Georgian brothel guide inspires new walking tour

'Miss Watt', below, will lead a tour past some of the 117 brothels that operated on the Royal Mile. Photograph: Kate Chandler
'Miss Watt', below, will lead a tour past some of the 117 brothels that operated on the Royal Mile. Photograph: Kate Chandler
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IT IS a new take on the walk of shame. A company is offering a tour of the network of ­brothels used by prostitutes plying their trade in 18th century Edinburgh.

The night time tour for over-18s is based on a long-forgotten book, Ranger’s Impartial List Of Ladies Of Pleasure, published in 1775, which offers a candid appraisal of 50 of the city’s prostitutes and helpful notes on where to find them.

Miss Watt. Picture: Kate Chandler

Miss Watt. Picture: Kate Chandler

Information includes the women’s names, ages, the condition of their teeth and their temperament.

Now an actress, posing as Miss Watt, a prostitute described in the book as being of middle size, with light brown hair and good teeth but rather surly tempered, has put together a one-hour walking tour featuring some of the 117 brothels that operated along the Royal Mile.

They include the Old Town’s most popular house of ill-repute, in Barry’s Close, which attracted clients from the nearby court and law offices who could slip in unnoticed through an entrance at the foot of a flight of stairs off ­Parliament Square.

Miss Watt, an arts graduate who declined to give her name for fear of spoiling the secretive nature of her role, used the book to map out her tour. Prostitution was a thriving business in Auld Reekie in the 1770s, with male visitors flocking to the city in search of lustful pleasure.

Although it was published anonymously, it is believed that the man who assiduously researched the Who’s Who of Edinburgh prostitutes was James Tytler, the son of a minister and a political agitator who edited Encyclopaedia ­Britannica. He was also the first Briton to make an aerial ascent in a hot-air balloon.

Tytler employed colourful language to assess the 50 women, described as “worshippers of Venus” or “nymphs”. Further praise was heaped upon prostitutes who could engage in good conversation or sing.

The directory, which cost a shilling and was a best-seller in its time, sometimes resorted to code. It noted that red-haired Miss Inglis, age 22, had a fondness for “performing on the ­silent flute”. It also revealed that a certain Miss Blair at Miss Walker’s brothel will “go twa go’s up, for one go down”.

Other women were described as sulky-tempered and readers were warned about Miss Sutherland, a veteran in the business, who “made free with a gentleman’s pocket, especially when he is in liquor”.

Particular attention was paid to the condition of a woman’s teeth – a lack of teeth was regarded as an indication that she had a venereal disease.

Yesterday a spokesman for the Royal Smile Times Machine tour company said: “Our manager’s family has lived in the Royal Mile for over 200 years and he grew up hearing all the stories about the girls. He read Tytler’s book and decided this would be the ideal way to highlight a little known part of the city’s history.

“The tours are run in a theatrical manner with our guide acting out the role of Miss Watt. She keeps things light-hearted but also gives the women’s side of the story by explaining how tough life was for these women and why some felt they had little option but to work in this trade.”

Miss Watt was written up by Tytler as being “rather surly in temper, especially after the glass has gone merrily round; notwithstanding of this, she is not a bad companion, as she can sing many very fine songs. She is also mistress of her profession; and it is said, before she would sleep alone, she would rather pay a clever fellow for to do her business, as love is her sole delight.”

The woman who has brought her back to life said: “I start off taking them to my old workplace, Dawson’s Tavern off Anchor Close and let them know what I think of Tytler’s description of me. Then we go to the locations where some of the brothels would have been, weaving in a fair bit of history too. I finish off showing them the spot where I was hung for stealing watches.”

“I’ve had a whole range of ages and nationalities on the tour. It’s for adults only but I change the script a bit if ­people seem a bit strait-laced.

“It reveals a hidden history of women in Edinburgh that not many people know about – including the shocking wages and conditions for women in so-called “respectable” jobs.

“It’s a fun tour but the background to it is tragic and as a woman it’s something I really sympathise with. It’s also a way of giving the women justice as they didn’t get the chance to tell their story. I finish the tours off with a song, The Whore’s Lament.”

Mifs Watt, at Mifs Adam’s

This Lady is about 21 years of age, of the middle ƒize, light brown hair, good teeth, but rather ƒurly in her temper eƒpecially after the glaƒs has gone merrily round; notwithƒtanding of this, ƒhe is not a bad companion, as ƒhe can ƒing many very fine ƒongs. She is alƒo miƒtreƒs of her profeƒƒion; and it is ƒaid, before ƒhe would ƒleep alone, ƒhe would rather pay a clever fellow for to do her buƒineƒs, as love is her ƒole delight.