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A Group of Scottish Women
Miss "Nicky" Murray (d. 1777)

Scotland has always been justly famed for the hospitality of its inhabitants. During the eighteenth century in particular Edinburgh was the scene of a succession of social functions of the most convivial and at the same time unostentatious kind. Hosts were not ashamed of providing the simplest fare; guests were amply satisfied with it. Barley broth, salt beef, with a boiled fowl and “greens,” were standing dishes at dinner in every gentleman’s house, and nobody would have dreamt of demanding anything more delicate. The beverage offered to ordinary visitors consisted of home-brewed ale and a glass of brandy, or, on any very special occasion, claret and brandy-punch. Food was cheap and plentiful. Beef only cost two pence per pound, and it was possible to purchase a whole lamb’s carcase for a shilling or eighteenpence. [My Own Life and Times, 1741-1814, by Thomas Somerville, pp.334-5.] Simple manners prevailed, and even in private houses there was occasionally a dearth of crockery when an unusual number of guests had to be entertained. Dr. Somerville in his Memoirs describes how it was often necessary for a large company to make use of a single glass, and repeats the lament of one Armstrong of Sorbie (Sorbet would have been more appropriate), a noted toper, who, deploring in his latter days the degeneracy of the times, declared that “it was a better world when there were more bottles and fewer glasses.” [My Own Life and Times, p.356.]

Scotland certainly clung to primitive customs up to comparatively recent times. The disgusting habit of throwing the household filth out of window at 10 P.M. every night when the city drum was beaten – a practice which sometimes made it necessary for residents to fumigate their bedrooms by burning brown paper – prevailed in provincial towns not more than a hundred years ago. But a country in which until 1750 there were only two turnpike roads, and where the mail took five days to reach Edinburgh from London, might well be considered backward in many things beside urban sanitation.

In some ways, however, this primitive condition of affairs was not without its compensating advantages. The extreme and almost ascetic simplicity which marked the fashionable entertainments of the Scottish capital brought them well within the range of all. The most impoverished younger sons could afford to give select parties in those “Oyster Cellars,” which were long the popular resort of Edinburgh society during the winter months. The principal oyster-parties took place in a tavern in the Cowgate belonging to an old woman of the name of Luckie Middlemass. Here the young bloods of the day, accompanied by a bevy of fair friends, would spend the evening pleasantly enough, surrounded by plates of oysters and flagons of rum or brandy punch. Towards nightfall the tables were moved to one side, and the guests, exhilarated by their repast, would bring the evening’s entertainment to a close with an impromptu dance. The bill for a party of this kind usually amounted to about two shillings a head, a modest sum, the very thought of which must fill with envy the bosom of a modern host.

An English visitor to Edinburgh in the year 1774 pays a generous tribute to the Scottish talent for hospitality as well as to the national gift of obtaining the maximum of amusement with the minimum outlay of cash. This he attributes to the fact that the Scottish character closely resembles that of the French. “That air of mirth and vivacity,” he says, “that quick and penetrating look, that spirit of gaiety which distinguishes the French, is equally visible in the Scotch. It is the character of the nation, and it is a very happy one, as it makes them disregard even poverty.” [Letters from Edinburgh written in the years 1774-5, by Captain Topham, p.64] Nowhere is this facility for enjoyment seen to better advantage then in the accounts of the somewhat ingenuous amusements of Edinburgh society.

In the summer time, when the atmosphere of the Oyster Cellars became too oppressive to be pleasant, parties were formed to visit the “Comely Gardens.” Along the shady paths of this pleasant resort young people of both sexes could wander hand-in-hand together, while their elders sat and listened to the merciless moanings of the town band. There were no “water-chutes,” no “switch-backs” in those days. There was no “monster wheel” in which young couples could spend the greater part of the evening at an altitude which kept them well out of the range of the basilisk eye of their chaperons. But the quiet public gardens were as great a source of delight to the boy and girl of that age as are to their descendants of today the more elaborate haunts of West Kensington. Comely Gardens provided for the society of Edinburgh those simple pleasures for which their contemporaries in London sought at Ranelagh and Marylebone. They corresponded to Vauxhall, the “New Spring Gardens” where Mr. Pepys “with my wife and Deb and Mercer eat and walked;” [Pepys’ Diary, July 27, 1668.] where Wycherley enjoyed a “cheesecake and syllabub”; where Addison and Sir Roger de Coverley met; [Spectator, No.383, May 20, 1712.] where Walpole, Fielding, Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and all the “red-heeled macaronis” of the day foregathered.

