Obituary: James Ritchie

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The Independent Online
James Spence Ritchie, curator of manuscripts: born Broughty Ferry, Angus 14 January 1916; staff, Department of Manuscripts, National Library of Scotland, 1947-81, Keeper, 1972-81; married 1975 Margaret Junor (deceased; one stepson); died Edinburgh 2 May 1994.

JAMES RITCHIE was the least demonstrative of men in a far from demonstrative profession, but his long career in the Department of Manuscripts of the National Library of Scotland brought him the respect not only of his colleagues but of several generations of scholars who relied on him for specialist guidance to the collections and much shrewd advice on their use.

A Dundonian by upbringing, he studied classics at Edinburgh University. Two years at Cambridge followed, under WKC Guthrie at Peterhouse. Ritchie particularly enjoyed Cambridge and his career might have lain in classical studies, but the Second World War interrupted it and he was on army service from 1940 to 1946, with some prolonged spells in Italy.

After demobilisation he joined the staff of the National Library of Scotland, then still in its old Advocates' Library premises and preparing for its move into the new building on George IV Bridge that had been started in the 1930s. Ritchie soon built up a special knowledge of the 19th-century manuscripts in which the library is so strong. There were Scott and Carlyle materials of great importance, but it was particularly the enormous archives of the Edinburgh publishing house of Blackwood which engaged his attention. He was a leading member of the small team which sorted and indexed them, and he built up a rare knowledge of their contents which won him the admiration and then the friendship of scholars like Gordon Haight from Yale, the George Eliot editor and biographer, who were among the first to draw on the still unexhausted riches of the Blackwood papers.

Years later it was a source of great pleasure to Ritchie that the Blackwood family completed the archive at the National Library by adding the firm's financial records to the literary correspondence which Ritchie had dealt with as a young man. By then, and partly during his time as head of the Department of Manuscripts, the collections had increased beyond expectation. Many Edinburgh publishers and printers, among them Oliver & Boyd and T. & A. Constable, had placed their historic records in the National Library, which is now a leading centre for the study of publishing history. It gave James Ritchie a certain wry satisfaction that 'the history of the book' had taken on a life of its own as a research subject; he himself had assisted in these studies at the outset, long before they had been dignified by a special conceptual designation. The National Library's fine collections of the papers of modern Scottish authors - notably those of Lewis Grassic Gibbon - also owed much to his encouragement, and there were many writers and their families who specially appreciated his courtesy and integrity when donations or purchases were being negotiated.

For years Ritchie was the conscientious adjutant of the amiably eccentric William Park, who for all his broad literary cultivation and scholarly insight was the least productive of curators. As joint deputy keeper with the Scots historian Dr Ian Rae, and then from 1972 to 1981 as Keeper of Manuscripts, he presided over a staff that had grown greatly since its days in the cramped basements of the Parliament House. He was for years a departmental colleague of Dr Denis Roberts (who became Librarian of the National Library until his premature death in 1990), and he rejoiced in the promotions of younger colleagues, including the present Keeper of the Records of Scotland, Patrick Cadell.

Ritchie published virtually nothing under his own name, being by nature excessively meticulous, in the old sense of hesistantly careful rather than fussily precise. He was for a great many years Treasurer of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society and on retirement was found to have kept minor financial papers going back decades lest any question should ever be asked about his immaculate stewardship.

Reticent in his personal as well as his professional life, he was a very good violinist who practised almost furtively and could only rarely be induced to play in a chamber group. His rare trips to London were always an agony to him but were made tolerable by the need to consult Beares' about his best violin.

Then, in his late fifties, his life was changed by his marriage in 1975 to Margaret Johnston, a widowed Edinburgh lady with a vivacity that completely altered the pace of his bachelor's reserved existence. The decade they enjoyed together before her death, with shared enthusiasms in antiques and architectural history, was a delight to their friends.