Correspondence between Barry Duncan and E. S. Reid Tait

Grant Value: £1,000 [Smaller Libraries Fund]
Item cost: £1,811
Item date acquired: 2016
Item institution: Shetland Museum and Archives
Town/City: Lerwick

In 1960 the Shetland antiquary Edwyn Seymour Reid Tait (1885-1960) bequeathed his book and manuscript collections to the Shetland Library. In 1976 and 2010 all the material passed to the Shetland Archives. It constitutes the most extensive library anywhere about the Shetland islands. During his lifetime Tait had been indefatigably on the lookout for texts and documents concerning his native Shetland. Very striking are dozens of scrapbooks that he created, with manuscript waifs and strays culled from every period of the islands’ past.

During his collecting career, Tait forged relationships with booksellers and manuscript dealers everywhere. One of them was Horace Alexander Duncan, always called Barry Duncan (1909-1985), a native of Lerwick who had eventually become an artist and antiquarian bookseller in London. Reid Tait’s papers in the Shetland Archives contained some of Duncan’s letters. The Shetland Archivist was therefore pleased when a collection of Duncan’s letters from Reid Tait, with carbon copies of his own, came on the market at the beginning of 2016.

Reid Tait and Duncan found much to discuss other than books and manuscripts. Duncan was a member of a decayed Lerwick family, and took the opportunity to discuss some historical family grievances with his correspondent. Reid Tait, on the other hand, wrote at length about his collecting activities. Equally interesting is Duncan’s plan to publish previously unknown poems that he had discovered by the Shetland poetess Dorothea Primrose Campbell (1793-1863). The project was not completed, but Duncan’s references have already been helpful to a scholar who intends to do something similar.

It was gratifying that at this late date a small but significant collection should have become available to augment information in an existing one. The Shetland archivist was pleased and grateful to receive support from the Friends of the National Libraries to assist in the purchase of it.