Madeira Mondays: A Visit to a Georgian Dining Room

Longtime readers will know that I often spend my weekends volunteering as a costumed historical guide at The Georgian House here in Edinburgh. It’s a beautifully restored 18th century townhouse, where you can visit and see what life was like for the family who owned the house, and their servants who kept it running, in the late 18th/early 19th century.

I’ve written posts inspired by several spots in the home already: including the bedroom, the parlor and the drawing room. BUT I don’t think I’ve done a post yet about the dining room, which is often a favorite of visitors when they come to tour the house. I was in there last weekend telling people all about dining and food in Georgian Edinburgh so I thought this would be the perfect time to spotlight the dining room on the blog.

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Madeira Mondays: Visiting Scotland’s oldest lighthouse

Hello everyone! Long time no see. It’s been a while since I posted on this blog and there are a couple of reasons for that. After I got home from my writing residency in March up at Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ve been full speed ahead with various things including: applying for and becoming a permanent UK resident (which involves studying for and passing a TEST about UK history, law and trivia, harder than it sounds…), teaching at the Scottish Universities International Summer School (SUISS) at Edinburgh Uni and also editing my NEW BOOK, a novella, which will be published with Speculative Books this autumn (more on that in a future post!). I also finished a draft of my first full-length poetry collection, about cosmic wormholes, and the first very rough draft of a science fiction novel. Whew! All of this is to say: I have missed you and I definitely wanted to work on this blog, but other things had to take priority.

I want to work on this blog more in general but – to be very frank with you – one of the reasons that I don’t is simply because it’s a hobby and I don’t earn anything from it. I write this blog for love and because I enjoy talking about these topics (history! books!!). But, sadly, I have considered stopping it altogether, as things have gotten busier since lockdown ended and other projects are always vying for my attention. Still, I had people asking me where the blog has gone and expressed that they loved reading it. SO I have set up a Ko-fi account here, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is a place where readers can ‘tip’ writers for their work by ‘buying them a coffee’ 🙂 It’s a really easy, casual system. So if you’ve enjoyed this blog through the years, if it’s meant something to you, if you’ve learned something from it and want to keep it alive, please do consider ‘buying me a coffee’ on Ko-fi to show your support for it. It would mean a lot! You can also leave a message with your donation and please let me know what you enjoy about the blog (a favorite post maybe or what you’d like to see more of!). Thanks very much, friends!

And now back to our regular content! 🙂 Today’s post is about my visit to the Isle of May, a gorgeous and desolate island in the North Sea, off the Scottish coast. You can get a boat there from the quaint fishing village of Anstruther that takes about an hour. Although be forewarned that it’s a journey on open seas so the waves can be choppy! If you suffer from motion sickness, this may not be the adventure for you. Both me and my partner felt a little queasy when we arrived, although, on the plus side, it was seal season when we went in August and there were dozens, maybe a hundred, slick seals lounging around and playing on the rocks which we saw from the boat. (I didn’t get any pictures, they were too far away, but the wildlife is one of the best things about the island).

Our boat docked in a little harbour

If you take the boat out (which is probably the only way to access the island) you are given a few hours to explore before needing to head back. Something about the tides means that the visiting windows are sadly pretty limited. We high-tailed it to the ruins of the old medieval monastery first, before checking out the Stevenson Lighthouse (did you know Robert Louis Sevenson’s family built lighthouses? Famously so! They were the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’. Visits with his father to remote lighthouses are thought to have inspired his books Kidnapped and Treasure Island).

The Stevenson Lighthouse, built in 1816

From this lighthouse, you could see an even older one, The Beacon, Scotland’s first lighthouse, built in 1636. You can’t go up The Beacon, but it’s visible from many places on the island.

