On the 4th of November, 1723, the Caledonian Mercury published an unusual advert. It informed its readers that ‘Edinburgh Assembly is to begin on Thursday next the 7th Instant, in the great Hall in Patrick Steel’s Close, and Tickets are given out at Mr James Robertson’s Bookseller, opposite to the Cross.’ This was the first public advert about social dance nights in Edinburgh. Steel’s Close today bears the name dedicated to the institution – Old Assembly Close, whereas the ‘great Hall’ was destroyed in the Edinburgh fire in 1824.

Edinburgh Dance Assembly in 1723 became a point of national discussions, with some Church officials opposing it, whereas members of the Enlightened Circle, e.g. Alan Ramsay, actively supported it. The Assembly attracted wider attention with its female management which was discussed in English newspapers. In addition, 18th – century Edinburgh Assembly often acted as a charitable organisation fundraising for hospitals or local causes. It also inspired the creation of the earliest collections of dances set to Scottish tunes, some are still performed today.

On the first weekend of November 2023, we would like to mark this special occasion in the history of social dance in Scotland with a programme of events looking at dance and music of the period.

Weekend Programme 

  • 7:30 pm 3 November:   Lecture-Recital, The Georgian House 
    Dance & Music for Ladies’ Assembly
  • 10 am – 1 pm 4 November: Dance Workshops, St Cecilia’s Hall  
    in styles related to the 18th-century dance practice
  • 7 pm – 10 pm 4 November: Ceilidh Night, St Cecilia’s Hall 
    with 18th – century Assembly – inspired dances and refreshments
  • 10:30 am – 12 pm 5 November: Guided Tour,  Lennoxlove House  
    in relation to Margaret Hamilton, Countess of Panmure, one of the Lady – Directresses

We are grateful for the support provided by St Cecilia’s Hall in planning this event. Edinburgh Music Society and Dance Assembly had many connections in the 18th century, from musicians to directors, so having this celebration in the Concert Hall, which witnessed the events, makes this celebration extra special.

The period between 1723 and 1746 in Assembly story is not well covered by documents. The earliest available minute book as well as the financial accounts are from 1746. However, personal correspondence and newspaper adverts shed some light on  the functioning of this new Scottish diversion. For example, Miss Anne Stewart from Donibristle wrote to her friend Mrs Dunbar in Muirton:

They have got an assembly at Edinburgh where every Thursday they meet and dance from four o’clock to eleven at night; it is half-a-crown the ticket, and whatever tea, coffee, chocolate, biscuit, etc., they call for they must pay as the managers direct; and they are the Countess of Panmure, Lady Newhall, the President’s Lady, and the Lady Drummelier. The ministers are preaching against it, and say it will be another horn order: it is an assembly for dancing only. 

Another advert from 1728 asking attendants to wear dresses made in Scotland provided more details about women taking certain risk by going against the societal norms of the time:

The Assembly, started in 1723 by the Countess of Panmure, Lady Orbeston, Lady Northberwick, Lady Drummelzier and Lady Newhall, was run by women in some form until 1787 when the managers of the newly built George Street Assembly Rooms hired a Master of Ceremony.

Apart from calling for the encouragement of local manufactories, Edinburgh Assembly regularly fundraised for charitable causes such as Trinity and Orphan Hospitals, building the bridge near Stonehaven, or for the benefits of poor families in Edinburgh.

From 1746 the Assembly started to be governed by the board of directors (usually 7) with Lady Directresses been responsible for managing dancing. The Assembly between 1746 and 1787 functioned similarly to a modern charitable organistion directing a third of its profit to the Royal Infirmary, another third to the Workhouse, and the last portion was given to the Lady Directresses to support local causes of their choice.

In 1780s with commercialisation of the Assembly Halls in Edinburgh, this practice stopped.

3 November, The Georgian House
7:30 pm Lecture – Recital
Dance & Music for Ladies’ Assembly

Experience the 18th-century musical and dance life in the Scottish capital in this candle-lit concert in the elegant surroundings of the Georgian House Drawing Room. The programme will overlook dance & music collections created in Scotland between 1723 – 1787. It will feature music which could be played for dancing including e.g. works by James Oswald, who also briefly worked as a dancing master in Edinburgh, Daniel Dow and Alexander McGlashan who led the Edinburgh Assembly Band in the second half of the 18th- century as well as other works by Scottish and European composers of the period.

