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date: 06 March 2021

Poker Clubfree

(act. 1762–1784)
  • Richard B. Sher

Poker Club (act. 1762–1784), a convivial Edinburgh society formed to agitate for a Scottish militia, was instituted in early January 1762, in the aftermath of the exclusion of Scotland from the English Militia Act of 1757 and the parliamentary defeat of the first Scottish Militia Bill in April 1760. The name was apparently a cryptic 'Alusion to the use of that Instrument when fires like ours need to be Stirred', as Adam Ferguson wrote to Lord Shelburne on 3 February 1762 (Ferguson, Correspondence, 2.533). Ferguson and his friend the Revd Alexander Carlyle were among the founders, and most of the details about the Poker Club derive from three accounts by Carlyle, including one prefixed to a bound volume of club minutes from the period 1774–84. There, as well as in his memoirs, Carlyle credits Ferguson with proposing the club's name about the third or fourth meeting, as a superior alternative to Militia Club because it would 'not be so directly or obviously offensive' to those who opposed the institution of a militia in Scotland (Autobiography, 439).

Carlyle states that the first fifteen members were selected by 'nomination' (Autobiography, 440) or 'unanimous nomination' (minutes, Edinburgh University Library, Dc.5.126), and that subsequently members were selected by ballot, subject to rejection by two blackballs. But he does not reveal the names of the original fifteen, or the other members of the core of founders who initially nominated them. Two extant membership lists, dating from 1768 and 1782, cannot settle the issue, for they do not present the names of members in the same order, and they omit individuals, such as the Revd John Jardine, who are known to have been early members, though they died before 1768.

The Poker Club was at its peak during the 1760s. Among the most prominent of the seventy-eight names in the 1768 membership list were seven figures from the University of Edinburgh: its principal, the historian William Robertson; the celebrated preacher and professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres Hugh Blair; four eminent professors of science and medicine—Joseph Black, John Gregory, Francis Home, and James Russell or Russel—and Ferguson, who moved from the chair of natural philosophy to that of moral philosophy in 1764. The philosopher and historian David Hume, the moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith, the historian Sir John Dalrymple (also a member of the gentry), and the playwright John Home round out the best-known literary figures. There were several Presbyterian ministers including George Wishart [see under Wishart, William (1660-1729)], John Drysdale, William Hogg, Carlyle himself, and his cousin William Wight, the professor of ecclesiastical history at the University of Glasgow, Robert Findlay of Drummore (c. 1710–1782), and Robert Dick (1722–1782). Findlay, who was then minister at Dunbar, was the son of Thomas Findlay, minister at Prestonkirk. Educated at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated MA in December 1734, he was licensed by the presbytery of Dunbar in July 1738 and ordained as minister at Inch and Saulseat a year later. In August 1763 he married Anne Don (d. 1771); the couple had one son and one daughter before Findlay's death on 30 March 1782. Robert Dick, the son of James Dick, minister of the Wynd Church, Glasgow, graduated MA from Glasgow University (1744), was licensed by the presbytery of Hamilton on 14 January 1747, and was ordained at Lanark in October 1750, before being translated to the New Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, in October 1754. In 1758 Dick was translated to the Old Kirk in Edinburgh, but six days later the assignment was changed to the less desirable Trinity Church, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1759 he received the DD degree from Edinburgh University. Dick published individual sermons in 1758 and 1762, and on 7 March 1763 he published an anonymous political pamphlet entitled The True State of the Case in an attempt to block the appointment of the Revd John Drysdale to an Edinburgh church. He died on 24 August 1782.

The membership list also identifies two members as merchants, and a handful are known to have belonged to other professions, such as the architect John Adam. All the rest came from the gentry, the nobility, and the military and legal professions to which high-born Scots gravitated. They include Patrick Murray, Lord Elibank, baron of the Scots exchequer William Mure, Boswell's epistolary collaborator Andrew Erskine, Sir James Fergusson, the politician George Dempster, Andrew Crosbie (who was jokingly elected the club's ‘assassin’), ambassador Robert Keith, Andrew Stuart, Ilay Campbell, William Johnstone Pulteney, and James Edgar (d. 1799), customs official, who had the Poker in mind when he told d'Alembert in Paris that he belonged to an Edinburgh club consisting of 'the ablest men in Europe' (Autobiography, 442). Edgar, a former captain of marines, served as collector and later commissioner of customs alongside Adam Smith. Somewhat unjustly he had a reputation for parsimony and an 'unsociable disposition' (J. Kay, Portraits and Caricature Etchings, 2 vols., 1838, 1.385), born of his habit of travelling in a purpose-built one-seat carriage. In fact Edgar was a frequenter of Edinburgh polite society, a keen sportsman, 'an epicurean in eating' if a 'stoic in habits' (Adam, 29), and a benefactor who, prior to his death in 1799, donated funds for the building of a spire at Lasswade church.

