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8 Jun 2022

A lady’s diary: the first Edinburgh Musical Festival of 1815

Written by Antonia Laurence Allen, Regional Curator, Edinburgh and East
A view of the front of the north side of Charlotte Square, featuring a terraced row of grand Georgian townhouses with black railings separating them from the wide pavement.
The north side of Charlotte Square in Edinburgh’s New Town
In celebration of the exhibition Music and Migration in Georgian Edinburgh: The Story of Felix Yaniewicz at the Georgian House, which reveals how the first Edinburgh Musical Festival was founded in 1815, we look at the diary of a lady who attended the festival that year and uncover her connection to Charlotte Square.

The Edinburgh Musical Festival concerts were held in October and November 1815 at Parliament Hall in the Old Town, and Corri’s Rooms on Broughton Street in the New Town. These were a set of concerts that emerged from a music scene in Edinburgh, attended by people like Miss Christian Dalrymple of Newhailes estate, whose surviving journals provide some insight into the life of a socialite in the city.


Up until 1801, the Musical Society of Edinburgh had dominated the concert scene. A beautiful new concert hall – St Cecilia’s – was opened, just south of the Royal Mile in 1763. The society held events here that garnered high praise from the city’s elite.

“One of the principal entertainments in Edinburgh is a Concert … in an elegant room, which they have built for that purpose … the best accommodated to Music of any room I ever was in.”
Edward Topham, an attendee of St Cecilia’s Hall
Letters from Edinburgh (1776)*

However, their timing was not ideal. The popularity of the Old Town venue almost immediately waned as, just four years later, ground was broken north of the Royal Mile to build the city a New Town (this happened in stages from 1767 and c1850). In 1783, work began on a music hall situated on a brand-new avenue called ‘George Street’; this hall became the Assembly Rooms and swiftly became ‘the’ place for the wealthiest residents to be seen and entertained.

A sketched plan of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh, in ink on old paper.
The Assembly Rooms, George Street, Edinburgh by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd | Image © National Galleries Scotland

Charlotte Square

Charlotte Square (named in 1786 after George III’s Queen) was the last stage of the New Town’s first wave of construction. It was finally completed in 1820, yet residents were living here as early as the 1790s. The first side to be built, the north block, now consists of eleven terraced houses but was originally sold in nine feus – the end sections being two large houses.

The leases were purchased by businessmen and developers who were required, by the conditions, to follow Adam’s elevations of three storeys, plus basement and attic. This was the case with the Georgian House – No. 7 Charlotte Square – which had been first purchased by a builder-architect Edmund Butterworth, who had snapped up several feus in the Square. Butterworth sold it to John Lamont for £1,800 in 1796.

The streets of Edinburgh's New Town viewed from the air, with Charlotte Square at the centre. A road wraps around a green space with trees, while houses line the sides.
Charlotte Square in Edinburgh, viewed from above

Corri’s Rooms

By 1801 the Musical Society of Edinburgh had disbanded and Domenico Corri (who had directed many of their concerts) was the manager of the Theatre Royal, located on Princes Street since 1769. He continued to stage musical events there, as well as on Broughton Street, in a venue that became known as Corri’s Rooms. It was Corri who booked Felix Yaniewicz to play the violin for a hugely successful 1804 benefit concert. Yaniewicz led the orchestra and played violin concertos for Corri again in 1807–08.

Read more: Felix Yaniewicz, music and migration in Georgian Edinburgh

At this point, Corri decided to work with other promoters and introduce the idea of a ‘grand fete’ of music in Edinburgh. It was this spirit of gathering people together to advise on a series of concerts at the same time that led to the first festival in 1815.

On Friday 19 May 1815, Miss Christian Dalrymple, a wealthy heiress who had inherited the Newhailes estate, went to Corri’s rooms. She wrote in her journal**:

... went to the Concert in concert rooms with Dr & Mrs Spens to hear Signora Gerbini play on the violin were well entertained, set down Dr & Mrs Spens also brought out Miss Emily Kerr (who with Eleanor had been at the concert with us) set her down at Fisherow …

A framed silhouette portrait of an older lady sitting in profile on a chair. She holds something like a fan on her lap. She is wearing an elaborate hat.
There seem to be no portraits of Miss Christian, except this small silhouette by Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart, dated 1830 | Newhailes collection

It is likely Miss Christian’s companions were Dr Thomas Spens (from 1803–06 President of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh) and his wife Bethia. They lived in the New Town and he ran a medical practice on Horse Wynd off the Royal Mile. The musical event they attended was a one-night-only appearance by a little-known violinist, Luiga Gerbini, whose talents were advertised by Yaniewicz who was promoting Corri’s events. An excerpt from The Edinburgh Advertiser, 16 May 1815 (no. 5361, 305) promises:

... Signora Gerbini, Pupil to the well-known PUGNANI and VIOTTI; whose abilities are so uncommon on an instrument seldom attempted by female performers, Mr CORRI is happy to have been able to engage, for the gratification of the Public of Edinburgh, and she will make her appearance at his Rooms, for ONE NIGHT only ...

