November 2023 – Bicentenary of the Bannatyne Club

by Laurie Atkinson

2023 marks the bicentenary of the foundation of the Edinburgh Bannatyne Club. Why an antiquarian printing society, dissolved after less than forty years, should warrant commemoration may not immediately be clear. But read on. One illustrious literary founder aside, the club represents a milestone in the transition from amateur scholarship to the professional academic work of universities and learned societies. One of its first publications suggests an attractive fable of scholarly inclusivity in the age of the elite gentleman’s club.

Writing of Scottish ‘Antiquarianism’ about 1800, Padmini Ray Murray observes that:

The rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of Scotland led to the notion among men of learning that its historic nationhood was under threat and that its identity should be revived in a variety of literary forms. Modern society, it was felt, was in danger of making one culture seem very much like another, and there developed a concerted effort to recover aspects of Scotland that would differentiate it from the rest of Britain. (278)

That effort was especially in evidence in the recovery of pre-modern Scottish writings. The publication in the 1760s of ‘translations’ by James Macpherson of what he claimed were the poems of the Gaelic bard Ossian led to a craze for historical manuscripts, ballads, and folk tales, undiminished by growing scepticism towards Macpherson’s credibility.

One man with a particular interest in Scottish antiquities was the novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott. Scott began his literary career searching in manuscript collections and ‘raids’ of the Scottish Borders for ballads from oral performance. These he used to produce his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, published in Edinburgh in 1802. He went on to write narrative poems, the most successful set in sixteenth-century Scotland and northern England, followed by the immensely popular Waverley novels, where Scott’s historical imagination was given full rein. 

Scott’s passion for antiquities was not only as sources for his fiction; he was also committed to making available to a wider readership ‘ancient’ texts which were neglected or forgotten. To this end, in 1823, Scott founded the Bannatyne Club, named after a famous anthology of Scottish and English Literature compiled by an Edinburgh merchant, George Bannatyne (1545–1608). The Club took as its model the elite Roxburghe Club, founded following the auction of the library the duke of Roxburghe, which had been a sensation among high-ranking bibliophiles. Roxburghe Club members were mainly drawn from the aristocracy. Each was to present a reprint of a rare book or an edition of a manuscript to the Club, in a run strictly limited to one hundred copies. Though similar in its essentials, the Bannatyne Club encompassed a more diverse membership, including men involved in the trades of printing and publishing. This is reflected in its name, not in honour of an aristocratic book-collector, but the Edinburgh merchant Bannatyne. The objectives of the Club were set out by Scott in a statement minuted at the inaugural meeting and printed at the head of copies of its Rules: ‘to publish […] in a uniform and handsome manner a regular series of works illustrative of the History, Topography, Poetry, and Miscellaneous Literature of Scotland’ (3). More than one hundred such publications would appear over the next thirty-eight years.

            The first publications of the Bannatyne Club appeared in November 1823. These were the Vitae Dunkeldensis ecclesiae episcoporum edited by Thomas Thomson, Poems by Sir David Murray of Gorthy edited by Thomas Kinnear, and The Buke of the Howlat by Richard Holland, which was edited by the club’s secretary, David Laing. The choice of texts for these publications – a church history, Scottish Jacobean poetry, and a comic allegory from Scotland’s medieval past – set the pattern for many that followed, with memoirs and letters also often appearing, and a bulky edition of the Bannatyne Manuscript published in three volumes between 1827 and 1855.

            Best known among the publications of November 1823 is The Boke of the Holwat. This curious alliterative poem is part beast fable, part family history, and tells two quite different stories. It is dated from Darnaway or ‘Ternoway’, the seat of the earls of Moray, and Holland says that he wrote the poem for Elizabeth Dunbar (c.1425–1485), countess of Moray, who was engaged to be married (‘dowit’) to Archiblad Douglas (1426–55) of the powerful ‘Black Douglas’ family:

Thus for ane Dow of Dunbar drew I thys dyte,

Dowit with ane Dowglas, and baith war thai dowis


Thus for a doo of Dunbar I wrote this work,

endowed to a Douglas, and both of them were doos.

