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 clubs.
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 Presbyterian image.
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 faade 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.
According to 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."
The 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.
Passages were 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 risqu 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 a 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.
A 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 preoccupations.
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.
For 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 charged movies.
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.
The Beggar’s Benison - Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and their Rituals, by David Stevenson. Tuckwell Press, 18.99.