Reading habits in Scotland circa 1750-1820

  • Vivienne Dunstan

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This thesis examines reading habits in Scotland between circa 1750 and 1820, a subject surprisingly little studied by historians before, given the backdrop of the Enlightenment, and traditional ideas about Scottish education and literacy. From a methodological viewpoint, reading as an activity at this time is often little recorded, frequently invisible in surviving historical records. Nevertheless, enough evidence exists for it to be studied analytically, using individual case studies alongside larger data sets, and varied records such as contemporary accounts and later memoirs, library catalogues and borrowing registers, and evidence for book ownership, such as after-death inventories and records of booksellers. To aid the analysis, a three-part subject classification system is introduced in this thesis to differentiate between different categories of reading - religious, entertainment and improvement - and to facilitate comparisons between individual examples of reading. Successive chapters explore how opportunities for reading evolved, how Scots fitted reading into their lives, what they chose to read, their reasons for reading and styles of reading, and book ownership and its relationship to reading. Each of these chapters explores a particular aspect of reading habits in more detail than has been done before. The final concluding chapter collates the evidence to explore the wider question of change over time. In particular, it argues for the growth of reading, a dramatic change in the subjects people chose to read - specifically the growth of improvement and self-education reading - and a marked permeation of reading throughout Scottish society by the end of the period, not being confined to the leisured classes. In addition, distinctive aspects of Scottish reading during this period are highlighted and discussed, and Scotland compared with England. Overall, the importance of reading to Scottish people during this period is clear, providing a valuable insight into Scottish minds and attitudes two centuries ago.
    Date of Award2010
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsArts & Humanities Research Council
    SupervisorCharles McKean (Supervisor)


    • Reading habits
    • Scottish history
    • Book history

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