In search of Edinburgh's famous 19th Century pub landlord

He was a 19th Century pub landlord in Edinburgh whose tavern – and the antics of his boozy customers – earned a cult following.

Tuesday, 6th October 2020, 7:00 am
The colour of Edinburgh pub life in the mid-19th Century was documented in a long-running magazine series. PIC: Creative Commons.
The colour of Edinburgh pub life in the mid-19th Century was documented in a long-running magazine series. PIC: Creative Commons.

William Ambrose became well-known after gatherings in his pub, which sat in old Gabriel’s Road where New Register House now stands, were featured in Blackwood’s Magazine, a key oracle of the chattering classes in the capital and beyond.

In the 13-year series Noctes Ambrosiane – or Nights at Ambrose’s or Ambrosian Nights – tales of the landlord and the chat of the cast of characters he hosted became immortalised in the printed word.

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Chris Reekie, a retired journalist, has spent several years piecing together the life of Mr Ambrose, who later moved his business to the North British Hotel in Picardy Place before returning to Gabriel’s Road – his ‘spiritual home’- for a final few months in 1833.

Mr Reekie set out on the trail of the landlord after reading of the magazine series in a book, The Tavern Sages.

He said: “That whetted my appetite to find the exact location of the tavern. As Ambrose moved from Gabriel's Road to Picardy Place and then back again, it became clear there was a hidden story and that led me to investigate Ambrose himself. It all became an obsession and a hobby, and was very exciting.”

Mr Reekie, in a recent article for History Scotland magazine, found that Mr Ambrose was imprisoned for debt in 1832.

But for years, he entertained Christopher North, the 'nom de plume’ of the magazine editor John Wilson, and his friends with the group’s exploits documented in 71 installments of the series between March 1822 to February 1835, with authors including James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd.

A shorthand writer was know to sit in the pub, observing closely as the night wore on.

Mr Reekie said: “William Ambrose was immersed in the action, leading and directing his tail of waiters in serving gargantuan quantities of food and drink to Christopher North and his friends as they debated numerous weighty matters.

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“He could produce all manner of dishes. In January 1828 he brought in reindeer tongues gifted by the Emperor of Russia, in April 1829 cooked a howtowdie (a barn-door fowl), and in March 1831 collapsed under the weight of a gander he was trying to carry single-handed."

He also played the fiddle and fanned his customers with a peacock feather in warm weather.

By May 1833, Gabriel’s Road had been taken over with Me Ambrose going on to run taverns in Leith Street Terrace, Broughton Street and Rose Street.

He was imprisoned at the Jail of Canongate in 1832 after falling into debt but was quickly released on health grounds.

By the following year, he owed money to some 98 creditors, including city tradespeople and newspaper owners.

Mr Reekie said: “The judge found that Ambrose’s inability to pay his debts was not due to fraud but to misfortunes and losses.

"Clearly, grim reality lay behind the facade and fantasies of the Noctes.”

Further research by Mr Reekie found that Mr Ambrose died in March 1838 and was laid to rest in the Old Calton Burial Ground. He was aged 50 with the cause of death given as

blockage in the intestines

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