The 1768 membership list supports Carlyle's contention that the club drew its membership from two main groups: the literati in the vicinity of Edinburgh and 'a great many country gentlemen, who, though not always resident in town, yet were zealous friends to a Scotch militia' (Autobiography, 440). This mixture of gentry (and some nobility) with men of letters and of 'the Liberal Professions', including clergymen, was unusual; Carlyle believed it 'contributed much to Strengthen the Bond of Union among them', and polished the manners of the literati while it 'exalted the Ideas and Enlarg'd the Views of the Gentry' (Carlyle, Anecdotes and Characters, 282). It probably accounts for the disdain recorded in the private journal of one young, self-conscious member of the gentry, James Boswell, who finds fault

with all the Poker Club, as they are called; that is to say, with all that set who associate with David Hume and Robertson. They are doing all that they can to destroy politeness. They would abolish all respect due to rank and external circumstances, and they would live like a kind of literary barbarians.

Boswell's London Journal, 300

What Boswell (who was never a member) called 'their rudeness', others considered a source of the club's vitality. 'I really wish often for the plain roughness of the Poker', Hume wrote to Ferguson from Fontainebleau in November 1763, 'to correct and qualify so much lusciousness' (Letters, 1.410–11).

The Poker's convivial character was enhanced by food and drink. Weekly meetings were initially held each Friday in Thomas Nicholson's tavern, well situated near the High Street Cross that constituted the social centre of old Edinburgh. A shilling dinner was served at a little after two o'clock in the afternoon, and the meeting usually broke up by six, although the dinner hour was later moved to three, and summer meetings sometimes lasted until seven or eight. Sherry and claret were the beverages of choice but, perhaps owing to sensitivity about the club's character and manners, Carlyle repeated one participant's assertion that 'he never observed even an approach to inebriety in any of the members' (Autobiography, 441). In 1769 a quarrel with Thomas Nicholson forced the Poker to move to another tavern, Fortune's, in the most fashionable part of town, and the resulting increase in cost caused a decline in attendance. When this problem was exacerbated by some unfortunate membership selections, Carlyle and some others deserted the Poker for a new club, the Tuesday, which met for two years at Sommer's Tavern. They subsequently returned to the Poker, which had sixty-six members at the time of the second extant membership list. The nucleus of the club remained unchanged from the time of the earlier list, but most of the clergy had drifted away by this time, to be replaced by a growing number of noblemen and gentry, among them Henry Scott, third duke of Buccleuch, Lord Advocate Henry Dundas, John Stuart, Lord Mountstuart, son of the third earl of Bute, and the literary patron James Cunningham, thirteenth earl of Glencairn. Thomas Hamilton seventh earl of Haddington (1720/21–1795), landowner, son of Charles Hamilton, Lord Binning (1697–1732), and Rachel, née Baillie (1696–1773), was another new member who, after an education at St Mary Hall, Oxford, and the University of Geneva, was said to have taken 'no part in public affairs' (GEC, Peerage, 7.235). Twice married, first to Mary, née Holt (d. 1785), widow of Gresham Lloyd, and second, to the consternation of his family, to the much younger Anne Gascoigne (1760–1840), Haddington was to be one of three members who attended the original club's last meeting in the mid-1780s; he died between August and December 1795 at Ham, Surrey. Among the literati, only John Robison, the Edinburgh professor of natural philosophy, joined between 1768 and 1782.