                        (stanza 77, lines 1–2: Scots doo is used as a term of commendation or endearment)

Holland was eager to please the Douglases. At the centre of the poem is a long panegyric for their famous ancestor, Sir James Douglas (c.1286–1330), who was chosen by King Robert the Bruce on his deathbed to carry his heart to the Holy Land. More intriguing, however, is the fable which frames the history, from which Howlat takes its name. It is the story of an Owl or ‘Howlat’ who, ashamed of his ugliness, asks the Pope of Birds to intercede with Dame Nature on his behalf. ‘Accordingly’, writes Laing, ‘he comes to the Peacock, who is Pope, and falling reverently to his knees, receives his braid benesoun or benediction’ (pp. xii–xiii) – an attractive engraving of this scene appears as the frontispiece of the book.

The Pope summons a general council, and birds representing various church dignitaries assemble and debate the case. Dispatches are sent to the Emperor, the Eagle, who comes to the forest with his retinue. This is the occasion for the Douglas panegyric, prompted by a coat of arms borne by an attendant of the Emperor. When the fable resumes, the temporal and spiritual birds enjoy a feast held by the Pope. They afterwards grant the Howlat’s request and offer up their prayers to Dame Nature. She descends and bids each of the birds to lend the Howlat one of its feathers. With these she transforms him into the fairest bird in Scotland:

Than ilk foule of his flicht a fedder has tane,

And lent to the Howlat in hast, hartlie but hone.

Dame Natur the nobillest nechit in ane;

For to ferme this federem, and dewly has done;

Gart it ground, and growe gayly agane,

On the samyn Holwat, semely and sone.

Than was he schand of his shape, and his schroude schane

Off alkyn colour most cleir beldit abone;

The farest foule of the firth, and hendest of hewes;

So clene, and so colourlyke,

That no bird was him lyke,

Fro Burone to Berwike,

Under the bewes.


Then every bird took a feather from his wing

and gave it quickly to the owl, eagerly, without delay.

Dame Nature drew the finest together in one

to make fast this coat of feathers, and duly she was done.

She caused it to take root, and to grow handsomely again

on that same owl, becomingly and straightaway.

Then he was handsome in appearance and his plumage was pleasing,

most brightly covered in all kinds of colours.

He was the fairest bird in the forest and the most pleasantly hued,

so clean and so colourful

that no bird was his equal,

from Burrion to Berwick,

under the boughs.

(stanza 69)

At this point, it looks like the fable will have a happy ending. But the Howlat’s transformation also brings about a change in his character. He becomes haughty and arrogant, and the birds apply to Nature for redress. She again accedes, the Howlat’s new plumage is taken away, and he is reduced to his former condition. The poem ends with his reflections on the dangerous effects of pride:

I couth nocht won in to welth wretch that I wast,

I was so wantoun of will, my werdis ar wan;

Thus for my hicht I am hurt, and harmit in haist,

Cairfull and caytif for craft that I can:

Quhen I was hewit as heir all thir hieast,

Fra rule, ressoun, and richt redles I ran;

Tharfor I ly in the lyme, lympit, lathast:

Now mark your mirour be me, all maner of man,

Ye princis, prelattis of pryde for penneris and prowe,

That pullis the pure ay,

Ye sall syng as I say,

All your welth will away,

Thus I warn yow.

I could not remain in wealth, wretch that I was,

I was so uncontrolled in my behaviour that my fate is wretched;

thus for my haughtiness I am hurt and quickly harmed,

distressed and miserable because of the wiles that I have skill in.

When I was exalted as higher than all the highest,

from rule, reason, and right, totally clueless I ran;

therefore I am caught in the lime, limp, loathsome.

Now take your example from me, all manner of men,

you princes, proud prelates, of pride in feathers and one’s good.

