The secret guide to 18th century Edinburgh’s working girls

There were over 100 brothels in 18th century Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed.
There were over 100 brothels in 18th century Edinburgh. Picture: Contributed.
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MORE than 240 years ago there was an Old Town guidebook which catered for a very specific breed of tourist.

Published in 1775, Ranger’s Impartial List of Ladies of Pleasure gives us an eye-opening insight into the seedy underbelly of Georgian-era Auld Reekie.

It reveals in explicit detail, the names, ages and specialities of sixty-six of Edinburgh’s foremost working girls and where to find them.

Due to the spicy subject matter, the list was penned anonymously, though it was later revealed that the man behind the quill was none other than James Tytler, a well-kent figure among Edinburgh’s Georgian gentry whose claims to fame include editing the Encyclopaedia Britannica and being the first person in Britain to fly a hot air balloon.

Tytler begins his book with an intriguing preface which argues at great length against the widespread condemnation of prostitution, citing the numerous Edinburgh lawyers and priests who have regularly offered support to the profession.

Prostitution, according to the book, is harming no-one, though the reader is warned to avoid ladies who have taken part in a ‘contaminated embrace’.

Tytler employs a colourful use of language throughout, with the ladies repeatedly described as ‘worshippers of Venus’ or as ‘nymphs’. Ladies known for being able to sing are highlighted - as are those fond of pick-pocketing.

Ranger’s directory must surely have caused quite a scandal in its day, and even 200 years on there are euphemistic elements of it which could make a sailor blush.

Conversely, however, it’s the non-PC manner in which the author describes the women and their physical attributes which might just ruffle more 21st century feathers. Particular attention was paid to the state of the ladies’ teeth, as a lack of them indicated that she may be suffering from a venereal infection.

As detailed in the book, many of the city’s prostitutes plied their trade from the same brothels and worked under a madame. It is written that, in 1763, there were only five or six such houses, but with a couple of decades, that number exploded to over one hundred - hence the need for a directory!

Ranger’s Impartial List was published for an exclusive, private audience, and as far as we know, it is the earliest example of its kind.

A fold-out map of old Edinburgh showing the locations of each brothel is included in the 1978 re-published version by Paul Harris.

It is said James Tytler planned a follow-up list dealing with the ladies of Glasgow, but decided to scrap the idea after an ‘exhausting’ effort compiling the Edinburgh version.

Here is a select sample which reveals Tytler’s incredibly candid approach, and his eagerness to provide an ‘impartial list’.

Miss Betty Clark, Back of Bell’s Wynd

This Lady is about 21, of the middle size, red hair, and very good teeth. She is far from being disagreeable, if it were not for her sulky temper, which sometimes cools the keeneth desire even in the height of their mutual embraces.

She understands the power of friction admirably well.

Mrs Dingwell at the Fountain-well

This Lady is a fit person to grace a table, being pretty fat and comely, she is a good Winter-piece; and indeed, upon the whole, very agreeable. She is about 26 years of age, her features are pleasing, good teeth and black hair, and not deficient in point of sense; and, if her lovers tells truth, not even in sensation; for she is said to be very fond of the sport.

Miss Rutherford, Fowle’s Close

This Lady is about 22 years old, short and lusty, black hair, good complexion, indifferent teeth, and very good-natured; She seldom fails of giving great satisfaction to her votaries, as she is perfect mistress in the art of kissing, of which she is not a little fond.

Miss Sutherland, Back of Bell’s Wynd

This Lady is an old veteran in the service, about 30 years of age, middle sized, black hair and complexion and very good teeth, but not altogether good-natured.

She is a firm votary to the wanton Goddess, and would willingly play morning, noon, and night.

As a friend, we will give a caution to this Lady, as she has a habit to make free with a gentleman’s pocket, especially when he is in liquor.

Lady Agnew, Nether-bow

This drunken bundle of iniquity, is about 50 years of age, lusty and tall.

Being a disgrace to her relations, who are some of the best in Scotland, she regards neither decency or decorum, and would as willingly lie with a chimney sweep as with a Lord.

Take her all in all, she is an abandoned piece.

Miss Cobb, Monteith’s Close

This Lady is short and lusty, dark brown hair, good skin and teeth, and about 27 years of age. She is very sulky, and disagreeable in company, for the most part; and is neither pretty, nor is possessed of one grain of sense; yet, she is extremely fond of the sport, and makes a tolerable livelihood. We are sorry to give her the character, but we are determined to be impartial.

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