SGLH Visit to Blackie House Library and Museum, Edinburgh, on Saturday 11th March

Apr 22, 2023

It was billed as a visit to a rather special place and it certainly lived up to our expectations. We gathered in the large open space just off the Royal Mile, known as Makar’s Court and Dr William Zachs, our host and bibliophile par excellence, met us and ushered us into his house. The visit was very efficiently organised. First we had to shed our outdoor shoes, and if we hadn’t come equipped with our own, we were invited to put on the slippers provided. We were offered coffee and biscuits and had the chance to look at the display cabinets.

Coffee over, we all shuffled up to the other end of the room and sat round a table. Bill Zachs then entertained us, first with a brief history of the house and the extraordinary long room we were in, then he showed us a succession of amazing books all of some relevance to garden history enthusiasts, even though he said it wasn’t really one of his subjects.

To every item he displayed he gave a fascinating commentary, combining information about the books and how he had come across them. He showed us the two 1683 Scottish books, Reid and the list of plants in the Physic Garden compiled by James Sutherland. There were a number of books on trees, among them Moses Cook 1724 and Kyle 1787. Everyone liked a wonderful Scottish road map by Taylor and Skinner from 1776, which was long and narow so that it could be rolled up to fit onto your saddle bag before galloping off on your journey. Very impressive was a nine-part work, by George Don, Herbarium Britannicum, published between 1804 – 1812,  a compilation of dried specimens of the British plants – 25 in each of the nine separately bound parts. Hailing from the Northeast of Scotland, Don was briefly Superintendent of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden. Very few copies of his magnum opus were produced. Repton’s Designs for the Pavillion at Brighton 1808, with its before and after iterations, was also very impressive as an example of book production and ’time-lapse’ landscaping.

What most struck me was the fantastic condition of every single book we were shown. No bookseller would dare offer Bill anything in less than fine condition. In the Library’s Visitors’ Book we were invited to say which book we had liked the most. My favourite was a perfect set of the two large volumes of  The Works in Architecture by Robert and James Adam, published 1773 – 1776. It was beautifully printed – both the letter-press and the rich engravings – on lovely thick paper and of course in fantastic condition.

Thank you Bill for a wonderful morning.

(Article by Anna Buxton, with a little input from Bill)