The Beacon, Scotland’s first lighthouse

Honestly the best thing to do on the island though was just to walk around and take in the awesome and desolate landscape. The wind is fierce out there and if you’re lucky you’ll be there during puffin season and can see all the puffins who make the island their home. Aside from them, it’s a home only for some scientific researchers, so when you visit it’s quite bare! There were no puffins when we went, but we saw their homes, burrows, in the ground on the sides of the path and you’re asked not to step on them, because the puffins return to the same home each year when they come back. So wouldn’t be nice for them to arrive back and have their house destroyed!

In addition to puffins, the island has played host to many different characters. It was the hiding place of a group of 300 Jacobites for eight days in 1715 (for more on the Jacobites, see my visit to Culloden). It was also a hotbed of smuggling in the 18th century, with all the wee coves and caves making it a good place to hide out. It was also home to a small fishing village in the 17th and early 18th century. And an 18th century innkeeper’s daughter even claims to have been attacked in a cave by kelpies, the legendary Scottish water horses.

We saw mostly seagulls on our trip, but I would definitely come back again (despite the queasy boat ride) to see more of the unique and dazzling landscape and explore more of the rugged, mysterious island.

Me rocking my rain poncho – it wasn’t rainy but super windy
The view out over the North Sea

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts about 18th century history and historical fiction. Subscribe to the blog for a new post every first Monday of the month.

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Madeira Mondays: Scotland’s best preserved 18th century town

I was hesitant to write this month’s ‘Madeira Mondays’ because the town I wanted to write about, Cromarty, is something of a ‘secret’. By this I mean: it’s an off-the-beaten path stop for international tourists. I (selfishly) didn’t want to share it! However, it’s an absolute GEM of a town: which manages to encapsulate Scotland’s past in numerous ways – ancient myths, Georgian prosperity, industrial decline, and a heck of a lot in between. Not to mention the beautiful natural environment, including breathtaking walks and dramatic sea views everywhere you turn.

The town was recommended to me by one of the staff, Isobel, at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s National Writing Centre, where I had been staying for their International Writers Residency during the month of March. My partner and a friend were coming to pick me up at the end of the residency and we wanted to go somewhere in the Highlands. I asked for a recommendation for a pretty small town, that had some history and opportunities for walking nearby. Cromarty fit the bill.

So, even though I’m reluctant to ‘share’ this special place with the wider world, this ‘Madeira Mondays’ blog series is all about celebrating history and especially 18th century history, so it would be kind of unfair of me not to! 🙂

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Madeira Mondays: A Visit to Skara Brae (Orkney, Scotland)

Orkney is unlike any place I’ve ever visited before. It’s a wild, somewhat desolate island, with jaw-dropping views of windswept cliffs and rolling hills dotted in ancient stone circles. It’s a peaceful place that feels like it’s at the edge of the world, and where, if you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a giant or a fairy or some other type of mythical creature. While I didn’t see any of those, what I did get to see, on a recent trip there, was Skara Brae, the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe. Over 5,000 years old!

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Madeira Mondays: The Tenement House, Glasgow (Historical Site Visit)

I cannot believe that I lived in Glasgow for several years without ever visiting The Tenement House.

We decided to make the short (about 50 minutes) train ride over to Glasgow from Edinburgh to tour the house as part of my 30th birthday celebrations (slightly hungover from cocktails the night before!).

Described on The National Trust website as a ‘time capsule of life in early 20th century Glasgow’, this museum exceeding my expectations and made me (an 18th century lover) very, very jealous at how many wonderful, original items you could see there – including a jar of plum jam made in 1929! The house, located in the very cool Garnetthill area of Glasgow (also home to the Glasgow School of Art, numerous excellent coffeeshops, bars and pretty, residential streets). It was once owned by Miss Agnes Toward, who worked as a typist. She lived there from 1911 until 1965, and the house is full of the belongings of her and her mother. Agnes was a bit of a ‘hoarder’ and kept everything, which is to our benefit, since the house really feels like not only a snapshot of a time but also a quirky, personal archive. That makes the site very special. It’s one person’s home, filled with things they loved.

