“The Best Collection of Bee Books in Britain”

In the mid-1930s at a meeting of the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association, the aged John Moir stood up and upbraided the assembled company. “Will everyone present who has honey on his or her table practically every day of the year hold up his or her hand.” When only about one third of the beekeepers raised their hands in assent he exclaimed in triumph “Just as I thought. There are too many beekeepers who produce honey but do not use it themselves.” He added, “every day at eleven o’clock I have a large tablespoon of honey with hot water, and that’s what enables me, a man of 83 and a half, to stand up here and speak before you as I am doing.”

It in his role as Librarian of the Association that Moir spoke to the group. His long life had taken him many places, including a long time as a colonial official in Nyasaland, but the thing that ensured his legacy what that he used his life to collect what he boasted was “the best collection of bee books in Britain”. He has even written to the prime-minister Ramsey Macdonald about them who replied with a short message saying “it must be a great comfort to you to spend quiet hours in companionship with your books”. He signed off with “I rather share your prejudices about honey” (what these prejudices were is not clear).

On his death this important collection of bee books was donated to Edinburgh’s public libraries. The rare and valuable ones have now been taken in to the care of the National Library of Scotland. However, the core of the collection still lives in a basement in the imposing but rather isolated Fountainbridge branch of Edinburgh Public Libraries.

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Getting access to Moir’s library is not an entirely straightforward task. It is free for any member of the Scottish Beekeeper’s association but for the layman, there are a number of hoops to jump through. I had to call a number given to me by the Association and leave my number on the answerphone. The next day a woman called Una called back and I told her that I wanted to consult the library. She asked if I was a beekeeper and, after briefly flirting with the idea of lying, I said that, unfortunately I wasn’t though I was interested in beekeeping in an amateur kind of way (not a lie). The reason that I wanted to see the library was that it contained what was, as far as I know, the only run of Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi’s Bee Kingdom Magazine in the United Kingdom and I wanted to consult it.

Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi was a doctor, poet and beekeeper in early 20th century Egypt. He is perhaps most know (in Arabic literature circles) for setting up the group of poets and artists called the Apollo Society and publishing a journal of the same name. However, his publishing interests were vast and another thing he was involved with was the Bee Kingdom. It was intended to promote apiculture, particularly in Egypt. But it also reflected his internationalist outlook  and published both in English and Arabic for English and Arabic readers.

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I told Una that my interest was particularly in this man and his journal. She seemed more-or-less happy to accept this as a reason for wanting consult the books, though I felt she was a little suspicious. I was told that, as a non-member, I could come and look at the books for a couple of hours on a Thursday morning. It took around a month to arrange the specific Thursday that I could turn up.

On the day, I was greeted by Una (an eldery lady but full of Moir’s proverbial honey) and led down a spiral staircase through several corridors to the home of Britain’s finest bee library. The small concrete room had been split in to two distinct sections by floor to ceiling metal bookcases loaded with bee books. Una assigned me a small desk on one side and as I worked through the Bee Kingdom, she conducted her admin, hidden on the other side of a stack of books. It was a strange but, somehow apt, place to consult one of the few runs of Abu Shadi’s journal still in existence.

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So, there, in the basement an Edinburgh grey municipal building, safe in the custodianship of the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association, sits the life work of John Moir and an important part of Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi’s.

(Edinburgh University holds John Moir’s papers which contain more details of his life and books as well as some pictures of the original library. For more information on Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi’s Archive see here)

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