Practising in the dark, 1812

15th January 2015 | Books, Musings | 1 comment

I’ve been reading the wonderful ‘Memoirs of a Highland Lady’, written by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus. What a series of unforgettable pictures she paints of her life in the Highlands of Scotland in the early years of the 19th century!

As a teenager, I used to get up early to practise the piano, feeling sorry for myself on winter mornings, but I now realise my discomfort was nothing compared with Elizabeth Grant’s. In 1812 she and her sister Jane used to practise in the dark, as she describes in the following passage:

‘In winter we rose [at 6.30am] without candle, or fire, or warm water. Our clothes were all laid on a chair overnight in readiness for being taken up in proper order. My Mother would not give us candles, and Miss Elphick [our governess] insisted we should get up. We were not allowed hot water, and really in the highland winters, when the breath froze on the sheets, and the water in the jugs became cakes of ice, washing was a cruel necessity, the fingers were pinched enough.

As we could play our scales well in the dark, the two pianofortes and the harp began the day’s work. How very near crying was the one whose turn set her at the harp I will not speak of; the strings cut the poor cold fingers so that the blisters often bled. Martyr the first decidedly sat in the dining room at the harp. Martyr the second put her poor blue hands on the keys of the grand pianoforte in the drawing room, for in those two rooms the fires were never lighted til near nine o’clock … Our alfresco playing was not of much use to us; we had better have been warm in our beds for all the good it did.’ (Memoirs of a Highland Lady, I, p221, Canongate Classics).

Why would their Mother not give them candles? Was such a scene really normal at the time, and was it repeated by young musicians all over Europe? I can’t help feeling slightly traumatised by the thought of these two young Scotswomen practising scales in the dark.

1 Comment

  1. James B

    Dear Susan,
    I’m so glad to have another of your delightful ‘book review’ posts… Maurice Guest as recommended is marvelous (so far) and this one looks like a fascinating story, too. I’d love if you could recommend some biographical books about musicians or composers as it’s so hard to know where to start!
    Sleeping in Temples is another one that I’m hoping to pick up when I’m next in London. The review that I read on the Guardian make it seem like a classical version of ’20 Feet From Stardom.’
    Thanks for the interesting posts.


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