‘Edinburgh is by no means a despicable town.’ So thought Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, according to her diary entry 250 years ago today. A few days later, though, she was judging Glasgow a much better place - ‘by far the finest Town I ever saw.’
Elizabeth, born in 1716, was the only daughter of General Algernon Seymour, 7th Duke of Somerset, and his wife, Frances. She married Sir Hugh Smithson in 1740 and they had two sons. Ten years later, on her father’s death, she inherited his barony of Percy and her husband inherited his earldom of Northumberland. Together, the couple began improving their estates and great houses - Alnwick Castle, Syon House, and Northumberland House. Elizabeth’s entertainments, especially at Northumberland House, with the best musicians, were famous at the time; she was also a patron of leading painters and craftsmen.
In 1761, Elizabeth became a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte, a post she held until 1770. However, she appears to have fallen from favour, possibly because of her custom of going about with a larger retinue of footmen than Her Majesty herself, for which the Queen is said to have indirectly reprimanded her. Thereafter, she travelled extensively in Britain and on the Continent, keeping a diary for much of the time. She died in 1776, and her eldest son, Hugh, succeeded to become the 2nd Duke of Northumberland. Wikipedia has a short biographical entry.
Her diaries were first edited by James Greig and published by Hodder and Stoughton, London, in 1926 as The Diaries of a Duchess. The book includes a foreword by Alan Percy, the 8th Duke of Northumberland. According to Harriet Blodgett, author of the Duchess’s entry for the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography (subscription required, or library card access) the diaries reveal ‘a personality fascinated not only by pomp and show - through its detailed descriptions of ceremonies, dress, and jewels - but also by exciting calamities like disastrous explosions, mob hysteria and rioting, and romantic elopements with social inferiors.’
Here is the Duchess writing about visits to Edinburgh and Glasgow.
8 August 1760
‘Abbey of Holyrood House. My morning visitors were . . . We walk’d all over the Palace from some of the Windows you have a view of Arthur Seat an immense Rock, wch Ly Milton told me her Grandfather remembered it all cover’d with wood, but it is now entirely bare. The Apartments are very fine, I think fully equal to Hampton Court in some of them are hung up some pictures (he having no rooms of his own large enough to contain them) of Lord Mortons [James Douglas, Lord Clerk Regiser, and trustee of the British Museum] wch he bought in France of the Battles of Alexr. said to be Copys of the Famous Ones by Le Brun [French painter] himself. The Gallery is 130ft long & furnish’d with ye portraits of all the Kings of Scotland including James ye 6 (the 1st of England). I went also to see Mary Q of Scots Bedchamber (a very small one it is) from whence David Rizzio was drag’d out & stabb’d in the Ante Room, where is some of his Blood which they cannot get wash’d out. When we had view’d the Abbey we went to the Parliament House & saw the Lords of Session sitting. We then saw the Court of Exchequer & by taking ye Ld Chief Baron’s [? chair] empower’d myself to dispose of all the Treasure of Scotland.
Edinburgh is by no means a despicable town. It is extreamly populous its Inhabitants are suppose to exceed 50,000. The Lanes may for ought I know be dirty, but the principal streets are by no means so they are spacious and well paved. It is a Mile from the Abbey to the Castle, but divided by the Nether Bow Port which is a very handsome Gate. The lower part is the Cannon Gate & the upper the High Street. Considering how many Familys perhaps live in a house & that the City is very ill supplied with Water it is surprising to see it so neat as it is. The most extraordinary sight is the height of the Houses. I myself having counted one of thirteen storys high the shops being painted on the outside with whatever the indweller sells. Land about this City letts from 3:10 to 4l per Acre, the figure of 4 which see on many houses denotes a Merchant. It is not by the Laws of the Police permitted to any One to sell anything in Edinburgh before 8 O’Clock in the morning. I went next to the Castle which seem to be impregnable from its situation which is on a high Rock, the view from it is very fine. One see the Dean, the charming Firth of Forth, Leith, Inch Keith, Herriot’s Hospital, a noble regular Gothic Building, The Hills of Fife & those above Stirling.’
‘Glasgow . . . is extreamly large & well paved & most magnificently built. It is by far the finest Town I ever saw. It is very populous, its Inhabitants being computed at 36,000. Both the people & the Town are remarkably clean & neat & the former handsomer than any I saw in the Lowlands. We had a very good Inn here.
We were visited by ye Ld Provost & all the Magistrates & the Commg Officer. We walk’d to see the flax Manufacture. Then we went to the University where we were joyned by all the Professors &c. We saw the Pictures & afterwards the Boys painting & the Library which is a good plain Room. We then went to Foulis’s Shop where we recd an Express from Ld Warkworth, informing us of the Battle of Warbourg & his safety. We then adjourned to the Town Hall with Ld Provost, Magistrates, Professors, Scholars, Officers &c where a parson said a very long Grace to ye drink.
A thousand Toasts were drank & my Lord was made a freeman of the City. The Town Hall is a very Noble Room it is 54 Feet long & 27 broad & high. The Chimney piece wch was made at London is a very fine One of Statuary Marble with 2 entire figures of Women. We came back to ye Inn where Mr Campbell the Advocate & we had for Supper a Bird I had never seen before call’d the Tormachin [Ptarmigan]. It is a kind of Moor fowle, White on the back, of a very highest flavour. They feed on the Tops of the very highest Rocks far above where the heather grows.
Commerce & Arts flourish much in Glasgow. Their chief Exports are Linen, Herrings & Tobacco, & their Imports French, Spanish, Portuguese & Madeira Wines & Rum. They have not yet got the Art of adulterating their Wines, so have them all in perfection. Madeira sells for 36 S/- the Pipe. Turtle is no more unknown to the Magistrates of Glasgow than to the Aldermen of London. The Sabbath is very strictly observ’d here, insomuch that the Post is not permitted to come in till Evening Service is over, nor are people suffered to walk out, & Civilizers go about to all the Houses to see that no Business or Amusements are carried on, & not a soul, except going to or from Church, is ever seen on the Streets on a Sunday. All the people here seem very industrious.’