When Skye bookseller, Gilleasbuig Ferguson, purchased a new book he found himself embroiled in an adventure as intriguing and mysterious as any of the tales for sale in his shop!
A member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, Skeabost-based Gilleasbuig has lately added "detective" to his list of accolades!
The book in question which sparked off the spine-tingling adventure was the 2nd Origin of Species (1860) by Charles Darwin, which was for sale online. The description, which was unaccompanied by photographs, consisted of words such as "worn," "rubbed," "split," "ex-library" and "shaky."
Explained Gilleasbuig: "It had been online for a while at a fairly cheerful price (£1,750) so it was certainly worth checking to see if it could be restored. It did sound like a dud though. I promptly received an email with photographs and I goggled, my eyebrows intertwined, at one of the finest copies of an early Origin that I’ve ever seen."
Gilleasbuig lost no time in purchasing the book, describing it as "surprisingly lovely." The only indicator that the book was "ex-library" was an old ink inscription to the head of the title, reading: "Canterbury Museum." Gilleasbuig concluded it was a long-closed museum in Kent - until he took a closer look!
Gilleasbuig revealed: "It was rather faint but unmistakable - a little lilac stamp there on the half-title: 'Canterbury Museum, Christchurch.' The title page held another surprise that the dealer hadn’t mentioned – the ownership stamp of one ‘Walter Mantell.'" After Googling, Gilleasbuig discovered that: "The Canterbury Museum was still a going concern and Walter Mantell, as well as being Gideon Mantell's son, was New Zealand's answer to Richard Owen. I even speculated that Darwin may have sent Mantell this copy, since the two scientists corresponded on various subjects from geology to the Maori conception of beauty."
Gilleasbuig got in touch with the seller to ask whether they had been in touch with the Canterbury Museum. "They hadn't. Their 'hunch,' however, was that it was fine," Gilleasbuig stated. "My hunch was that it was anything but fine! So it proved when I contacted the Museum. The Origin had never been sold or de-accessioned by them. Precisely how it had gained the opportunity to jet off on a holiday to Skye was a harder question to answer though."
It was concluded that the book had been stolen from the Museum. Gilleasbuig remarked: "Around the turn of the century there had been a horrendous spate of thefts from libraries and institutions throughout New Zealand by a syndicate of criminals who were stealing books to order. The Canterbury Museum was amongst those targeted."
Gilleasbuig's email the Museum sparked off a police investigation, which led, not to a book thief, but to a researcher working at the Museum! Gilleasbuig revealed: "The Origin had been used for reference by a Marine Zoologist doing her masters research in the museum in the 60s and, when she left in 1969, the Origin was accidentally packed in boxes with her research materials and her books including, ironically, her own copy of the Origin of Species. The book remained in the box for nearly 50 years, until this spring when she released her large book collection to the trade, to free up space rather than make cash.
"I know all this because the lovely individual wrote a very contrite and thoughtful letter of apology to the museum explaining how the accidental removal of the book took place. She also detailed how her long and useful career as a scientist, teacher and mother subsequently played out while the Origin lay hidden and forgotten in a cardboard box. So, as well as being a reminder to be sure of having the title to books that one buys, this story is an example of how books can be dislodged from their rightful place by entirely innocent means and lost in the shuffle."
The Origin, which was presented by Walter Mantell to the Canterbury Museum in August 1890 is on an 11,000-mile journey back home - accompanied by a postcard from the Isle of Skye as a reminder of its incredible, serendipitous journey.