Enlightenment Scotland: Edinburgh’s Select Society

Allan Ramsay, by William Aikman 1722, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

In 1754, the portrait painter and antiquarian Allan Ramsay had an idea. He took it to his friends David Hume, philosopher and historian, and Adam Smith, moral and political philosopher, and they liked it. Together, they founded the Select Society, first a discussion club then shortly thereafter a debating club for the intellectual elite of Edinburgh. Besides these three eminent figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, other members who attended that first meeting in the Advocates’ Library on November 12th, 1754 were gentry, clergy, advocates (lawyers), eminent physicians and lawyers, professors, and distinguished well-known men of letters. Yes, men, they were all men, as was customary in eighteenth-century Scotland. Later on, as the Society grew, it welcomed bankers, merchants, and other men of diverse talents who had gained prominence in their fields.

The purpose of the club, according to Rev. Alexander Carlyle, was ‘philosophical inquiry and the improvement of the members in the art of publick speaking.’ The latter, especially, was an important skill for these men, all leaders in academia, religion, business, professional bodies, or public life. Rosalind Carr writes in Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland,

In March 1755, ‘An Account of the Select Socieit [sic] of Edinburgh’ was published in The Scots Magazine, informing the public that: ‘The intention of the gentlemen was, by practice to improve themselves in reasoning and eloquence, and by the freedom of debate, to discover the most effectual methods of promoting the good of the country.’

As the Society grew, it gained renown, though with each growth phase they kept it small enough to remain exclusive. While it never lost its requirement that all members be from the upper crust of society, especially by 1755 they could afford to be very choosy. Being a member of the Select Society gave you instant cachet, and men building a career and establishing a place in society were keen to join. So having a title, money, or an important post wasn’t enough: prospective members had to demonstrate that they were talented and better yet, adept at public speaking and interesting conversation.

David Hume, by Allan Ramsay, 1766, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

To make the Society seem extra-Select, I suppose, the rules were very formal; historian  Roger L. Emerson describes them as ‘cumbersome.’ Young up-and-comer James Boswell, who joined in the late 1750’s, approved of the ‘politeness’ in such systems of rules, but Hume preferred the ‘plain roughness’ of the Poker Club, another of the gentlemen’s societies he belonged to. Over time, it seems that many of the Society’s members leaned towards Hume’s view. Attendance began to slip considerably throughout the later 1750’s, and by the end of 1758 the Society had dwindled to a very low and not nearly so distinguished membership. Only the most dedicated members, it seems, were willing to travel to meetings and put up with the old formalities.

By the time of decline and last recorded meeting in early 1764, the Select Society had helped many men build their social and professional circles and establish their reputations as learned and able men. Other clubs and societies directly branched off from this club or were formed by some of its members separately or after this Society ended as well. One was the aforementioned Poker Club, a political group dedicated to establishing a Scottish militia. Others had similar structures and aims as the Select Society but were more dedicated to the arts, the sciences, or general improvement of Scottish life.

Laigh Hall under Parliament Hall, which served as the Advocates Library in the 18th century, Edinburgh, Scotland.

‘Devils May Sit Here’ in Laigh Hall, now an extension of the Advocates Library under Parliament Hall. A ‘devil’ is a trainee. For example, Mark Twain refers to himself during his time as a newspaper office apprentice as a ‘printer’s devil’

As I am wont to do, I decide to follow the Select Society to their meeting places in Edinburgh. All opportunities to poke my nose into interesting buildings, closes (narrow lanes or passageways between buildings), and archives are worth creating, I think, especially those related to the Scottish Enlightenment! So I begin with the Advocates Library in the old Parliament House, their first meeting place. I’ve been to the current Advocates Library, designed by William Henry Playfair in 1830 and completed with Robert Matheson’s alterations in 1856. (Playfair was one of Edinburgh’s most important architects, and his name and image are to be found all over this city). In response to my inquiries, Senior Librarian Andrea Longson met me at the current Advocates Library door and escorted me under Parliament Hall to Laigh Hall. She told me that this was the home of the Advocates Library during the period I’m looking into, which is when Ramsay, Hume, Smith, and the other members of the newly formed Select Society first met in 1754. Hume was the keeper of the Library at the time, so no doubt it was on his suggestion that the Society meet here, at least at first. The Advocates Library was founded in 1689 and housed in a rented house near Parliament Hall, but as it was with the United States’ Library of Congress and its original collection, the original library building burned down, reducing some of the collection to ashes and leaving some of the surviving books scorched. ‘Laigh,’ Andrea informs me, is Scots for ‘low.’

