The Musick Club and the Cross Keys

The Musick Club

Recreating a group who left no records

by Dr Elizabeth Ford (2018-19 Daiches-Manning Memorial Fellow)

The musical Society of Edinburgh, whose weekly concerts form one of the most elegant entertainments of that metropolis, was first instituted in the year 1728.  Before that time, several gentlemen, performers on the harpsichord and violin, had formed a weekly club at the Cross-keys tavern (kept by one Steil, a great lover of musick and a good singer of Scots songs), where the common entertainments consisted in playing the concertos and sonatas of Corelli, then just published, and the overtures of Handel.

(Hugo Arnot, A History of Edinburgh from the Earliest Times, 1776, p.379)

The Musick Club, the precursor to the famous Edinburgh Musical Society, is believed to have met at the Cross Keys Tavern, kept by John Steill, in what is now Old Assembly Close.  No records of the tavern or the Musick Club survive, which has rooted this project firmly in the realm of informed speculation.  Collaborating with the Space, Place, Sound, and Memory project, led by Lecturer in Early Music Dr James Cook, I recreated the Musick Club in virtual reality.  This project uses virtual reality to recreate lost musical spaces, giving the listener a sense of participation in the musical experience which is often lost in modern concert venues and recordings.

Taverns were the cornerstone of Edinburgh society in the eighteenth century as the meeting places for the many clubs.  Ensembles have focused on coffee house and tavern repertoire: Tafelmusick has a series focused on Zimmerman’s coffee house, where Bach was a regular; Barokkolistene has a series of ever-changing Ale House Sessions focused on seventeenth-century English music; Aidan O’Rourke recreated Lucky Middlemass’s tavern for Edinburgh’s Burns Night in 2019, but none of these projects have allowed the listener to be a part of the experience.  Working in virtual reality allows me to bring the Musick Club and the atmosphere of the Cross Keys to life in a new way.

The only contemporary source to mention the music club is Allan Ramsay’s 1721 poem ‘To the Musick Club’.  He mentions Corelli, two Scottish songs, and pipe music. Given the lack of anything else, I took this as the basis for selecting repertoire for the recreation: 

  The you who Symphony of Souls proclaim

            Your kin to Heaven, add to your Country’s Fame,

            And shew that Musick may have as good Fate

  In Albion’s Glens, as Umbria’s green Retreat:

            And with Correlli’s soft Italian Song

            Mix Cowdon Knows and Winter Nights are long.

            Nor should the Martial Pibrough be despis’d,

            Own’d and refin’d by you, these shall the more be priz’d.

The choices are quite similar to the repertoire known to have been performed at the concerts of the Edinburgh Musical Society.  Corelli remained popular for most of the eighteenth century, and song was always included in the EMS programs, with a blend of Italian styles on Scottish songs.  The only surprising choice in Ramsay’s poem is ‘Pibrough’.  Pìobaireachd, the formal music of the Highland pipes, would have been very foreign music in lowland Scotland in the eighteenth century. A literal understanding of Ramsay’s use of pìobaireachd as cèol mòr [pìobaireachd has two meanings in Gaelic; it can refer to cèol mòr, the highly structured formal music of the pipes, or mean piping in general] is however somewhat implausible, given the realities of playing the Highland pipes indoors, and that there is very little evidence that Highland music was known in Lowland Scotland c. 1720.  It is far more likely that Ramsay used pìobaireachd in its other meaning, piping in general. 

Marie Stuart, in her description of the musical events at the Cross Keys, describes a trio sonata texture: ‘…echo to the strains of its aristocratic patrons when the Laird of Newhall played on his viol da gamba, Lord Colville on the harpsichord, Sir Gilbert Elliot on the German flute…’ (Marie Stuart, Old Edinburgh Taverns, p.59).  Although there is no contemporary evidence that that was indeed the instrumentation, I used it for the reconstruction because it works well in the setting, suits the repertoire, and showcases the newly-fashionable transverse flute. The flute was one of the most popular instruments in eighteenth-century Scotland, especially with gentlemen amateur musicians. (For more information, see Elizabeth Ford, The flute in musical life in eighteenth-century Scotland, PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2016.)

The repertoire chosen for the reconstruction all relates back to the Ramsay poem, and what is known to have been popular in early eighteenth-century Edinburgh.  The trio sonata in G minor, WoO 10 by Arcangelo Corelli has concordances in the Scottish manuscript source GB-KET 353 [Montagu Music Collection, Boughton House, Northamptonshire], where it is arranged for recorder. 

