Science, Nature, and Children’s Books: finding Jane Marcet in the archive

Our hours spent happily in the Museum of Childhood’s archive revealed the richness of its collection of nature and science books written for young people, and confirmed the magnitude and diversity of women’s writing for children. Both elements will be on show in the Museum’s forthcoming exhibition, Growing Up With Books, which opens on June 1st!

A detail from the cover of one of the loveliest nature books in the collection!

But they are strikingly combined in a very particular mode of writing —  one which combines a flourishing culture of science writing for children and young people in the c19th century with the creative and intellectual interests of women in scientific developments.

This was crystallised one day when we picked up a book called The Seasons written by a woman called Jane Marcet, first published in 1832.  Though its familiar-sounding title might echo Romantic literature, this is in fact a collection of stories intended  for ‘very young children’ . These present a world in which nature unfolds through the year’s natural cycle in active and participatory ways for the volume’s fictional child protagonists who are a boy called Willy and his sister Ann.  Encouraged by his mother — ‘You must open up your eyes, Willy, and observe as well as you can’ —  the child peers inside a bud picked from a horse-chestnut tree.

A portrait of Jane Marcet

In another chapter, a little mouse intrudes through a hole in a corner of the nursery to enchant Willy at first, then to provoke him to ‘tantrums’ when the terrified housemaid suggests feline intervention! A fairly happy compromise for all is reached by the end  –  but along the way the story suggests that children’s sympathy for, and kindness towards, animals should be combined with respect for their natural instincts and habitats. It implies a rhythm and harmony existing both within nature and the domestic order which even the nicest of little mice shouldn’t disturb.

Such miniature nature narratives are sprinkled with a dose of moral conservatism. But they also try to teach their young readers to engage in close and empirical observation of the creatures, plants, and living things which encompass their world. The children’s curiosity leads them to discover everyday lessons about physiology, botany, the weather, and even the redness of robin feathers…

Illustrative detail from *The Child’s Zoological Garden*

Jane Marcet (1769-1858) passionately believed that science should be made accessible. With her husband, a medical graduate of Edinburgh University, she belonged to a scientific and intellectual community which had diverse creative and educational interests. She knew Maria Edgeworth, novelist, educationalist, and children’s writer (the Museum archive holds a number of her books), and the extraordinary Mary Sommerville —  the scientist, mathematician, and astronomer who came from the Borders and spent her girlhood in in Fife and Edinburgh.

As her extensive publications attest (such as the Conversations on Chemistry which took place between a teacher and her two female students), Marcet believed in the democratisation of knowledge. Her books reached a variety of readerly communities who usually suffered from various forms of social and cultural exclusion —  children and young people; women; members of mechanics’ institutes. And they were famously read by a youthful Michael Faraday when he worked as an apprentice bookbinder.

Marcet seemingly turned to writing for children and young people later in life. Ever mindful of the potential dullness of any subject, she enriched a grammar book by references to fairy tales and sponge cakes! For her younger readers, her enduring aim was to make science ‘familiar’. This intimacy can be seen in The Seasons where the child-worlds of garden and home become a playground for scientific revelation, and the mother is portrayed as a figure of learning as well as nurture.

In one way, this might be construed as a way of ‘talking down’ to children yet in another as simultaneously respecting and expanding a child’s worldview. Whilst obviously very different in form and style, one can see a connection between her work and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales which so vividly convey a sense of wonder and life in natural things. [As demonstrated above in SELCIE’s banner image, taken from the botanically-themed front cover of an Andersen edition!]

And it also brings to mind the beautiful nature illustrations of Jemima Wedderburn (1823-1909), the Edinburgh-born artist, ornithologist, children’s illustrator, and constructor of scientific toys.

Jemima Wedderburn – painstaking artist of the natural world, and cousin of the Edinburgh physicist, James Clerk Maxwell

In such ways, then, a single book chanced upon by the SELCIE team in the Museum archive opens up a world of interconnecting skeins between scientific creativity, children’s books, and the women who were so frequently their makers and illustrators.