Miss Christian Dalrymple

Miss Christian was an independent woman of means, unmarried, with a range of well-connected family members and friends in Edinburgh. She lived at Newhailes, a stately home situated near to Inveresk, a village she often visited on foot or by carriage. Her diary details trips taken nearly every day to visit friends locally, particularly at Brunstane, Niddrie House, Edmonstone and Pinkie House, as well as to the New Town, where she went to shop and attend events around once a week.

Miss Christian inherited Newhailes estate from her father Lord Hailes, upon his death in 1792. After her own mother’s death, her father had married Helen Fergusson and they had a daughter Jean, who married a cousin – Sir James Fergusson of Kilkerran, 4th Bt.

James and Jean Fergusson had three children before Jean’s untimely death in 1803. By 1815 James was on his second marriage and he and his wife Henrietta (‘Lady F’ in Miss Christian’s diary) had another seven children under the age of nine (they would go on to have five more). James and Henrietta were living at No. 5 Charlotte Square in 1815, two doors down from the Lamonts at (what is now known as) the Georgian House. The Lamonts would sell their home later that year to a widow with three children, Charlotte Farquharson, for £3,000.

Either side of James and his wife were (at No. 4) William McDonald, an advocate, and (at No. 6) Sir John Sinclair. Sinclair had purchased No. 6 in the 1790s for £2,950. He was a Whig politician and a writer, and knew Miss Christian.

The people living in the New Town relied on and utilised their connections, and there is no doubt that Charlotte Square residents had the most affluent networks. Most were advocates and aristocrats, with a few bankers and merchants to illustrate the growing wealth in Scotland’s capital city. Living at No. 24, for example, was Robert Hepburn of Clerkington, an advocate who knew James Boswell (who in turn was good friends with Miss Christian’s father, Lord Hailes). Hepburn and Boswell were about the same age and attended the University of Edinburgh at the same time.

In 1815 Miss Christian’s diary is filled with names that clearly illustrate her social networks and access to information on politics, economics, and society; it is a circle within circles and demonstrates her pursuit of knowledge and communal alliances. In Memoirs of a Highland Lady (1898) Elizabeth Grant notes the social ‘sets’ in Edinburgh, many of which are occupied by the people Miss Christian mentions in her diary. This includes: a ‘card-playing’ set, occupied by women like Lady Rothes; a ‘quiet country-gentleman’ set, in which the Hays were involved; and a ‘fashionable’ set, that encompassed a Mrs Molesworth (mentioned in Miss Christian’s 1799 diary entries).

Miss Christian seems to have been firmly in the ‘card-playing’ set, noting in her diary with constancy the games she and her friends finish off the day with. These included: whist, quadrille, casino, chess, commerce, cribbage, trebrille, chess and backgammon. And, she suffered no fools, often remarking that parties, people and publications were simply ‘stupid’. Two such parties – one in May and the other in April – in 1815 were clearly a frustration:

Wed 29th Visited Mrs Erskine & others, Lady Rothes & Mary dined at Miss Hathorns, K: & I alone, Miss Blair at Tea & during the Even[ing]: I went to Miss Hathorns at 9 a stupid party mostly strangers to me. Anne Grant very ill.

Thu 6th Anne Grant easier, visited the Duncans in Charlotte Square took an airing to Leith with H: Grant & K: & round by Jocks Lodge, Even[ing]: Miss Pringles party more than ordinarily stupid took the Miss Buchanans & Mrs Dalrymple there & brought them back, Lady Rothes at Capt. Todds.

Omitting personal pettiness, Miss Christian’s journal entries provide insight into the etiquette of Georgian Edinburgh. In an entry for a Monday night in April 1815 she records a disappointing evening in Charlotte Square; someone had taken away the order of service and an out-of-town guest had been invited but not told there was to be a party.