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Madeira Mondays: A Visit to Stirling Castle

‘Who does not know its noble rock, rising, the monarch of the landscape…’ – James Johnson, 1834, on Stirling Castle

A few weeks ago my partner and I escaped Edinburgh for the first time in a long time, and we decided to take a jaunt to the nearby city of Stirling. Stirling was the medieval capital of Scotland and historically it was like a gateway between the Highlands and the Lowlands. There’s an old saying that ‘He who holds Stirling, holds Scotland’. So it was a strategic site…the perfect place to build a castle! And Stirling Castle was our first stop on our visit there. A mighty fortress perched on a craggy hilltop which, I have to say, exceeded my expectations!

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Madeira Mondays: Return to The Highland Folk Museum

Long-time readers of the blog might remember a post from last summer when I visited The Highland Folk Museum, a wonderful little open air museum nestled in the Cairngorms National Park. Me and my traveling companions were so enthralled with the museum after that first visit that we determined we needed to return, as soon as travel was permitted again in Scotland. So, this June, that’s actually what we did!

If you’ve not had a chance to read that first post about The Highland Folk Museum, I’d recommend it. The property is massive (80 acres) and covered in buildings recreating different eras of Scottish history, from the 1700s through the 1960’s. There is so much to take in. I decided to cover different aspects in each of my posts. That first post covers the recreated 18th century village in the museum, where bits of Outlander was filmed, and where we spent most of our time during our last visit. Whereas this post will be more focused on the rest of the park, which we explored this time around.

This place is so unique and honestly doesn’t feel touristy at all. It truly does give you a slice of Highland life, and how ordinary people used to live. We marveled at not only how detailed all the recreated buildings were (so many little items from frying pans to kettles to quilts!) but also how well kept they were. We didn’t see any dust. Some of the surfaces were even cleaner than my own desk at home! It’s clearly a museum created and maintained with attention, affection and care.

Here are a few of the highlights from our trip this time around…

My favorite thing we saw this time was not actually a building. We were lucky enough to arrive at exactly the moment that they were shearing the sheep! I’ve never seen sheep sheared before and wow – what a process!

Those sheep were thrashing about and it really looked like hard work.

I was surprised that the wool came off in big swathes, almost like blankets, not little tufts.

We got to see the sheep hosed down afterwards with a pink spray, which it turns out was to ward off the flies (who could lay eggs in any cuts the sheep might have gotten, which could then get infected).

In addition to the sheep, we also met some Highland cows.

We saw so many great buildings too – a recreated post office, railway waiting room, sweet shop, and several homes (most of these were depicting periods from the late 1800s through to the 1950s).

Inside the recreated early 1900s post office

There was also a shinty field and we learned about the history of shinty (an ancient and historically very brutal Scottish sport which is still played now – in a more tame manner! Apparently Scottish emigrants also brought it to Canada, leading to modern ice hockey).

My favorite building that we saw on this trip was a 1930s school house. This was probably my favorite because the guide that we encountered there was so knowledgable about schooling during this period. We heard all about the (usually orphaned) ‘overspill’ children from Glasgow who were shipped away to the Highlands for a ‘better life’ and education in school houses like this. And we heard about the brutal corporal punishments used on students for all manner of offenses, and also about how students were beaten for speaking Gaelic (you had to speak English in schools).

(I appreciated how the guide didn’t sugarcoat any of this, and the Highlands does have a rather sad history: from the Highland Clearances, to forced emigration to the U.S or Canada due to lack of work and opportunities.)

All in all I’m so happy that we travelled back to the Highland Folk Museum and were able to explore it in its entirety. The fact that it’s an open-air museum which allows you to be in the breathtaking landscape as you explore all the buildings is a major bonus. And, in a place where the landscape is so linked to the people, the buildings and the culture, being outdoors is another way to learn about Scotland’s past and present. (And maybe you’d get lucky enough to catch a sheep shearing like we did!)