                                                                                    This post written by Sarah

Further reading

Debbie Bark, ‘Science for Children’, in The Routledge Research Companion to Nineteenth Century British Literature and Science, edited by John Holmes and Sharon Ruston (2017)

Elizabeth J. Morse, ‘Jane Haldimand Marcet’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Kathryn A. Neeley, Mary Somerville: Science, Illumination, and the Female Mind (2001)

‘Jane Marcet’, Science History Institute,

The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, edited by Marilyn Ogilvie, Joy Harvey and Margaret Rossiter (2000)

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The Art of Labeling

As preparation for Growing Up With Books, opening at The Museum of Childhood on June 1st, busily continues, Niamh presents a personal reflection on the art of writing about the collection’s treasures.


This week finds the SELCIE team typing up museum-appropriate labels for our respective cabinets at the exhibition. This activity has presented me with an excellent opportunity to learn a new skill, that of writing for an audience made up of the general public. So very often I find that I have to check myself as my writing veers towards verbosity with its colour verging on purple. This self-censoring grounds my prose and prevents it from flying off into swirls of academic affectation. The most important aspect for me is that the tone is appropriate for the readership. This exhibition is all about children’s literature and therefore it aims to cover the gamut of ages, with texts suitable for little ones as well as for more adult readers. That being so, writing in a register more appropriate for a monograph would exclude a great number of the visitors. A child wants to know what he or she is seeing but does not need to be drowned in information. As such, a happy medium has to be struck.

Along with Sarah Dunnigan, I am in charge of the Other World cabinets. One of my research interests is fairy tales and another is national identity in the arts and therefore I can very easily find myself going to town with details that would interest only a very specific group. This occasion was no exception but, thankfully, I managed to notice where I was going and rein myself in before getting too far down the rabbit hole. No one likes extreme didacticism! Lyn Stevens has been so very helpful with providing museum guidelines, as well as numerous hints and tips on what to do. The most useful trick Lyn furnished me with is to think of the case as a story and the label as the narration of that tale. I absolutely adore creative writing but this activity is no mean feat. I have been trying to find a story to tell. It took me a while to narrow down the many ideas that I had bouncing around in my head. I decided that I wanted the viewer to expand their appreciation of what was already present in their literary knowledge, whether it be about authors already famous in Scotland or about the style of illustrations, already recognisable. Consequently, I have chosen to talk about … well … you, dear reader, shall have to come to our displays and find out. With that enigmatic ending, I am going to finish this blogpost. I do so hope that you visit our exhibition, which is opening very soon now.

                                                                      Archive bookshelf

                                                                                     This post written by Niamh


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A Spotlight On Our Handmade Books

SELCIE’s exhibition at the Museum of Childhood is opening in less than four months, therefore today I would like to spotlight one of the many types of books that will be included in the exhibition’s collection: the rare handmade books.

We have found only a handful of these touching and beautiful pieces of history, whose pages teach and tell stories meant for someone special. These three following books in particular will be available to view at our exhibition opening on June 1st, 2018.

One of the handmade books that I personally found in a box full of French and German novels is titled Nénette et Rintintin. This is a love story, written in French and illustrated in watercolours. It tells the tale of two dolls that were very famous during World War I named Nénette and Rintintin.

These dolls were widely produced in France around the year 1913, and were considered good luck charm dolls, as long as they were continually kept together. The dolls’ story tells how they met, both having been displaced because of the war, but how they both found love and happiness together, until the day when Rintintin was forced to leave for the front. He is injured, and this particularly lovely illustration shows how he is ‘sewn up’ and healed so that he can return to his dear Nénette.

We do not know much about this small, lovely book, but we can imagine that it was possibly made for someone who owned the dolls, or perhaps it was even given with the dolls themselves during a time of hardship and heartache.