Northwest corner of Parliament Hall, with communicating door to the Signet Library

Signet Library, the main first-floor hall called the Colonnades

After she shows me around the old hall and its stacks, I ask Andrea about two neighboring sites I’m looking for. She’s able to help me most with one of them, doing so by introducing me to a neighbor, James Hamilton, Research Principal at the Signet Library next door. This is perfect: seven of the advocates which belonged to the Select Society were ‘writers to the signet.’ Then, they were senior members of the Court of Session. According to The Society of Writers to the Signet’s website,

Today, most Writers to the Signet are solicitors in law firms or in-house within the public or private sector. Writers to the Signet take a special oath before an officer of state, the Keeper of the Signet, signifying a personal commitment to the exceptional standards of competence and integrity expected of those associated with the historic seal of Scotland’s kings and queens, known as the Signet. Writers to the Signet belong to Scotland’s College of Justice along with the nation’s senior judges, known as Senators, and its advocates, the equivalent of barristers.

The Signet Library’s lobby is reached by a communicating door at the northwest corner of Parliament Hall, which opens to a receptionist desk. Once a lady at the desk confirms that Mr. Hamilton has an opening in his schedule to see me, I’m taken through a handsome, very large and grand hall that now appears to be used as a daytime tea room, and dining and meeting area. Turns out, it’s now called the Colonnades and can be rented as a venue for special occasions; weddings are often held here.

An upstairs research room and office at Signet Library, Parliament Square, Edinburgh. It’s not over the lobby so it’s not at the site of old St Giles’ Hall, but it is at the same upper level near it.

The William Playfair-designed grand staircase at the Signet Library, across from the lobby and reception desk over where the old Laigh Council House once stood.

The receptionist takes me to an upstairs office lined with books and filled with worktables and desks, where I meet Mr. Hamilton. I tell him of my quest and I’m glad to see he’s interested. In fact, I spend nearly two hours with him. He speaks enthusiastically of the history of Edinburgh and of the library, its architecture and collection. Hamilton finds old maps and records for me, takes me on a tour of the Signet Library rooms upstairs and down, discusses the history of the buildings and closes in and around Parliament Square, helps me find online resources, and even makes me a cup of hot white coffee. What a gracious host!

The handsome Signet Library was built in 1810. Its lobby, into which I first entered from Parliament Hall, rests on the site of the old Laigh Council House. The Select Society held meetings in a room over Laigh Council House after that initial meeting in the Advocates Library, leading to more than a little confusion when I first asked around in the course of my search. Remember, the Select Society held its first meetings in the old Advocates’ Library which is now called Laigh Hall. The room over Laigh Council House where the Select Society met was called St Giles’ Hall, the meeting hall of a Freemasons’ Lodge.

Plan of buildings from an early-mid 1800’s session book in the Signet Library archives, catalog number SP 300.10. ‘Libraries’ shows the site of the Signet Library.

Bookshelves among the colonnades and balconies of the ground floor of the Signet Library

The Signet Library holds at least tens of thousands of volumes and documents, I’ve forgotten exactly how many. In the lower archive rooms, there are session books by the hundreds, among which we find a plan for a proposed new close in Parliament Square, and rows upon rows of other old books of every description. I wish I had hours to dig through them.

Later, as we tour the library, Mr. Hamilton points out that where the colonnaded central hall of the Signet Library had to be redesigned in parts because of an early design flaw: its upper windows, which let in plenty of necessary light, also didn’t allow much space there for books! Above the interior balconies, I can see the somewhat awkwardly, partially obscured upper windows by the re-designed book alcoves and shelves around them. However, seeing it all with a non-architect’s eye, I wouldn’t have thought much of it. The room looks graceful to me.

Upper hall of the Signet Library. The windows on the north side are covered over with bookshelves to hold more of the Library’s massive collection, leaving only one side well-lit enough to see the volumes them by day.

