Robert Chambers:
Traditions of Edinburgh

Reprint 1996, publ. Chambers, ISBN: 0550735208

reviewed by Dr. M. M. Gilchrist

Robert Chambers' Traditions of Edinburgh was originally published in 1824, revised by the author in 1868, and is still in print! It's full of reminiscences and anecdotes of 18C Edinburgh, recorded before they slipped out of memory and before some of the most historic properties were demolished. It's an invaluable companion to the vibrant world in which so many of our best-loved characters lived. Hume, Boswell, Smollett, Elibank, Fergusons and Fergusson, Rev. Webster... all flit through its pages in colourful array.

Chambers' anecdotes run the full gamut of Edinburgh society, for 18C Edinburgh was nothing if not a social melting-pot. Creech's Bookshop in the Luckenbooths was the meeting place of the literary-minded of all degrees. The Scots tradition of tenement life, with members of all classes stacked vertically in the towering 16-17C "lands" of the Old Town, was largely responsible:

...occupants of a first-class tenement some years subsequent to the '45 rebellion: 'First-floor, Mrs Stirling, fishmonger; second, Mrs Urquhart, lodging-house keeper; third-floor, the Countess Dowager of Balcarres; fourth, Mrs Buchan of Kelloe; fifth, the Misses Elliot, milliners and mantua-makers; garrets, a variety of tailors and other tradesmen.'
(p. 4, footnote)

There is the romantic story of the courtship of the Websters' parents (Rev. Webster was acting, Cyrano-style, as the go-between for a friend, and Mary Erskine told him he might get a better response if he spoke on his own account!). They lived up Castle Hill, in Webster's Close. Dr. Webster, his piety notwithstanding, liked his claret as well as any 18C Scot, and was sometimes seen returning home a little the worse for wear. Charitable citizens would say that he looked worn out with sitting up all night praying with some poor sick parishioner...!

Miss Burns - A Lady of PleasureAnother denizen of the Castle Hill was the peruke-maker and poet Allan Ramsay, father of the artist. He built an octagonal house, called the 'guse pye' because it looked like... well, a goose-pie! The great literary patron, Patrick Murray, Lord Elibank (uncle of our own dear Pattie!), remarked jokily, that having seen Allan in it, he knew how it got its name!

A comic poem, The Court of Session Garland, catalogues the leading legal personalities of the day, including Pattie's father, James Ferguson of Pitfour, who wore his hat on the bench because of poor eyesight - "with a wink and his hat all a-jee" - and had pulled off a few legal stunts to get some of the small fry acquitted in the 1746 treason trials at Carlisle. The other judges were a jolly bunch, too, such as Lord Monboddo, whose proto-Darwinian fancy was that all babies were born with tails, which the midwives pinched off!

And of course, where there are lawyers, there are also the criminals to keep them busy. The real-life Jekyll-and-Hyde was Deacon William Brodie, respectable citizen by day, burglar and pimp by night! Obviously, given its date of publication, Chambers' does not detail the 'Ladies of Pleasure' who were so much a part of the 18C social scene (there is a 1776 directory of them, which has been reprinted!), and some of the euphemisms are excessively delicate (it was only when I reached the reference to Lucrece that I realised that Mrs. Macfarlane who, in 1716, had shot a Mr. Cayley who had "insulted" her had, in fact, been raped by him!) The book even recounts the gruesome tale, c. 1707, of the mad young heir of Lord Queensberry, who was caught, cutlery in hand, tucking into a plate of freshly spit-roasted servant, after breaking out of his room for a bit of cookery practice...! The city guard was full of Highlanders, including the great bard, Donnchadh bàn Mac-an-t-saoir, Duncan Macintyre, who now lies in Greyfriars Kirkyard, with his wife Mairi bhàn og.