The ‘Pink Books’ as the SELCIE Team likes to refer to them, are handmade books that seem to have been made by a mother for her daughters, Sibella and little Mary. They are handwritten, and the script is broken up syllabically, perhaps in order to help the young girls learn to read. They were both made in 1811, and both have their pages separated by small pieces of wax paper, which has left the drawings and script in excellent condition.

One of the books is titled: ‘The Rhy-ming Al-ph-bet and the History of Mary Anne’

and the other book is titled: ‘Two Times Two Make Four, Lucy and Her Mamma, or the Pink Book’.

These books provide an interesting glimpse into an early 19th-century home, where is seems the mother of these two young girls was especially integral to their education: the lessons within the books teach everything from mathematics to morality to reading and rhyming.

While many of the books in the SELCIE collection are able to tell a story about their owners, their users, or the person that gifted them, these handmade books are entirely about their makers. They bring us closer to understanding the importance of both giving and receiving books, whether they provide narrative or education, we can find a great deal of love and devotion in each pen and brush stroke.

This post written by Morgan Boharski

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Chapbooks Considered

Amongst the many treasures that SELCIE have unearthed, there are a number of chapbooks. These pieces are often small in size and volume, usually up to 6×4 inches, having only a small number of pages. However, one must be careful not to be fooled by their superficial appearance. They are highly important owing to their multi-faceted great socio-political significance.

Their measurements and number of pages go some way to illustrating this important facet. The controlled costs of creating and printing these works guaranteed that the sale price of these texts were such that the average man, woman or child on the street could afford to purchase them. Put another way, the readership of these writings was expanded from the restricted reach of only the very wealthy; previously, books had been very much confined to the domain of the rich. Paper was an expensive commodity because of the competition for timber, a product for which there was great demand for ships, building, furniture and fires. Wooden furniture, such as writing desks, together with various wooden artefacts often featured in portraits of the wealthy. However, possession of the written word by the general public ensured that democratisation was well on its way to becoming a reality.

Chapbooks often contained abridgements of classic works. These edited versions were simply segments of what was available to the wealthy in its entirety. Nevertheless, it is the action of reading that is the important aspect to note here: namely, reading was no longer the preserve of the upper echelons of society and access to culture was likewise available to all. Equality of opportunity appeared on the horizon. The degree to which there is a direct cause and effect between increasing levels of literacy and increasing availability of chapbooks is contentious. Alexander Pope wrote that ‘[a] little learning is a dangerous thing’ (215) and that sentiment holds true for readers also. With a general public that was literate, the ruling classes had newly to contend with a group of people that were less likely to accept the status quo.

Among the vast array of material printed as chapbooks, nursery rhymes featured prominently. In our exhibition later this year at the Museum of Childhood, ‘Mother Goose’ will be presented as one such example of the genre. While such a text does not seem at first glance to have the capacity to set the world ablaze with revolutionary change, it is clear that nursery rhymes are socio-political by their very nature. They can and often do impart a moralising gloss. In point of fact, the reader of works such as ‘Mother Goose’ is one who has learnt to assess other thoughts and opinions and thus to re-examine one’s own ideas and attitudes.

Aristotle said that ‘man is by nature a political animal’ (10) and a chapbook upon which a common nursery rhyme is printed testifies to the validity of this idea.

mother goose chapbook


Aristotle. Poetics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995). Print.

Pope, Alexander. ‘An Essay on Criticism,’ in ‘Essay on Man’ and other Poems (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008). Print.

This post was written by Niamh

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Simon Sommerville Laurie: Edinburgh Educationist

One of the more interesting recent finds from the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood’s book store is, perhaps surprisingly, a school book – The Sixth English Reading Book (fig. 1).