You that take always from the poor,

you shall sing as I do;

all your wealth will go away,

thus I warn you.

 (stanza 75)

            Howlat had an able editor in David Laing. His careful collation of copies of the poem in the Asloan and Bannatyne Manuscripts is in stark contrast to an earlier text printed in Scottish Poems, Reprinted from Scarce Editions, edited by John Pinkerton – whose editor, remarks Laing, ‘appears to have been singularly unfortunate as a transcriber’ (p. x). At the back of the Bannatyne edition, an Appendix records variant readings – ‘such of them as seemed worth noticing, together with a few Notes, illustrative of the poem’ (p. xviii). Together, these amount to ten densely typed pages, exemplary of the kind of textual criticism that is now the norm in scholarly editing, but that had scarcely before been applied to Older Scots poetry.

            More fancifully, the fable of the Howlat can be taken to reflect favourably on the objectives of the Bannatyne Club. It is pleasing to think of Scott and his associates gathering Scotland’s antiquarian feathers like the Howlat, but enjoying better success because less jealous of their plumage. The Club, as mentioned, was modelled on the Roxburghe Club. Its print runs of publications were originally limited, and free copies were distributed to members. But by 1831, the Club had started to print additional copies of important works for general sale. What had begun, in Scott’s vision, as a ‘Bibliomaniacal Society […] for the prosecution of the important task of publishing dilettante editions of our National Literary Curiosities’ (Maidment p. viii) was beginning to spread its wings. Scott recognised the Club’s more liberal ambitions, the readiness of its members,

in some degree, [to] waive their own claim of individual distinction, and [to] lessen the value of their private collections; but in so doing they serve the cause of historical literature most essentially, and to those who might upbraid them with their departure from the principles of monopoly otherwise so dear to book-collectors, we doubt not the thanes would reply ‘We were Scotsmen before we were bibliomaniacs’. (Maidment 232)

This was not some scholarly utopia. Elizabeth Elliott observes that, throughout its brief history, the Bannatyne Club was ‘[u]neasily poised between the elitism of its ancestor clubs, like the Roxburghe, the open policy of its successors, and the emergence of learned societies’ (Elliott 750). It was still essentially a gentlemen’s club, and its handsome volumes, while available to non-members, didn’t come cheap. Yet the Club is commendable as an early, ambitious scholarly venture of which researchers today, especially of Older Scots, are the distant beneficiaries. ‘The particular impact of the Bannatyne Club’, says Elliot, ‘is felt in the echo of its founding statement heard in the original constitution of the Scottish Text Society: ‘the name of the Society shall be the Scottish Text Society for the Publication of Works illustrative of the Scottish Language, Literature and History prior to the Union”’ (Elliott 750). The commitment of the Bannatyne Club to the advancement of learning, its steps towards greater accessibility, and, in the case of Laing’s Howlat, high editorial standards are ideals worth emulating.

Works Cited

‘Bannatyne Club Publications’ <>.

Craigie, William A., et al., eds. A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, ed. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1931-81; Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1983-93; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994-2002. 12 vols. Incorporated into Dictionaries of the Scottish Language <>.

ESTC English Short Title Catalogue (British Library) <https:// Elliott, Elizabeth. ‘Walter Scott’s Bannatyne Club, Elite Male Associational Culture, and the Making of Identities’. The Review of English Studies, n. s., vol. 67, 2016, pp. 732-50.

Holland, Richard. The Buke of the Howlat, edited by David Laing. Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1823.

Jones, Catherine. ‘History and Historiography’. The Edinburgh Companion to Sir Walter Scott, edited by Fiona Robertson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012, pp. 59–69.

Maidment, James, ed., Notices Relative to the Bannatyne Club. Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1836.

Murray, Padmini Ray. ‘Antiquarianism’. The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland: Volume 3: Ambition and Industry 1800–1880, edited by Bill Bell. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007, pp. 278–86.

Rules of the Bannatyne Club. Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1823.