I was reading a recent issue of the LRB and came to “Mohocks,” by Liam McIlvanney, a review of The House of Blackwood: Author-Publisher Relations in the Victorian Era by David Finkelstein. I almost skipped it because, really, who cares?—but my omnivorous reading habits kicked in and I plunged ahead. I’m glad I did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have learned about the Noctes Ambrosianae, a series of mostly imaginary conversations between the Edinburgh wits of the 1820s that were a regular feature of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. McIlvanney describes them as follows:

Wilson’s dialogues are… an astonishing repository of literary Scots, particularly in the speeches of the [Ettrick] Shepherd [James Hogg], those unpredictable and extravagant vernacular riffs. Since the 17th century, Scots has been (in David Craig’s useful phrase) a ‘reductive idiom’, a way of undercutting Latinate English, and we get a lot of this in the Noctes… But we also get lengthy, vertiginously inventive passages in which the Scots tongue is put through its paces in a manner almost without parallel in 19th-century writing. The Scots of the Noctes is a language not merely of pawky humour and vituperation, but of philosophical speculation, impressionistic description, political oratory, sentimental rhapsody, critical pronouncement, religious devotion. In short, it is a language fit for all purposes, and if he did nothing else in his long and varied career, Wilson composed, as Cockburn noted, ‘the best Scotch that has been written in modern times’.

So I’m hoping somebody will put it, or at least a good sample of it, online. (There is actually a searchable archive of Blackwood’s here, but alas only for 1843-1863, well after the years of the Ambrosianae—named, incidentally, for a real Edinburgh tavern, Ambrose’s of Picardy Place, where they were set.)

By the way, I urge anyone with the slightest fondness for the kind of theological weirdness exploited by, say, Hawthorne to read Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner; you can even do so online. It’s a real hoot, and at the same time sends a shudder down the spine.

Addendum. The Scribe has taken note of my call for online Noctes and has posted some at The Discouraging Word under the rubric (le mot juste—it’s red) “Dogs and skating in the Noctes” [roughly halfway down — thanks, January First-of-May!]. Even the few excerpts there show amazing range, from the casual (“It’s lang sin’ I’ve drank sae muckle sawt water at ae sittin’—at ae soomin’, I mean—as I hae dune, sir, sin’ that Steam-boat gaed by. She does indeed kick up a deevil o’ a rumpus.”) to the exalted:

But the mystery o’ life canna gang out like the pluff o’ a cawnle. Perhaps the verra bit bonny glitterin’ insecks that we ca’ ephemeral, because they dance out but ae single day, never dee, but keep for ever and aye openin’ and shuttin’ their wings in mony million atmospheres, and may do sae through a’ eternity. The universe is aiblins wide eneuch.

Many thanks for the prompt satisfaction!


  1. Have the Noctes been published in book form? I am quite interested in finding them.

  2. A selection, The Tavern Sages, was published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (Aberdeen, 1992); you can apparently get it from for ten pounds. The blurb says:
    “This new selection includes four complete noctes, one complete scene, and twenty-four brief extracts. The main authors are John Gibson Lockhart, William Maginn, and John Wilson. Among the host of topics covered are the contemporaneous literary, artistic and political scenes, the 1822 visit of George IV to Edinburgh, swimming in the Firth of Forth, and gargantuan feastings and potations.
    “The Noctes are one of the major achievements of the Romantic period, fit companions to Byron’s Don Juan. Often densely allusive, they need generous annotation for the modern reader. This selection is the first to provide comprehensive explanatory notes.”
    If you want the original, an online bookseller is offering Volume 1 (Edinburgh, 1855) for a surprisingly reasonable $35, and another has Volume 2 (NY: Worthington, 1868)for an almost unbelievable $13. There are probably other copies around; that’s what I turned up on Bibliofind. Good hunting!

  3. J.H. Alexander has edited a volume called The Tavern Sages: Selections from the Noctes Ambrosianae (Aberdeen, 1992), which includes a useful introduction and glossary. It reprints five full Noctes and excerpts from 24 others. But, as Alexander points out, the Noctes in full run to over one million words; he estimates that his selections cover only eight percent of that total.

  4. Alas, The Discouraging Word is now somebody else’s site and I stupidly did not link to the individual post, so I can’t use the Wayback Machine to retrieve it. Bad, bad Hat!

  5. January First-of-May says

    The Discouraging Word apparently had a fairly weird (auto-updating?) system of archives (and might well never have had permanent post links), which made searching somewhat complicated (and might explain why you did not link to an individual post), but as far as I can tell, the post you’re looking for is roughly halfway through here.

  6. Wow, you’re good! Thanks, and I’ll add that to the post.

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