The music will be performed by John Sampson (baroque recorder) and Frances Scott on the historical square piano made by Richard Horsburgh in Edinburgh in 1802.

The concert will be accompanied by a short talk about the Edinburgh Dance Assembly, also known as the Ladies’ Assemby at the time, by Dr Alena Shmakova.

4 November, St Cecilia’s Hall

10 am – 1 pm Dance Workshops

The exact programme to be confirmed.

Many 18th and early 19th century witnesses of Scottish dances such as Strathspey Reels or High Dances often commented on their vivacity, agility, usage of hornpipe steps, stamping, coordination between the limbs movement and music, as well as noise from shuffling of feet, fingers snapping and shouts. The latter was not approved by the dancing masters as it was considered inappropriate for the ballrooms and vulgar. In this set of workshops we would like to offer the opportunity to try various steps and technique preserved in the traditional Scottish dance repertoire as well as the figures typical for Scottish 18th-century group dances.

Scottish Stepdance with Alison Carlyle

Stepdance is a percussive dance form, a cousin of Irish dance and tap dance. Almost lost in Scotland, it was reintroduced from Cape Breton where it had been preserved by Scottish emigrants.
The workshop will give an introduction to this fun, relaxed and rhythmic style as well as examples of easy steps which could be used in ceilidh dances in the evening.

Alison Carlyle has been teaching and performing for over 25 years, sharing her traditional and creative dance.

See more about Alison on her Facebok page

Country dances from the 18th century Scottish sources with Alena Shmakova 

Country dances have been known from the 17th century adapting since then to the tastes and fashions of different periods and locations. This workshop will be focused on sequences and suitable technique for country dances from the the 18th-century Scottish sources which will be included in the ceilidh programme in the evening.

Alena discovered historical dance in 2006 and has been teaching it for over 10 years. She is currently a postgraduate student in History in the University of Highlands and Islands where she researches Scottish dance scene in the 18th century presenting her work at international conferences. More about Alena 

4 November, St Cecilia’s Hall
7 pm – 10 pm Ceilidh Night
with 18th – century Assembly – inspired dances and refreshments

Assembly in the 18th century had a similar meaning as ceilidh i.e. social gathering  with music and dancing. Ceilidh can also feature performances and storytelling.

For this 18th-century Assembly-inspired ceilidh night we wil chose dances and music from the Scottish collections created in the 18th century. You will dance to traditional tunes as well as pieces by Scottish composers such as James Oswald; Thomas Erskine, Earl of Kelly; Robert Mackintosh; Niel Gow and others.

The music band for the event will reflect the 18th-century Assembly band structure consisting of string and wind instruments.

As for storytelling, you will learn about the Edinburgh Dance Assembly through the specially made film – presentation referencing personal corresponds of the members of the Edinburgh Enlightened Circle (poets William Hamilton and Alan Ramsay, Henry Cockburn, William Creech, Countess of Panmure and others). In addition, you may join a specillay prepared guided tour around the unique collection of musical instruments with the Museum curator, Dr Sarah Deters.

Finally, during the interval, the period inspired light refreshments will be served.

The weekend will be focused on dancing nights in Edinburgh during a broad period of time between 1723 – 1787. If you are interested in historical fashion, the 18th – century Assembly – inspired ceilidh night on the 4th of November is the opportunity to don your favourite historical dress or possibly a motivation to make one. However, the event will not have strict historical dress – code. We would like to focus on dancing and music more than on what you are wearing. Though those who decides to come in costume will receive discounts when booking their tickets.

If you would like to make or commision an 18th century dress, get in touch with Mairi Brown (Edinburgh). Mairi made several gowns for historical dancers in Edinburgh.

If you would like to hire a costume for a weekend, we have worked successfully with Amanda from Complete Costumes. You can find a large collection of male and female stylised costumes to suit any size for a reasonable price. The delivery is quick and reliable. Moreover, Amanda offers 10% discount on hire to those attending the Edinburgh Assembly 1723 event. Get in touch with us danse.antique(at)gmail.com to receive the special code.

Some interesting facts and fashionable inspirations 

Special Assembly advertisement in 1728 asked all Ladies and Gentlemen visiting the Assembly to be dressed in the ‘Manufacture of this Country; and at all Times, no other Linen nor Lace should be worn in this Assembly, but what is manufactured in Great Britain’. Such requirements could be very difficult to fulfil today.