Figure 1

The book, which used to belong to Euphemia M. Millar, contains a timetable of various classes attended by the girl at school (fig. 2), as well as some cut out characters, objects and animals (fig. 3), possibly used as educational aids. All of this most wonderfully shows the owner’s use of the school book and suggests her interactive approach to learning.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Euphemia’s ownership, however, is not the only interesting story hidden within The Sixth English Reading Book. The book’s author, Simon S. Laurie, A.M., F.R.S.E., Professor of Theory, History, and Art of Education in the University of Edinburgh (fig. 4), may seem like one of many similar educational writers of the time, currently all but forgotten, if not entirely forgotten, but in his day he was an vigorous campaigner for various educational reforms.

Figure 4: Simon Somerville Laurie (1829–1909), by George Fiddes Watt, 1904
© reserved / courtesy of the University of Edinburgh’s Collections. See

Edinburgh born and raised, Laurie eventually became secretary of the Church of Scotland’s education committee in 1855, and a year later a visitor and inspector in rural parish schools in the counties of Banff, Moray and Aberdeen. At the same time he began his writing career, which, along with his work as an inspector, made him Scotland’s leading expert on education by 1870, and in 1876 he was appointed to the university chair of education in Edinburgh.

Figure 5: 22 George Square – the house that used to belong to Simon S. Laurie. Currently University of Edinburgh School of Social and Political Science.

Perhaps through his work as an inspector, Laurie came to believe that teachers should be able to receive a university education, equal to other professions, such as doctors or lawyers, and he campaigned for it as the president of the Teachers’ Guild of Great Britain and Ireland (since 1891). As a secretary of the royal commission on Scottish endowed schools he worked towards the creation of a chain of secondary schools, and his project partially succeeded in 1878, with the newly-passed legislation. He also proposed a reform of educational ‘hospitals’, where a limited number of children could be enrolled on a charitable basis, which later influenced the foundation of large day schools. Last, but not least, in the 1860s, Laurie advocated the creation of higher education courses for Edinburgh women.

All of the above presents a portrait of a man thoroughly engaged in the betterment of both Scottish and national education system, who understood the importance of providing teachers with the best possible education, and the importance of higher education for all, including women. It seems fitting that one of Simon S. Laurie’s books used to belong to a young woman, whose education might have benefited through the reforms he proposed, and the changes his campaigning influenced.

Simon S. Laurie’s grave at the Grange Cemetery, Edinburgh.


Anderson, R. (2004-09-23). Laurie, Simon Somerville (1829–1909), educationist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved Jan. 2018, from

You can see this copy of The Sixth English Reading Book in our Growing Up With Books exhibition, opening June 1st, 2018!

This post written by Joanna Witkowska

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Happy New Year 2018

Happy New Year to all of our followers! 2018 is the Year of Young People in Scotland and our team is excited to celebrate. First up will be our exhibition, Growing Up With Books, which will open on Children’s Day (June 1st) 2018 at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood.

We have been busy planning this exhibition for the last few months, with each team member taking responsibility for one case. We have shortlisted the books we want to be in the exhibition, and have been trying to decide how to best display them.

Exhibition Planning

Books laid out to plan display shelves

As part of the exhibition, we will also be publishing a catalogue that will be available at the Museum of Childhood. A few months ago we took some of our favourite books on an excursion to Edinburgh University Library to have some photographs taken. Soon we will be finalising the text that will accompany these beautiful photographs and we are very excited to get the catalogue printed.

The team is also delighted to announce that we will be organising a series of events alongside Growing Up With Books. There will be something for everyone, from storytelling to crafts to a conference. The conference, which will take place in November 2018, will feature representatives from the museum sector and academia to bring together these two areas in innovative ways.

All in all, it is set to be a fantastic year, and we hope you will join us and become involved in the Year of Young People and Growing Up With Books! All the best and – again – Happy New Year from the SELCIE team!

This post written by Danielle

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Katie Morag goes to Edinburgh University

The little red-haired girl who lives on the Hebridean island of Struay, always attired in her welly boots and Fair Isle jersey, is an icon of contemporary Scottish children’s literature. This, of course, is Katie Morag, the much loved creation of Mairi Hedderwick.

