Priceless Manuscript Show To Mark

Monday, 07 September 2009

Scotland's largest library is offering what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view the last letter ever written by Mary Queen of Scots, later this month.

The 422-year-old letter will be one of the key exhibits in a showcase of literary treasures unveiled to mark the official launch of the National Library of Scotland's new visitor centre, which opens to the public on Tuesday 15 September.

The new visitor facilities are the result of a £2.24million investment programme, undertaken over the last three years to make the library more accessible - works included the extensive redesign of the library's public areas to create a more welcoming environment, with a new café, shop and expanded exhibition and events spaces.

Martyn Wade, CEO of the National Library of Scotland, said: "The completion of the visitor centre marks an exciting new chapter for the National Library of Scotland. The Library is the home of the collected knowledge of Scotland, and the visitor centre gives people the opportunity to come in and find out just what that means. Three exhibition areas, a new shop and café plus an expanded events space and access to digital resources and wi-fi make the library more inviting than ever before.

"To mark the opening of the new facilities, we are delighted to be able to offer visitors the chance to see some of the real treasures from our collection including the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots. Written just six hours before her execution, the letter provides an incredible opportunity to see a fascinating piece of Scotland's history. As well as Mary's letter, you'll also be able to see a complete Gutenberg Bible, the manuscript autobiography of David Hume and some original artwork from Alasdair Gray's Lanark."

Mary's letter was last seen in public 30 years ago - since then, the library's visitors have only been able to view a digitally enhanced reproduction of the manuscript as it is stored under tightly-controlled conditions to ensure its preservation and prevent damage from heat, light and humidity.  For this reason, the letter will be on display within a glass case for seven days only - it is unknown when, or even if, the original will go on display again for reasons of conservation.

The priceless letter was written on 8 February 1587 to Henri III, King of France (brother of her late husband Francois II). It shows her belief that she died a religious martyr and not for purely political reasons, as the English government alleged.  And although just hours from death, she even thinks of her servants and asks Henri to ensure their wages are paid.

The precious manuscript will join ten other fantastic exhibits on display in the library's new public areas from 15 September to 8 November. Each of them is a treasure in its own right.

Amongst the collection will be the Gutenberg Bible, one of the first books ever printed with moveable type. Printed in Germany around 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg and Johannes Furst, and the Library's copy is one of only 20 complete copies known to survive anywhere in the world.

Also on display will be the Forman Armorial (a reference book depicting coats of arms) compiled around 1562, featuring paintings of John Balliol and the kings and queens of Scotland from Malcolm III to Mary Queen of Scots, who is depicted just after her marriage to Francois.

Other highlights will be the autobiography of philosopher, economist and historian David Hume in both manuscript and book form, as well as a display of 17th Century silver bindings contrasted by an example of modern bindings by controversial artist Damien Hirst.

For more information on the National Library of Scotland's collections visit


Notes to editors:

Mary Queen of Scots - a document with more information on Mary Queen of Scots, from historical background to the story of the letter itself, is available on request.
Treasures exhibition - below is the full list of items set to go on display at the National Library of Scotland from September 14 to November 8, with the exception of the Mary Queen of Scots letter which will be on display for seven days only:

  • § Mary Queen of Scots' last letter
  • § Forman Armorial
  • § David Hume autobiography (manuscript and printed book)
  • § Gutenberg bible
  • § Murthly Hours (top quality example of a book of hours)
  • § Pride & Prejudice (1st edition)
  • § Gaelic Girdle Book (16th Century)
  • § Silver bindings
  • § Three Blind Mice (was, until recently, the world's smallest book)
  • § Alasdair Gray's Lanark artwork (framed)
  • § Silk maps from WWII (framed)