The History of Leith

February 2, 2012

The Assembly Room

The Assembly Room was in the close to which it gave its name. It had a spacious lobby, lighted by sconces, where the gilded sedans set down their powdered, hooped, and wigged occupants, while
links flared, liveried valets jostled, and swords were sometimes drawn; and where a reduced gentleman— a claimant to the ancient peerage of Kirkcudbright—sold gloves, for which he was rather
ungenerously sneered at by Oliver Goldsmith.
From this lobby the dancing-hall opened at once, and up-stairs was a tea-room. The former had in its centre a railed space, within which were the dancers ; while the spectators, we are told, sat
on the outside, and no communication was permitted between the different sides of this sacred pale. Here it was that in 1753 Goldsmith first saw, with some astonishment, the formalities of the old Scottish balls. He relates that on entering the dancing-room he saw one end of it taken up by the ladies, who sat dismally in a group by themselves. “On the other end stand their pensive partners that are to be, but no more intercourse between the sexes than between two countries at war. The ladies, indeed, may ogle, and the gentlemen sigh, but an embargo is laid on any closer commerce.”
The lady directress occupied a high chair, or species of throne, upon a dais at one end, and thereon sat Miss Nicky Murray in state. Her immediate predecessors there had been Mrs.Browne of Colstoun, and Lady Minto, daughter of Sir Robert Stuart of Allanbank.
The whole arrangements were of a rigid character, with a general tending to the promotion of dulness, there being but one set at a time permitted to occupy the floor ; it was seldom that any one was twice upon it in one night, and often the most beautiful girls in the city passed it, as mere spectators, which threw serious duties on the gentlemen in the way of conversation.
The latter usually sorted themselves with one partner for the whole year ! The arrangements were generally made at some preliminary ball or other gathering, when a gentleman’s cocked hat was unflapped and the ladies’ fans were placed therein, and, as in a species of ballot, the beaux drew forth the latter, and to whomsoever the fan belonged he was to be the partner for the season,
a system often productive of absurd combinations and many a petty awkwardness. ” Then,” as Sir Alexander Boswell wrote—
” The Assembly Close received the fair—
Order and elegance presided there—
Each gay Right Honourable had her place,
To walk a minuet with becoming grace.
No racing to the dance, \vith rival hurry—
Such was thy sway, O famed Miss Nicky Murray !
Each lady’s fan a chosen Damon bore,
With care selected many a day before;
For, unprovided with a favourite beau,
qn The nymph, chagrined, the ball must needs forego,
But previous matters to her taste arranged,
Certes, the constant couple never changed ;
Through a long night, to watch fair Delia’s will,
The same dull swain was at her elbow still.”
With sword at side, and often hat in hand, the gallants of those days escorted the chairs of their partners home to many a close and wynd now the abode of squalor and sordid poverty; for much
of stately and genuine old-fashioned gallantry prevailed, as if it were part of the costume, referred to by the poet:—
” Shades of my fathers! in your pasteboard skirts,
Your broidered waistcoats and your plaited shirts,
Your formal bag-wigs, wide extended cuffs,
Ybur five-inch chitterlings and nine-inch ruffs.
Gods ! how ye strut at times in all your state,
Amid the visions of my thoughtful pate ! ”
Those who attended the assemblies belonged exclusively to the upper circle of society that then existed in Edinburgh ; and Miss Murray, on hearing a young lady’s name mentioned to her for approval, was wont to ask, ” Miss—of what? ” and if no territorial or family name followed, she might dismiss the matter by a wave of her fan, for, according to her views, it was necessary to be
”a lady o’ that ilk;” and it is well known, that ” upon one occasion, seeing at an assembly a man who had been raised to wealth

source-Old and new Edinburgh c1885

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