My recommendation if you visit is to buy a guide book: they’re only a fiver at the door and, without it, you wouldn’t get as rich an experience. There aren’t plaques or explanations outside every building, and, when we visited, not many staff about (possibly due in part to Covid), so it’s basically essential to get the guide, which is packed with great information about how each building was recreated. And I wanted to buy one too: it’s extremely cheap to visit the museum (we only paid a five pound donation total for entry for all three of us!!). We also stopped into the delightful little cafe on site and the gift shop too – wanting to support the work of the museum. (Also, the baked goods were tasty!)

If, like me, you enjoy learning about social history and people’s daily lives in the past, you’ll love this museum. I hope that you enjoyed this virtual ‘visit’, and let me know what you think of it. I’ve linked some info below if you are planning a visit, as well as some more resources if you want to learn more. 🙂

Stay tuned for another Highland-themed post in the next ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Links:

PS Not Highland Folk Museum related, but last week I had the pleasure of being interviewed by the Loud Poets on their wonderful podcast The Loudcast. As most of you know, part of my job is writing and performing poetry, and this interview was an in-depth conversation about my experiences writing for different audiences, bringing empathy and humor to ‘political poetry’ and lots more. They released the podcast episode just yesterday so wanted to pop it here if you’re interested in checking it out!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: A (very brief) intro to 18th century medicine

In the last Madeira Mondays post, we looked at a really riveting Young Adult novel: Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. If you didn’t catch that post, this great little book is historical fiction, inspired by the outbreak of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in…1793 (as it says in the title!). For this week’s post, I had planned on diving into the real history behind yellow fever: what it is, how it spread in the 18th century, and what doctors used to treat it. However, I realized that I couldn’t really talk about that without first doing a brief overview of 18th century medical knowledge in general. Which is a really fascinating and complex subject in itself! Continue reading

Madeira Mondays: Inside an 18th century bedroom

A few weeks back, I took you inside The Georgian House with me and we visited an 18th century parlor. We talked a bit about education, the hobbies and pursuits of the Georgian elites, as well as globes and mapmaking, tea ceremonies and more. If you’re curious to read that post, you can check it out here!

This week, we’re going back into The Georgian House – the recreated 18th century townhouse here in Edinburgh where I volunteer. The townhouse is a ‘show house’, not a traditional museum, so if you were to visit you could see a house fully furnished with 18th century art and objects, giving you a sense of what daily life was like back then for those living in Edinburgh’s New Town. Each room in The Georgian House offers a glimpse into a different aspect of the past, and it’s very hard for me to pick a favorite, but I do love showing visitors around the bedroom, which is where we’re heading today!

The bedroom in The Georgian House

In the photo above, you can see the elegant four-poster bed (made in 1774 for Thomas Hog of Newliston, near Edinburgh). A bed is, of course, totally something you’d expect to find in, well, a bedroom, so no surprise there, but what a lot of guests are surprised by is how multifunctional bedrooms were in the 18th century.

Seating in the bedroom for socializing

These days, I think we tend to think of bedrooms as quite private spaces, perhaps tucked away on the upper floors of houses and not really a space where you’d gather if you had friends over. But – and I could go into this in greater depth in another post – the concept of private, individual spaces was different back then. In the 18th century it was still very common (even in wealthy households) for bedrooms to be shared among members of that family and, as you can see from the photo above, bedrooms were also places for socializing with guests. The bedroom at The Georgian House might have been used as an informal breakfast room, or ladies sitting room – which would have allowed the hosts the show off their four-poster bed – which was a bit of an 18th century status symbol!

Another difference between bedrooms then and now, which guests often find surprising, is that there were no coat hangers during this time period! Clothes were folded up and stored in drawers, rather than hung in wardrobes. Coat hangers weren’t invented until the later part of the 19th century, so you won’t find a wardrobe or a closet in an 18th century bedroom for hanging up your clothes! (This is so interesting to me – how this one invention really changed the whole layout of a space.)

