By Roz Macaskill
When bookseller, Gilleasbuig Ferguson, bought a new book he found himself falling into an adventure as exciting and mysterious as any of the tales for sale in his shop!
A member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, Skeabost-based Gilleasbuig never dreamed the purchase of a book would result in him having to turn detective.
The volume in question was from the 2nd Edition of Origin of Species (1860) by Charles Darwin. Located in New Zealand, the book was up for sale online. "It was on the market for weeks without any photographs," explains Gilleasbuig.
The description contained unpromising adjectives, such as "worn," "rubbed," "split," "ex-library" and "shaky." In a moment of boredom, Gilleasbuig emailed the seller to ask for photographs. "I goggled, my eyebrows intertwined, at one of the finest copies of an early Origin that I've ever seen," he laughs. "I was scrambling for the mouse to buy the book before someone else did!"
When the book arrived, it was every bit as lovely as Gilleasbuig had hoped. However, when he opened it up, his heart sank.
"There was a little lilac stamp inside saying: 'Canterbury Museum' and I thought: 'Oh no!'" he reveals. "I bet there's a museum somewhere missing this book!" Gilleasbuig researched various museums in Canterbury, England - to no avail.
"Then I realised I was a bit slow and should check New Zealand – where the book came from!" he laughs. "I found a Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and it was still a going concern. There was no sign anywhere on the book that it had been sold or de-accessioned by them. So I contacted the museum and they confirmed the book was missing from their collection."
But how does a valuable book like that, worth about £5000, get lost? "We assumed it had been stolen," Gilleasbuig remarks. "However, the truth was much more innocent!" The investigation led to, not a book thief, but a researcher working at the Museum. Gilleasbuig reveals: "The Origin had been used for reference by a Marine Zoologist doing her masters research in the Museum. When she left in 1969, the Origin was accidentally packed in boxes with her research materials. The book remained in the box for nearly 50 years, until this spring when she released her large book collection to the trade, to free up space rather than make cash.
"I know all this because the lovely individual wrote a very contrite and thoughtful letter of apology to the museum explaining how the accidental removal of the book took place. She also detailed how her long and useful career as a scientist, teacher and mother subsequently played out while the Origin lay hidden and forgotten in a cardboard box!"
With a heavy heart, Gilleasbuig posted the missing book back to its rightful owners - accompanied by a postcard from Skye as a reminder of its 50 year-long sojourn and its incredible journey home.
When he is not acting as a detective, Gilleasbuig can usually be found poring over the many books in his shop. Specialising in Gaelic books and the works of Charles Darwin, Gilleasbuig is always on hand to welcome visitors. Call ahead to ensure he is in and step into the world of rare books.