Oysters and a dram o’ gin

Extracts from the series: Historically Speaking

The pair of legal wits – not quite drunk yet not quite sober – make their way down Fish Market Close in Edinburgh’s Old Town. It is the mid-eighteenth, before the New Town is built, when a homogeneous mix of people from all social classes continue to live, work and socialise in the tenement lands between the castle and the Palace of Holyrood.

Autumn nights are closing in. An ‘R’ is back in the month, so oysters are back on the menu as the two revellers dive into their favourite oyster tavern for a night’s entertainment. Besides oysters, there is singing and dancing as night deepens the sociability. The company includes the literati and their publishers, as well as parties of well-bred women, advocates and judges, all happily mixing with gutsy fishwives and lively street traders for a night’s ”oyster-ploy”.
Fresh from the Forth, the large opened ”natives” are piled – by the hundred – on round wooden boards. It is the essence of simple hospitality: chairs and tables in a plain room with an open coal fire in an iron grate. There is no idle ornament or decoration, but clusters of tallow candles for light, shelves on the walls are for spent bottles and hooks for pewter drinking vessels. Cruets of pepper and vinegar are placed on the table along with plates of buttered bread.

Most of the company drink drams of gin with their oysters, sometimes also ale. In every oyster tavern, several thousand oysters a week slip down Old Edinburgh throats. Tonight, once everyone has had their fill, tables are cleared and the fiddler sets up a tune for some energetic reels. Fishwives sing rhythmic sea songs, while genteel ladies sing popular Lowland love songs. And before everyone leaves for the cold walk home, there are warming cupfuls from the landlord’s bowl of hot punch.