Sedan Chairmen

Kay’s engraving, which is an inverted copy of Allan’s painting, is inscribed I W K 1789.  The inclusion of the initial W indicates that it was made by Kay’s son, William. When copying work by another artist Kay frequently involved his son 

Kay’s illustration shows two sedan chairmen who frequented Parliament Square.  Seated on the pole of his sedan is Donald Kennedy, who is offering his partner Donald Black, a pinch of snuff.  The two were said to quarrel at times and eventually separated.  Sedan chairs were a popular mode of transport in Edinburgh during the eighteenth century.  Maitland[i] states that there were ninety sedan chairs available in the city compared with only fourteen Hackney cabs. The chairs were better suited to the steep and narrow wynds and closes of the old town than coaches and were ideal for transporting finely dressed ladies and protecting footwear from the filthy streets. Fares were fixed at six pence within the city boundary, or four shillings for a full day’s hire. The chairmen, whose duties were strictly regulated, were usually highlanders ‘whose strange jargon and fiery irritability of temper, amid the confusion of a dissolving assembly or a dismissed theatre, were deemed highly amusing’.[ii] Remarkably one such trivial contretemps outside a theatre, between a Captain Macrae and a footman of Sir George Ramsay, who each believed he had secured a chair on behalf of his lady, led eventually to a duel between Macrae and Ramsay in which Ramsay was killed.[iii]

Lord Monboddo was said to use a sedan chair to convey his wig when he walked to the courts in wet weather.  Sedan chairs went out of use by the 1850’s.  The National Museum of Scotland displays one of the last to be used in the City.  It had been used by James Young Simpson, Professor of Midwifery and discoverer of the anaesthetic properties of chloroform.

[i] Maitland  p336-8

[ii] Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh 2 p144

[iii] Full accounts of this episode, which attracted much attention, are given in Chambers’ Traditions of Edinburgh 1980 edition p136-7 and in Grant’s Old and New Edinburgh 3 p139-142