Monday 10th … Lady Rothes dined in Charlotte Square & put everything in confusion by taking away the Serv[?]. Mary was obliged to stay till the Play was near over to entertain a Stranger Lady who had been asked a week before there was a large party, Sir James & Lady F[ergusson] of[f], latter would not play cards. K [Erksine?]: sat with her all night, the party was our last & many circumstances combined to make it disagreeable

Despite the codified language in her journal, Miss Christian’s voice can be clearly heard. She is forthright and sociable, privileged, and opinionated. Her diary in 1815 is overwhelmingly dominated with social engagements, both at home and in town.

A grand dining room in a Georgian stately home, showing a long polished dining table at the centre of the room. The walls are painted green and filled with large, gilt-framed oil paintings.
The dining room at Newhailes

The Edinburgh Musical Festival

In October 1815, Miss Christian looked in on the ‘rooms’ where the music festival was being prepared in Edinburgh:

Tue 10th All but H: Home went to Town visited Mrs Dal: Mrs Pillans & Grants Anne had been very ill but was rather easier. Sir J Ferguson had the Nettle rash, Anne’s Rose very bad, we looked at the room preparing for the Musical festival, also at the new Writers & Advocates Library. Came out to Dinner. K: very tired.

The ‘new Writers & Advocates library’ mentioned is the lower library of what is now known as the Signet Library, designed by Robert Reid.

She then attended the first concert at Parliament House, on the morning of 31 October 1815. It featured ‘sacred music’ by Handel and Haydn. This is the start of Edinburgh’s first music festival week, and Miss Christian goes into town to attend the concerts. However, as you might expect, it was busy. They eventually had to ‘pull some strings’ to get a good seat.

Wed 1st All went to Town to Dinner accompanied by Miss Kerr dined with Mrs Dal: & went to the concert in C [Corri’s] Rooms very full but no crowd in getting in K: slept at Mrs Dals: Helen Home remained in town, Anne Stewart & I came out late.

Thu 2nd Anne Stewart & I Breakfasted between 8 & 9, went in to the concert taking Emily Kerr with us it was the Messiah & at 10 o’clock the room was full, & we could not get admission K: was waiting for me at Mrs Dals: & I was much grieved to disappoint her, with much difficulty we procured her a seat, drove about made some visits came back took up K: & came out to Dinner, Emily Kerr with us K: much fatigued.

Fri 3rd K: said she had a headache & was not able to go with us to Town. Anne Stewart & I went in at 10 accompanied by Emily Kerr who Breakfasted with us, saw Mr Sadler ascend in his Balloon from the College Yard, dined with Mrs Dal: went to the Concert the Kerrs, Anne Stewart & I with Mrs Pillans, had a terrible squeeze & many annoyances being separated from our party the music did not in my mind make up for what we suffered in getting to it. Left Anne Stewart in Town she slept at Mrs Pillans & I came out alone at midnight.

Sat 4th K: & I went to Town at 9 & having got permission to go in with a Director by a private Door, we entered the Concert room with great ease got the front of the Gallery & were well entertained, we came out to Dinner having Emily Kerr & Helen Home with us.

A dining room in a Georgian House, showing the table laid in the centre of the room. The walls are covered by gilt-framed portraits. Red curtains hang at the windows and the floor is covered with a patterned red carpet.
The Dining Room at the Georgian House – Miss Christian would have sat in a dining room similar to that at No. 7 Charlotte Square

Mentioned frequently in her diaries, Sir George Home and his wife, Lady Helen Home, had become firm friends of Miss Christian’s. They had leased Brunstane house from its owner Lord Abercorn in the 1790s and then moved into the New Town. The Wauchopes also played an active part of Miss Christian’s life and lived near Newhailes, on the Niddrie and Edmonston estates.

Diaries are an invaluable resource for understanding everyday life as it was lived in the past. They also reveal that human needs and desires tend to transcend time. Miss Christian’s daily accounts describe her experiences in Edinburgh’s New Town 200 years ago, but her words could be describing friends visiting events at Edinburgh’s festival today - going to dinner, squeezing into small event rooms packed with eager audiences, pulling favours to get a good seat, visiting friends or family, and enjoying a social dinner.

*Edward Topham, Letters from Edinburgh (1776)

**All diary extracts from Journals of Christian Dalrymple, Vol 8–9, National Library of Scotland, MSS.25466-67

The exhibition, Music and Migration in Georgian Edinburgh, can be seen at the Georgian House, 7 Charlotte’s Square, 25 June–22 October 2022. Entry to the exhibition will be included with admission to the Georgian House.

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