‘The Heart of Midlothian, Restored from Original Drawings, Models, etc, After the Print Published in 1852 by Mssrs W. & A. K. Johnston’, from Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh. The Old Tolbooth is in the center, St Giles with its crowned spire just beyond to the right.

At the time that the Select Society met here over the old Laigh Council House, Parliament Square was much more densely built up than it is today. The Old Tolbooth prison and place of torture, once an early meeting place of Parliament, narrowed the Royal Mile where it passed near St Giles and Parliament Square. Today, you can see the outline of the horrible Old Tolbooth marked out in the cobblestones in metal squares, and a heart outlined in stone indicates the spot where criminals were executed first by guillotine, then by hanging. Tenements crowded the winding closes, and little wooden booths and makeshift shops were built right up against the sides of old St Giles.

Detail of an early eighteenth-century(?) drawing of the old Parliament House, St Giles, the Tolbooth, and the surrounding area hanging on a corridor wall of the Signet Library. The Laigh Council House, which would have stood near the northwest end of Parliament House, does not appear to have been built yet when this drawing was created.

1854 plan featuring Parliament Square and St Giles, with annotations in pen and pencil, courtesy of Dawn Webster. You can see that scores of surrounding tenements have been cleared away, the Old Tolbooth torn down (1817), and the square opened up.

Royal Exchange and John’s Coffee House, Edinburgh, by Green ca. 19th c., Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC), free to use CC BY-NC-ND. This was not the same location as the original one where committee meetings of the Select Society met decades earlier. The Royal Exchange location is shown in a plan printed in Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh.

We also discuss the likely location of John’s Coffeehouse at Parliament Square, a favorite haunt of many of the Select Society’s members and meeting place for the committee devising and discussing its aforementioned ‘cumbersome’ bylaws. I have not yet been able to nail down its exact site. I’ve found many, many references to it, including in primary sources from that time and not long afterward. Without exception, however, these sources refer to the coffeehouse as if everyone already knows where it is. According to Robert Chamber’s Traditions of Edinburgh page 112, it was ‘situated in the north-east corner of Parliament Close,’ which would place it somewhere across from the east end of St Giles. According to my sources, it was not only a popular social hangout, it was also a meeting place for advocates to discuss cases and arrange for the public sales of estates lost to debt.

John’s Coffeehouse may have moved to the Royal Exchange, now the City Chambers, which was completed in 1760; some sources list a John’s Coffeehouse at that nearby location just across the High Street after the time the Select Society committee would have met there. I suspect that many of its later and former members would have continued to hang out at John’s if it did indeed move to that location. Or, perhaps, the proprietors of that later John’s just wanted to lend the historical pastiche of its predecessor to their establishment.

UPDATE: Joe Rock, Edinburgh historian, helpfully referred me to the painting The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh, Fifty Years Since, painted by or in the style of John Kay. James Hamilton and others had referred me to the painting as well, but the image published online at ArtUK. org is not high-resolution enough to see what Rock identified in the painting: the sign indicating the location of John’s Coffeehouse in one of the arched doorways to the right of the painting. The view is looking north at St Giles, across the square and the pedestrian statue from the colonnade of Parliament House. This agrees with what I learned about the location of John’s Coffeeshop from Chambers’ Traditions. Since the image of the Kay painting is credited to ‘City of Edinburgh Council, I contacted them. Curator of Fine Arts Dr. Helen Scott let me know that the painting is now at the Museum of Edinburgh and kindly gave me permission to share the images here. Here’s the painting:

John Kay (style of), The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh, Fifty Years Since, (Museum of Edinburgh, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh)

and here’s the relevant section of the painting:

John’s Coffeehouse sign, from John Kay (style of), The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh, Fifty Years Since, (Museum of Edinburgh, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh)

Signet Library at Parliament Square in the evening light

Niddry’s Street rising to the north from Cowgate, with the modern St Cecelia’s Hall extension to the right

St Cecilia’s Hall original front on Niddry Street, just up the hill from the Cowgate.

