the third after the second, and so on to the last. At the next meeting, he who had been first on the list at the preceding meeting, was last at this; he who had been second was first; and so on, through the whole 3 years. At the expiration of the engagement, the books were sold by auction, but only among the members themselves; and each man had his share of the common stock, in money or in books, as he chose to be purchaser or not,

'At the breaking up of this little society, which was formed under Mr Riddell's patronage, what with benefactions of books from him, and what with their own purchases, they had collected upwards of 150 volumes. It will easily be guessed, that a good deal of trash would be bought. Among the books, however, of this little library, were Blair's Sermons, Robertson's History of Scotland, Hume's History of the Stewarts, The Spectator, Idler, Adventurer, Mirror, Lounger, Observer, Man of Feeling, Man of the World, Chrystal, Don Quixotte, Joseph Andrews, and etc. a peasant who can read and enjoy such books, is certainly a much superior being to his neighbour, who, perhaps stalks beside his team, very little removed, except in shape, from the brutes he drives.'

Many of the books were bought from Peter Hill of Edinburgh to Burns's order. Sometimes, subterfuge had to be resorted to to overcome the desire of the democrats for 'trash', as in this order to Hill sent on 2nd March 1790: 'At the late meeting of the Monkland Friendly Society it was resolved to augment their library by the following books, which you are to send us as soon as possible — The Mirror — The Lounger — Man of Feeling — Man of the World (these for my own sake I wish to have by the first Carrier) — Knox's History of the Reformation — Rae's History of the Rebellion 1715 — Any good history of the Rebellion 1745 — A display of the Secession Act and Testimony by Mr Gib — Hervey's Meditations — Beveridge's Thoughts — and another copy of Watson's Body of Divinity. This last heavy Performance is son much admired by many of our Members, that they will not be content with one Copy, so Captain Riddell our President and Patron agreed with me to give you private instructions not to send Watson, but to say that you could not procure a copy of the book so cheap as the one you sent formerly and therefore you wait further Orders.'

From this, it is clear that Burns, not Riddell, was really the mainspring of the 'Societys enthusiasm. As Riddell himself put it: 'Mr Burns was so good as to take the whole charge of this small concern. He was treasurer, librarian, and censor to this little society, who will long to have a grateful sense of his public spirit and exertions for their improvement and information.'

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