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Shelley Sites/Sights

Edinburgh

In 1811, Shelley undertook to "educate" his sisters' classmate Harriet Westbrook. She was a willing pupil—too willing, perhaps, since her staunch advocacy of Bysshe's unorthodox views brought her into conflict with those around her, including her family and the school authorities at Clapham Commons. Shelley's role as teacher metamorphosed into protector/rescuer, and he determined to carry her away from what he perceived as persecution. Initially, the rescue had nothing to do with marriage, but Harriet was firm—understandably loathe to abandon respectability and the chance of eventual reconciliation with her family and friends. Yet, since neither Shelley nor Harriet were of legal age in England, the bridegroom-to-be decided on a Scottish marriage.

In late-August, the couple took the mail coach to York, and on the way met a young Scottish attorney, who explained to them how one lacking residence qualifications might be married in Edinburgh. The same attorney probably was the one to direct them to William Cumming, the owner of a comfortable three-story lodging at 60 George Street (nineteenth century image courtesy of Dr. Andrew G. Fraser, Old Edinburgh Club).

The building has been considerably altered since 1811. The passage leading from the street to a rear stable area has been absorbed by the adjacent building. A half-attic was removed in the late nineteenth century, and the ground floor where Shelley and Harriet stayed was converted into a shop, which today houses a trendy wine store.

Their housing secured, the young couple proceeded to set about the task of getting married—no small feat, since the bride lacked the six-weeks' residency (and the proclamation of banns on three successive Sundays) required by Scottish law. But Cumming and a friend named Murray were willing to provide false certification, and thus Shelley and Harriet were able to obtain a marriage licence at the Register House, which Shelley's Oxford chum Hogg considered "the finest building on our habitable earth."

The marriage ceremony itself was performed at the Leith Wynd Chapel of Ease, by Joseph Robertson (who, seven years later, was found guilty of performing several such illegal marriages and was banished from Scotland and defrocked by the Church). The chapel, located at 225 The Canongate, was razed in the mid-twentieth century, and the site, off the Holyrood end of the Royal Mile, is now given over to warehouses.

After six weeks in the capitol, the Shelleys left for York, but they returned in the autumn of 1813 to escape their creditors. They found lodgings only two blocks from the George St. house, at the northwest corner of the intersection of George and Frederick Street. 36 Frederick was owned by Alexander Laing. Here is a view of the building, from the north (nineteenth-century image courtesy Dr. Andrew G. Fraser, Old Edinburgh Club):
This house was demolished in 1907, replaced by the Gresham buildings, and today the site fronts a busy intersection. Shelley's lodgings would still not look much out of place, however, as contrasting modern and virtual views readily demonstrate:
Scholars researching the Shelleys' stay in Edinburgh can find a wealth of information at the Edinburgh public library, directly across from the National Library of Scotland.

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Published @ RC

January 2006

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