The search for Ambroses’s Tavern in Edinburgh


08 February 2017
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8-09825.JPG New Register House, where the author undertook much of his research
Christopher Reekie spoke to History Scotland about his quest to discover the remains of a 19th-century Edinburgh inn which once rang to the sounds of lively renditions of songs, poetry and prose from the likes of John Wilson, James Hogg and John Gibson Lockhart.

Christopher Reekie spoke to History Scotland about his quest to discover the remains of a 19th-century Edinburgh inn which once rang to the sounds of lively renditions of songs, poetry and prose from the likes of John Wilson, James Hogg and John Gibson Lockhart.

When did you first hear about Ambrose's Tavern?

In the Edinburgh Room of Edinburgh Central Library, I came across a book, The Tavern Sages, containing selections from the Noctes Ambrosianae, edited by J. H. Alexander, published by the Association of Scottish Literary Studies in 1992.

It said that the Noctes were a series of 71 largely imaginary conversations which appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine between March 1822 and February 1835, and many of the episodes were set in the actual tavern run by the Yorkshireman William Ambrose at 1 Gabriel's Road in the city. The editor said readers could be assured of a great deal of most excellent entertainment.

Then, in The Edinburgh Literary Companion by Andrew Lownie, (2005), I found more on the same subject, and my appetite was whetted.

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Can you explain the importance/influence of Blackwood's Magazine at the time meetings were taking place at the tavern?

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Blackwood's Magazine was very successful from its beginning in 1817. William Blackwood and his writers, from their salon at 17 Princes Street, would meet from time to time around the corner at Ambrose's Tavern in Gabriel's Road. Both the reputation and the circulation of the magazine were enhanced by Noctes Ambrosianae from 1822 onwards.

Ambrose's Tavern was well-known, and Noctes Ambrosianae being located there increased its popularity. Its customers were a cross-section of society.

What are the main records and resources that helped you in your search?

I scoured old newspapers and other material in Edinburgh Central Library and the National Library of Scotland. The advertisements in editions of the Evening Courant and The Scotsman yielded valuable evidence, and the episodes of Noctes Ambrosianae in Blackwood's Magazine were rewarding to read, I particularly liked my visits to the National Records of Scotland at  Register House, where it was exciting to search the sasines, by computer,  for ownership of buildings, and then have the pages I wanted printed out instantly. 

Read about Christopher Reekie’s search for Ambrose’s Tavern in the March/April issue of History Scotland.