The Smell of the Eighteenth Century?

By Karen McAulay
Two old leather-bound books.

My treasure is a book that's 219 years old.  Bound in brown leather with gold tooling, it's actually two volumes making up Joseph Ritson's Scotish Songs, and it dates from 1794.  (Yes, that is how he spelled it!)

My copy has a very distinctive smell - I call it the smell of the eighteenth century.  It's not musty, and certainly not damp.  It just smells uniquely and deliciously of old book.  Both title pages have gorgeous engraved vignettes, with   more at the start of each chapter.  The print is clear and legible on the yellowish paper, and the music is as crisp and black as it must have been when it left the printing press.

I had the binding repaired by a European specialist when I bought this book, so it isn't what an antiquarian book-dealer would consider pristine, but the binder did a good job in securing it for my personal bookshelves.  (I probably got it for a reasonable price because of the prior damage, so I consider myself fortunate to have it!)  Sadly, the spine of one volume broke at a different point after I'd had it for a while, so I keep it bound together with white cloth tape.  I don't mind - that's how rare book librarians secure old and fragile materials.  It's the first and only thing I've ever owned from the eighteenth century, and it is worth far more to me than any monetary value.

As you might expect, the book is special to me for other reasons apart from its antiquity and appearance, not least because Joseph Ritson's book occupied a good portion of one of the chapters in my PhD on historic Scottish song collecting.  Ritson himself was a fascinating character; and his book was both highly regarded and influential.

After all the fuss about James Macpherson's Ossianic poems, the pedantic and grumpy Joseph Ritson - he wasn't even Scottish, but came from north-east England - made up his mind to put together a collection of Scottish songs that was totally accurate and above board.  This isn't too surprising, as he had already engaged in written arguments with other literary gents about questions of authenticity and integrity.  For years after, people referred to his book and to the fact that he was a stickler for punctilious detail.  In fact, there was mental instability in his family, and Ritson eventually went completely mad, setting fire to his apartment.  It was, after all, full of papers, which it would have burnt very easily!

Ritson travelled to Scotland in pursuit of songs, and he sought the advice of other Scots musicians about which versions of songs to use.  He only printed the words and tunes - and sometimes not even those, if he couldn't source a tune!

Besides the lyrics and airs, he indicated the author of the words (if known), and the first volume begins with his 'Historical Essay on Scotish Song', providing extensive notes on the history of each song.  This is very handy, as we can get an idea of Ritson's own knowledge and views on this ancient repertoire.  Truth to tell, Ritson's 'Scotish Songs' weren't all folk-tunes - some came from much more noble sources than humble 'folk', and although he tried to collect songs from the peasantry, he didn't have much success in these efforts.  My own feeling is that this book was more for collectors than performers, as he didn't bother to include any accompaniments - which would in fact have made the book more appealing to people wanting to perform the songs domestically.


So, there you have it - a pair of eighteenth century books with a fascinating history, on a subject dear to my heart.  I wrote about them in the doctorate that for long enough I thought I'd never complete, and they now sit proudly beside the book that arose from my thesis, a little earlier this year.  They are, truly, highly treasured possessions.