An open copy of Shakespeare's First Folio displaying the dedication and an image recognisable as Shakespeare.

2023 marks 400 years since the publication of Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’, and to celebrate this The University of Glasgow’s copy will be on display at The Hunterian Art Gallery. Ellen Fenton, Head of Audience Experience and Engagement at The Hunterian, talks us through Scotland’s different copies of the text, and the work that has gone into putting the display together.

Shakespeare’s ‘First Folio’

‘When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain…’ — these familiar words are from Macbeth, one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays. The ‘Scottish’ play only survives because it was printed four hundred years ago in the first edition of his ‘complete works’ — the volume we call ‘The First Folio’ today.

2023 marks the 400th birthday of The First Folio and as part of a worldwide project to celebrate this, The University of Glasgow’s Senior Librarian, Julie Gardham, contacted me to ask what we could do to display the copy held at the University of Glasgow. As an English Literature graduate, I was obviously excited at the prospect!

Only 18 of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in print during his lifetime, and some of these were pirated editions. The First Folio is hugely important because 18 of the 36 plays were published here for the first time, saving works such as The Tempest and Macbeth from probable extinction.

About 750 copies of the 1623 First Folio were printed. 235 are known to have survived with 50 copies still in the UK, 149 in USA and 36 in other corners of the world (nine of which are listed as ‘missing’).

Showcasing Shakespeare in Scotland

Today there are more copies of the First Folio in the New York Public Library than in Scotland. The three publicly accessible volumes in Scotland are held by the University of Glasgow, the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. These three different volumes, in three very different collections, have three different stories to tell.

Our three organisations have all worked together in different ways before, and a few Zoom calls put the key players in touch to discuss what we could do. Along with other colleagues, Julie Gardham at University of Glasgow Library’s Archives and Special Collections, The Mount Stuart Trust’s Librarian, Elizabeth Ingham and The National Library of Scotland’s Head of Rare Books, Maps and Music, Helen Vincent, shaped an idea of how we could tell the story of Scotland’s First Folios and give access to the public across Scotland in 2023.

As well as displaying copies across the venues, we commissioned a film with filmmaker Matthew Robinson, to tell the story of these three volumes. What started as a conversation along the lines of ‘How can we tell the story of one book three different ways?’ became a fascinating journey into how the volumes have changed hands over the centuries and how they are used to today to inspire schoolchildren, University teaching and research and to connect a nation to its cultural assets.

The film came together as a truly collaborative effort – and we were delighted to have Scottish icon Peter Capaldi voice the introduction, bringing the story to life.

An open copy of Shakespeare's First Folio displaying the dedication and an image recognisable as Shakespeare.
National Library Scotland First Folio with Shakespeare’s ‘coloured in’ eye. Image Credit: National Library Scotland.

As visitors will be able to see for themselves, these Folios all show different signs of modification or use – from being ‘made up’ copies to being beautifully rebound for the library of a Marquess. The National Library’s copy includes a peculiarly charming example of ‘conservation’ (before it came into the national collections) where a damaged eye in the portrait of Shakespeare has been coloured in! Copies show use and wear, spark marks from a candle, thumb prints. These signs of use speak to generations of avid readers, performers, researchers and students finding something thrilling in the texts.

“There are some books you will never not get the thrill out of seeing – and that is one of them.”

Helen Vincent, National Library of Scotland

These Folios are cared for by three world leading collections – connecting Scottish audiences to the original words of Shakespeare – something I find incredibly compelling. This is a real highlight among the many privileges of my job – that I get to work with objects and stories like these, alongside such wonderful partner colleagues and organisations.

Scotland’s First Folios

University of Glasgow

According to a census of surviving First Folios, The University of Glasgow’s First Folio, held in the Library’s Archives & Special Collections, is Class II B, being ‘in fair condition, but with leaves missing, or supplied from later Folios, or in facsimile’.