The next morning, I go to one more Select Society meeting place, which Emerson identifies in his Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article as the ‘Mason’s Hall (Mary’s Chapel) in Niddry Wynd.’ I find that Niddry Wynd is no longer there, but Niddry Street is, which follows the line of the old Wynd a little to the east. The overpass of the South Bridge, built 1785-1788, made it necessary to move it over that way, which explains why St Cecilia’s Hall crowds the narrow street on its east side.

Most of the information I find about Mary’s Chapel and Mason’s Hall is in entries about St Cecilia’s Hall. It was built as a concert hall for a musical society who met in one of the rooms adjoining Mary’s Chapel. Joe Rock, consult historian for Scottish material culture, writes in his ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall,’

St Cecilia’s Hall was built from 1760 for a group of wealthy gentlemen and aristocrats, members of the Edinburgh Musical Society. The Society dates officially from 1728 but research for this article has shown that they met in Mary’s Chapel, a building a few yards north of the Hall owned by the Incorporation of Wrights and Masons, from April 1725.

When I initially read Emerson’s article stating the Select Society met in Mason’s Hall, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, Freemasons!’ since they met in the Freemasons’ room over Laigh Council House. But as we see here, this was a room where builders in stone met.

Looking north on Niddry’s Street. Mary’s Chapel stood to the right, about where the pale midcentury building stands now

City of Edinburgh map showing Niddry’s Wynd with Mary’s Chapel and St Cecelia’s Hall, Edinburgh

A bookshelf in the lower archives of the Signet Library

Thus ends my hunt for the Select Society’s haunts in the mid-eighteenth century, at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment. For more about the Select Society and other Scottish clubs and societies, I especially recommend Carr’s book. You’ll find this and other excellent resources listed below. In all, they contain a wealth of detail about the history, the beauties and rich culture of this ancient city from its birth on a rocky hill. Enjoy!

~ Special thanks to Dawn Webster at the Scottish Courts & Tribunals Service; Andrea Longson, Senior Librarian of the Advocates Library at Parliament House; and James Hamilton, Research Principal of Signet Library,  for your time and assistance with my site research!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and inspiration:

Barker, Robert. Panorama of Edinburgh from St Giles (exact title unknown) late 1700’s-early 1800’s

Campbell, Donald. Edinburgh: A Cultural and Literary History, Signal Books, 2003

Carr, Rosalind. Gender and Enlightenment Culture in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. 2014.

Chambers, Robert. Traditions of Edinburgh. New ed. Edinburgh; London: W. & R. Chambers, 1955.

Edinburgh, 315 High Street, Writers’ Court.‘ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland

Edinburgh, High Street, Tolbooth.’ Canmore: National Record of the Historic Environment by Historic Environment Scotland

Emerson, Roger L. ‘Select Society (act. 1754-1764)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Fleischacker, Samuel, ‘Adam Smith’s Moral and Political Philosophy‘, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Grant. James. Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh: Its History, its People, and its Places. London: Cassel, Petter, Galpin, & Co. 1880’s.

Hannay, R. K. and G.P.H. Watson. ‘The Building of the Parliament House.’ Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 1924, 13

Ingamells, J. ‘Ramsay, Allan, of Kinkell (1713–1784), Portrait Painter.‘ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Longson, Andrea. ‘The Advocates Library.Legal Information Management, 9(1), 2009, 35-37

Masson, Rosaline, and John Fulleylove. Edinburgh. New Edition, Revised and Entirely Reset.. ed. London: A. & C. Black, 1931.

Palmer, Claire. ‘Edinburgh Vaults‘, The History Magazine by Historic UK (online)

Parliament Square, Advocates’ Library, Including Wall and Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website

Parliament Square, Signet Library, Including Railings.‘ Historic Environment Scotland website

Rock, Joe. ‘Analysis of the Timeline for St Cecilia’s Hall‘ and ‘St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh – Chronology of the Building History‘, Joe Rock’s Research Pages (online)

Saint Cecilia’s Hall in the Niddry Wynd, Chapter I: The Locality’ and ‘Saint Cecilia’s Hall in the Niddry Wynd: Chapter II The Building, and the Name.’ ElectricScotland.com

Sher, R. ‘Poker Club (act. 1762–1784).Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Who We Are,’ The WS Society website by The Signet Library

William Henry Playfair.Dictionary of Scottish Architects (online)

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