One final thing I wanted to show you in the bedroom is the medicine chest. This is probably my favorite object in the bedroom!

The medicine chest in The Georgian House

Most houses would have had some sort of medicine chest stocked with remedies for minor ailments. A visit from a physician was expensive, and, especially if you were located further outside of the city, it often wasn’t even possible. Or, at least, it would take the doc a long time to reach you! It was common (and I know this was true in Colonial America too) for the lady of the house to take care of the entire household, including servants, if one of them got sick, especially if it wasn’t something major. This medicine chest is from 1830 and retains 22 out of its original 29 bottles. Some of the contents are things we would recognize today – Epsom salts and peppermint oil, for example. Some are things that we definitely wouldn’t be able to get over the counter now, like laudanum, derived from opium.

The chest would have come with detailed instructions about how to use its contents and recommended doses. There were also books available at the time, such as the popular Domestic Medicine by William Buchan (1772), which explained home remedies for all sorts of things. It’s worth a flip through if you’re curious.

There are so many more aspects of the bedroom at The Georgian House that I could go into, but I’ll leave it there for now! I didn’t even touch on personal hygiene, bathing (or lack thereof!) and all that jazz, so if you’d like a post about about that stuff – let me know! In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a couple of recommended further readings, and thank you again for joining me this Monday! At some point in the upcoming weeks, we’re going into the dining room (yay! food!) and the kitchen (yay! more food!) of The Georgian House. See you then!

Recommended Further Reading:

William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine (1772) – Buchan was an Edinburgh physician and this book was popular in both the UK and the soon-to-be USA

Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home 1760-1860 by Jane Nylander (okay, so this one is technically not about Scottish homes of this period, but a lot of the customs were transatlantic and this is a great window into domestic life in this time period)

‘The Edinburgh medicine cabinet and the city high life’, article in The Scotsman newspaper (goes into a lot more detail about the dangerous over-uses of laudanum in the period)

And if you’d like to book tickets to visit The Georgian House, you can do that here. Definitely check their opening times (which have been reduced and changed due to Covid) and they recommend booking in advance! If you fancy coming along on this upcoming Saturday Oct 24th, I’ll be there (hi!) and would love to talk with you more about all things Georgian!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: A Visit to a Georgian Parlor

The fire is crackling and you huddle close to it on a cold Edinburgh morning. Next to you, you hear the scratch of a quill pen as your mother writes a letter and the clink of a silver spoon in a cup as your sister makes tea. Perhaps you’ve got a book in your lap – one of the many being published in Edinburgh these days, a city steeped in Enlightenment thinking. Perhaps it’s a riveting historical novel by Walter Scott. Or maybe you’re not reading at all but doing some needlework, or studying one of the globes – the terrestrial one, perhaps, that shows the ever-changing map of the world: when new discoveries are made, they will be papered over the old ones.

These are the sorts of scenes I like to imagine when I’m volunteering at The Georgian House. I was so delighted to return last week to my volunteer job, as a historical guide at the recreated late-18th century townhouse here in Edinburgh. It was wonderful to be in the house again and, especially, to welcome visitors. As you know from reading this blog, I love chatting with people about daily life in the 18th century  and last week was no different. I had several fascinating conversations with visitors about what sort of pets they might have had in Georgian times, what kind of books they read, and how they drank their tea. People, I think, love to zoom in on these little details – it’s why I love ‘social history’ so much. Learning about dates and about big political movements is, of course, very important – but I usually want to know what people had for breakfast.

A couple of months back, I told you that I’d planned to write a series of blog posts focusing on different rooms within The Georgian House and explaining what they were each used for. I even published the first post: ‘Inside a Georgian Drawing Room.’ Now that the house is opened back up again for visitors, I thought it would be a great time to resume the series and to go room by room, showing you some of my favorite objects in each. I’ll also talk a little bit about what people living and working in an upscale Georgian townhouse would have done in each room.

