Smollett’s Humphry Clinker: Edinburgh

Smollett, who stayed in Canongate in 1766, gives views of Edinburgh in his characters’ letters narrating their visit to Scotland in his epistolary novel Humphry Clinker:


Matthew Bramble
Edinburgh, July 18

Edinburgh, from this avenue is not seen too much advantage - We had only an imperfect view of the Castle and upper parts of the town, which varied incessantly according to the inflexions of the road, and exhibited the appearance of detached spires and turrets, belonging to some magnificent edifice in ruins. The palace of Holyrood house stands on the left, as you enter the Canon-gate - This is a street continued from hence to the gate called Nether Bow, which is now taken away; so that there is no interruption for a long mile, from the bottom to the top of the hill on which the castle stands in a most imperial situation - Considering its fine pavement, its width, and the lofty houses on each side, this would be undoubtedly one of the noblest streets in Europe, if an ugly mass of mean buildings, called the Lucken-Booths, had not thrust itself, by what accident I know not, into the middle of the way, like Middle-Row in Holborn. The city stands upon two hills, and the bottom between them; and, with all its defects, may very well pass for the capital of a moderate kingdom. - It is full of people, and continually resounds with the noise of coaches and other carriages, for luxury as well as commerce. As far as I can perceive, here is no want of provisions - The beef and mutton are as delicate here as in Wales; the sea affords plenty of good fish; the bread is remarkably fine; and the water is excellent, though I’m afraid not in sufficient quantity to answer all the purposes of cleanliness and convenience; articles in which, it must be allowed, our fellow-subjects are a little defective - The water is brought in leaden pipes from a mountain in the neighbourhood, to a cistern on the Castle-hill, from whence it is distributed to public conduits in different parts of the city - From these it is carried in barrels, on the backs of male and female porters, up two, three, four, five ,six, seven, and eight pairs of stairs for the use of particular families - Every story is a complete house, occupied by a separate family; and the stair being common to them all, is generally left in a very filthy condition; a man must tread with great circumspection to get safe housed with unpolluted shoes - Nothing can form a stronger contrast, than the difference betwixt the outside and inside of the door; for the good-women of this metropolis are remarkably nice in the ornaments and propriety of their apartments, as if they were resolved to transfer the imputation from the individual to the public. You are no stranger to their method of discharging all their impurities from their windows , at a certain hour of the night, as the custom is in Spain, Portugal, and some parts of France and Italy - A practice to which I can by no means be reconciled; for 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 eyes, as well as other organs of those whom use has not hardened against all delicacy of sensation.

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The inhabitants seem insensible to these impressions, and are apt to imagine the disgust that we avow is little better than the affectation; but they ought to have some compassion for strangers, who have not been used to this kind of sufferance; and consider, whether it may not be worth while to take some pains to vindicate themselves from the reproach that, on this account, they bear among their neighbours. As to the surprising height of their houses, it is absurd in many respects.... All the people of business at Edinburgh, and even the genteel company, may be seen standing in crowds every day, from one to two in the afternoon, in the open street, at a place where formerly stood a market-cross , which (by the bye) was a curious piece of Gothic architecture, still to be seen in lord Sommerville’s garden in this neighbourhood - I say, the people stand in the open street from the force of custom, rather than move a few yards to an Exchange that stands empty on one side or to the Parliament-close on the other, which is a noble square adorned with a fine equestrian statue of king Charles II. - The company thus assembled, are entertained with a variety of tunes, played upon a set of bells, fixed in a steeple hard by - As these bells are well-toned, and the musician, who has a salary from the city, for playing upon them with keys, is no bad performer, the entertainment is really agreeable, and very striking to the ears of a stranger.

The public inns of Edinburgh are still worse than those of London; but by means of a worthy gentleman, to whom I was recommended, we have got decent lodgings in the house of a widow gentlewoman of the name of Lockhart; and here I shall stay until I have seen everything that is remarkable in and about his capital.

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Edinburgh, August 8

You cannot imagine how we have been caressed and feasted in the good town of Edinburgh of which we are become free denizens and guild brothers, by the special favour of the magistracy.
But I am not yet Scotchman enough to relish their ... haggice, .... being a mess of minced lights, livers, suet, oat-meal, onions, and pepper, inclosed in a sheep’s stomach, (it) had a very sudden effect on mine, and the delicate Mrs Tabby changed colour
All the diversions of London we enjoy at Edinburgh, in a small compass. Here is a well conducted concert, in which several gentlemen perform on different instruments - The Scots are all musicians - -Every man you meet plays on the flute, the violin or the violoncello; and there is one nobleman , whose compositions are universally admired - Our company of actors is very tolerable; and a subscription is now on foot for building a new theatre; but their assemblies please me above all other public exhibitions.