It is believed this is a ‘made up’ copy, using leaves from several different First Folio copies. The book probably belonged to the Cary family in the seventeenth century and was later owned by the fifth Earl of Inchiquin of Taplow Court, Buckinghamshire, who apparently acquired the book c.1780. After this, we know that the book changed hands a couple of times before it was bought by a William Euing who bequeathed it to the University of Glasgow along with the rest of his library when he died in 1874.

One owner, J O Halliwell-Phillipps, the bibliophile and prolific writer on Shakespeare, described this as his ‘second best’ Folio, stating it was ‘neither ragged nor rotten’. In fact, in common with most other surviving First Folios, the book shows considerable signs of wear and use, and many of its pages are stained and dirt-engrained. This evidence of heavy use by previous owners can offer us historical insights into reading habits, and this copy is particularly interesting for its early annotations. Possibly written by a member of the Cary family, they suggest that the annotator actually saw the plays being performed and knew or at least had seen some of the actors. The reader occasionally adds comments to the text as well, showing us his appreciation (or otherwise) of the plays.

An open copy of Shakespeare's First Folio displaying the opening of the play 'The Comedy of Errors'.
The First Folio from National Library of Scotland open at ‘The Comedie of Errors’ Image Credit: National Library of Scotland.

The National Library of Scotland

The National Library’s copy of the First Folio has been in Scotland for at least 230 years – more than half its life. A Miss Clarke of Dunbar presented it to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1784. Its earlier history is unknown and there is no material clue in the book as it survives, although there is evidence that it has been well-read.

Miss Clarke forms a link between England and Scotland’s national bards. A few years after presenting her book to the Antiquaries, she met Robert Burns, who wrote about her in his journal of his tour of the Scottish Borders in 1787 as ‘a maiden in the Scotch phrase, ‘Guid enough, but no brent naw’: a clever woman, with tolerable pretensions to remark and wit’.

The First Folio first came to the National Library – then only nine years old – in 1934, first as a loan. It was gifted to the Library in 1949 along with other books from the Library of the Society of Antiquaries. It sits alongside the Library’s extensive collections of early modern drama, which include some Shakespeare quartos – early editions of single plays, mostly published before the First Folio. The Bute collection of early drama was acquired in 1956: as its name suggests, this came from the same collections as the Bute Folio at Mount Stuart.

Image Credits: The Mount Stuart Trust

Mount Stuart

The Bute First Folio was owned by the actor, John Henderson (1747-1785), and given to the notable Shakespearean editor, Isaac Reed, by Henderson’s widow on 3rd February 1786. It was acquired in the 19th century by the Crichton Stuart family, who gathered a remarkable collection of early modern plays over the course of several generations.

In 1896, the Bute First Folio formed part of the 3rd Marquess of Bute’s library at St John’s Lodge, London, which was inherited by his son, the 4th Marquess of Bute, in 1900. The 4th Marquess was a keen bibliophile and advocate of craftsmanship, who commissioned a fresh binding for the Folio from the bookbinder William Pender in 1931-32.

On the outbreak of war, the 4th Marquess’ books in London were moved to Scotland for safety, including the Bute First Folio which was relocated to Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. Today, the Bute First Folio continues to be cared for in the Bute Collection at Mount Stuart, where it is shared with school groups and visitors to Mount Stuart House and Gardens.


Folio400 aims to arrange, encourage and promote an array of shows to celebrate the 400th Birthday of The First Folio, the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays, in 2023. Folio Day, 23 April 2023 – Shakespeare’s birthday – will launch the Folio Season. A number of both institutional and Private First Folio owners will make their copies available to be viewed by the public across the UK and Ireland including the three Scottish institutions.

Blog by Ellen Fenton, Head of Audience Experience and Engagement at The Hunterian

Image Credits: University of Glasgow Archives and Special Collections unless otherwise stated

The University of Glasgow First Folio will be on display at the Hunterian Art Gallery from 10am until 5pm on 22 and 23 April.

Julie Gardham, Senior Librarian in Archives and & Special Collections, will also give a public talk on ‘Folio Day’, 23 April at 1pm, discussing this icon of literature and the peculiar significance of the University of Glasgow’s copy.