The first scottish sex club
It is not always
appreciated, but sexual protest and politics go hand in hand.
In early 18th-century Scotland, with its departed Stuart
kings, lost independence and English-imposed excise duties
crippling the economy, protest took a unique form, one long
hidden since the advent of Victorian prudery: private sex
Chief among these was the Beggar’s Benison. Now
its secret records, joyously debauched activities and phallic
drinking cups have been rescued from deliberate obscurity in a
wonderful new book which reveals to us a vision of an
erotically charged Scotland very different from the standard
Social upheaval weakens moral
cords and ensuing protest and reaction always take sexual
forms, doubtless helped along by the everyday carnal desires
of humans. China’s ageing Communist bureaucracy recently
burned 40,000 copies of an erotic novel by the scandalous
young female writer Wei Hui, which exposed how Shanghai’s
youth are challenging the hollow moral façade of a corrupt
regime by embracing sexual promiscuity. It was the same in
Scotland back in the 1730s.
The erotic revolt started,
of all places, in the town of Anstruther in the East Neuk of
Fife where the first branch of the Benison was founded. It was
devoted to the convivial and unselfconsciously obscene
celebration of free sex, free trade (ie smuggling) and
subversive political sentiments such as the Jacobite cause and
the repeal of the Union of 1707. Later branches were formed in
Edinburgh, Glasgow and even St Petersburg in Russia. Imitators
also appeared, including the notorious Wig Club in Edinburgh.
And why the improbable Anstruther as a hotbed of
erotic subversion? Because it had long served as a key trading
port on the German Ocean (now rechristened the North Sea)
linking Scotland to the Baltic, London and France. As a
result, the East Neuk was important economically and
politically - through its five royal burghs it had elected
influence in both the Scottish and the Westminster
parliaments. Here lived prosperous lairds and businessmen
unsettled by change in post-Union Scotland. And in the
all-male Benison they found a secret home to share their
frustrations in a unique way.
Some were Jacobites.
Many were engaging in Scotland’s largest and most profitable
service industry: smuggling. Some were also customs and excise
men sent in by the new regime - but men anxious to build
bridges to their new community and cut a deal with its
establishment. This was also the dawn of the intellectual
Enlightenment. Religion was in decline and rational debate
among rational men was in vogue. Where better to bring these
divergent forces together but in a private drinking club where
ideology could be left at the door? And what better common
bond than the universal interest in sex?
The appeal of
the club was that it celebrated sex pure and simple. The bland
title, the toast of the beggar’s benison or blessing,
concealed a sexual code. In popular Fife mythology the
original benison was bestowed on James V of Scotland,
notoriously promiscuous even by monarchical standards. James’s
time was looked back on in the early 18th century as the
Golden Age of Scottish independence.
legend, the lusty James was carried over a burn, as was
customary, by a local beggar maid. James paid her for her
services, which included a bit more than keeping his feet dry,
with a gold coin - a generous tip in the circumstances.
Whereupon the wench delivered her blessing, doubtless with a
smile: "May Prick nor Purse never fail you."
Benison Beggars were happy hedonists. At Benison gatherings
there was always drunkenness. Ribald, sexually ambivalent
toasts were drunk from phallus-shaped goblets - "let us often
gaze on the varied inspiring Nooks of our East Neuk". They
often ate sheep’s heads and other outlandish dishes that could
be relied upon to appal the English.
read from the erotic classics, including The Song of Solomon
and (later) Byron’s Don Juan. A favourite bawdy text read out
loud at Benison gatherings was John Cleland’s Fanny Hill -
even before it was published. Cleland’s father was actually
one of the five commissioners of the customs board in
Edinburgh and he was possibly related to Robert Cleland, a
Crail merchant who is mentioned as an early Benison member.
Then there were the girls. Intriguingly, the Beggar’s
Benison records do not suggest that there was outright use of
prostitutes for sex. Rather, in a direct parallel with today’s
lap-dancing bars, comely young girls from the locality were
hired as "posture girls", to be looked at, not touched. This
was a risqué drinking club for businessmen, not an outright
brothel. Initially, the girls’ faces were masked and the
pretence was of an almost scientific examination. Later, such
hypocrisy gave way to having the girls dance. Plus ça change.
Yet the remaining Beggar’s Benison club records show
that it was not all drunkenness and debauchery. For this was
indeed the start of the Enlightenment, when rational ways of
thinking, especially among the educated middle classes, were
challenging religious dogma and the grip of uncritical
tradition as a source of truth. And for the Benison men, sex
was a serious subject worthy of scientific inquiry.
