Edinburgh Clubs and Societies

An important and lucrative function of the taverns was to provide meeting places for the many men’s clubs which existed in Edinburgh at that time. The eighteenth century was characterised by the development of a host of clubs and societies which flourished in the relaxed environment which characterised the Enlightenment.  Drinking and dining in congenial company was the common purpose and some existed solely to give opportunity for overindulgence and debauchery such as the Spendthrift Club, the Hell-fire Club, the Bonnet Lairds, the Sweating Club, the Dirty Club, the Boar Club, the Wig Club etc.  Others had a more intellectual purpose such as the Speculative and Dialectic Societies and the Poker and  Friday Clubs, but even these did not deny themselves refreshment.  Harry Cockburn (the son of the judge Henry Cockburn the founder of the Friday Club) records the consumption of alcohol at one of their dinners:  ‘Unlike some old convivial clubs, the members of ‘Friday’ cannot be accused of excessive drinking; judging from the bills which have been preserved, eight bottles of claret, six of port, and four of sherry seem almost frugal for a dinner of sixteen members’![1]

These clubs offered the menfolk an escape from the cramped and squalid domestic conditions such as prevailed in Edinburgh before the development of the New Town; they thrived in the stimulating atmosphere of the Scottish Enlightenment. They offered a meeting ground for a wide cross section of society where the aristocracy, intellectuals and the literati caroused with lesser mortals.  Most of the clubs met in the taverns off the High Street, where much of the day to day business of the City was conducted, there being no other suitable meeting places except in the University which allowed access to a few of the more intellectual societies.  Most of the myriad of eighteenth century clubs declined in the nineteenth century as living conditions improved allowing more home entertainment, but some of the more intellectual have survived to this day including the Speculative and Dialectic Societies and the medical Harveian and Aesculapian dining clubs.

The Poker Club whose members included Thomas Carlyle, David Hume, William Robertson, Joseph Black and Adam Smith must surely have been one of the most intellectual gatherings of all times.  The Friday Club had among its members Sir James Hall, Professors Dugald Stewart and John Playfair, Sir Walter Scott, the cleric Sydney Smith, and many eminent lawyers including Francis Jeffrey and the founder Henry Cockburn – both destined to become judges.  All were noted for their wit and wisdom – these must have been lively gatherings. 

The Speculative Society was founded in 1764 by William Creech and five others while students at Edinburgh University, ‘for the improvement in literary composition and public speaking’.  Membership was limited to twenty five and was highly prized.  Henry Cockburn, who was a member, considered that the society ‘has trained more young men in public speaking, talent and liberal thought, than all the other private institutions in Scotland. ….    No better arena could possibly have been provided for the exercise of the remarkable young men it excited’.[2]

The Fortune Tavern in Stamp Office Close on the north side of the High Street from St Giles was one of the fashionable venues for the clubs including the Poker and Wig Clubs.  The Wig Club met there from 1775 until its closure in the 1790’s when it moved to the Royal Exchange Coffee House.  The Wig Club was the most aristocratic of all having among its members three dukes, one marquis, six earls, nine lords and fifteen knights.  Its emblem was a wig allegedly made of the “privy hairs of Royal courtezans”.  It was one of several sex clubs existing in Edinburgh at that time.  

The Mirror Club or ‘Feast of the Tabernacles’ was formed from the contributors to The Mirror and The Lounger magazines – mostly legal and literary men including Henry Dundas (Viscount Melville), Henry MacKenzie, and Lords Abercromby, Dreghorn and Woodhouselee. They met in Purves’ Tavern in Parliament Close.

The Chrochallan Fencibles was founded by the sociable printer and publisher William Smellie in 1778.  Its name was derived from the Gaelic song Crodh Challean (Colin’s cattle); the Fencibles were volunteers organised to defend their country at the time of the war with America.  Each member on admission was given a military title.  One of its most famous members was Robert Burns who was introduced to the Club by Smellie – his publisher.  The Club met in Dawnay Douglas Tavern in Anchor Close on the north side of the High Street near Parliament Close.  Burns, who was a great admirer of Smellie, wrote a lengthy poem on his death which contains the following verses:

Auld chuckie Reekie’s sair distrest,   (mother hen, Edinburgh)
Down droops her ance weel burnish’t crest,
Nae joy her bonie buskit nest          (adorned)
Can yield ava,                         (at all)
Her darling bird that she lo’es best,
Willie’s awa!
Poor Burns – e’en Scotch drink canna quicken,
He cheeps like some bewildered chicken,
Scar’d frae its minnie and the cleckin  (mother   brood)
By hoodie-craw; 
Grief’s gien his heart an unco kickin’,
Willie’s awa!

