Thanks to Andrew Gibson, a scholarly businessman and bibliophile with a passion for the poetry of Robert Burns, Thomas Moore and Allan Ramsay, the Linen Hall Library in Belfast has in the Gibson Collection one of the finest collections of Burns material in the world in outside of Scotland. .
Gibson was born on December 23, 1841 in New Cumnock, Ayrshire, and was the eldest son of William Kennedy Gibson and Janet Gibson (née Black). William Kennedy Gibson was a farm laborer who married his employer’s daughter.
The family then moved to Pathhead in Midlothian where Andrew and his younger brother Peter worked as clerks at the nearby station. Andrew was 18 when his mother died in 1859. Five years later his father married Janet Lapraik, the granddaughter of John Lapraik, a good friend of Robert Burns.
Possibly around the time of his father’s remarriage, Andrew moved to Glasgow to work as a shipping clerk for G & J Burns. Although unrelated to the poet, George and James Burns were two very ‘dynamic’ brothers who soon replaced sailing ships with steamers, running steamers between Ardrossan and Belfast, Londonderry and Larne as the main and main activity. .
Andrew rose steadily through the business and in 1881 he (and his family) moved to Belfast to take up the position of company manager in the city. He spent the rest of his life in the city. All of his children married into the Belfast business community.
There was nothing exceptional about this, as Kyle Hughes demonstrates in “Scots in Victorian and Edwardian Belfast: A Study in Elite Migration”. Additionally, Scots, like Gibson, played a key role in shaping Belfast society. Some have played a key role in its industrial development. Others were at the heart of cultural, philanthropic and religious initiatives. These people were welcomed with open arms by the host community. Thus, Gibson has succeeded in establishing itself in the commercial, cultural and sporting life of the city.
By 1910 Gibson was an agent for both the Burns and Cunard Lines and between 1915 and 1925 he served on the Harbor Board.
In the world of sport, he was chairman of the Belfast Bowling Club and served as chairman of Cliftonville Football Club and vice-chairman of the Irish Football Association.
In the cultural world, Andrew Gibson was a founding member of the Belfast Harp Festival, director of ‘The Ulster Journal of Archaeology’, president of the Belfast Burns Club, president of the Belfast Scottish Association and between 1894 and 1927 he was governor of the Linen Hall Library and played an active role in the life of the library.
Robert Burns was one of his great passions. He sought to acquire every edition of Burns published and spared no effort to do so. According to Frank Ferguson, John Erskine and Roger Dixon in “Commemorating and collecting Burns in the north of Ireland, 1844-1902”, Gibson’s collection contained 728 separate editions which had been acquired over two decades.
In 1896 – the centenary year of Burns’ death – a Burns exhibition was held in the galleries of the Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts in Sauchiehall Street. The quality of Gibson’s collection was strongly underlined by the fact that over 300 of his texts were loaned to the exhibition.
In 1900, Gibson found himself temporarily in a difficult situation (apparently because his orders from Cunard had dried up) and intended to get rid of his Burns collection. Friends and acquaintances approached him about whether he would be willing to sell the entire collection to the City of Belfast, a proposal to which he readily agreed.
A provisional committee (whose members included the Lord Mayor; the Reverend Thomas Hamilton, President of Queen’s College Belfast; Professor William Whitla; and Francis Joseph Biggar, the antiquary) was set up to acquire the collection.
The enthusiastic support for the acquisition of the collection on behalf of the town was strongly evidenced at a special meeting chaired by the Lord Mayor at the Linen Hall Library on 9 December 1900 and a subscription fund was created.
The collection was independently valued at £2,000, but Gibson generously indicated a willingness to accept half that amount on the condition that the collection remain in Belfast. (According to some calculations, Gibson was giving up the equivalent of £86,000 today.)
The Linen Hall Library gladly agreed to house the collection.
At a ceremony at the Linen Hall Library to mark the official transfer of the collection, Sir Otto Jaffe expressed “on behalf of all the people of Belfast and those of future generations their debt to the committee”.
Subsequently, several items were presented to the library by Burns’ great-granddaughter, Mrs. Eliza Everitt.
The Gibson collection consists mainly of books and other papers, but also some portraits, prints and ephemera, but does not include any Burns manuscripts.
While the library no longer aims to collect all the Burnsiana, it aspires to acquire key reference works related to the bard.
Gibson’s Moore and Ramsay collections are housed at Queen’s University. Frank Ferguson, John Erskine and Roger Dixon argue that Gibson’s interest in Burns owed as much to the Victorian antiquarian as to the love of his favorite poet.
Baptist, Andrew Gibson died June 23, 1931.
William Kennedy Gibson, the eldest son of Andrew Gibson, also deserves a brief mention.
A talented footballer, he played for Cliftonville as a schoolboy. Between 1894 and 1902 he was an Irish international, playing 13 matches and captaining the side four times. A lawyer by profession, he was legal adviser to the IFA. He also had political ambitions, being elected for Clifton ward in the Belfast Corporation in 1909 and serving until 1920. At the 1918 general election he intended to contest Belfast Duncairn but stood aside for Sir Edward Carson. In 1929 he unsuccessfully challenged Ballynafeigh’s seat in the Northern Ireland House of Commons as an independent trade unionist.