Our eighth literary walk took us from Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms in George Street – geographically in the centre of the first New Town – to Princes Street, and tea at the National Gallery of Scotland.
The Assembly Rooms:
Robert Chambers, in his Traditions of Edinburgh, refers to Edinburgh’s first Assembly in the West Bow (c 1710). This, though, was a far more cramped affair than the building later built in James Craig’s expanding New Town. Chambers describes a single wainscoted room with a carved oak ceiling with a small side room where the musicians retired to rosin their bows during the intervals of the performance.
As the craze for Assembly Rooms swept the country, new Assembly Rooms were opened off the High Street, in “Old Assembly Close” and “New Assembly Close”. There were also Assembly Rooms in Buccleuch Place, near fashionable George Square. These made such a lasting impression on the young Henry Cockburn that, later, writing his memoirs, he considered that they threw the New Town piece of presumption entirely into the shade (!). Those in New Assembly Close – a site now occupied by the Faculty of Advocates– were established in 1748. These were the immediate forerunners of the Assembly Rooms in George Street. Space was nonetheless limited. The playwright Oliver Goldsmith, writing in 1753, described the set up in terms of the battle of the sexes:
…one end of it taken up by the ladies who sit dismally in a group by themselves. On the other end stand their pensive partners that are to be; but no more intercourse between the sexes than the two countries of war. The ladies may ogle and the women sigh, but an embargo is laid on closer commerce….
The historian, Hugh Arnot, remarked that the Assembly Rooms were neither elegant nor commodious, and described how smoke from torches held by footmen at the main entrance, wafted into the dining area to create inconvenience if not havoc. Something, insisted Arnot, had to be done:
As this inconveniency can only be remedied by building a new assembly house; so that can only be brought about by subscription, for the city of Edinburgh have no funds at present for carrying on such a work.
The building of the New Town of Edinburgh did, however, provide an incentive for the construction of new public buildings. In 1780, An Italian dancing master, by the name of Gallini, proposed to buy land for new Assembly Rooms. The Town Council was supportive of the idea, on condition that the New Assembly Rooms held two charitable balls a year. Further possibilities included the conversion of the new Royal College of Physicians building (a site now occupied by the Dome) towards the east end of George Street. In the end, in December 1781, a competition was held for the design of a new building. Entrants had one month to submit plans; the prize was a handsome 25 guineas. A young architect, John Henderson, who had only been in practice for three years, won the competition. He was heavily influenced by classical ideas, but the original appearance of the Assembly Rooms, fronted simply by plain doric pilasters and no portico must have seemed rather oppressive. Robert Adam suggested the addition of an elegant portico soon after the building opened, but it wasn’t until 1818 that the present portico was added by the Edinburgh architect, William Byrne.
As Arnot had suggested, the funds for the new building were raised by subscription. The initial budget was £ 5600 but a revised proposal for £ 6300 was submitted in December 1782. Problems, though, arose shortly after work began, when the subscribers discovered that the unfortunate Henderson had only allowed for nine feet of headroom immediately beneath the ballroom. The ball room floor required to be raised by eight feet and substantial further costs were incurred. The young John Henderson died in 1786 and work was completed by his father David Henderson, who survived his son by one year. When it was opened in January 1787 – still unfinished – the reporter in the Edinburgh Courant, was moved to write:
On the opening night, the overwhelming impression was that of elegance and style:
….The dresses of the Ladies were in the highest stile of taste and elegance. The gowns were chiefly of different coloured sattins (sic), covered with crape, and ornamented with flowers; the prevailing cap was the turban, decorated with feathers, and some few with pearls and diamonds. Several ladies wore pink coloured Spanish hats, which had a very pretty elegance…
The Assembly Rooms were originally lit by candlelight but sadly this led to inevitable and occasionally serious mishaps. In 1826, an account of a Royal Midlothian Ball recorded how:
Several persons had their clothes destroyed on Friday night by the unavoidable dripping of wax candles.
In 1834, gas lighting was introduced, and in 1896, electric lighting. This made life generally less hazardous.
Assembly Rooms – Literary Links:
As it happened, the young Robert Burns spent the winter of 1786 to 1787 in Edinburgh. Although he didn’t attend the opening Caledonian Hunt Ball, we do know that members of the Hunt subscribed to a hundred copes of Burns’ new Edinburgh Edition of poetry. Later, on 23rd February 1827, Sir Walter Scott publicly revealed his authorship of the Waverley Novels at the Assembly Rooms, at a theatrical fund raising dinner. As his son in law and biographer, JG Lockhart, put it: The sensation produced by this scene was, in newspaper phrase, “unprecedented.”
The Assembly Rooms, then as now, have served many different purposes. A few years earlier, they were the sumptuous venue for a ball held in honour of King George IV, on the monarch’s famous visit to Scotland. It was recorded in meticulous detail in Robert Mudie’s three hundred page long “Historical Account of His Majesty’s Visit to Scotland”. We are told that the King, a man not known for the slightness of his frame, did not dance. However, no part of the entertainment amused his Majesty more than the reels which he stood upwards of half an hour to observe.
The novelist, Charles, Dickens, visited Edinburgh – and the Assembly Rooms – on several occasions. In June 1841, at a dinner attended by over 300 guests, he received the freedom of the City of Edinburgh. He was inspired to name one of his best known characters after Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, whose name he had seen on a Canongate gravestone. Unfortunately, he mistook “meal man” for “mean man” and the rest, as they say, is history. For a man who won a catering contract for of George IV’s to Scotland in 1822, the slur of parsimony on Scroggie is unfortunate. For some background to the Scroggie/Scrooge story, have a look at:
Assembly Rooms Suggested Reading:
I am a great fan of:
- E.F. Catford: Edinburgh –The Story of a City, London, 1975, which is both readable and well researched, and, though out of print, is probably available on Amazon. A more recent cultural historical title is:
- Mary Cosh: Edinburgh, the Golden Age, Edinburgh, 2003, 181-195
- Youngson A J: Making of Classical Edinburgh 1750-1840, Edinburgh University Press, 1966, is, as ever, excellent on the building of the Edinburgh New Town.
- Cockburn, Memorials of His Time, 1856, reprinted by James Thin 1988, is good on the Assembly Rooms in Buccleuch Place – and how to “get on” in polite society -during the latter part of the 18th century.
Our walk concluded with a brief walk from George Street to Princes Street, taking in the Allan Ramsay statue at the foot of the Mound, and the Scott Monument. There are some marvellous Octavius Hill photographs of the construction of the Scott Monument taken in the early 1840s. For more architectural background to the Scott Monument see:
• Gifford and others, Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1992