Several texts of lectures on sexual sociology and
physiology given to meetings of the Beggar’s Benison survive
in the club archives. By later, prudish Victorian standards,
these are very modern in their understanding. One talk given
in 1753 argues strongly for contraception as a way whereby
women can control their own sexuality: the "sexual embrace
should be independent of the dread of a conception which
blasts the prospects of the female".
A later lecture,
read "at Conference, St Andrew’s Day, 1813", depicts
masturbation as very common in both sexes, and not harmful.
The common notion that it led to insanity is dismissed. Herein
lies another lost secret of the Benison and Scottish male
attitudes of the Enlightenment which were to have
repercussions beyond the closed doors of the club.
Initiation into the club, at least in the early part
of the 18th century, was by a unique ritual. The new member
had to masturbate in front of his peers to prove his prowess.
Then the rest of the members followed suit, "touching prick to
prick". This activity probably embarrassed later Victorian
historians into ignoring the Beggar’s Benison, thus
marginalising its social importance. We even have a problem
with it in these supposedly more liberal times, where mutual
masturbation conjures up the implication of homosexuality. And
where - despite almost complete sexual candour - the erect
male organ is still a taboo subject on television.
This taboo was much less strict in Enlightenment times
when the restrictions on science and commerce of medieval
religion were being challenged using a popular new reference
point - Classical Greece and Rome. Unlike the Christian,
Classical art abounds in the phallic theme, expressing not
just the erotic but the broader concepts of fertility and male
strength. As Enlightenment Scotland embraced Classical
architecture and philosophy, so it privately and subversively
embraced the ancient phallic gods. Innergellie House near
Anstruther, built in 1740 for a leading Benison member, Robert
Lumsdaine, still knowingly displays its statue of Mercury,
patron deity of auto-eroticism.
The centrality of
masturbation rites in the Benison creed actually had a
political significance, at least in the early days of the
club. The start of the 18th century coincided with the
emergence of a major moral panic about masturbation, which
branded it not only sinful but a practice that would lead to
disease, blindness and eventual madness. From the point of
view of the frustrated Benison members it looked like London
had imposed on Scotland a new dynasty, the Union and customs
duties - and now they were against masturbation.
mischievous Scottish resistance to creeping Anglicisation may
lie in this private sexual revolt of the Fife bourgeoisie. Yet
it was also an assertion of Enlightenment common sense against
religious moral blackmail, and thereby is part of the liberal
and critical Scottish outlook that also gave the world Adam
Smith and David Hume.
The Beggar’s Benison clubs
existed for over a century down to 1836, dying out only a few
months before Queen Victoria ascended the throne and ushered
in her eponymous era of sexual hypocrisy and public prudery.
Yet there remained echoes of the old liberal sexual
Previously, in 1783, the playboy
Prince Regent (later George IV) had been an honorary Benison
member. With the waning of the Stuart cause, the Hanoverian
Prince’s notorious debauchery probably appealed to the club
members. When a disgruntled Benison member gave one of the
club’s prized mementoes - a wig composed of the pubic hair
from Charles II’s accumulated mistresses - to a competing sex
club, the young Prince bestowed on the Benison a replacement
"harvested" through his own personal endeavours.
the record, 18th-century male fantasies, as exemplified in the
Burns poems that rarely get read at Burns Suppers, tended to a
preoccupation with more female pubic hair rather than the less
which seems to excite contemporary male imaginations. Forty
years later, in 1822, George - now King - paid his celebrated
visit to Edinburgh. On landing at Leith he was greeted by none
other than the current head (or "sovereign") of the still
active Benison, the Earl of Kellie. The latter returned to
George IV a sample of the hair from that youthful present to
the club. The wooden case for the original Charles II trophy
is still in the possession of St Andrews University.
Historically, Scottish attitudes to sex have always
been socially schizophrenic. The display of sexual pleasure
has been frowned upon, disparaged by a moral hypocrisy
maintained by a threatened male establishment. There are few
modern erotic Scottish novels and certainly no erotically
Yet there was a time in Scotland when
unfettered sexuality was about freedom to express oneself
personally and challenge orthodoxy. Such libertinism was not
always responsible and extended only in modest fashion to
women. But in the fantasy, laughter and subversive
masturbation of the early Benison adherents, or in the bawdy
poetry of Burns, or in the literary pornography of Cleland and
Byron, or in the deliberately sensual architecture of Robert
Adam, we find a warmer and more adventurous Scotland that we
have since lost. It might be a bit crude to say that until
Scotland recovers its lost collective libido it will remain
mired in its current economic sloth and political ennui. But
that beggar girl’s blessing promises otherwise.
Beggar’s Benison - Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and
their Rituals, by David Stevenson. Tuckwell Press,