After a time, however, the Comely Gardens were voted commonplace, slow, and vulgar, and the “lover’s walks” and shady bowers were gradually deserted by the smart set of Edinburgh. In those days, as now, it was enough to stamp a place or an amusement as unfashionable to ensure its immediate decline in popularity. To do “the right thing” was the one aim of society. The Scottish world of fashion was so imbued with this idea that a contemporary writer declares that if the famous Lord Monboddo who took it into his head to inform mankind that they were originally born with tails, had got half-a-dozen friends to support his theory, in a short time every man in the country would have been feeling for his tail whenever he entered a room!

The dancing in Oyster Cellars and the flirting in Comely Gardens were not by any means the only, nor indeed the chief, amusement of the good people of Edinburgh. In the year 1707 they system of holding weekly balls in the Assembly Rooms was first inaugurated, and at once caught the public fancy. These entertainments, which originally took place in the West Bow, but were removed in 1720 to the Assembly Close, were managed by a committee of seven gentlemen who styled themselves directors, and who in their turn appointed some woman of fashion to superintend the social side of the assemblies.

This novel venture was, like all new schemes, regarded at first with suspicion and mistrust by some of the more conservative members of the community, and it was not without considerable opposition that the holding of weekly assemblies was finally instituted. Among the “unco’ guid” of the Scottish capital there was naturally a bigoted section which looked with horror upon the introduction of such a pastime as dancing, and strenuously endeavoured to rouse popular indignation against the harmless amusements of the Assembly Rooms. [It had taken many years for dancing to be permitted at all in Scotland. In the reign of James II. dancing might not be taught in private or public without a licence from the magistrates. In 1681 the Duke of York, then Commissioner, tried to introduce balls and plays at Holyrood. But “the fanaticism of the times,” says Tytler of Woodhouselee, “could not bear such ungodly innovations,” and these profane entertainments were given up. The same fate befell a public masquerade which the citizens of Edinburgh tried to get up in 1786.] By some, too, it was perhaps thought that the introduction of dancing would tend to enervate the Scottish character and encourage those habits of effeminacy which were opposed to the simple tastes of the shrewd, level-headed inhabitants of Edinburgh. The latter were already beginning to affect some of the airs and graces of London society. The charge of dandyism had more than once been brought against the young bucks of the Scottish capital. They were conscious of a growing inclination to practise the “nice conduct of a clouded cane” and otherwise emulate the doings of their more foppish contemporaries in the south. The Tatler of the day published a paragraph of a presumably facetious character dealing with this. [Advertisement. The censor having lately received intelligence that the ancient simplicity in the dress and manner of that part of the island called Scotland begins to decay; and that there are at this time, in the good town of Edinburgh, beaux, fops, and coxcombs: his late correspondent from that place is desired to send up their names and characters with all expedition, that they may be proceeded against accordingly, and proper officers named to take in their canes, snuff-boxes, and all other useless necessaries commonly worn by such offenders.” The Tatler, No.144, March 11, 1709-10.]  There was, as a matter of fact, but little fear of Scotsmen becoming effeminate. Dandyism is a quality altogether foreign to the Scottish blood. This is perhaps a pity, for surely no stage could be more appropriate for setting off the beauties of a beau’s attire than Princes Street. It is broader than Bond Street; it is finer and more fashionable than Oxford Street. Here, as Lockhart once remarked, [Peter’s Letters, vol. iii. p.109.] when the punch-bowl is empty and “night’s candles are burned out,” the macaroni might stagger down the steps of the Albyn Club and behold the “jocund day stand tip-toe on the misty mountains’ tops” as the sun rose above Arthur’s Seat. But the dandies themselves were missing. There was no Beau Brummel, No Nash, no D’Orsay in Edinburgh. The very Arbitri Elegantiarum, the Dilettanti Society, held their meetings in a tavern in one of the dirtiest closes of the city, “braving the risk of an impure baptism from the windows” as they entered or left.

