Taverns and Coffee Houses

During the period of the Painting, living conditions in the Old Town would be regarded as intolerable today.  Even the gentry, who lived in the upper floors of the tenements, lived in crowded and squalid conditions.  Their children were bedded down on the floor of the living room and the maids had to sleep wherever they could find a space in the kitchen.  As the wealthy moved out into the New Town, the flats which they had vacated became occupied by tradesmen[1] or were subdivided and occupied by the poorer citizens and immigrant Irish labourers[2], many of whom lived with their families in one or two rooms. Thus paradoxically the emigration of the wealthy resulted in a marked increase in the density of population in the Old Town.  The population in the City as a whole increased from 80,000 in 1800 to 140,000 in the early 19th century.  The tenements had no piped water or sewage drainage until the 1860’s. Water had to be carried in from the cisterns placed at intervals along the main streets either by the occupants or by water caddies, male and female, who charged a halfpenny for a delivery.  Queuing at the cisterns for the limited supply was the norm.  

Domestic waste and excrement of all sorts was simply dumped in the streets to be cleared at night by street cleaners who sold the ashes and sewage to farmers as fertiliser.  The cleansing cost the city £12,000 in 1847 but the return from the farmers brought £10,000[3]. The uneven cobbled streets were difficult to clean.  Smollet wrote[4]:- ‘…notwithstanding all the care that is taken by their scavengers to remove this nuisance every morning by break of day, enough still remains to offend the eye, as well as the other organs…’ The common stairs of the tenements were unlit and usually filthy.  The offensive sights and smells ‘the flowers of Edinburgh’ were frequently commented upon by visitors although such matters were by no means confined to Edinburgh at that period. 

Daniel Defoe[5], who regarded the High Street as being ‘the largest, longest and finest Street for Buildings and Number of Inhabitants, not in Britain only, but in the World’ noted that;

…the city suffers infinite disadvantages, and lies under such scandalous inconveniences as are, by its enemies, made a subject of scorn and reproach; as  if the people were not willing to live sweet and clean as other nations, but delighted in stench and nastiness; whereas, were any other people to live under the same unhappiness, I mean as well of a rocky and mountainous situation, thronged buildings, from seven to ten or twelve story high, a scarcity of water, and that little they have difficult to be had, and to the uppermost lodgings, far to fetch; we should find a London or a Bristol as dirty as Edinburgh….I believe…. that in no city in the World so many people live in so little room as at Edinburgh 

 James Boswell[6] wrote that on 14 August 1773:

Mr Johnson and I walked arm-in-arm up the High Street to my house in James Court[7]; it was a dusky night, I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh.  I heard of a late baronet…who observed that “walking the streets of Edinburgh at night was pretty perilous and a good deal odoriferous”.  The peril is much abated by the care with which the magistrates have taken to enforce the city laws against throwing foul water from the windows; but, from the structure of the houses in the old town, which consists of many storeys in each of which a different family lives, and there being no covered sewers, the odour still continues.

An outbreak of cholera in 1831/2, with 600 deaths, stimulated the Commissioners of Police to enforce street cleaning and the removal of pigs from the city.  Until then there were no sewers in the Old Town. By 1847 three sewers had been built, one leading to the Nor’ Loch and two to the King’s Park in the vicinity of Holyrood Palace, from which the effluent was carried in an open ditch, the ‘Foul Burn’ towards the Firth of Forth, fertilising 250 acres of meadows through which it passed on the way. The sewers drained the rainwater and filth from the streets but not from the dwellings except in the New Town which had sewers draining from the houses into the Water of Leith, which itself became a stinking open sewer.  The first attempts to introduce drains and water closets into the tenements of the Old Town were made in 1864 and proved at first to be a disaster for the occupants misused them and caused blockage and overflow.  Henry Littlejohn, the medical officer of health, observed ‘my experience of the poor of this city has led me to the conclusion that they are not as yet prepared to make a proper use of these conveniences.  The poor require preliminary education before they can be trusted in the manner proposed’[8].

