Location of vanished literary haunt Ambrose’s Tavern revealed

The old site of the ambrose tavern which is now register house
The old site of the ambrose tavern which is now register house
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It’s one of the most famous hostelries in Scottish literature – but for years no-one was able to pinpoint the exact location of Ambrose’s Tavern.

Now retired journalist Christopher Reekie has turned detective and solved the mystery of the whereabouts of the 19th century Edinburgh inn.

Courtesy of National Records of Scotland

Courtesy of National Records of Scotland

A series of dialogues known as The Noctes Ambrosianae – Ambrosian Nights or Nights at Ambrose’s – appeared in the Edinburgh-based Blackwood’s Magazine over 71 episodes from March 1822 to February 1835.

They involved a group of semi-fictitious characters who discussed politics, literature, poetry and a host of other subjects as they ate and drank at Ambrose’s Tavern.

The tavern did really exist and its address was given as Gabriel’s Road, an old right of way which survives today as a narrow lane off West Register Street at the east end of Princes Street.

But the hostelry was demolished and for years there were conflicting theories about whether Ambrose’s Tavern stood where the Cafe Royal now stands or whether it was across the lane on the site now occupied by New Register House.

A map of the area (1849) where the Ambrose Tavern was

A map of the area (1849) where the Ambrose Tavern was

After extensive research – including old files held by the National Records of Scotland and tavern advertisements in the old newspapers kept on microfilm in Edinburgh Central Library – Mr Reekie has unearthed proof that the tavern stood on the current site of New Register House.

He said: “In the 1850s, Register House, built between 1774 and 1788, the home of the National Archives of Scotland, was bursting at the seams with all the material it had to keep, and a place for the records of births, marriages, and deaths was needed urgently.

“The solution arrived when the proprietor of the tenements containing Ambrose’s Tavern offered to sell his property to the government. The sale took place by private bargain, the tenements were knocked down in 1858, and New Register House was built, opening in 1861.

“I found a letter dated 25 January, 1854, from Benjamin Mackay, of 5 St James Square, Edinburgh, to William Pitt Dundas, Deputy Clerk Register.

“Mackay said the tenements adjoined the most important public building in the city, Register House, which was understood to be overcrowded. No site could be so suited for its enlargement as the ground occupied by the tenements.”

And the letter said the property’s value was “greatly enhanced” by its central situation and by its being “the scene of the celebrated Noctes Ambrosianae Hotel”.

Mackay added: “Were the premises advertised for sale by auction, I am satisfied they would readily bring a high price. My wish, however, is, knowing the value of the property for public purposes, to sell it direct to the Crown upon reasonable terms.”

The Noctes dialogues were founded in real events. William Blackwood, the publisher, and his coterie sometimes adjourned from his salon at the east end of Princes Street and relaxed around the corner in the inn where Yorkshireman William Ambrose was the host.

Mr Reekie said: “It is fascinating to search through archives and very exciting to uncover something of value that rewards your effort. Benjamin Mackay’s letter proves where the Tavern stood and also how New Register House came about in that place.”