I’VE been on a mini-book tour of Scotland promoting my last two books – Signs of Murder and A Plot to Kill – which I had been prevented from publicising in person because of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

In fact the first lockdown coincided with the publication date of Signs of Murder, which was about the murder of Margaret McLaughlin in my home town of Carluke in 1973, and my growing awareness that the conviction of George Beattie for this appalling crime was in fact a miscarriage of justice.

But, if George wasn’t guilty, who had killed Margaret?

After a couple of nights speaking at The City of Glasgow’s fabulous campus, I ended the tour at Carluke Library where 400 souls braved the cold to discuss with me the contents of the book, and to help to raise money to support the library. It’s a place that I know well, and I pay tribute to it in Signs of Murder as a space that helped to shape who I was, as much as it gave me access to books. Of course it was where I first borrowed Dickens, Christie, Hardy and Lawrence, but more importantly it was also where I became aware of a personal agency about who I was, and what I was capable of becoming.

The library of my youth was called the Rankin Library – in honour of Carluke’s most famous Victorian son, Dr Daniel Reid Rankin, although in its present iteration it is “part of the South Lanarkshire Lifestyles facility and includes a community centre.” I was sorry to see Rankin’s name removed from the library’s name, although he seems to have undeservedly disappeared almost completely from Scottish history as a whole. He lived in the town in a small thatched cottage on Market Place until his death in 1882, and was a geologist of international standing who contributed much to what we would now call “Darwinism”.

I remember everything about the old Rankin Library – it’s high Victorian architecture, the jagged lines of shelves filled with books, the smell and the colour of the library ticket that you were issued with and which would be neatly filed in a wooden box to await your return of the books that you had borrowed. I remember homework being finished, encyclopaedias being consulted, and a curious light shining through stained glass that made everything seem to be a sepia colour. That light gave the whole place a sense of history that seemed to stretch far back and further into time than the Victorian era. Of course, in Scotland we can trace our first public library to the 16th century.

As I hope that all of this personal nostalgia suggests, I think that libraries are the lifeblood of our communities, and so it is very distressing to acknowledge that one in eight libraries in Scotland has closed since 2010: 83 public libraries have closed in just over ten years and there are now just 544 public libraries left in Scotland. Over the same period public spending on public libraries has been reduced by just under 30 per cent. You might imagine – what with the internet, and other ways of accessing books and information – that these closures and the more general cuts in spending reflects a reduction in the numbers of people visiting a library, but you would be wrong. At the time that spending on libraries was being reduced by 29.6 per cent, visitor numbers increased by over 40 per cent from 31.8 million to 44.9 million.

Libraries remain central to addressing some of our most pressing social challenges, including the widening attainment gap, and at a social level, helping communities to once again come together after two years of lockdowns. There’s still a demand – a need – for public libraries, and surely that will only become more pressing as the chills of winter encourage people to seek out a place that is warm, and when the cost of living dictates that they can’t afford to turn on their heating? I suspect that our libraries will become heat banks, just as much as our churches have been turned into food banks.

Of course I am not the first Scot to understand the importance of libraries to developing our communities and culture. The establishment of the public library system was created with the passage of the Public Libraries (Scotland) Act of 1853, which gave town councils the powers to raise taxes to provide for a library, its staffing and upkeep. A number of wealthy philanthropists got involved – including Dunfermline’s Andrew Carnegie, who believed in the importance of education and self-improvement through what we would now call “life-long learning”.

His “Carnegie Formula” was the basis of his contributing to the building of a public library and by 1904 about 60 towns had benefitted from his Carnegie’s grants – including the Central Library in Edinburgh and the local libraries in Kingston, Woodside, Maryhill, Govanhill, Springburn, Parkhead, Denniston, Pollokshields and Townhead in Glasgow – and eventually a total of 660 libraries would be established using his funds.

In the library in Carluke we debated to and fro for over four hours the issues that my book had raised about the town in 1973, and how it had developed since that time; we talked about how ‘times had changed’ but also how we might reconfigure our lives so that we acknowledged that we were not just individuals looking out for ourselves, but for those who surrounded us too, and in what we used to call ‘society’.

Of course we also discussed who had actually killed Margaret McLaughlin on that dreadful July night as she left her home in Glenburn Terrace to catch the train into Glasgow – taking the shortcut through Colonel’s Glen to the station – but that discussion also reminded me of something that Andrew Carnegie had said. “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”

Signs of Murder: A Small Town in Scotland, A Miscarriage of Justice and the Search for the Truth by David Wilson is published by Sphere