If you mention oysters to most people the reaction is either â€œyummyâ€ or â€œyeuchâ€ 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 Huttonâ€™s words the discussions were â€œinformal and amusing, despite their great learning.â€
The Oyster Club was one of many supper clubs for the â€œliteratiâ€ who spent time in the taverns of the Old Town during the latter half of the 18th century. At that time â€“ as now â€“ 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.
Todayâ€™s Oyster Club, under the chairmanship of former Lord Provost Eric Milligan follows a similar pattern, though in todayâ€™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.
Councillor Milligan refers to the newly refurbished Caves in South Niddry Street as â€œthe spiritual home of the Oyster Clubâ€ and indeed there is evidence that this hostelry was where it first began. It was described by Robert Louis Stevenson as â€œIt 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.â€
What remains the same, though, is the eclectic mix of â€œmovers and shakersâ€, 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 â€œinvitation onlyâ€ 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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