The efforts of the “weaker brethren to frustrate the holding of assemblies were fortunately unsuccessful. [Even the clergy refrained from censure. “There were fanatics in those days,” says Lord Cockburn (Journal, vol. ii. p.197.), “but they let good society alone; and there was a race of agreeable and rational clergymen whose sense of decorum was not shocked by polite company, nor their piety deemed wasted if it was not all given to the poor or the pulpit.”] Their clamouring did not gain the public ear. There were plenty of broad-minded citizens of Edinburgh who realised that dancing could hardly be called a vice, and that the proposed weekly balls would not seriously affect public morality. Their sentiments were aptly voiced in a letter addressed to the managers of the Assemblies by Allan Ramsay as an introduction to one of his poems. [The Fair Assembly]. “It is amazing,” he says, “to imagine that any one is so destitute of good sense and manners as to drop the least unfavourable sentiment against the Fair Assembly. It is to be owned, with regret, that the best of things have been abused. The church has been, and in many countries is, the chief place for assignations that are not warrantable. Wine, one of Heaven’s kindly blessings, may be used to one’s hurt. The beauty of the fair, which is the great preserver of harmony and society, has been the ruin of many.” Then, bursting into song, he continues:-

“Sic as against th’ Assembly speak,
The rudest souls betray,
When matrons, noble, wise, and meek,
Conduct the healthfu’ play;
Where they appear, nae vice dare keek,
But to what’s good gives way,
Like night, soon as the morning creek
Has usher’d in the day.

Dear Ed’nburgh, shaw thy gratitude,
And of sic friends make sure,
Wha strive to mak our minds less rude,
And help our wants to cure;
Acting a gen’rous part and good
In bounty to the poor;
Sic virtues, if right understood,
Should ev’ry heart allure.”

In spite, therefore, of the grumbling of a prejudiced minority, the holding of assemblies soon became one of the most popular entertainments of the capital. [In some respects the good people of Edinburgh do not seem to have been as particular as their descendants of today. “Promiscuous bathing has been very much in fashion this season,” writes William Creech in 1785 (Edinburgh Fugitive Pieces (1815), p.220), “and the decency of an awning to the bathing-machines is not yet adopted; to the great satisfaction of the rude and the ill-bred, who triumph in insulting modesty.”] Tickets of admission were sold at “s.6d. a-piece (a charge which included such modest refreshments as tea, coffee, and sandwiches, and cannot therefore be considered excessive), and the proceeds of the entertainments were divided between the Charity Workhouse and the Royal Infirmary. The lady whose important duty it was to direct and control the dancing sat at the head of the room, wearing as a badge of office a large gold medal engraved with a motto and device “emblematical” (as we read in Arnot’s History of Edinburgh) “of Charity and Parental Tendencies.” Her power was autocratic; her will was law; but, as may be readily imagined, her office was by no means a sinecure.

Pre-eminent among those queens who held each in turn their petty court in the Assembly Rooms of the capital stands Miss Nicky Murray, a daughter of Lord Stormonth, who for many years filled the post of Mistress of the Ceremonies with grace and distinction. Her rule, though arbitrary, was distinguished by a display of common sense and uncommon tact which ensured her popularity in the hearts of all her subjects. When “the Assembly Close received the Fair,” wrote Sir Alexander Boswell, in his poem on Edinburgh,

“Order and elegance presided there;
Each gay Right Honourable had her place,
To walk a minuet with becoming grace.
No racing to the dance, with rival hurry;
Such was thy sway, O famed Miss Nicky Murray!”

This famous lady directress lived in a flat, in a small tenement house styled Smith’s Land, at the head of Baillie Fyfe’s Close, which was then an aristocratic quarter of the town. She was a woman of the old-fashioned feudal type, who never troubled to disguise her favour for the Jacobite cause and her hopes that the exiled Stuarts might some day enjoy their own again. Her father had entertained Prince Charles Edward at Perth, on his way to Culloden. This occasion was particularly memorable to Miss Nicky, who had signalised it by insisting upon making with her own fair hands the bed in which her illustrious guest was to pass the night. Let us hope that the prince displayed adequate gratitude.