The Cape Club was one of the oldest and most cosmopolitan of all.  It had no less than 650 members between 1764 and 1800, chosen for their sociability rather than their status in society.  Among its members were shoemakers, tailors, glove makers, smiths, sadlers, barbers, brewers, advocates, doctors, ship owners, artists, actors and poets[3].  Its business was ‘to pass the evening socially with a set of select companions in an agreeable, but at the same time a rational and frugal manner’.  It met at various locations over the years including James Mann’s tavern, The Isle of Man in Craig’s Close opposite St Giles.  New members were ‘knighted’ on admission.  Among the artist members were Alexander Runciman – Sir Brimstone, Alexander Nasmyth – Sir Thumb, and Henry Raeburn – Sir Discovery.  James Cadell – Sir Stark-naked,  John Rennie, an engineer – Sir Owlet, the poet Robert Fergusson – Sir Precentor.  William Brodie, the infamous Deacon Brodie, who was hanged for theft in 1788, was Sir LLuyd[4].  

Some individuals were members of several clubs or societies. Andrew Duncan (1744-1826), Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University, belonged to many and founded four to cater for his many interests. A full account of Duncan’s many societies can be read in Andrew Duncan Senior Physician of the Enlightenment.

Portraits of Andrew Duncan

Clubs and Societies of which Duncan was a member

  • Royal Company of Archers*
  • Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers*
  • Beggar’s Benison
  • Dissipation Club
  • Old Revolution Club
  • Six Foot Club
  • Speculative Society*
  • Philosophical Society
  • American Philosophical Society*
  • Royal Society of Edinburgh*f
  • Canongate Kilwinning Freemason Lodge*
  • Society of Antiquaries of Scotland*

Societies founded by Duncan

  • Aesculapian Society*
  • Harveian Society*
  • Gymnastic Society
  • Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society*
  • Medico-Chirurgical Society*

Those marked with * still exist. f indicates founder member

The societies founded by Duncan all had a benevolent purpose. At a time when the relationships between physicians and surgeons were stressed the Aesculapian Society was designed to bring the two professions together. Eleven members from each group met once a month at a tavern of their choice for the purpose of wining and dining together ‘under the peculiar care and patronage of Apollo as the god of poetry and music, and Bacchus as the god of wine, and Venus because the club at first met on Friday – die Veneris. The Harveian Society had a similar purpose but a much wider membership and met only once a year on the birthday of William Harvey (1578-1657) ‘to commemorate the discovery of the circulation of the blood by circulation of the glass’. Both societies flourish to the present day.

The Gymnastic Society or Ludi Apollinares was founded for the purpose of counteracting the effects of dietary indulgence by ‘the admirable combination of healthful exercise with social mirth’. The activites included bowling, golfing and swimming in the Forth at Leith. Silver medals were awarded for the victors in each sport. No one else matched Duncan’s total of four medals for golf, two for bowling and four for swimming. The surgeon Alexander Wood (who features in Characters) was a founder member and awarded the title of Gymnaciarchus Magnificus

The Swimming Cup. The medal on the right reads A Duncan Senr. Victor Quartum (victor for the fourth time)

The Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society is flourishing to this day and is one of Duncan’s most lasting contributions. Duncan was a dedicated gardener and in 1809 together with his friend and fellow enthusiastic gardener, Patrick Neill, formed a society dedicated ‘to the purpose of improving horticulture in all its branches’. The society was an immediate success and attracted a wide membership. Duncan was elected permanent vice president and Patrick Neill became secretary for the first 40 years of the society’s existence.

King George IV became a patron and the society was awarded a Royal Charter in 1824. In that year the society obtained 10 acres of ground for an experimental garden adjacent to the site of the Royal Botanic Garden which had recently moved to the Inverleith area of Edinburgh. In 1864 the society’s garden was merged with the Royal Botanic Gardens but the society retains its identity and continues to thrive. Duncan and Neill are remembered by the annual award of medals bearing their names.

[1] Cockburn H A p 107

[2] Cockburn Memorials  p67-8

[3] McElroy p286

[4] Cockburn H A p154-160,