Spec Tech: A Man Walked into a Bar…

A Man Walked into a Bar… in Early Modern Edinburgh.

Welcome to the second in a series of posts on everyday life in pre-industrial cities. Last time, we took a stroll down a typical street in Ancient Rome.  Rather than spying on powerful emperors or pivotal one-off events, we considered the minutiae of everyday life: snacked on hawker food, checked into the public baths for some pampering, and partied like it was AD99.  In today’s post, we’ll fast-forward roughly 1,500 years to the 16th and 17th Centuries.  Leaving the Mediterranean behind, let’s swing north-west to the British Isles.  We’ll bypass the heaving expanse of Early Modern London and continue north to Edinburgh, Scotland.

Smaller in population and physical size, the peripheral cities of history’s great empires are often overshadowed by their metropolis.  However, thinking about lesser known places can be useful when attempting to enhance your speculative world beyond the overused and well-worn.  London looms larger in collective memory and general public knowledge than its northern Scottish sister.  But, as this post will very briefly explore, Edinburgh has its unique quirks and idiosyncrasies.   If you’re building a speculative world with Medieval or Early Modern European characteristics, you could do worse than to look to a city like Scotland’s capital.  Seeking inspiration in historical details from such smaller cities can also help you avoid stereotypes and clichés.

Not convinced?  Take, for example, one of the fantasy genre’s most common settings: the inn.  As we’re already here in the Old Town of 16th Century Edinburgh, let’s step down into this basement public house and see for ourselves.  The descent to the basement is only physically beneath you, as this is a middle-class establishment.  Most of the public houses in the city are located in the basements of the grey-stoned, multi-storey tenement buildings in these Early Modern times.  And it’s too cold out here for us to argue about class.

Thirsty? Ale’s the order of the day.  Though in a decent establishment like this, you can find whiskey and wine as well.  Can you afford an extra coin or two?  If so, we could fill our bellies, though it probably won’t be with a huge haunch of beef or a suckling pig with an apple in its mouth. Most likely we’ll have a plate of that quintessentially Scottish dish, haggis (1).  It’s a sort of large sausage made with sheep offal (heart, lungs, liver) and a mix of oats, onions, suet and spices. The slightly spongy result is encased in animal stomach, usually sheep, and boiled for several hours.  We’ll get some vegetables on the side, most likely mashed neeps (turnip or swede) and tatties (potatoes).

While we’re waiting for our food, take a look around you.  It’s a male-dominated crowd, that’s pretty usual.  Though you’re probably wondering where those buxom tavern girls you expected are hiding.  Take it from me, you’ll have a hard time buying some friendly female company around these parts.  True, most of the taverns in Edinburgh doubled as brothels in earlier centuries, but since the Scottish Reformation that sort of thing has been cracked down upon by the authorities.  The owner or manager of an Edinburgh public house can be slapped with a steep fine for employing women during the late 1500s and early 1600s.  It’s probably a good thing, as you wouldn’t want to be associated with any ladies of loose morals right about now.  Anyone who is thought infected with a venereal disease can be banished from the city to live in exile on the nearby island of Inchkeith. It’s out there in the fog of the Forth. Believe me, no young beauty is worth it.

Anything else surprising? Ah yes, all those patrons accompanying their tipple with a spot of reading.  Almanacs and even newspapers came comparatively early to Edinburgh. Indeed, with its parish school system well established by the 17th Century, Scotland was one of the most literate societies in Western Europe (2).   Check out that youth with his stack of books over in the window seat. He’s a university man. Don’t go thinking that Edinburgh doesn’t have its own university just because the city is much smaller than London. There’s already four institutions of higher learning established in Scotland compared to England’s mere two (3).

Just like our bookish friend, if you can afford to be in a respectable establishment like this, you most likely have a lucrative profession. See that older man over there in the corner? The one in the long brocade coat and ruffled lace sleeves? I bet you didn’t notice the bird mask leaning against his chair.  No, there’s no Carnivale here in Edinburgh, he’s a plague doctor.  A quack.  It’s how he’s made his fortune.  He exchanges his brocade for a leather suit whenever he visits plague victims, and dons that ridiculous looking mask.  Inside the beak, he’ll stuff a handful of particular herbs, believing that their pungent scent will prevent him from breathing the ‘bad air’ or ‘miasma’ that he thinks causes the plague.  In reality, it’s probably the leather suit that’s protecting him from the plague-bearing fleas.  But Edinburgh’s Royal College of Surgeons, for all their progressive methods and world-leading discoveries, hasn’t worked that out yet.

Surely you knew there was plague in the city?  Anyone taking half a blink of notice would have seen the white flags hanging in tenement windows here and there, simultaneously warning off visitors and calling for aid.  People think it’s bad around these parts but they ought to see the slums.  If you dare, we can go and take a look.  Grab that serving boy’s attention and ask him the way to Mary King’s Close.  It’s rare for a street to be named after a woman, but Mary King made a mark around here with her textile business.  Listen carefully to the instructions that your would-be guide gives you. Mary King’s may be a whole street but it’s hard to find. The Royal Exchange was built right over the top of the Close just a few years ago. The street and tenements are now in complete darkness, a neighbourhood of caves.  Of course people still live there – how could they afford to move? And now with its sewage-slicked streets and crowded living arrangements it’s a dank paradise for the plague.

If you want to see what I’m talking about, we’d best go now.  On freezing winter days like this, the peat and wood smoke from the city’s thousands of chimneys covers the usual stench of excrement. It’s not just Mary King’s Close that doesn’t have sewers, none of Edinburgh does. We’re the laughing stock of Europe for that. A city known for its stink. Especially in summer down the street we need to take to get to Mary King’s.  It’s called the Cowgate – the route the farmers use to bring cattle from the surrounding pastures inside the city walls. They’ll sell them at the Grassmarket, a big, cobbled square that doubles as the stage for public hangings. Nearby is the Lawnmarket, another square where traders set up stalls in a colourful market arrangement. You can get all manner of goods from outside the city at the Lawnmarket.  I’ll show you where you can get the best bargains if you want.  And maybe we can stop by another of Edinburgh’s many public houses on the way…


  1. Today, haggis is almost exclusively associated with Scotland, particular in celebration of 18th Century poet Robert Burns.  However, some of the earliest recorded mentions actually come from northern England.
  2. Estimates vary, but up to 75% of men and 30% of women were literate at this point in Scottish history.
  3. Edinburgh’s own centre of higher learning was one of Scotland’s relative latecomers in 1583, with St Andrew’s University on the east coast established in 1413.

If you’re looking to find out more about early modern Scotland, a good place to start, complete with annotated bibliography, is with:

Foyster, E. and Whatley, C. A. (eds) A History of Everyday Life in Scotland 1600-1800, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press


3 thoughts on “Spec Tech: A Man Walked into a Bar…

  1. The ban on women working in taverns surprised me. And the exile of people suspected of having VD. The description of the Close is a case of truth being stranger than fiction. What a setting! Most surprising of all was the high level of literacy. History is such an interesting place. If I had a second life to spend as I pleased, I would rummage around in it for inspiration on a whole new series. I started such a project years back, based loosely on Roman Britian, and found the research inspiring.

  2. The ban was relatively short-lived and a product of the religious/political environment of the time, but it still challenges our preconceptions, doesn’t it?

    Mary King’s Close has been well excavated and if you ever find yourself in Edinburgh with an hour or two to spare, you can visit the underground neighbourhood. Sure, the guided tour is touristy and a bit naff, but the experience of the claustrophobic darkness and the conditions in which the residents lived will stay with you for a long time.

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