Friday, 25 October 2013

A Night Out in Old Edinburgh

Every weekend the streets of Edinburgh's Old Town are full of revellers in search of a good night out. From the pubs and clubs of the High Street and the Grassmarket there are venues to cater for every taste and occasion. The ready supply of strong drink can, and sometimes does, lead to problems.
While this may be the type of headline we have all seen in the popular press over the last few years the phenomena is far from new.
city centre revellers
Throughout the 18th Century Edinburgh was to find itself awash in a great array of clubs and societies frequented by the great and good of Society. From poets to painters, jugglers to judges, Scotland's capital saw dozens of gentlemen's clubs spring up to provide them with the opportunity for convivial chat, radical politics, intellectual debate or more commonly, the chance to misbehave.
Indeed the local paper The Edinburgh Courant at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment in the latter half of the century complained that it wasn't safe to walk the streets of the city at night due to drunken youths roaming about bent on mischief.
What all these clubs had in common were bizarre rules, invented traditions and ridiculous names. The Bonnet Lairds when gathered would each wear a broad, blue Scots bonnet!
The Pious Club held their drunken soirées in a far from pious manner but took their name from the fact these drunken nights were held in the back room of a pie shop, which indicates the level of humour popular with these young rakes.
Most teenagers would have met the criteria for becoming members of The Boar Club: they had to keep their bedrooms looking like a pig-sty! At club meeting it was traditional to only communicate by oinking and grunting at each other, no doubt with much cause for amusement for all concerned!
Yet another popular society was The Dirty Club. Members here were required to arrive for meetings dressed in filthy, stinking rags to gain admittance.
Other societies aimed for a more sinister reputation however. The Skull Club claimed to drink their liquor from a human skull while The Sweating Club would drink heavily until the stroke of midnight then set out in search of victims. Anyone they found on the streets would be chased until they collapsed exhausted and soaked in sweat. How far they would be capable of chasing anyone after drinking all night is debatable.
The good old days!
Typically the societies were all male affairs but The Horn Order, formed in 1705, was a notable exception. The Order was popular with the sons and daughters of the city's leading citizens along with the young lords and ladies of the Lothians. The Horn Order, their symbol was a horn spoon hence the name, held regular masquerade balls in private homes far from parental eyes where these young people were able to drink and mix freely without regard to the normal conventions of Society.
Some rules, typically, remained unchanged. On the streets of Edinburgh. While it was considered unremarkable to see a party of High Court Judges swaying down the Royal Mile singing rude songs and drunkenly accosting young women it was considered disgraceful for those same young women to be seen in a similar condition! Being a 'little' inebriated while in good company however was thought of as perfectly fine.
South Bridge Cellar
The other great opportunity for young men and women to meet and mix freely were the so-called Oyster Cellars! Invitations were issued to the sons and daughters of the Middle and Upper classes bidding them attend secret events held in dark cellars made claustrophobic, hot and sweaty through the press of bodies and illuminated by tallow candles. Here great platters of oysters were laid on rough tables along with punch-bowls filled with porter. Unlike the formal evenings held in Assembly Rooms where every word and gesture was observed by chaperones, the cellars allowed the most fashionable young men and women to mix freely and without constraint.
For those who opposed these events, the rudeness and vulgarity displayed were said to be the sole attraction! For those who attended however the Oyster Cellars one of the main attractions was the opportunity for displays of wit, intellect and merriment by both sexes. Remarks and jokes which elsewhere would have been considered scandalous were celebrated here.
Live music in an Edinburgh cellar
Once the oysters and porter had been consumed bowl of brandy and rum punch would be brought out. Hired musicians would strike up a lively tune and a night of wild dancing and free abandon would commence. As these events were held in generally small and cramped rooms and actual cellars it can be imagined that the dancing would have been intimate!
One of the principal locations for these evenings was Luckie Middleman's Taverns on the Cowgate where the south pier of South Bridge now stands. Bannerman's Bar now occupies almost the exact same spot and is still popular with the young people of Edinburgh providing live music seven nights a week although the last time I visited there were no oysters on the menu! 
As ever in Edinburgh, the more things change, the more they remain the same so the next time you hear someone complaining about the youth of today remind them that bad behaviour is nothing new!

Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries the #1 bestselling series in the Kindle Edinburgh Historical Fiction chart
His blog can be followed at


  1. Great stuff, Stuart! Reminds me of my old days on the Fringe!

  2. I find it fascinating that the upperclass youths behaved like shameless Hooray Henries and Henriettas; reminds me a bit of the antics of their 20thc counterparts in Henley on Thames and posh places like that. I don't care what anyone says! Time doesn't change youth it just varies in extremes!

    1. Thinking about it, I know that my younger children are far better behaved than I ever was at their age so perhaps there is an improvement on the 1970's to the 20teens!

    2. The poor had to make their own entertainment though! No fancy drinking clubs for them I'm afraid, just an old fashioned session in the boozer for them without any silly names or traditions.

  3. Wonderful post, Stuart. Crazy times!

  4. What a very atmospheric account! I haven't spend much time in Edinburgh but this reminds me of some of my research about Covent Garden - a place of ill repute in Victorian times that was pretty much as riotous as Edinburgh, it sounds! The Sweating Club sounds like fun! Uproarious and health conscious. What a heady mix! :D

  5. Very entertaining. Oyster Cellars indeed; I wonder how many of the attendees had to sneak out of home to get there.

    1. You've just put the picture in my head of some fashionably dressed young woman promising her parents that she is visiting a friend and won't be home late...