Amid all the Poker's conviviality, 'the Great Object of those meetings was National, of which they never lost sight' (Carlyle, Anecdotes and Characters, 282). Unfortunately, since the extant minutes from the club's last decade contain little information on the substance of meetings, it is difficult to know precisely what the Poker did to promote the Scottish militia cause, and it has sometimes been claimed that it did not actually pursue its avowed political agenda. Various kinds of evidence support the opposite conclusion, however. Carlyle states that Sir William Pulteney was chosen secretary, 'with a charge of all publications that might be thought necessary by him, and two other members with whom he was to consult' (Autobiography, 440), suggesting that the Poker may have commissioned some of the anonymous pro-militia literature that appeared in pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers. A. F. Tytler confirms this point in regard to the club's 'infancy' (Woodhouselee, Supplement, 18), and other evidence exists in regard to the club's old age. In February and March 1780, for example, the Edinburgh Evening Courant carried two reports and an approving letter about the recent activities on behalf of national defence by a certain Antigalican Society. We can safely consider it a front for the Poker because the first article printed the names of sixteen Poker Club members who were said to have been in attendance at the Antigalican (headed by the duke of Buccleuch and the earls of Glencairn and Haddington), all of whom had been present at the Poker Club meeting of the preceding week. The minutes of 26 July 1782 reveal that the club was also involved in parliamentary lobbying, for on that day the marquess of Graham was elected a member and designated to receive a letter of thanks for his 'noble [work] in the business of the Scotch Militia last session', and nine members were appointed to 'a committee to form a bill for a Scotch Militia'.

The minutes reveal that by the mid-1770s about forty members were actively participating in the club, and meetings with only a handful of members were not uncommon. In 1775 and 1776, when the club was still in relatively good health, there were twenty-three meetings a year, beginning on the third Friday of January and extending to the second Friday in March, starting again in mid-June and continuing until mid-August, and finally running from mid-November until the Friday before Christmas. Many of these meetings were respectably attended, not only by members but also by visitors. In 1778, however, the number of meetings fell to twelve, with lower attendance and fewer visitors. The Poker does not seem to have recovered its original vitality after that time, though even in its last years an occasional meeting might draw eight or more members. On 12 December 1783 the thirteen members in attendance agreed to change the format from weekly to monthly meetings, but only the earl of Haddington and two others attended the next, and last, recorded meeting, on 30 January 1784.

A revival was attempted two or three years later as the Young Poker Club, consisting of eight of the former members and sixteen younger men. The latter included such luminaries as the novelist Henry Mackenzie and professors Dugald Stewart, William Greenfield, John Playfair, and Alexander Fraser Tytler. Carlyle, who was among the participating older members (along with Blair, Home, and Black), recollected that the new club 'met 4 or 5 times but was dropt on account of non-attendance of the young members' (NL Scot., MS 3732, fol. 364). Many years later, however, Sir Walter Scott, who was only about fifteen when the Young Poker Club met, published a long, imaginative paragraph which traced the new club's failure to the discomfort of the senior members at confronting each other as 'old and broken men' (McElroy, Scotland's Age of Improvement, 168), even though most of them were only in their late fifties and sixties at the time, and in reasonably good health.


  • A. Carlyle, Anecdotes and characters of the times, ed. J. Kinsley (1973)
  • The autobiography of Dr. Alexander Carlyle of Inveresk, 1722–1805, ed. J. H. Burton (1910)
  • H. A. Cockburn, ‘An account of the Friday Club’, Book of the Old Edinburgh Club, 3 (1911), 105–30
  • A. Ferguson, ‘Minutes of the life and character of Joseph Black, M.D.’, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 5 (1805), pt 3, 101–17
  • The letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 2 vols. (1932)
  • D. D. McElroy, Scotland's age of improvement (1969)
  • D. McElroy, ‘The literary clubs and societies of eighteenth-century Edinburgh’, PhD diss., U. Edin., 1952
  • H. Mackenzie, Account of the life and writings of John Home (1822)
  • The correspondence of Adam Ferguson, ed. V. Merolle, 2 vols. (1995)
  • E. C. Mossner, The life of David Hume, 2nd edn (1980)
  • J. Robertson, The Scottish Enlightenment and the militia issue (1985)
  • I. S. Ross, The life of Adam Smith (1995)
  • R. B. Sher, Church and university in the Scottish Enlightenment: the moderate literati of Edinburgh (1985)
  • J. R. Western, The English militia in the eighteenth century (1965)
  • W. Adam, Sequel to the gift of a grandfather, Two short essays on the study of history and on general reading (1836)
  • R. B. Sher, ‘Moderates, managers and popular politics in mid-eighteenth-century Edinburgh: the Drysdale “bustle” of the 1760s’, New perspectives on the politics and culture of early modern Scotland, ed. J. Dwyer, R. A. Mason, and A. Murdoch (1982), 179–209


  • NL Scot., Alexander Carlyle, ‘List of the Young Poker Club’, MS 3732, fol. 364
University of Edinburgh
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
National Register of Archives, private collection