I don't know how long the sobriquet Athens of the North has been around, but it was current by 1831, when Thomas Love Peacock wrote Crotchet Castle. Among the conversations in this is a continuing debate between a learned and jolly English vicar, the Reverend Doctor Folliott, and a Scottish economist, Mr Mac Quedy (derived from QED).

Mr Mac Quedy began it by commenting, "Morals and metaphysics, politics and political economy, the way to make the most of all the modifications of smoke; steam, gas, and paper currency; you have all these to learn from us; in short, all the arts and sciences. We are the modern Athenians."

The Rev. Dr Folliott replies that he wants only fish from Scotland, and desires him to "leave the name of Athenians to those who have a sense of the beautiful, and a perception of metrical quantity."

Mr Mac Quedy: "Then, sir, I presume you set no value on the right principles of rent, profit, wages, and currency?"

The Rev. Dr Folliott: "My principles, sir, in these things are, to take as much as I can get, and to pay no more than I can help. These are every man's principles, whether they be the right principles or no. There, sir, is political economy in a nutshell.

Later Dr Folliott demands where their theatre is? who among them has written a comedy? where is their attic salt? and various questions about mythology and metre that they cannot answer. For comedy, Mr Mac Quedy proposes the Gentle Shepherd of the divine Alan Ramsay.

Dr Folliott says it is as much a comedy as the Book of Job. "Modern Athens, sir! the assumption is a personal affront to every man who has a Sophocles in his library."

Mr Mac Quedy speaks up for his nation's treatises on metaphysics, logic, and moral philosophy. He says they have found the way where the Athenians only sought it. And to this they have added political economy: this however the Rev. Dr Folliott condemns as "a hyperbarbarous technology, that no Athenian ear could have borne".

catchpole says he thinks the phrase originated in the eighteenth century, referring to luminaries such as Adam Smith and David Hume, not to the Georgian architecture.