This week – I wanted to show you the parlor.

The Parlor at The Georgian House in Edinburgh

A parlor is like a family sitting room. It’s a living room, basically, in contrast to the more formal, grand drawing room that I talked about in my other post. This is where the family would relax and pursue hobbies, like in that scene I described above. They might write letters, read books or the newspaper, or have friends over for tea.

Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin; A Lady Taking Tea; Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

Afternoon tea was a popular activity and there was a lot of ceremony attached to it. It was one of the ‘polite accomplishments’ of young women to be able to blend a good cup of tea (green or black or a mix) for her guests. Tea was taxed in this period (we know all about that in America, right? The colonists weren’t too happy about it! See: the Boston Tea Party. I can definitely do a post on what exactly the ‘Boston Tea Party’ was, and what led up to it, if you’re curious). Since it was so expensive, it was kept under lock and key in caddies or drawers.

The table all set up for tea – note the tall, almost trophy-looking thing which was the ‘water urn’. That’s where they kept the hot water. It held a piece of iron inside that was heated on the fire and then inserted inside, to keep the water hot.

Kids were also allowed in the parlor and would have spent time with their parents in this room. Their mom might have taught all her children the basics of reading and writing, but of course education was then rapidly split based on gender. While both elite boys and girls would have things like music and dance lessons, boys would also learn about history, geography, languages (like Latin), and philosophy. They could go to a university and study law, medicine, theology etc. Girls, on the other hand, were taught domestic things  to prepare them to be wives (how to be a good host, how to sew, how to deal with servants and with basic household budgets maybe). We’re talking about elite women and men here, the wealthiest members of society.

These diverse educations were so that they prepared men and women to enter what was believed to be their sphere: for boys, that was the public sphere. For girls: the private, domestic one. (This distinction is crucial, I think, to understanding why, for instance, women had such trouble securing the right to vote many decades later. The public, political sphere was thought to be a man’s domain. So when he voted, he was voting for the entire household, in theory. Yes, this way of thinking is repressive, of course. But that’s how it was. In general, people were not given equal access to education, not just based on gender, but also race and class).

In addition to receiving an education in this room, kids (and adults) might also have played games. There’s a chess board on display and a popular game for kids was ‘ball and cup’ (which is where you try to get a ball…into a cup. But trust me, it’s harder than it sounds!).

A chess board from the period and, above that, a little girl’s ‘sampler’. Samplers were common in this period and they were places where young girls would practice their stitching and their alphabet. Parents really did put them on display like this, to show what their daughter had made and how accomplished their little girl was.

In our parlor, we also have two globes on display: celestial (mapping the heavens) and terrestrial (mapping the land). The Georgians loved symmetry and it was very in vogue to have not one but two globes on display, if you could afford it. Not just to show off, but also, you know, symmetry. The globes at The Georgian House are from 1810. As I mentioned earlier, globes were constantly being updated, as new landmasses were being ‘discovered’ and added to the map, and as boundaries of nations changed. So sometimes it’s difficult for us to date globes accurately, because they were re-papered to be kept up to date.

The Terrestrial Globe at The Georgian House

There are so many things to see in the parlor alone, and many of them I’ve not mentioned here! If you’re curious to see more, please do come and visit us at The Georgian House. I work every other Saturday (and will be there this weekend, September 26th) if you’d like to come and say hi! They’re operating at reduced hours and there’s a pre-booking system in place – you can book your tickets to visit here!

In the upcoming weeks I’ll be focusing on other rooms – including the kitchen and the bedroom – so if there are any specific things you’re curious about, in terms of those rooms, let me know and I can try to highlight them in those posts.

Recommended Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A Tea Party’ by Joseph van Aken. Photo Credit: The Manchester Art Gallery

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!