The details of social life are fascinating. Sparkle and squalor co-existed. How the ladies had to fold up their panniers in order to pass through the narrow closes and up the tenement stairs, and therefore always wore a 'show petticoat' and fancy garters in case they were seen! Of the 'pong-pongs' (aigrette-type hair ornaments attached by a spring to the hairpin) which bobbed and quivered in their hair, as immortalised in the song of 'Mally Lee' (actually Mary Sleigh, who in 1724 became the capable and energetic wife of Brodie of Brodie, then Lord Lyon King of Arms). Cries of "Gardy loo" (gardez-l'eau) warned passers-by of chamber pots being emptied into the sewers in the street from high tenement widows! The eccentric Miss Ramsay, daughter of the poet and sister of the artist, would inquire after her friends c/o their cats, and the aged former beauty Susanna, Dowager Lady Eglintoune, made pets of her rats so that when she rapped on the wainscot, they would come out to be fed! In her younger days, Susanna had been a real sparkler - 6' tall, and very elegant. When she went out for an evening with her equally splendid daughters, heads turned! Another delightful lady was Anne Dick of Corstorphine, who died in 1741 - a writer of lampoons and verse-squibs, who would sometimes go adventuring about town in men's clothes. Once, she and her maid were arrested and passed the night in the Town Guard-House! She wrote amusing verses on a Sir Peter Murray of Balmanno, who played hard-to-get. This must be Sir Patrick Hepburn-Murray (1706-56) (Patricks were often translated into Peters in the 18C - it even happened to our Pattie a few times) - who didn't marry till his 40s and was the father of Sir Alexander, who fell at Long Island aged 21 in 1778.

There were dancing assemblies presided over by the redoubtable Miss Nicky Murray, Lord Mansfield's sister. Claret fuelled the learned debates and discussions of the Enlightenment. In the "laigh shops", lords, lawyers, ladies and oyster-lasses ate raw oysters, drank porter and danced to the fiddle all night through! Chambers tells a poignant tale of a group of old friends - including the boisterous Jean Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon (as a girl she once rode along the Canongate on the back of a pig!) - who in the 1790s reunited to rekindle the spirit of their youth with an oyster party - already a dying tradition! There were clubs for all occasions - the Poker Club, formed to 'poke the fires' and agitate for the creation of a Scottish militia during the threat of the French wars in 1757; the Cape Club, of which the boy poet Robert Fergusson was a member; the Boar Club, where porcine terminology and nicknames were used in honour of the landlord, Mr. Hogg; the Pious Club, so called for their love of...pies; the Crochallan Fencibles, immortalised by Burns in the song about fellow-member, Willie Dunbar, Rattlin Roarin Willie. Chambers discreetly omits the bawdy brethren of the Beggars' Benison, an auto-erotic society originally founded in Anstruther in Fife!

Sadly, it was one of the finest products of this period - the New Town, thought of by Rev. Webster and built by James Craig and Robert Adam - which killed the energetic, vital society which had created it. The siphoning off of the well-to-do beyond the drained Nor' Loch (now Princes Street Gardens) into its orderly squares, streets and crescents fractured the society in which tradesmen and aristocracy had co-existed stacked within the same land. It seemed perhaps fitting that one of the last gentlemen of quality to live in the Old Town was Pitfour's youngest son,'the Governor', George Ferguson, one stair up, at 333, the Luckenbooths. He died in 1820, the last but one of his delightful brood of siblings: the end of an era.

There are some minor slips, given that much is based on oral tradition: the wrong date is given to James Ferguson's appointment as judge. The Pitfour Fergusons are mis-spelled as 'Fergussons'. (There is more on them in the earlier editions, which sadly have not been reprinted). Major Weir's tragically abused and demented sister was called Jean, not Grizel. Also - as might be expected, given that the young author got some of his information from Sir Walter Scott - he waxes over-sentimental on Queen Marie, Jacobitism, & c. (omitting to mention, for example, Dr. Webster's staunchly anti-Jaco stance). But Chambers' book remains a marvellous evocation of the gaudy glory days of my favourite city, when world-class philosophers and poets mingled with rascals and whores on the High Street, before it became a tourist-trap. All it needs is a selection of Kay's caricatures to make it complete, although the drawings scattered throughout (even of Miss Ramsay's cats and Lady Eglintoune's rats) are delightful!

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