Mistress Murray’s management of the public assemblies gave complete satisfaction to all concerned. No one ever dreamt of opposing her will or attempting to supplant her. But hers must have been a troublesome task, and one that required patience, activity, and good sense.

The balls opened at four or five o’clock in the afternoon. [Later on, in 1783, they met at 8 or 9 P.M., and the Lady Directress sometimes did not appear till 10 P.M. Country dances were substituted for the stately minuets, and the dance often degenerated into a game of romps.] Mistress Murray was immediately surrounded by a group of clamorous chaperons, eager that their debutantes should not be overlooked. The room where these dances were held was so small that it was impossible to allow all the guests to take part at the same time. The dancers were consequently divided into different “sets.” It was the duty of the lady directress to assign the guests to their various places, and she was constantly besieged, now by fond and anxious mothers urging the claims of their respective daughters, now by impetuous lovers begging to be given tickets for those particular “sets” in which they could be sure of meeting the objects of their choice. To satisfy all and give offence to none was a task which might well have appalled the most tactful of women, but Miss Murray was more than equal to it.

Dancing in the public Assembly Rooms must in any case have been a doubtful pleasure. The door of the hall was so situated that a draught of cold air streamed in, flooding the room from end to end, and bearing with it clouds of smoke from the torches of the footmen who stood at the entrance waiting to escort their mistresses home. The unfortunate dowagers sat and shivered with cold, and the dancers themselves were half suffocated by fumes from the flambeaux of their domestics. The set of printed rules which hung up in one corner of the Assembly-room contained, amongst others, the following regulations, which give a curious glimpse of the character of the entertainments, but scarcely call for further comment: “No lady to be admitted in a night-gown, and no gentleman in boots.” “No misses in skirts and jackets, robecoats, nor stay-bodied gowns, to be allowed to dance in country dances, but in a sett by themselves.”

We are always told that Englishmen take their pleasures sadly, but if the account of the Edinburgh assemblies given by Oliver Goldsmith is to be believed, it must be admitted that in comparison with such social pastimes in vogue north of the border in 1753 (when the author wrote), the modern suburban Garden Party of Zenana Mission Meeting may truthfully be characterised as a rollicking form of entertainments.

Goldsmith describes the only assembly which he attended as the most melancholy and depressing function that it is possible for the human mind to conceive. One end of the room, he tells us, was taken up by the ladies, who sat dismally in a group by themselves. At the other end stood their pensive potential partners, but “no more intercourse was allowed between the sexes then there is between two countries at war.” [The Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Ed. by Peter Cunningham, vol. iv. P.401. (London, 1854.)] The ladies, indeed, might ogle, and the gentlemen might sigh, but an embargo was laid on any closer commerce. At length, to interrupt hostilities, the lady directress fixed on a gentleman and lady to dance the minuet, which they did with a formality that approached despondence. “After five or six couples had thus walked the gauntlet,” continues the writer, “all stand up to country dances, each gentleman furnished with a partner from the aforesaid lady directress; so they dance much and say nothing, and thus concluded the assembly.” [Ibid.] After watching this lugubrious performance, Oliver Goldsmith told a Scottish gentleman that such silent ceremonial as was habitual in the Assembly Room reminded him of the ancient processions of Roman matrons in honour of Ceres. The Scotsman, however, patriotically snubbed Oliver for his pains, telling him plainly that he was a pedant and a prig, which was probably true. Goldsmith was, indeed, prejudiced in his point of view. At the time he wrote so captiously of the amusements of his hosts he was poor and unknown, and like Burns under similar circumstances, felt out of place amid such fashionable surroundings. He doubtless agreed with Talleyrand that life would be tolerable but for its pleasures. “An ugly and a poor man is society for himself,” said he, in relating his experiences, “and such society the world lets me enjoy in great abundance.” [The Works of Oliver Goldsmith, vol. iv. P.402.]

