Stained Glass Memories Part 3

14 September 2023

This is the Third part of a four-part blog.

The first instalment for this can be found here.

The second instalment can be found here.

‘Stained Glass Memories’ in Airdrie

Airdrie Library – memorial window installed 1893

Situated in the stairwell of Airdrie Library in Wellwynd Street is a large stained glass memorial window to James Thomson Rankin – the father of Mrs Anne Mitchell of Bannockburn House. He died suddenly and unexpectedly at the family house, Auchengray, at the age of 41, making 11-year-old Anne an orphan, as her mother had died when she was just 8 years old.  JT Rankin served 6 years as Provost of Airdrie, from 1848 to 1856. He was seen as a progressive and influential Provost, who set great store in the development of Airdrie and made a significant and memorable contribution to public life in Airdrie.

In particular, JT Rankin was a leading proponent of the adoption of the ‘Free Libraries Scotland Act 1853’, which gave local burghs the power to establish free public libraries and so allow universal access to information and literature, and to promote ‘intellectual good’.  Airdrie was the first town in Scotland to adopt the Act, about 13 years before any other town in Scotland (the next being Dundee in 1866).


A library committee was put in place, and the council was able to raise the first half-penny taxation in order to fund and maintain library facilities.  In 1856 a quantity of books was obtained for the sum of £40 from the local Mechanic’s Institute and the library moved into the clerk’s office in the municipal Town House, which also housed the town courtroom and police station.


In 1887 a report of the library committee noted that “there was a large increase in the number of books loaned to the public and the committee was pleased to observe that the increase in the department of fiction was proportionally less than in the other sections.  About 30% of the whole issue has been works of fiction, but in many public libraries the proportion is as high as 70%”.    This would have sat well with JT Rankin who wanted the town of Airdrie to be known for its knowledge and sobriety.

It was also noted at this meeting that his two sons-in-law, James Mitchell of Auchengray (who would go on to become the owner of Bannockburn House) and John Alston (Town Clerk of Coatbridge) donated a portrait of the late Provost JT Rankin to the library.

This may have been the picture of JT Rankin in his Provost robes.

 In 1894, the library relocated to a purpose-built building in Anderson Street (converted to Airdrie Arts Centre in 1967), described in plans as ‘a handsome and commodious structure’ , which was funded by subscription pledges from the local townspeople.  This had raised over £1000, and was matched with £1000 from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.  The story of Carnegie libraries in Scotland is described here:

The Story of Carnegie Libraries | Historic Environment Scotland | HES

During the building process of the library, the memorial window to JT Rankin was commissioned and funded by James Mitchell and John Alston.

The window depicts two of the nine Muses from Greek mythology who are the sources of inspiration for the arts and of knowledge.  On the left panel we have Calliope, who is considered the wisest and greatest of the Muses and is the muse of epic poetry and eloquence.  Her powers and support may be invoked by writers to assist them with the art of storytelling and persuasive writing.  Here she is holding a stylus and book – possibly a copy of Homer’s Iliad, or the Odyssey, for which she may be the inspiration.  Her winged crown may be a nod to Hermes, who as the messenger of the gods was thought to bring or cause dreams and may allude to bringing swift inspiration from Calliope.

On the right panel we have Urania who is the Muse of astronomy and astrology. She has a globe at her feet on which she is measuring positions with a compass, and a scroll with stars.

Urania is very appropriate for this location, as the library contains the Airdrie Observatory which was opened in 1856 and is still in operation by the Airdrie Astronomical Association 

The lower left panel has the word ‘Vigilantibus’, and a cockerel, so appears to be the coat of arms of Airdrie.  The lower right panel is currently obscured.

The imagery of the Muses is also very fitting as a museum was planned for the library building (it may be from ‘muse’ that we get the word ‘museum’).  The museum in Airdrie library was officially opened in February 1895, with a generous donation of items from Dr John Hunter-Selkirk, the famous fossil hunter and collector, out of his Braidwood collection  The library minutes carefully document additional quite random donations to the museum over the years from the general public, including crocodile skin and snakes! 

JT Rankin was a man of wide culture, and the window contains the inscriptions ‘Literature’ and ‘Science’, which were his two key interests.  In the library there is a copy of two lectures that he delivered to the Mechanical Institute in 1855.  This covers the whole history of Airdrie, from its geological formation, the mining and mineral industry development and social history – from the Romans to an account of the rising and progress of the town of Airdrie in the 19th century

The maker of the window is not documented, but the flowing delicately patterned robes and draped sashes, along with the sunflowers – which are the symbols of the aesthetic artistic movement of the time – are all very reminiscent of the well-known stained-glass artist Daniel Cottier, who was originally from Glasgow, and had great success in Australia and the United States.

The Anderson Street library was eventually considered too small for its purpose and in 1925 the library moved to another new building in Wellwynd Street (the library’s current location), with the help of a second Carnegie grant.  The memorial window was removed from the old library and fixed in the staircase of the new building.  The opening ceremony was in Sep 1925, and the memorial window was admired by the delegation as part of their library tour.  

Upstairs on the wall of the reference library can be seen a copy of the ‘Curlers at Rawyards’ painting (the original is at Summerlee Museum), where JT Rankin is the central figure in red as described here: 

Every Picture Tells A Story – Bannockburn House

The original painting was recently found to have been kept at Bannockburn House, in the ownership of  the Mitchell family, who donated it to the Provost of Airdrie in 1960:

More on Airdrie follows next week.

Post by Dr Helen Young
Dr Helen Young is a member of the History Team.
Catherine Bradley.<br />

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