SELCIE was therefore delighted at the news that Edinburgh University had awarded the writer and illustrator an Honorary Degree at a graduation ceremony held at the University of Edinburgh on Monday 27th November. Every one of Hedderwick’s stories opens up a vivid world world for its young reader; in Katie’s companionship, the distinctive culture and heritage of Scottish island life is also brought to life. And Hedderwick’s illustrations also capture a child’s perspective of landscapes, weather, and environment. This striking combination of the visual and verbal was adapted for television in 2013, and a new generation of children discovered Katie Morag in a new medium.

Interestingly, though, the stories didn’t come directly from Hedderwick’s own childhood. The nearest she came to island life was the view through the window of her Gourock home across the Firth of Clyde to Dunoon and the Cowal peninsula: ‘I knew I wanted to go there, across the water and over the hills and far away’, she has remarked. As a student she studied mural painting and ceramics at the Edinburgh Art School (now ECA), graduating in the early 60s. It was an experience that would give her ‘sudden freedom […] It was totally classless […] You had room to develop your personality’.

During this time, she first visited Coll, the small Hebridean island lying to the west of Mull and the real-life inspiration for Katie’s island. Working as a ‘mother’s help’ to the laird’s family, she lived without electricity or drinking water but it was still ‘joyous’, she recalls. She subsequently returned and stayed for ten years where she raised a young family and began her career as an illustrator of children’s books by writers such as Rumer Godden and Jane Duncan, and of collections of Gaelic stories and Scottish folktales. Though the family left Coll in the early 70s, its inspiration was deeply seeded, and the first of the Katie Morag series appeared in 1984.[i]

It forms one strand of a rich body of work which encompasses other stories for children (as well as her travel writing which often draws on this rich seam of island experience). Thanks to Hedderwick’s captivating blend of word and image, the material presence of Katie Morag’s world is everywhere — not just in bookshops and television but in cups and calendars. The books belong to the classroom too, and Hedderwick herself is a regular and popular visitor (along with Katie’s teddy bear!) to primary schools and local book festivals; as she herself has said, ‘storytelling [is] a shared activity’.

These stories have become an intimate, homely presence in children’s lives — a vital contribution to a longstanding tradition of Scottish children’s writing, all the way back to Robert Louis Stevenson and A Child’s Garden of Verses, which so memorably captures a child’s view of the world. And, happily, that tradition is still flourishing across the  diversity of contemporary Scottish children’s literature, and the small, independent publishing houses which so often nourish and sustain it.

                                                               This post written by Sarah


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Dear Mrs Shillabeer

While working in the book archives of Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, we sometimes find books that hold traces of their authors. This usually takes the form of an authorial inscription, as is the case with the charming Mr Barnacles and His Boat book that appeared in a previous blog post. It is also always very exciting when we find traces of illustrators, as was the case recently when we found this 1960 copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses: 

Child's Garden of Verses Cover

This edition is illustrated by Mary Shillabeer, who was based in Edinburgh. She was known both for her children’s book illustrations and for her beautiful marionette puppets, which you can see here and here, for example. Our own Museum of Childhood here in Edinburgh even holds some of her puppets! She also sketched and painted Edinburgh’s Rehearsal Orchestra for many years; you can see some of those paintings here. The book we found certainly shows how skilled she was:

Shillabeer illustrations

However, the most interesting thing about this book is that it was owned by Mary Shillabeer herself. Tucked into the front cover is a letter from Martin Dent, the publisher. It is addressed to “Mrs Shillabeer” at her address in Edinburgh:

Letter to Mrs Shillabeer

The letter contains the publisher’s opinion about a “question of colour”; he states that he “will happily leave it for you to put it right in whatever way you wish after Christmas”. This is a lovely little glimpse into the life and work of this talented illustrator that we were very happy to find. As the season approaches for us to start wishing each other “a very happy Christmas”, we hope that you find this as interesting as we do!

Shillabeer illustrations

This post written by Danielle

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Muriel Spark, The Very Fine Clock (London, 1969)

Only four months away from the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, SELCIE celebrates her little-known children’s novel.