To obtain a less depressing and perhaps more truthful picture of the Assembly Rooms, we must turn to the writings of Captain Topham, that fashionable traveller and man of the world whose high opinion of the social delights of Edinburgh finds eloquent expression in the series of amusing letters which he wrote from the Scottish capital in 1774. He, at any rate, did not attribute the gift of silence to his Scottish friends. “Whenever the Scotch of both sexes meet,” he writes, “they do not appear as if they had never seen each other before, or wished never to see each other again; they do not sit in solemn silence, looking on the ground, biting their nails, and at a loss what to do with themselves; and, if some one should be hardy enough to break silence, start, as if they were shot through the ear with a pistol: but they address each other at first sight and with an impressement  that is highly pleasing.” [Letters from Edinburgh, p.66. (1776.) With the ladies in particular he expresses himself as charmed. The men, as he explains, are naturally cold and reserved, but that is the very reason why the women shine so brightly in society. “To rouse the latent spark” – buried deep in the Scotsman’s bosom – “every effort is necessary,” says the gallant captain, so that it is in the interest of the ladies to be “perfect mistresses in the art of pleasing, and, indeed, they are arrived at such perfection in it as to be excelled by none in Europe.” [Letters from Edinburgh, p.255.] To see them at their best, he adds, is to see them at their entertainments.

If these entertainments were successful it was mainly due to the energy and skill of the queen of the revels, Mistress Nicky Murray. She was remarkable for her impartiality in the disposal of debutantes, and, as we are told by Robert Chambers, [Traditions of Edinburgh, vol. ii. p.30.] “never failed to give due preference to a beauty without forgetting the claims of titled precedence.” She could, nevertheless, be very unpleasant to any persons who offended against the unwritten canons of polite society. One wretched man, whose parentage was quite obscure and who had made his money in trade, instead of inheriting it or acquiring it by the sweat of other people’s brows like a gentleman, had the effrontery to put in an appearance at one of the assemblies over which Miss Murray presided. He was immaculately dressed – since nothing can prevent money, however honestly earned, from purchasing clothing of the very latest fashion. There was, in fact, little against him, save the unfortunate accident of birth. But no sooner had this wretch entered the room than the lady directress strode up to him and administered a few scathing comments on the subject of his unwarrantable intrusion. Thus addressed, the miserable parvenu realised the enormity of his offence and beat a hasty and undignified retreat from the presence of his social superiors. It is perhaps refreshing to think that two hundred years ago there was one door in Great Britain which could not be opened with a key of gold: against which millionaires might batter and hurl their purses in vain. We may, indeed, be inclined to smile at the prejudices and inconsistencies of a society which refused admittance to a self-made nouveau-riche of low birth, and yet welcomed the presence of Lord Kirkcudbright, a peer haberdasher, who combined business and pleasure by selling white gloves to his fellow-guests; yet it is doubtful whether our modern money-worship, which throws open every door, from that of the fashionable ballroom to that of the House of Lords itself, to the owner of millions, is not a characteristic of the times even more ignoble than that displayed by our ancestors.

It was the fashion in Edinburgh for ladies to go to bed early, and the assemblies closed punctually at eleven o’clock. But when that fateful moment arrived, a rush was always made by the younger and more energetic dancers to beg the good-natured Nicky for a few minutes’ grace. Their entreaties were usually vain. Mistress Murray’s views on the subject of retiring at a respectable hour were not easily to be shaken. With a wave of her fan she stopped the musicians in the middle of their tune. The assembly broke up at once, the guests departed to their homes – the ladies to sleep, the gentlemen to foregather with genial boon-companion and toast their late partners with sufficient enthusiasm to superinduce a condition of pleasurable coma, from which they were with difficulty roused next morning. Claret was the only drink on such occasions, and was partaken of from huge pewter mugs, each of which held about a quart. There existed certain rigid rules of etiquette which prevented gentlemen from drinking too much in the presence of the fair sex. “They never thought of committing any excess,” says Lockhart, [Peter’s Letters, vol. i. p.108] “except in taverns and at night!” where –

“Beakers drained and seats o’erthrown,
Showed in what sport the night had flown.”