In these circumstances it was clearly impossible for the majority to entertain friends and visitors or conduct business in one’s own tenement flat, hence the demand for taverns and coffee houses. There were exceptions; John Coutts who had a spacious five room flat on the second floor of Presidents Stair was renowned for his hospitality.  Boswell also had a reputation for hospitality in his home in James Court where he occupied at least two floors.  During the visit of Samuel Johnson, Boswell held parties of up to eight guests at his home for breakfast, dinner or supper, but the masses had to socialise away from their cramped accommodation and the taverns flourished.  Arnot[9] records that in 1777/8 there were 2000 taverns in Edinburgh or about one to every fifty of the population.  

Coffee houses and taverns were similar in that both supplied alcoholic drinks and food.  They were mostly small, dark and dingy, and often in the basement of buildings. They were patronised by the men of all classes from noon until midnight. The gentry preferred claret from France which they consumed in vast quantities.  A ‘fine fellow’ was one who could drink three bottles of wine[10].  There are many accounts of distinguished judges, lawyers, clergy and doctors carrying out their duties in a state of intoxication.  The lower classes preferred ‘whisky’, a spirituous liquor quite unlike today’s refined product.  Whisky cost only 3 shillings and fourpence a gallon compared with rum and brandy which could cost up to twelve shillings a gallon.  Port, sherry and wine, before import duty was introduced, cost sixteen shillings for twelve bottles[11].  Whisky was distilled from ‘any vegetable trash that will ferment’[12].  In 1783 the distillery of Messers Haig’s at Canonmills was twice attacked by a mob which objected to the quality of the whisky which was being distilled from oats, peas, beans and potatoes.  One man was killed and several wounded[13]. In addition to the eight licenced stills, of which Haig’s was one, there were estimated to be four hundred illicit stills which paid no duty.  All classes drank ale and porter.  Ladies, who sometimes accompanied their husbands to oyster cellars in the evenings fancied rum or brandy punches.  Some curious ‘cocktails’ were popular such as such as pap-in, a compound of small beer and whisky, curried with a little oat-meal supplied in Durie’s tavern near the Cross. Cauld cock and feather was a glass of brandy and a bunch of raisins – a speciality at John’s Coffee House in the Square.  Brougham’s punch consisted of rum, sugar, lemon, marmalade, calves foot-jelly and a lot of water

Different taverns provided their traditional dishes such as minced collops, brandered beefsteaks and rizzared haddock. Souters’ clods were a favourite at the Baijen-hole in Forresters’s Wynd.  Dowie’s Tavern was noted for its buffed herring, Nor’ Loch eel-pie and ‘Nor’ Loch Trout’ which was stuffed haddock fried with breadcrumbs and butter.  Eels were caught in the Nor’ Loch[14] but it was far too polluted for trout. Oysters were favoured by many being a cheap food as they were then found in great abundance along the shores of the Forth[15]- now rare as a result of overfishing.  Oyster cellars in the Old Town were usually dark and dingy basements, yet were patronised by the gentry such as Henry Dundas (Viscount Melville) and The Duchess of Gordon[16].  Arnot[17] describes the oyster cellars as ‘a species of taverns of a lower denomination, which, however, are sometimes resorted to by good company, when disposed to enjoy a frolic…  Most… have a sort of long-room, where a small party may enjoy the exercise of a country dance, to the music of a fiddle, harp, or bag-pipe’.  Topham[18] wrote that the ladies tended to leave early in their coaches while the men remained, smoking their pipes and arguing about politics.