We have been at the hunters’ ball, where I was really astonished to see such a number of fine women - The English, who have never crossed the Tweed, imagine erroneously, that the Scotch ladies are not remarkable for personal attractions; but; I can declare with a safe conscience, I never saw so many handsome females together, as were assembled on this occasion. At the Leith races, the best company comes hither from the remoter provinces; so that, I suppose, we had all the beauty of the kingdom concentrated as it were into one focus; which was, indeed, so vehement, that my heart could hardly resist its power.
There is at Edinburgh a society or corporation of errand-boys, called cawdies, who ply in the streets at night with paper lanthorns, and are very serviceable in carrying messages

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Mathew Bramble
Edinburgh, August 8

The civil regulations of this kingdom and metropolis are taken from very different models from those of England, except in a few particular establishments, the necessary consequences of the union. - Their college of justice is a bench of great dignity, filled with judges of character and ability. - I have heard some causes tried before this venerable tribunal; and was very much pleased with the pleadings of their advocates, who are by no means deficient either in argument or elocution. The Scottish legislation is founded, in a great measure, on the civil law; consequently, their proceedings vary from those of the English tribunals; but, I think, they have the advantage of us in their method of examining witnesses apart, and in the constitution of their jury, by which they certainly avoid the evil which I mentioned in my last from Lismahago’s observation.

The university of Edinburgh is supplied with excellent professors in all the sciences; and the medical school, in particular, is famous all over Europe. - The students of this art have the best opportunity of learning it to perfection, in all its branches, as there are different courses for the theory of medicine and the practice of medicine; for anatomy, chemistry, botany, and the materia medica, over and above those of mathematics and experimental philosophy; and all these are given by men of distinguished talents. What renders this part of education still more complete is the advantage of attending the infirmary, which is the best instituted charitable foundation that I ever knew. Now we are talking of charities, here are several hospitals, exceedingly well endowed, and are maintained under admirable regulations; and these are not only useful, but ornamental to the city. Among these I shall only mention the general work-house, in which all the poor, not otherwise provided for, are employed, according to their different abilities, with such judgment and effect, that they nearly maintain themselves by their labour, and there is not a beggar to be seen within the precincts of this metropolis. It was Glasgow that set the example of this establishment, about thirty years ago. - Even the kirk of Scotland, so long reproached with fanaticism and canting, abounds at present with ministers celebrated for their learning, and respectable for their moderation. - I have heard their sermons with equal astonishment and pleasure. - The good people of Edinburgh no longer think dirt and cobwebs essential to the house of God. - Some of their churches have admitted such ornaments as would have excited sedition, even in England, a little more than a century ago; and psalmody is here practised and taught by a professor from the cathedral of Durham: - I should not be surprised, in a few years, to hear it accompanied with an organ.

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Edinburgh is a

hot-bed of genius

. - I have had the good fortune to be made acquainted with many authors of the first distinction; such as the two Humes, Robertson, Smith, Wallace, Blair , Ferguson , Wilkie , etc... And I have found them all as agreeable in conversation as they are instructive and entertaining in their writings. These acquaintances I owe to the friendship of Dr. Carlyle , who wants nothing but inclination to figure with the rest upon paper. The magistracy of Edinburgh is changed every year by election, and seems to be very well adapted both for state and authority. - The lord provost is equal in dignity to the lord mayor of London; and the four bailies are equivalent to the rank of aldermen. - There is a dean of guild, who takes cognizance of mercantile affairs; a treasurer; a town-clerk; and the council is composed of deacons, one of whom is returned every year, in rotation, as representative of every company of artificers or handicraftsmen. Though this city, from the nature of its situation, can never be made either very convenient or very cleanly, it has, nevertheless an air of magnificence that commands respect. - The castle is an instance of the sublime in scite and architecture. - Its fortifications are kept in good order, and there is always in it a garrison of regular soldiers, which is relieved every year; but it is incapable of sustaining a siege carried on according to the modern operations of war. - The castle hill, which extends from the outward gate to the upper end of the high street, is used as public walk for the citizens, and commands a prospect, equally extensive and delightful, over the county of Fife, on the other side of the Frith, and all along the sea-coast, which is covered with a succession of towns that would seem to indicate a considerable share of commerce; but, if the truth must be told, these towns have been falling to decay ever since the union , by which the Scots were in a great measure deprived of their trade with France. - The palace of Holyrood -house is a jewel in architecture, thrust into a hollow where it cannot be seen; a situation which was certainly not chosen by the ingenious architect, who must have been confined to the site of the old palace, which was a convent. Edinburgh is considerably extended on the south side, where there are divers little elegant squares built in the English manner; and the citizens have planned some improvements on the north, which, when put in execution, will add greatly to the beauty and convenience of this capital.

The sea-port is Leith, a flourishing town, about a mile from the city, in the harbour of which I have seen above a hundred ships lying together.

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Glasgow, September 7

We have been six weeks in Scotland, and seen the principal towns of the kingdom, where we have been treated with great civility - The people are very courteous; and the country being exceedingly romantic, suits my turn and inclinations - I contracted some friendships at Edinburgh, which is a large and lofty city, full of gay company.