Further, rules for attending Edinburgh Assembly introduced in 1746 had some interesting points concerning a dress-code:

  • No Lady to be admitted in a nightgown and no Gentleman in boots.
  • No Misses in skirts and Jackets, Robecoats nor Stay Bodied Gowns to be allowed to Dance Country Dances but in a Sett by themselves

Finally, many memoires of people visiting Edinburgh in the 18th century noted that Scottish Ladies were dressed better than Gentlemen. Also, it seems that one could attend an Assembly if he or she was a well dressed stranger.

Here are some portraits of known Scottish fashionistas of the time, those attended the Assembly or members of the Enlightened circle

 1. Allan Ramsay. Grizel Miller, Mrs. William Grant, later Lady Prestongrange, 1749, private collection. Invited as a Lady Directress in 1750.

2.George Romeny, Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon, c 1778, Scottish National Galleries Scotland https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/2574

3. Allan Ramsay, Anne Bayne: The Artist’s First Wife, c.1739, Scottish National Portrait Gallery https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/3532

4. Allan Ramsay, Mrs Anna Bruce of Arnot, c.1760, Scottish National Galleries  https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/5338?artists%5B6240%5D=6240&search_set_offset=37

5. Joshua Reynolds, Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll, c.1760, Yale Center for British Art https://collections.britishart.yale.edu/catalog/tms:416

6. Thomas Gainsborough, The Honourable Mrs Graham, c. 1775, Scottish National Gallery                          https://www.nationalgalleries.org/art-and-artists/4934

7. If you are keen on making an 18th century dress from materials manufactured in Scotland, have a look at Isabella Fraser’s wedding dress (c.1784, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery) as well as at the reserch available around it: https://www.highlifehighland.com/inverness-museum-and-art-gallery/the-isabella-project/

A STITCH IN TIME: THE WEDDING GOWN OF ISABELLA MACTAVISH FRASER https://discoverhighlandsandislands.scot/en/spotlight/a-stitch-in-time-the-wedding-gown-of-isabella-mactavish-fraser

Pattern: http://www.scottishtartans.co.uk/Isabella_Fraser_-_Wedding_Dress_c1785.pdf

5 November, Lennoxlove House

10:30 am – 12 pm Guided Tour around the House

The tour departs from Edinburgh at 9:45 am. There will be extra fees for the organised transportation between Edinburgh city centre and Lennoxlove.

Margaret Hamilton, Countess of Panmure was born on 13 December (n.s)/2 December 1668 (o.s). She was one of the youngest children of Anne, 3rd Duchess of Hamilton and William Douglas, Earl of Selkirk. In 1685 Margaret married James Maule, 4th Earl of Panmure. Earl of Panmure suporrted the Jacobite cause and took part in 1715 Rising for which he had to leave Scotland in 1716. He died in Paris in April 1723.

Godfrey Kneller, Margaret Hamilton, Countess of Panmure, c.1720s, oil on canvas, 74 cm x 61 cm, Lennoxlove House, Scran ID0 00-000-027-927-C

In January 1723, Margaret wrote to her exiled husband:

…There are not many company here this winter, but we have gott a new diversion here which is an Assemblie, which I believe will take very well in spight of the Presbyterian ministers’ railing att it. I have been att one of the young folks’ dances and the elder ones looks one [ie on]. They are to play att little games, I mean for little money but I am to be no gamester and I believe shall go but seldom. The president of the [Court of] Session I am told was there this night to be an incouridgement to it, so att last you ay imagin Old Reeky will grow polit with the rest pf the world. I wish you were here to see it.

Lennxolove House became the ducal family home in 1946. There is at least one Margaret’s portrait in the House’collection along with other artefacts significant for Scottish history.

During the visit you will learn more about the Lady Directresses, whereas the guided tour around the house will give an overview of the collection and a brief history of the families who lived in/and or visited Lethington Tower/Lennoxlove – e.g The Maitlands, Blantyres and the Hamiltons through the ages.  

Learn more about Lennoxlove: https://www.lennoxlove.com/historyhamiltonfamily

‘Dance and Music for Ladies’ Assembly’, Lecture – Recital at the Georgian House 

Dance Workshops, Ceilidh Night & Guided Tour: