The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Dec 1, 2007

The Georgian House

Ever since we became members of the National Trust, the wife has been on my case to make the most of our subscription and avail of the free entry to its various properties around Britain. But since we rarely travel in the UK (the wife prefers to gallivant on foreign shores), we face a slightly difficult situation. Happily, on a recent trip to Edinburgh, we were able to say finally: paisa vasool.

The Georgian House on Charlotte Square is where we nipped in on a break from an amble around Edinburgh's New Town. It was chilly and windy and sunny and my fingertips froze every time I took my camera out of my pocket. We were rather pleased to see that the house looked welcoming and warm, and even the preponderance of little old ladies in it accompanying giggly girls in period costumes did not faze us unduly. In we marched, proudly displaying our membership cards, picked up a leaflet describing the marvels of the house, and nipped upstairs to the drawing room (photo above).

In keeping with the mores of the time, this was where formal events were held. Casual visitors would be met here, and grand balls and social gatherings were arranged in this room. The fireplace, we were assured by an elderly volunteer, was an original Adam, one of two remaining in the house. "I remember that in the 1950s, people were tossing out their fireplaces," said the woman. "Today, they are worth 38,000 pounds. Just goes to show, doesn't it?" I was to hear this expression several times over our visit.

The wife was impressed by the height of the ceiling. Sixteen feet, perhaps? "We have high ceilings like these in Delhi," I said, sniffily (I had a cold, of course). "In Lodi Colony."

The parlour - next to the drawing room - was for the family and for intimate friends, a warmer and altogether cosier place. It did not have much to hold our attention so we ran down the stairs to the ground floor and I found myself facing a four-poster bed with chamber pots on either side of it. Delightful, I am sure. The views from the window were onto the car-park, but out in the distance, we could make out the sea. The bedroom was not a private room: the lady of house could meet people there (after her morning toilet, of course) and close friends with whom the formality of the lounge was unnecessary could be welcomed here. Another volunteer (there was an elderly lady in every room we went to) spoke movingly about the toil of the servants who had to cart wood, water, and groceries from long distances and carry away the various excreta of their masters, day in and day out. The use of candles and tallow lighting and a general lack of exhaust fans led to smoky conditions in the house, alleviated, I guess, by the large windows and blocked noses. "Just goes to show - luxury then is not the same as luxury now," she sighed.

We went back to the ground floor next, to the dining room, where the table was laid out in the French style - all courses on the table simultaneously. The Service à la russe - Russian - style of courses appearing sequentially was not in vogue during the Lamonts' time. Less wear and tear on the servants, methinks, even if the food was a tad colder. Learned a couple of things here. After a meal, the women would retire to another room, and the men would (if they felt the need) pee into a pot specially arranged for the purpose. They could then smoke a cigar or rejoin the ladies. Indeed. I guess there wasn't much washing of hands going on, and not much of washing in general, as it was considered unhealthy and un-Christian to bathe more than, say, once or twice a year.

The cutlery was interesting - silver with enamel handles. Some of the cutlery was stained with verdigris (which I always thought was poisonous) for a shade of green.

What kind of people lived in Charlotte Square? Not the aristocracy, really, but certainly very well off folks: lawyers, doctors, landowners, merchants and bankers. The average family comprised six people, looked after by about six servants. Children were restricted to the upper storeys of the house, in the nursery, except for socialising sessions with their parents in the parlour. The father worked and the mother supervised the servants and stayed at home. The servants slaved long hours and were much better being unseen and unheard.

Georgian fashions were quite flamboyant. That great dandy Beau Brummell set very high standards indeed (check out any of the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer and you'll find constant references to the Nonesuch) and a raised eyebrow at the style of one's tie or the cut of one's coat, and indeed the litheness of one's leg was enough to start a feud.

In the basement was where the troglodytes - okay, the servants and the staff - dwelt. The kitchen, larder, cellar, scullery and servants' rooms were all here. Various game animals were hung up along one part of the ceiling; copper and brass utensils abounded; there was a large open fire for cooking (and heating water for the residents); movies about the lives of the underclass used to be shown for their education and edification. Whoa, that last bit is not entirely true! Movies are shown nowadays, cleverly activating whenever someone entered the servants' hall. We didn't stick around to watch. "I'm bored already," I whined. "Let's go."

"Just goes to show," said the wife. I didn't ask her what and we went out into the cold again.

Brief history of the House (for the insatiably curious)

The Georgian family, the Lamonts, that first lived here was Scottish (very petty) royalty (Chief of Clan Lamont, no less), among the first to move out of Edinburgh's stiflingly congested Old Town into this area. Although fairly wealthy, they lived too extravagantly, and nineteen years after they moved in (1796), they were forced to sell the place to cover their debts. They did make a small profit on the house. The second owner, Catherine Farquharson dwelt here for thirty years, presiding over a household that included eight servants. In 1845, the house was taken over by a criminal lawyer, Lord Neaves, who had ten children, eight servants, a butler and a pageboy. The ownership then moved in 1889 to The Reverend Alexander Whyte, another fecund fellow with an equally fertile wife: eight kids, all of whom, no doubt attended New College, where the Reverend was Principal. In 1927, the Marquis of Bute bought the house, and as he already owned Numbers 5 and 6, he found himself the lucky proprietor of an entire palace-front. I dare say he didn't raise the ton in the square because he leased the house to a cabinet-maker and upholsterer, Whytock and Reid (who, it pains me much to say, went out of business three years ago). The Bute family, staggering under death duties levied by a miserable blood sucking government, had no choice but to hand over their three properties to the National Trust in 1966, who restored and opened the Georgian House to the public in 1975.


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