Scott described the ancient custom of the ‘meridian’ or noontide dram enjoyed by the writers and clerks of Parliament Square in John’s Coffee House[19]:-

If their proceedings were watched, they might be seen to turn fidgety about the hour of noon, and exchange looks with each other from their separate desks, till at length some one of formal and dignified presence assumed the honour of leading the band, when away they went, threading the crowd like a string of wild-fowl, crossed the square or close, and following each other into the coffee-house, drank the meridian, (usually a glass of brandy with raisins) which was placed ready at the bar.  This they did day by day; and though they did not speak to each other, they seemed to attach a certain degree of sociability to their performing the ceremony in company, 

Illustration Site of John’s Coffee House in Parliament Square

John’s Coffee House from the Painting

Inevitably many of the taverns and coffee houses were located in or around Parliament Square where most of the city’s legal and commercial activity was conducted.  Stuart[20] makes reference to at least twenty-three in the Square or its adjoining wynds and closes and there is no doubt that there were many more of which there is no record.  John’s Coffee House, which is shown in the Painting, was a long established business in the Square founded about 1688.  Defoe[21] noted that in 1706 the opponents of the Union of the Parliaments gathered there to discuss ways of thwarting this odious measure which was being debated in the neighbouring Parliament House.  It was also the favourite resort of the lawyers and judges for professional consultations as well as for their meridian.  Sir Alexander Boswell, was familiar with the scene.  His poem Edinburgh or the Ancient Royalty contains the following lines[22]:

O’er draughts of wine the Writer penn’d the will;
And Legal Wisdom counsel’d o’er a gill:
White Wine and Marmalade was then the rage,
It sooth’d the youngster, and regal’d the sage.

Chambers[23] describes the custom by which a prospective bridegroom would attend a goldsmith in the Square to buy the traditional silver spoon for his bride[24].  The sale entailed two visits to John’s Coffee house, the first to place the order when the customer would order the dram and the second to receive the goods when the goldsmith returned the compliment.

Doctors also met their patients in the taverns there being no space in the old town for offices or consulting rooms.  Dr Archibald Pitcairn, an eminent physician, who was one of the founders of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, consulted in Keggie’s tavern in Parliament Square. ‘The entry to this low and dark cellar was exactly opposite to the eastern window of St Giles and descended from the piazzes which once made this part of town so remarkable….This cellar was the Greping office, so called on account of people having to grope their way along its dark and tortuous passage.’ He saw his patients in this dark basement, starting at 6.30am and sometimes remaining there for several days at a time, his servant bringing him a clean shirt each day.

Pitcairn was an ardent Jacobite and lover of wine.  On his death he left a jeroboam of wine to be drunk at the restoration of a Stuart king.  In 1800, when it became apparent that this was unlikely to come about, a party of doctors from the Royal College of Physicians restored Pitcairn’s grave stone in Greyfriar’s churchyard which had fallen into disrepair and used this ‘restoration’ as a legitimate excuse for broaching the wine which they found palatable long after Pitcairn’s death[25]. Keggie’s tavern was destroyed with many others in the great fire of June 1824. 

Pitcairn’s grave in the Greyfriar’s Churchyard

The poet Robert Fergusson, who worked as a copyist in the Commissary Office in Parliament Square was very familiar with the local taverns.  Two of these existed within Parliament House itself, in the northern portion which had been partitioned off from the law courts. One belonged to Peter Williamson (Indian Peter) and the other to Robin Gibb who are immortalised in Fergusson’s poem The Rising of the Session (1773) which describes the loss of trade when the courts were not in session[26]. 

This vacance is a heavy doom
On Indian Peter’s coffee-room;
Lo a’ his china pigs are toom[27];


Naebody taks a mornin dribb (drop)
O’ Holland gin frae Robin Gibb;

When the courts resumed in the winter term, business recovered and Fergusson refers to Gibb’s delight at the return of trade in The Sitting of the Session

Rob Gibb’s grey grizz, (wig) new frizzl’d fine,
Will white as ony snaw-ba’ shine; (snow ball)
Weel does he lo’e the Lawen coin, (tavern reckoning)
Whan dossied (paid) down,
For whisky gills or dribbs of wine,
In cauld forenoon.

