Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Nathaniel Gow Bicentennial Ball

As I mentioned in my previous post about my dress for the occasion, I was very privileged to attend the Nathaniel Gow Bicentennial Ball held in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms 200 years (to the day!) after the original event. It was a wonderful experience!

(A Note: All photographs in this post are courtesy of the official event photographer, Juliette Lichman. Please to not copy.)

The Edinburgh Assembly Rooms were built in the 1780s in Edinburgh's New Town and renovated in 1796 to add crystal chandeliers and other decorative touches to the interior. The upstairs ballroom is lovely and light, and stands today much as it would have in the early 19th century. As historian Colin Ross explains in his podcast about the building, the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms are quite special because any changes over time were only additions, retaining the existing spaces as they were. This means that while there are more modern touches in other parts of the building, the ballroom still feels like the Regency era. This includes the original musicians' gallery, a raised alcove in the wall where the musicians (and our dancing master) sat throughout the night. The acoustics in the room are incredible, and the music could be heard throughout the ballroom without any amplification! Quite impressive given the size of the room.

the musicians' gallery
During the early 19th century, the ballroom in the Assembly Rooms saw many balls, celebrations, political gatherings, and readings and banquets hosted by authors like Sir Walter Scott and W.M. Thackeray. A few years after the ball we were recreating, the ballroom hosted King George IV during his first visit to Scotland in 1822. A book written about this trip gives a glimpse into what the Assembly Rooms would have looked like quite near 1817, so I thought I'd share a bit:

"The principle ballroom is of magnificent dimensions and fine proportions, being 92 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 40 feet high; and its decorations, which are characterized by simplicity, lightness, and elegance, rather than by richness, consist of handsome fluted pilasters, of the Corinthian order, resting on the floor and supporting the cornice of the room; the centre of the south side is enriched with Corinthian columns of smaller dimensions, forming the decorations of the entrance, and supporting a balcony for the orchestra...and the elegance of the whole is summed up in the rich cut crystal lustres suspended from the ceiling."

Mudie's illustration of the Assembly Rooms-G is the main ballroom. Also interesting to note that S, the second ballroom, was "on this occasion appropriated to quadrilles." Other rooms connected to the ballroom were for playing cards and taking refreshments. 
In addition to the room, I greatly enjoyed the amount of tartan in the ballroom! And because I cannot beat his description, Mudie writes of the 1822 event:
"At nine o'clock, the room was completely full by nearly all the rank, beauty, and fashion of Scotland...The Duke of Argyll was conspicuous in the dark-green plaid of the clan Diarmid; and other noblemen and gentlemen gayly disported themselves in the mountain garb*. The scene was one of such extraordinary splendor as almost to entrance, at least to bewilder, the faculties in contemplation of it. The surpassing beauty of the ladies-their plumage, in constant undulation, appearing to the eye like an ocean of foam;-the glitter reflected from a profusion of jewels;-...the room itself;-altogether presented a scene which more than realized all previous conceptions of grandeur and magnificence."

  The ball itself was quite special beyond just being held in a magnificent space, as we were dancing the same program as the original ball in 1817. In 1817, the ball was played and called by Nathaniel Gow and his band. Nathaniel Gow, son a of a famous Scottish musician, was himself a violinist and composer sought after throughout Scotland to play at fashionable gatherings (actually he was also present during the 1822 visit Mudie describes, and received particular compliments from the king). Gow was also in demand in London, and thus saw many popular dances that may not have made it to Scotland yet. Quadrilles were a particular fad in the late 1810s and early 1820s, and Gow is credited with introducing many of them to fashionable Edinburgh society. It was some of these "favorite French quadrilles" of Mr. Gow that we were recreating at the ball.

standing up for a quadrille
Dancing at this ball was an interesting experience for me. I was very glad to attend the workshop earlier in the day, because historical dance is subject to variation based on the particular reconstruction of the source material. Dance manuals and music with instructions are amazing resources, but there's still room for interpretation (not least of which being the cultural lens of the historian) that can lead to differences between what I would do at home in Boston and what Stuart Marsden, our instructor for the evening, would teach. And there were differences! Most notably, Mr. Marsden instructed in French for the French quadrilles. While we do use French terms for some steps and figures, most of our calling at home is done in English--so having to remember the French terms took some getting used to!

our dancing master in the musicians' gallery
Many of the figures were also new to me. I know one of the earliest sets of quadrilles published in the UK, known as the "First Set"**, and some of these figures appeared in Nathaniel Gow's set as well-but with a few changes. According to Mr. Marsden, these changes were made by Gow to help the Edinburgh audience learn the figures when they were first introduced. So similar to what I know, but a little different! This was quite fascinating to see and hear discussed.

ladies hands round while men circle outside, part of a quadrille figure
I also really enjoyed the quadrilles that were totally new! My favorite was called "La Caprice" and included a mix of typical quadrille figures with waltz--the music changed to waltz time (3/4) for just that section of the dance each time it was repeated. So cute! This also makes sense as a novel figure for 1817, when quadrilles were still the dances of the young and energetic, "resisted by others, such as the 'old fashioned respectables'...[at] parties in Edinburgh" (Stapleton, see below) and the waltz was still newish and more accepted by young people as well.

in lines for a country dance
During one of the breaks there was also a performance of a traditional Scottish dance with music by the event's organizer, Talitha. I enjoyed watching this, and it was an interesting call-back to some of the tension in fashionable dancing of the period, when dances had a more national associated (French Quadrilles, Scotch reels and strasthpeys, German and French waltz). Many UK dancing masters call out the particularities of Scottish dancing in relation to quadrilles, and encourage the preservation of reels and strasthpeys--while bemoaning the attempt of Edinburgh musicians to play quadrilles to reel music: "If Ladies and Gentlemen wish to have their music played in such a ridiculous manner, they only, by so doing, show their ignorance of the refined delicacy of the Quadrille." Ha!

performance of a traditional dance
In general I greatly enjoyed the dancing, although it was certainly a marathon of complex steps and a rapid pace. This was also the first ball with a full supper (two breaks in fact-one for the main meal and one for dessert!) I have attended, and that was a neat, historical experience as well. I'm very grateful I was able to attend with a dance friend, so that I had a partner who I could totally nerd out with about historical dance reconstructions--the gossip is always the best part!

chatting before a country dance

*From a tartan history perspective, I can't resist pointing out that Mudie notes the tartan ensembles as "mountain garb" here--tartan is still more of a highland thing (and the ball was in the lowlands)--something separate from the "elegant dress [and] usual court dress" worn by most of the attendees. This is changing by the mid-century, with Victoria and Albert in Balmoral.

**Payne's First Set, published 1814-15 or Paine's First Set, published 1815-1816; they're the same figures, but Paine adds another. (Those were two separate dancing masters, not different spellings of the same person's name.)

For more on the 1822 royal visit, check out Mudie's book, A Historical Account of His Majesty's Visit to Scotland

For more on Nathaniel Gow and Regency dance in Scotland:
Regency Dances site
Stapleton, A.M. (2014). Pointed Encounters: Dance in Post-Culloden Scottish Literature. Google Books.

And Regency dance in General:
Capering and Kickery
Mr. Marsden's site


  1. Thank you for this excellent historical context! I love the quote about quadrilles being done to reel music, and the Stapleton book sounds fascinating!

    1. Glad you liked it! I'd planned a quick event summary but then couldn't stop because it was all interesting :) And I agree, I want to read the rest of the Stapleton book!