It had, in fact, been made a matter of serious aggravation in the offence of a gentleman of rank, tried before the Court of Justiciary, that he had allowed his company to get drunk in his house before it was dark, even in the month of July! As for the ladies – of whom the same writer declares that never in any evening he spent in London did he see “a greater number of fine women, and of different kinds too,” than that which met his delighted gaze at a party in Edinburgh [Ibid., p.47.] – it is to be feared that even they too were occasionally addicted, alas! to a slight overdose of alcohol. A writer in the Edinburgh Magazine [August 1817] has stated that in the eighteenth century, though it was a disgrace for ladies to be seen drunk, it was none at all to be a trifle intoxicated in good company. [An old story, which recounts the adventures of three respectable middle-aged spinsters of Edinburgh, gives point to this indictment. After spending a merry evening together, these ladies started to go home to bed in a distinctly inebriate condition,” brimming over with happy laughter.” When the trio reached the Tron Church they were brought to a sudden halt by the shadow of the steeple which the moon threw across the street. After a brief confabulation the ladies came to the mournful conclusion that they were standing on the brink of a shallow river. With the courage born of excessive stimulant they sat down on the edge of the street, removed their shoes and stockings, kilted their skirts up to the knee, and proceeded to wade bravely across to the safe moonlight on the other side.] But at any rate the Assembly Rooms were never the scene of any orgy, male or female.

That the assemblies made for the social welfare of the community there is little doubt. The young men of the day learnt manners there, while the young ladies continued the lessons in deportment which they had begun in the schoolroom. “The young Gentlemen have a Hauteur,” sys Daniel Defoe, in recounting his journey through Scotland somewhere about the year 1720, “which makes good the French saying, ‘Fier comme un Ecossais.’” [A Journey Through Scotland, p.198. (1723).] Never in any nation, says the traveller, had he seen an “assemblage of greater beauties” than those he met in Edinburgh. “The Ladies,” he continues, “are particular in a stately, firm way of walking, with their Joints extended, and their Toes out.” [Ibid., p.274.] Nor was Defoe the only person to notice this. Captain Burt, who visited Scotland in 1758, commends the “upright, firm yet easy manner of the ladies walking in Edinburgh.” [Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland, p.102. (1759.)] And no doubt they owed the elegance of their gait, their “extended joints” and pointed toes, to the instruction of the dancing-master. If he was responsible for their graceful bearing, the credit for their perfect manners much be assigned to the directress, who kept such an eagle eye upon her wards. The Assembly Rooms were, indeed, an excellent training-ground for the young of either sex, and both residents and tourists found them singularly attractive. Alexander Campbell, one of the latter, declares that the heart must indeed be insensible which “feels not the influence of female charms, while beholding a select party of Scottish ladies on the night of an Assembly.” [A Journey from Edinburgh through Parts of North Britain vol. ii. p.181.] A French writer, too, of that day declares that they provided everything that the heart of the most fastidious could desire. All that might charm the eye, flatter the senses, or gratify the soul, was, in his opinion, to be found within the four walls of the Assembly Rooms. He thinks it necessary, however, to add a word of warning for those who are about to enter the precincts of this earthly Elysium. He begs them very earnestly to be careful of their conduct, to behave with particular decorum, “for the slightest gesture or glance which might wound Modesty, will be observed and repressed by the Lady Directresses, persons whom merit and distinguished virtue, as well as their high birth, have rendered worthy of the noble trust of which they acquit themselves with consummate prudence and universal approbation.” [L’Eloge d’Ecosse et des Dames Ecossoises, par Mr. Freebairn, p.17. (Edin., 1727.) (This Mr. Freebairn may have been the printer whose services were retained by the Earls of Mar and Breadalbane to publish revolutionary leaflets at the time of the “’45,” or else perhaps the well-known publisher for whom Thomas Ruddiman did so much excellent work. His admiration for Scottish ladies was boundless. “Je prendrai seulement la Liberté de dire,” he says, “pour reliever encore leur Gloirs, que les DAMES ECOSSOISES ont receu leur beau Teint, et tous leurs autres Agremens seulement du Ciel. Elles ne menagent point l’Avantage de rouge, de blanc, pour offrir un Visage nouveau, à nos Regards trompés.” Ibid., p.38.)]

In the year 1775 the Assembly Rooms were moved to better quarters in Bell’s Wynd, and, later on, to a new hall in George Street. The pleasant gatherings which Mistress Nicky superintended so capably continued to play an important part in the social life of Edinburgh for many years. That charming directress died, however, in 1777, and after her death the popularity of the assemblies seems to have waned. Finally, when the rooms in which they were held were burnt to the ground in 1824, these entertainments came to an abrupt and definite conclusion.

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