Illustration the floor plan of Parliament House from Reekiana p187

Location of taverns in Parliament House Williamson’s was at no 5 and Gibbs’ at no 6

The location of the two taverns is shown in the floor plan.  Williamson’s consisted of 3 or 4 small compartments separated by brown paper.  Despite its smallness he combined the functions of a vintner with those of a bookseller as described in Chapter x.   In the 1790s the partition dividing Parliament Hall was removed to make more room for law courts and the commercial activities had to move elsewhere.  Williamson relocated to a vacant tavern in west Parliament Close beside the New Tolbooth, adjoining what had been George Heriot’s workshop. (see plan px) The tavern sign read ‘Peter Williamson, Vintner from the Other World’   Chambers[28] records that this tavern was the place where the magistrates gathered after an execution to partake of the Deid-chack – a sort of wake or celebration.  This macabre custom was abandoned by Provost Creech.

See also John Dowie, Vintner, a character in the Painting.

[1] Lord President Craigie’s flat was taken over by a saleswoman of old furniture, the Duke of Douglas’ by a wheelwright, the Marquis of Argyle’s by a hosier, and President Dundas’ by an ironmonger.

[2] The Irish labourers came to work on the construction of the Union Canal in 1818 and on the railways in the 1840’s

[3] Edinburgh 1329-1929 p18 ? Lees check

[4] Smollet, Expeditions of Humphrey Clinker p174

[5] Topham, A tour of Great Britain 1972 ed Vol II p706

[6] Boswell Tour of the Hebrides p11

[7] James Court leading off the north side of the Lawnmarket was one of the grandest precincts in the Old Town.  Boswell’s home had previously been owned by David Hume.

[8] Littlewood H D p80

[9] History of Edinburgh p257

[10] Arnot, p520  Check the Arnot page nos in the 3rd Ed in nls

[11] Advertisment in Williamson’s Directory of Edinburgh 1777-8.

[12] Arnot, p231. Whisky “is equally pernicious to health and to morals; yet, the use of that destructive spirit is increasing among the common people ….with a rapidity which threatens the most important effects upon society.” p257.  “…the poison is not confined to the circle of Edinburgh; but a considerable quantity of it is sent to the north of England.” p466.

[13] Storer, vol 1 p96; Kincaid (1787) p313 maintained that the riot was due to a crop failure that year, and the mob believed that the distillers were using up their basic foods – oat meal, potatoes turnips and carrots, which were in short supply, for the purpose of avoiding the duty on barley mash.  The owner, John Haig, denied that these products were being used.

[14] Kincaid p99

[15] Arnot, P455, reports that oysters were so plentiful that in 1778, 8400 barrels were exported to London.  He makes the prescient remark that “Thus it appears if the oyster-banks on the Forth are not dragged more sparingly, this commodity will be speedily exhausted”.  Alas today there are no oyster beds remaining in the Forth.

[16] Cockburn HA, p173

[17] Arnot p271

[18] Topham vol I, p147-50

[19] Endnote 131.24 to Chapter 1 of Redgauntlet

[20] Find ref

[21] Defoe was employed by the Secretary of State, Robert Harley, to report on the reaction of the Edinburgh populace to the pending Union of Parliaments.

[22] Boswell A, Poetical Works p50

[23] Chambers Traditions of Edinburgh p112

[24] Wilson p213 fn, lists the inventory of the bride’ ‘plenishing’ which were a chest of drawers, bed and table linen, silver spoons, an eight day clock, and a ladle. 

[25] Chalmers  (2010) p221

[26] The Court of Session was held for two months in the summer and four in winter so for half the year there was a hiatus.

[27] China pigs were chamber pots.  Presumably his clients relieved themselves in these in the absence of alternative toilet facilities.  That they were toom (empty) implies that he had no customers. The pigs were emptied into the master-cann, a larger earthenware vessel. See Fergusson’s To the Tron Kirk Bell line 9. Where the master- cann was emptied is not recorded.