Standing on the corner of Princes Street and the Mound in the New Town, a rather dapper looking figure stands looking down on the shoppers and passersby. This is Allan Ramsay, an Edinburgh man notable for establishing the world's first circulating library, and today remembered for his former home in the buildings which bear his name adjacent to Edinburgh Castle itself, Ramsay Garden.
Ramsay had been born in Lanarkshire in 1686, and by 1701 had settled in Edinburgh as an apprentice wig-maker. At the turn of the eighteenth century wigs were worn by men as a form of status symbol, elaborate constructions of human, goat or horse hair that often fell in ringlets below a man's shoulders, or were elevated to a significant height as a means of increasing their wearer's sense of physical stature. They were expensive products and were created by skilled craftsmen whose reputations rested on their ability to create ever newer and greater objects for their customers to display in public.
By 1712 Ramsay had become a well-known wig-maker of excellent reputation with premises on the High Street (today's Royal Mile) for the richest and most high status customers to buy.
His love of reading and literature saw Ramsay join the Easy Club, a cultural group established to celebrate traditional Scots writing just after the union with England in 1707, when many features of Scots culture were threatened with extinction. From this association Ramsay began writing, and by 1718 was a successful enough poet to turn his wig shop into a bookshop. Some people have credited Ramsay's early writing with being a major influence on the careers of Robert Fergusson, and later Robert Burns.
In time Ramsay's bookshop mutated into the world's first organised circulating library, a cultural hub for readers to borrow books, magazines and periodicals and take them away in order to peruse them at leisure, and then return them for other readers to enjoy.
The modern notion of a library providing such access free of charge is quite different from the original circulating library system, where members where charged an annual subscription fee in order to have access to the collections of materials available. The early function of such organisations was not primarily an educational one, as might be expected, but a capitalist one - to profit from those who had money to spend on such memberships.
In Edinburgh, the rise of the Enlightenment ideals and the city's relative affluence made Ramsay's library a roaring success, and he was able to spend time focusing on his own writing, penning not just poems but also dramas, his 1725 pastoral play The Gentle Shepherd being performed and celebrated as a work of theatre in his own lifetime.
Ramsay opened a theatre on Carubbers Close, off the High Street, which was opposed by the religious fervour of the Calvinists, and later forced to close. Ramsay railed against the dour principles of the Presbyterian church in some of his poems of this time.
In 1740 Ramsay retired to the house he had built for himself, still seen on the land immediately east of Edinburgh Castle - the cream and orange coloured building at the top of the Royal Mile is called Ramsay Garden, and the central structure - Ramsay's original home - was popularly known during his own lifetime as 'Goose Pie House' because of its octagonal shape.
Ramsay died in 1743 and in buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a memorial on the side of the church building celebrates his life. The statue of Ramsay on Princes Street was carved by John Steell, and ensures that Ramsay is still visibly commemorated in the city where he made most impact during his lifetime.
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