The sociability and conviviality so characteristic of the period were important vehicles for the debate and sharing of knowledge, ideas, propositions, theories and inventions. There was a flourishing of clubs and societies where people gathered to share food, drink and ideas, such as the Oyster Club, founded by Hutton, Black and Smith. John Playfair describes how
‘round them was soon formed a knot of those who knew how to value the familiar and social converse of these illustrious men’ and that Hutton used to ‘regularly unbend himself with a few friends in the little society…known by the name of the Oyster Club'.
Playfair in his biography of Hutton, goes on to describe how
‘the conversation was always free, often scientific … and as this club was much the resort of the strangers who visited Edinburgh, from any object connected with art or with science, it derived from thence an extraordinary degree of variety and interest’.
In his ‘Scottish Reminiscences’ (1906), Sir Archibald Geikie recounts the formation of the Oyster Club. Hutton and Black, who were close friends, and
‘took a keen interest in their social meetings’ were tasked by colleagues to find a suitable venue for weekly meetings to discuss their developing ideas. They ‘sallied out for this purpose, and seeing on the South Bridge a sign with the words Stewart, Vintner – Down stairs, … and …without further inquiry the meetings were fixed…until one evening, Dr Hutton being rather late was surprised to see a whole bevy of well-dressed but rather brazen-faced young ladies…take refuge in an adjoining apartment. He then for the first time began to think that all was not right… Next morning the notable discovery was made that our amiable philosophers had introduced their friends to one of the most disreputable houses in the city’.
The account does not reveal whether or not the Oyster Club changed venue!
Geikie also quotes from Kay’s Edinburgh Portraits of the time, a very amusing incident involving Hutton and Black, which if anything demonstrates the closeness of their friendship; A frequent topic of conversation between these two was apparently that of diet. On one occasion this included the absurdities of prejudice on what people ate; why not eat snails for example? They were known to be nutritious and wholesome. Having decided that their countrymen were absurd in not making snails an ordinary article of food, they procured a number to be stewed for dinner – no guests were invited. ‘But alas – great is the difference between theory and practice. So far from exciting the appetite the smoking dish acted in a diametrically opposite manner, and neither party felt much inclination to partake of its contents. Nevertheless, if they looked on the snails with disgust, they retained their awe for each other; so that each conceiving the symptoms of internal revolt to be peculiar to himself, began with infinite exertion, to swallow in very small quantities, the mess which he internally loathed. Dr Black at length broke the ice, but in a delicate manner, as if to sound the opinion of his messmate: “Doctor” he said in his precise and quiet manner,
“Doctor, do you not think that they taste a little – a very little queer? ”. “D----- queer ! D----- queer, indeed ! Tak’ them awa’, tak’ them awa” vociferated Dr Hutton, starting up from the table, and giving full vent to the feelings of his abhorrence’.