Gerard Carruthers guides us through its thoughtful quirkiness, complete with illustrations by Edward Gorey…
Illustration from A Very Fine Clock

Less well-known than Muriel Spark, the writer of novels or the short-story writer, is Spark the poet, Spark the writer of drama. Least well-known of all is Spark the children’s writer: she produced only one short book for children in the late 1960s, The Very Fine Clock. The text has the feel of the 1960s film industry’s take on the Victorian or Edwardian period. Think, for instance, George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960) or Lionel Jeffries’s The Railway Children (1970) for the general vibe. It is a genteel, moral tale written for the clever eight year-old who can get his or her reading-head (and tongue) round names like ‘Professor Sturge Baldwin Parker’ or ‘Professor Maximilian Rosmini’. These are two of four professors who visit the home of the central protagonist, Ticky, every week to confer with the Swiss clock’s owner Professor John on a range of profound matters. Out of goodness and in appreciation of his precise time-keeping, the professors come up with a proposal for elevating Ticky’s status and out of goodness Ticky refuses. Indubitably, he is a very fine clock.

Illustration from A Very Fine Clock

With rather gorgeous black and white illustrations by Edward Gorey (1925-2000), which are sometimes intriguingly arch, The Very Fine Clock is to be savoured by thoughtful kids. The only real places the text is dated is in the stereotypical depiction of the kitchen clock who ‘always lets her tongue run away with her’ and of academic life where ‘Professor John goes off in the morning to sit all day in his professor’s chair at the university.’

Illustration from A Very Fine Clock

This post written by Gerard Carruthers, University of Glasgow

Gerard Carruthers FRSE is Francis Hutcheson Professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow. He is one of the organisers of the Muriel Spark Centenary Symposium,  1st & 2nd February 2018, a joint venture between the National Library of Scotland and the University of Glasgow. 


Gerard Carruthers

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Dùsgadh agus Mosgladh: Catrìona NicGhille-Bhàin Ghrannd, Dùsgadh na Féinne (1908) & Calum Mac Phàrlain, Am Mosgladh Mòr (1914-15)

This post written by Dr Sìm Innes, Oilthigh Ghlaschu

[English translation follows below]

Is iomadh uair ri linn an Athbheothachaidh Cheiltich a chualas gun robh na Gàidheil, neo na h-Albannaich gu lèir, air dùsgadh, no an impis dùsgadh, air neo gun robh an t-àm aca dùsgadh. Thug Lachlann MacBheathain (1853-1931) òraid do Chomunn Gàidhlig Inbhir Nis ann an 1896 air an robh ‘The Mission of the Celt’. Bha MacBheathain, a thogadh ann an Cill Taraglain, na fhear-deasachaidh air a’ phàipear The Fifeshire Advertister. Bha e ri eadar-theangachadh agus sgrìobhadh na Gàidhlig cuideachd.[1] Na òraid, thòisich e le bhith a’ toirt sùil air eachdraidh an Athbheothachaidh is thuirt e:

The Gael suddenly awoke to the alarming fact that his native tongue, which more than anything else was the distinguishing mark of his tribe, was dying out before the tongue of the Southron. The thought touched his sensitive and melancholy nature as nothing else could…. Having now glanced over this heaving tide of new Celtic life which has overflowed the fields of literature, music, customs, and social progress, it remains for us to ask, What of the future? The Gael are awakening to consciousness, and as a man when he becomes conscious, first asks, What am I? Whence am I? What am I here for? So the Gael must ask, What are we? What are our capabilities? What is our destiny? … Well, now, we have looked at these three curents of our times – the rising tide of Celtic revival among ourselves, the flow of Celtic sentiment and ideas in English life and literature, and the stream of Celtic blood into city life – and we should now be in a position to guess what is the mission and destiny of the Celt. It is surely by infusion of ideas and transfusion of blood to leaven modern civilization with its own awakening spirit.[2]

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