The basement kitchen; a sugar cone (on the table) was a sign of wealth
Built in 1796, the Georgian House is located on Charlotte Square, designed by Robert Adam, one of the foremost Scottish architects of the 18th century. Edinburgh’s New Town, with its Classical architecture, sweeping crescents and elegant squares, was intended as the fashionable new address for the wealthy, and Charlotte Square was the paradigm of this ‘Georgian ideal’.
Why is the Georgian House so interesting?
Because it was the address that you aspired to at the time, and it still does have that feel today. When the National Trust for Scotland acquired the property, in the 1960s, it decided to restore three floors as those of a typical late 18th-/early 19th-century Edinburgh townhouse, in the time of the first owner, landowner John Lamont, 18th Chief of the Clan Lamont. This was a period of large social change, and in agriculture, industry and politics, so you can look at it on the personal level of the Lamont family and what it was like to live in a lovely big house like this, or in the wider context of what it tells us about the Scottish economy or the politics of the time. I studied a PhD focusing on Scottish social history in Edinburgh in the first half of the 19th century and that’s what really attracted me to working here.
The medicine chest, with its original bottles
What do we know of John Lamont and his family?
He lived here with his wife Helen and they had five children. The eldest daughter got married from the house in 1797, his two eldest sons were in the army, and the two youngest daughters were in their teens. But we try and reflect what it would have been like for a younger child to have lived here too. The family would probably have had six or seven servants, including a general man servant, a cook and scullery maid, several maid servants and possibly a housekeeper, who would have taken on the traditional role of the wife in running the house and organising the accounts.
Above (left-right): The exterior of the house, on Charlotte Square; Made by Richard Horsburgh in 1802, the square piano would have been played by the young ladies of the house
Did they live a decadent lifestyle?
They would have shown off the house to friends and contemporaries, as the whole idea of the social scene at the time was to host a series of dinner parties, and then one big party each year with drinks and dancing. We know that John lived the high life and gambled a lot, and because of his own debts, and paying off those of his son Norman, he chose to sell the house in 1815. Th is wasn’t just down his extravagant lifestyle, though: I think part of his money problems came when the French wars (1793–1815) finished. The economic position following that probably aff ected the ability of his tenants to pay their rents.
The drawing room was kept for best
How did the family use the different rooms?
On the first floor are the drawing room and the parlour. The drawing room could have been used by the family during the day if they had a number of guests, but they would have sat on the furniture with dust covers on. More often, it was kept covered up and in darkness and only opened up when they were having guests for a party, so kept for best. The parlour was really the family living space and one of the rooms, other than the nursery, where young children would have been allowed in to. In the parlour there is a tea table with three tin-lined drawers: one for green tea, one for black tea, and the third for sugar or a mix of green and black tea. Because tea was so incredibly expensive at the time, it was customary to lock it away in drawers.
Above (left-right): Copper pans, lined with tin, came into use in the 18th century; A typical table setting
Which is your favourite room in the house?
The master bedroom, which is next to the dining room on the ground floor. It is a funny Edinburgh quirk to have a bedroom on the ground floor, but it was also the lady of the house’s morning room and sitting room, and where she would receive visitors when the rest of the house was being cleaned. The bed is from Newliston House, just outside Edinburgh, which was redesigned by Robert Adam in the 1780s. The wonderful bed hangings date from 1774–1776 and are hand-stitched appliqué work by Lady Mary Hog, who was the wife of Sir Thomas Hog, the owner of Newliston at the time. The hangings have stitched pockets above the pillows for the pocket watches – because if the watches were laid flat the mechanisms would start to freeze up and they would lose time.
The bed with its beautiful, embroidered hangings
What is it like in the servants’ areas?
The basement kitchen is marvellous. It is painted blue (although it looks white in the photos) because blue was believed to keep the flies away. But what we can’t recreate was how hot and smoky it would have been, or recreate the smells from the tallow and beeswax candles, and coal fires and cooking. There are four different ovens: the open fire range, on which most of the cooking would have been done, a bread oven and a hot plate oven for slow cooking, and then a little charcoal stewing stove as well. Th e cook would have been helped by a kitchen maid, who could have been as young as 10 or 11, working for up to 16 hours a day, and carrying around the copper pots, which are very heavy.
Do you have a favourite item in the house?
The medicine chest in the bedroom, which was made in 1830 by James Robertson & Co, who had its premises on George Street. It contains 29 of the original bottles. It was the lady of the house who kept the keys to the chest and looked after minor ailments of members of the house, so they were self-medicating, in a way. Quite a lot of the bottles were labelled poison, by way of a warning to people not to take too much, and also a way of telling them that it was a prescription drug.
There is also a book in the parlour called Domestic Medicine, which talks about preventative medicine and hygiene; before that, people largely believed bathing was bad for you, so you can see how opinions were beginning to change.
As the Property Manager, Dr Sheonagh Martin oversees all of the maintenance and refurbishment of the house, and looks after the four staff and 230 volunteers that help to bring it to life for visitors.
All photographs © The National Trust for Scotland; Douglas Gibb; John Sinclair.