Houses in Heriot Row are spacious and close to the city centre. Most have large drawing and dining rooms, perfect for entertaining, with room for a piano and large dinner tables. In the early 19th century, dinners and card and musical evenings abounded. Chess, whist, backgammon, commerce and cassino were the popular games. When they weren't socialising at home, residents made use of Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms (several blocks to the north) theatres and concert halls. For young men, the student culture and societies of the old town and the taverns and low life were also a lure. Some joined the local part-time regiments formed during the Napoleonic Wars and drilled in archery while helping to suppress local disorders.

During this period, wealthy families spent the winter in Edinburgh, returning to their country estates when the weather and roads improved. Elizabeth Grant's family rented their Edinburgh accommodation, including for a time 4 Heriot Row. She described the Edinburgh season at this time - balls up to New Year, grand dinners afterwards. 'My dress and my mother's must have cost a fortune, it all came from London, from the little Miss Steuart's, who covered my mother with velvet, satin, rich silks, costly furs and loads of expensive laces'. Hospitality took set forms - 'five or six dinners, two small evening parties, and one large one, a regular rout, paid my mother's debts in the visitng line each winter. She understood the management of company so well, every assembly of whatever kind always went off admirably at her house.’

At that time Elizabeth recollected of Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms in George Street that 'Edinburgh did not afford much publick amusement...a stray concert now and then, catches and glees being the most popular, and the six assemblies, there were none other. The assemblies were very ill attended, the small rooms never half full, the large, which held with ease 12 hundred people, was never entered except on occasion of the Caledonian Hunt Ball.’

As the century moved on, the musical Mackenzies' home at No 41 with its gifted children was a constant round of coming and going as friends and cousins came for meals and music before they went on the town, often to give musical performances at dinners and concerts. One of these performances came to a sad end when Joey Mackenzie was invited by 'a Scottish peer' and 'a colonel' to a club in India Street. A stabbing there, and evidence of homosexual activity, were enough to cause his family to send him away to Canada, where he met an early death.

Back along at number 31, Jemima Blackburn (born Wedderburn) loved dancing. She sketched herself and her brother in dressing gowns, sitting out on the tiles, discussing a ball they had just attended. Her widowed mother loved cards. 

Robert Louis Stevenson ate regularly with his parents in the family home at Number 17, but his evening visits to the other side of Princes Street gave him plenty of material for future historical and adventure novels. A very close and enduring friend was Walter Simpson - the son of Edinburgh's most famous physician Sir James Young Simpson - who lived just across the gardens in Queen Street. The Simpson house was a second home to him, offering debate and hospitality. The two young men sailed and canoed together, in Scotland and France.

For all these young people, visits to the country and travel further afield supplemented their Edinburgh social life. Elizabeth spent long summers at the Grant family home in Rothiemurchus far to the north, and often visited parts of England. Jemima spent time at Glenlair and St Mary's Isle. Stevenson loved his visits to Colinton and Swanston, on the southern edge of the city, and their access to the Pentland Hills. That experience and his trips round the north of Scotland became the pattern for his later wandering life and were drawn on again and again in his poems and stories.

The journal of Janet Story, in her 20s during the 1850s, shows how hectic the social whirl could be. She describes "remaining at a ball til the morning was so far advanced that the various workmen and labourers were all setting out on their different avocations, and I felt so ashamed of myself sitting in full view, decked in all my ball frippery, that I slipped to the door of the cab and tried to hide". "After this came the usual winter of unlimited gaiety; dinners, lunches, evening parties, balls, the same thing over and over again till even my own constitution showed signs of exhaustion.”

Visiting was a popular middle class Victorian pastime. It might include a formal exchange of cards and visits, but informal visits were also very common. Census records show that many guests stayed overnight. Story remembered 'the countless feet that have trodden those well worn steps... morning, noon and night bringing callers, male and female, young and old, joyful and sorrowful’. She also described a typical dinner party with at least 22 guests. The menu included two soups, two dishes of fish, four entrees, a huge roast and other meats, macaroni cheese and fancy puddings. Cards, billiards, piano playing, singing and dancing might follow.

Dinner parties were not purely for entertainment. There was often a strong element of social and business networking and even just plain showing off. Middle class death inventories from this period in Glasgow reveal stuffed wine cellars and set upon set of crockery and cutlery, while the elaborate decoration of New Town drawing and dining rooms tells its own tale.

Behind the grandeur and conviviality of the public rooms, the bedrooms were simple and to our eyes lacking in privacy. Guests shared beds; chamber pots and sitz baths were used in situ. Until late in the nineteenth century many bedrooms lacked good light, relying on candles.

The twentieth century brought new city-wide sources of entertainment from the cinema to regular sporting fixtures. Simple home-based entertainment may have suffered, but dinners, dances and concerts remained New Town staples. The many Heriot Row lawyers had their own communal social calendar. The Maitlands at Number 6 often had famous contralto Kathleen Ferrier staying in their home. Part of Number 15, let to the Director of the Edinburgh Festival in 1982, resounded to impromptu concerts by the famous musicians he entertained there, while parties to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee and Heriot Row's bicentenary have reawakened old traditions.

You can read more in Memoirs of a Highland Lady; 'Public Lives - Women, Family and Society in Victorian Britain' by Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair, published Yale University Press 2003; and 'Late Reminiscences' by J L Story, published by Maclehose, 1911.

Dinner parties were not purely for entertainment. There was often a strong element of social and business networking and even just plain showing off