Horse whispering and sex clubs: Five old Scottish societies

Book of The Horseman's word  Pic: Neil Hanna
Book of The Horseman's word Pic: Neil Hanna
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FROM horse whisperers and literary groups, to sex clubs and organisations for tall people only, we take a look at the fascinating history behind five old Scottish clubs and societies.

The Horseman’s Word

Billy Rennie, said to be  Scotland's last Horse Whisperer, at Londerton Equestrian Centre, near Peterhead, Picture: Donald MacLeod

Billy Rennie, said to be Scotland's last Horse Whisperer, at Londerton Equestrian Centre, near Peterhead, Picture: Donald MacLeod

The Horesman’s Word was a mysterious Scottish sect dedicated to the art of communicating with horses.

Set up in north-east of Scotland in the late 18th century, it began at the start of the Agricultural Revolution.

It was made up of ‘horse whisperers’, men who knew and passed on the secret of quickly breaking wild horses by bonding with them and earning their trust, rather than using brute force.

The society flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries before almost dying out in the 20th century.

Billy Rennie with Sandstone Rocky and Londerton Kelly. Picture:  Donald MacLeod.

Billy Rennie with Sandstone Rocky and Londerton Kelly. Picture: Donald MacLeod.

Some of the key phrases used by members of the Horseman’s Word to control their horses,included “Two as one”. The phrase was said to hold magic qualities but was also meant to sum up the idea that horse and man worked together as a unit rather than as master and beast.

There was a strong secrecy of culture among members of the Horseman’s Word. New members were ordered not to reveal details to outsiders on pain of having their heart hacked out with a sword.

Billy Rennie, from Stuartfield, near Peterhead, is the last known member of the Horseman’s Word.

Speaking to The Scotsman previously, he said: “If a horseman took a shine to you, one evening he might come up and say ‘it’s time’, which was a signal you were going to be initiated.

A rare enamelled 'Beggar's Benison' opaque-twist wine glass, circa 1700. Picture:Sothebys.

A rare enamelled 'Beggar's Benison' opaque-twist wine glass, circa 1700. Picture:Sothebys.

“Usually on farms there were between eight and 15 horsemen working a pair of horses for the farmer and they chose the youngsters fit to join.

“You had to arm yourself with a bottle of whisky and a loaf of bread as a sort of payment for the information you’d be receiving.

“At midnight you were taken from your bed, blindfolded and led to the barn or ‘chaff house’ where the other horsemen would be waiting. You had to knock in a particular way to imitate a horse kicking a door.”

The new recruit would have his shirt open to the navel. “That was to prove you weren’t a woman, they weren’t allowed,” he added.

After that they were made to swear they would never reveal the secrets of the society. Then they were told the key word which was “as one” to emphasise the unity between man and horse.

Once the initiation ceremony was over the training began. “It could take between two and three years,” said Rennie. “You were told all sorts of things - how to cure various ailments, how to listen and bond with horses and make them relax.”

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Beggar’s Benison

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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The Bannatyne Club

With Sir Walter Scott as its president, the Edinburgh Bannatyne Club was not open to just anyone.

Set up to print and preserve historical books, its membership included four dukes, a marquess, three earls and a peer.

The Bannatyne Club was established in 1823 as the Scottish equivalent of the Roxburghe Club in England, with Scott as its first president until his death in 1832. The club, which was originally limited to 31 members, continued until 1867 after publishing 176 volumes.

The group was named after George Bannatyne, a compiler of Scottish poetry of the 15th and 16th centuries. The group subsequently published Bannatyne’s work in book form, along with many other previously inaccessible Scottish works, including writings by local authors such as David Hume and Scott’s personal friend Patrick Fraser Tytler.

In a rule book, Scott described the club’s aims and objectives as “by means of an annual sum contributed by members, to print in uniform and handsome manner, a series of works, illustrative of the history, topography, poetry and miscellaneous literature of Scotland in former times”.

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The Poker Club

The Jacobite rebellion of 1745 caused considerable panic in civilised Lowland society. It demonstrated the vulnerability of a commercial economy to pastoral Highland invaders who were much better suited to fighting. With this in mind, the philosopher Adam Ferguson established the “Poker Club”, a group designed to press for a Scottish militia.

It also aimed to fight for parliamentary reform which would ‘let the industrious farmer and manufacturer share at last in the privilege now engrossed in by the great lord, the drunken laird and the drunkener bailie’.

The name derives from the fact the first chairman. on his election, grasped hold of a poler and adopted it as his insignia of office.

The club members included Adam Smith, who regarded defence as the “first duty of the sovereign”, David Hume and William Robertson.

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Six-foot High Club

An Edinburgh club for people who are six feet tall, which once counted Sir Walter Scott as a member.

The organisation flourished in the early 19th century, and candidates for membership to the club has to be over six-foot tall in height.

Club members gathered for meetings at Hunter’s Tryst Inn.

In his journal, in Marh 1829, Sir Walter Scott wrote: “What a tale of alphabet I should draw after me were I to sign with the indications of the different societies I belong to, beginning with President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and ended with umpire of the Six-foot-high Club!”