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18 Jul 2019

The invisible taverner: the hidden history of Issobel Johnstone – Gladstone’s Land

Written by Anna Brereton – Visitor Services Manager, Gladstone’s Land
An etching of a group of men in a tavern. The men are grouped around the table in a state of drunkenness. One is vomiting, and one has collapsed to the floor.
Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

Gladstone’s Land has been home to a series of interesting people, few more so than a woman whose sole evidence for existence is a brief mention in the will of wealthy 17th-century merchant John Riddoch. Issobel Johnstone is listed as his servant, and as being in his debt to the tune of £122. This may seem like an unusual circumstance – a servant owing their employer money – but research conducted by scholars such as Catherine Spence shows that this was common, particularly among female servants. For example, in 1592 Helen Polwart owed Christian Park and John Blair £35 13s 9d for ale and beer; around the same time, Margaret Barrie owed Katherine Horne £813 for Spanish wine.

An etching of a group of men in a tavern. The men are grouped around three wooden tables, and are drinking, gambling and arguing.
Interior of a tavern, Marsilius Ficinus. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

To put this into context, the apartments in Gladstone’s Land were some of the most expensive on the Royal Mile, and were being rented out for around £150 per year – similar-sized properties were only commanding about half as much. That these sums of money were being traded by servants, and by women in particular, shows that women occupied an active role in Edinburgh commerce and were particularly engaged with the city’s tavern scene. An analysis of the 1635 Tax Annuity Record further corroborates this and shows that of the more than 40 taverns that operated in the city of Edinburgh, 10 of these were run by women. Even more remarkably, women appeared as heads of households in 21.3% of properties in Edinburgh, 5% higher than the national average.

Issobel most likely lived in Gladstone’s Land, and possibly performed other duties for Riddoch and his wife Margaret Nobill, in addition to running a tavern out of the basement. Women like Issobel borrowed alcohol from their merchant employers and then sold it on for profit. Once the alcohol had been sold, they would then repay their employer, and keep the profits.

Issobel’s tavern was located in the most fashionable part of 17th-century Edinburgh. It would have been frequented by a wide cross section of Edinburgh society and would have been used for anything from conventional business transactions to gambling and prostitution. With the entrance located down a narrow close, and no natural light, the Gladstone’s Land tavern would have been dark and cramped – a sharp contrast to the opulent and expensive apartments on the upper floors.

An etching of a group of men in a tavern. The men are grouped around the table in a state of drunkenness. One is vomiting, and one has collapsed to the floor.
Men drinking, vomiting and collapsing around a tavern table. Etching by J Le Poutre, 17th century, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Women were in a position of a certain degree of power in 17th-century Edinburgh; they were running shops, booths and taverns, and acting as money lenders to increase their meagre incomes. Issobel Johnstone was just one of a growing number of women who were taking a more prominent and active role in Edinburgh’s commercial society.

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about the life of Hannah Lorimer and the missing miniature of Mrs Jean Dempster.

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