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Rare 16th century manuscript ‘comes home’ to St Andrews

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After more than four centuries, a book that once belonged to Scots poet Alexander Hume has returned home to the University of St Andrews.

Dating from 1548, the rare legal manuscript described by scholars as ‘Scotland’s first great law book’was gifted to Hume by his maternal uncle, Alexander Hume of Manderston, in 1582.

Known as the ‘Marchmont Manuscript’, the collectible book on Scots law now forms an important new addition to the holdings of the University’s Special Collections.

The 450 year old manuscript – written entirely in Lowland Scots – contains Regiam Majestatem, the collection of Scottish statutes and legal texts. Unusually, the document was signed and dated by a named scribe; for collectors, it is very rare to have such precise details about the circumstances of a manuscript’s composition, or its first owner.

The University of St Andrews currently holds a copy of the manuscript in Latin and Scots, which is used in teaching and research, however the new addition will allow scholars to compare the two editions.

Book history specialist Dr Margaret Connolly, of the University’s School of English, commented: “This sixteenth-century manuscript is about to enter a new phase of its working life. When it enters the Library’s Special Collections it will be carefully looked after, but it will also once again be read by students (under close supervision) because we will use this manuscript in the teaching of early modern handwriting (palaeography) to postgraduate students in the Schools of English and History.

“The acquisition of a second copy of Regiam Majestatem in the Marchmont Manuscript now provides interesting opportunities for comparisons on many levels, both between the two physical manuscripts in terms of their script, format and layout, and also between their textual contents, since every handwritten copy of a text is unique.”

Signed and dated by Robert Ewyn on 18 October 1548, the collection bears the heraldic bookplate of Patrick Hume, first Earl of Marchmont and Lord High Chancellor of Scotland, 1702.

The poet and manuscript’s original owner, Alexander Hume (c1557-1609), was a student at St Andrews and attended St Mary’s College, graduating with a Batchelor of Arts in 1574.

Professor John Hudson, a legal history expert at the University’s School of History, added: “Regiam Majestatem is Scotland’s first great law book. Its significance is both legal and ideological. To add a vernacular manuscript of the work to the Latin one which the University already owns is therefore a very pleasing achievement for Scotland’s oldest university. The work is of particular interest to the University’s recently founded Institute for Legal and Constitutional Research, publicity material for which already features the opening words of the Latin manuscript. Members of the Institute look forward to working on the manuscripts in coming years.”

The manuscript will be accessible to researchers in the Special Collections Napier Reading Room in the University’s newly renamed Richardson Research Library at Martyrs Kirk.

The purchase, made at Bonhams in Edinburgh, was made possible through funding from the Friends of the National Libraries and two private donations.


Note to editors

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews, contactable on 01334 462530 or email proffice@st-andrews.ac.uk.

Ref: Marchmont Manuscript 260716

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