Author: Christine Richard OBE FRSA

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Thursday, December 21st, 2006 at 3:05 am
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Oysters and a Pearl of a Club

If you mention oysters to most people the reaction is either “yummy” or “yeuch” with little, or nothing, in between. The original Oyster Club was founded by James Hutton, often said to be the father of the science of geology and among the first to theorise about the antiquity of our planet. He, Joseph Black a chemistry scientist and the famous economist and author Adam Smith established the Oyster Club as a weekly meeting for Edinburgh intellectuals as well as visiting thinkers like James Watt and Benjamin Franklin.

Other members in the beginning were David Hume, John Clerk, Adam Ferguson and William Robertson. They were all avid oyster eaters and would meet each week in a different tavern to discuss art, architecture, philosophy, politics, science and economics. Each member gave a brief update on their projects. In Hutton’s words the discussions were “informal and amusing, despite their great learning.”

The Oyster Club was one of many supper clubs for the “literati” who spent time in the taverns of the Old Town during the latter half of the 18th century. At that time – as now – Edinburgh was a city full of hostelries offering dinner in the early evening with copious amounts of claret, champagne, gin, ale brandy and whisky on tap. These clubs were forums for men of varied professions to meet and share ideas and humour over such delicacies as dried salt haddock and, of course, oysters.

Today’s Oyster Club, under the chairmanship of former Lord Provost Eric Milligan follows a similar pattern, though in today’s busy pace of life the Club does not meet weekly. Another major difference is that, unlike its 18th century equivalent, women are permitted to join.

Eric MilliganCouncillor Milligan refers to the newly refurbished Caves in South Niddry Street as “the spiritual home of the Oyster Club” and indeed there is evidence that this hostelry was where it first began. It was described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “It is a rabbit warren not only by the number of its twists and turns but by its dark stairs frequented by loiterers and other such low characters and as treacherous a place as I saw.”

What remains the same, though, is the eclectic mix of “movers and shakers”, writers and politicians, artists and business people. Authors like Ian Rankin and Michael Shea, Lord and Lady Steel, judges and civil servants as well as a sprinkling of politicians make up the “invitation only” membership.

The Club still moves round the city, from New Club, to the Oyster Bar to the Caves and other city centre venues. Yes, oysters are still consumed, wine is taken and there is always an interesting talk. Dried salt haddock, however, is no longer on the menu.

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4 Responses to “Oysters and a Pearl of a Club”

  1. Lothian Life the magazine for Edinburgh and the Lothians » Archive » The Father of Geology, James Hutton Says:

    […] and Hutton, keen to share ideas and knowledge with the great thinkers of the day, founded the Oyster Club, where Edinburgh intellectuals as well as visiting thinkers like James Watt and Benjamin […]

  2. Tyson R. Roberts Says:

    I am visiting Edinburgh to look into the life and work of James Hutton and wish to know more about the famous but very little known Oyster Club. Thus far searches of various library archives has turned up little not already known. Contemporary accounts of meetings of the Oyster Club, including who attended and what transpired, seem to be completely lacking. Hopefully somethng is recorded somewhere. Any leads in this would be very much appreciated.

  3. Scotland’s Verbose Expounditor of Geological Logorrhea | The Mountain Mystery Says:

    […] other venue for discourse was the Oyster Club, which he founded with his friends Joseph Black and Adam Smith. The club’s weekly discussions […]

  4. Fiona Dougall Says:

    Would love to hear some of the intellectual disdcussions by members of your group such as Maidie Cahill.

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