Although Ramsay does not mention Handel, the other early source that mentions the music club, Hugo Arnot, does (Arnot, p.379). Water Music was first performed in 1717, and would almost certainly have been known in Scotland soon thereafter.  The overture to the second suite suits trio sonata texture, so I used that.

The Scottish songs are from the Tea-Table Miscellany of 1724, written for the polite tea-drinking ladies.  IASH's Secretary Donald Ferguson, representing John Steill, sang ‘Mary Scot,’ and Katy Lavinia Cooper, representing his wife (who does not exist in the surviving records) sang ‘The Broom of Cowdenknows’.

Not knowing pipe repertoire well, I consulted with Border piper and historian Matt Seattle, who advised piper Zexuan Qiao and me on possibilities. Zexuan opted for the tune ‘Jingling Geordie’.

Zexuan Qiao


In recreating a group of skilled gentlemen amateur musicians, playing in a tavern with a musical landlord, I chose a mix of colleagues to represent the different members of the Musick Club.  David Johnson argues that the music teachers in Edinburgh did double duty, teaching at the schools and giving private lessons at the country houses.  Therefore, the common populace would have had similar music educations to the gentry (David Johnson, Music and Society in Lowland Scotland in the Eighteenth Century, 2nd ed., 2004, pp.30-31). Donald Ferguson, the singer representing Steill, is a trained musician but not a specialist in eighteenth-century or Scottish repertoire.  The harpsichord player (Allan Wright), flute player (me), soprano, and violinist (Andrew Bull) are all specialists in historical performance practice.  The viola da gamba player, Tim Cais, may be the best representation of a gentleman amateur musician: he is a professional cellist, but had never played bass viol until his mother, who was originally going to play, had a conflict, and he stepped in.  For a rehearsed performance, this would obviously not be ideal.  But it is important to bear in mind that what occurred at the Musick Club was far more like a session at a modern folk bar than a performance.  These were friends, playing music informally, in the active and noisy atmosphere of a popular tavern.  This mix of specializations, training, and background hopefully represented the relative skill levels and musical educations of the players at the Cross Keys.  To keep with the sense of informality, we did not rehearse as an ensemble. 

The result is not a polished performance, but for competent musicians who play regularly, working with repertoire that is very easy to sight read, it doesn’t take much effort to achieve a decent and representative result.  All of the music was recorded in three takes.  So long as we were in tune, and started and ended together, I was happy.  Had we debated nuance, ornaments, tempo, phrasing, it would have morphed into a performance.  Allan, Andrew, and I do play together some, so we took turns leading the ensemble when needed.


Recording for virtual reality ideally happens in an anechoic chamber, eliminating all acoustics from the music, and allowing the dimensions and space relations of the virtual space to be imposed in the computer design.  Anechoic recording is stressful and frustrating: each musician plays their own part, alone, in the foam room, often to a ‘click track’ for tempo.  The individual lines are later mixed into an ensemble sound.  There is little room for musicality, and tempo, intonation, and ensemble affect can be total disasters.  Originally, the Musick Club was to have been recorded this way.  Upon consideration of the time constraints and the very practical consideration of a harpsichord not fitting in the University of Edinburgh’s anechoic chamber, we moved the recording to a practice room at the University of Glasgow.  Though not strictly anechoic, it is a very dead space, and we were able to deaden the sound more with magnetic baffles on the walls.  To create the full soundscape of the tavern, pub sounds—including a dog fight—from the BBC sound archive were added during mixing. 

Donald Ferguson as John Steill

Recreating the Cross Keys

To recreate the space, research software developer Rod Selfridge and I did extensive field research in Old Assembly Close and the White Hart Inn.  The White Hart is one of the oldest pubs in Edinburgh, and the current building dates from the 1740s.  Very little in terms of descriptions of interiors and material culture survive from the early eighteenth century, so we used the basic design of the White Hart and extrapolated backwards in terms of furnishings using engravings of pubs from the mid-century and the objects on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

Final result?

The recreation of the Cross Keys Tavern and Edinburgh Musick Club was unveiled on 13 February 2019 at the Old Edinburgh Club.  Work on the tavern space is ongoing, and will be used in future projects.  This research, while revealing that nothing survives of the Cross Keys or the Musick Club aside from collective memory, highlights the importance of social music making across the Scottish enlightenment and into today.