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British Army

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850–1894 <em>Picture: Ana Quiroga</em>

Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850–1894 Picture: Ana Quiroga

Come the spring, what more could a television audience ask for than to sit down midweek and ogle the BBC’s new costume drama? The Crimson Petal and the White, adapted from the book by Scottish-based author Michel Faber, details the trials and tribulations of a Victorian prostitute known as Sugar.

As is almost always the case in 19th century depictions of prostitution, the novel is set in London, a place that appears to have – at least in literature – exclusivity when it comes to bordellos and whores. Even Robert Louis Stevenson set his novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in London, as if to confirm that vice could never stalk the presbyterian streets of Scotland.

Yet scratch beneath the surface and you can find houses of ill-repute, streetwalkers and harlots out and about and soliciting for business in Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh from pretty much around the time that man appears. Stevenson himself frequented the most sordid of brothels whilst he was meant to be studying law at Edinburgh University, and it can’t be too much of a stretch to suggest his inspiration for Hyde was born in those dingy backrooms off the Royal Mile.

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Surprisingly little has been written about prostitution in Scotland, but what small glimpses there are reveal that it has always been an entrenched problem. In the 17th century there was an acknowledged need for a new jail, eventually built on Regent’s Road in Edinburgh, to imprison the ever-growing criminal population. The 1829 book Modern Athens reveals that Edinburgh had “become, as it were, the common receptacle for the strolling poor, lazy beggars, idle vagrants and common prostitutes”.

In Glasgow, right up to the 19th century and beyond, the Fair holidays, with their street tables and penny theatres, led to an abundance of cheap entertainment, too much alcohol and – inevitably – prostitution. The Fair, which had begun as a religious festival in the 15th century, was by then “reduced to a day or two celebrated in blind drunkenness”.

During the plays, young women cavorted in cutty-sarks, in their own inimitable version of Tam o’ Shanter. Another theatre-owner was even less subtle, using a prostitute to perform “unspeakable acts” as a way of drawing the crowds. A newspaper at the time suggested that there were upwards of 200 brothels in the East End of Glasgow.

According to the modern historian Judith Walkowitz, a British city would have on average one prostitute per 36 inhabitants. This eventually led across the United Kingdom to an outcry for something to be done to stop this “Great Social Evil”. By the middle of the 19th century, the UK government was compelled to introduce the Contagious Diseases Acts 1866–1869 to address the problem of the spread of venereal diseases. At that time, it was thought that one in three men in the British Army needed treatment for VD.

Glasgow opted not to enforce this Act, having decided to tackle the problem earlier. There, the Glasgow Police Act of 1843 had improved things enormously with Alexander McCall, the city’s chief constable, writing that before the Act “you could scarcely walk any distance without some woman putting herself in your way or getting hold of you”.

After the passing of the Act, McCall concluded that “you will not find a city in which there is less of that upon the public streets, or less temptation in a general way to lead young people astray than you find in Glasgow.”

His claims are given greater credence when you investigate the records from Glasgow’s Lock Hospital, an asylum set up to specialise in the treatment of gonorrhea and syphilis, where the number of women treated for VD decreased over the years after the introduction of the Act.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh, William Tait – whose 1840 book Magdalenism offered an in-depth study of prostitution in the capital city – estimated that £200,000 a year was spent on prostitution, and that there were at least 800 prostitutes at work in the city. He traced them to a number of different establishments, from: “Genteel houses of assignation” (of which there were three), licensed taverns (ten), ginger-beer shops (25) and brothels – which he rated from Genteel, second-rate, through to very low.

An illustrative example in Tait’s time of how the trade followed the customer is offered from 1839, when the Earl of Eglinton produced a massive mediaeval re-enactment event in Ayrshire. Over half the prostitutes in Edinburgh were said to have travelled west, many staying for months, and putting a great strain on the brothels they left behind.

It was not just in the bigger cities that the vice held its grip. In Dundee during the 19th century the dramatic rise in VD was said to mirror the increase in street- and brothel-run prostitution. At that time, prostitution was thought to be gravitating to the housing schemes on the outskirts of the city. In the Police Superintendent’s Annual Report from 1876, we see that 123 prostitutes were arrested for “loitering and importuning”.

Through the 19th century, there grew a greater understanding of the need to offer help as well as punishment for prostitutes. The Contagious Diseases Act did necessitate the examination of all known prostitutes, but was seen by a growing number of civil rights activists as an invasion of privacy. By the 20th century, there were numerous attempts to deal with the issue – with Edinburgh, for example, opting for a number of years for a tolerated red-light area.

Today it is estimated that globally the annual revenue generated by prostitution is over $100 billion. With such enormous sums, it is unlikely that this “festering sore on the body of society” (the Scotsman, 1959) will be dealt with any time soon.

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Badge of the Royal ScotsThe “poor bloody infantry” arguably had one of the toughest jobs in battle, building and supplying the front line, and no-one has been “keeping the line” longer than the Royal Scots, the oldest regiment in the British Army.  Known as “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguards” – after a 17th-century bragging competition with the French – they have, since 2006, been amalgamated with five other regiments to form The Royal Scots Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

The Royal Scots was raised on this day in history in 1633 by renowned fighter Sir John Hepburn, under a Royal Warrant from Charles I. Made up mostly from Scottish mercenaries, they fought predominantly in Europe for the first 30 years of their fighting lives until they were recalled to Britain in 1661. There they became the inspiration for the New Model Army – the Royal Scots could be considered the prototype for every British fighting unit.

Their history has been long, busy and bloody and has seen them fight in battles, wars and conflicts across the world. The 17th century saw them in Tangiers where they won their first Battle Honour. For their bravery, Charles II conferred on them the title “The Royal Regiment of Foot”. This in turn has led to them being known as “First of foot, right of the line and the pride of the British Army”.

It was in the 17th century that the regiment was divided into two battalions, and was not to have fewer until 1949. These two battalions were split up, seeing varied duty through the 19th century. They served under Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession, then fought across Europe in the Austrian War of Succession before returning to Scotland to defeat the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden.

The regiment was often posted east, to India and China, helping both to maintain and to enlarge the Empire, and to ensure trading could continue. In the West Indies they suffered huge losses, not through fighting, but from disease, which saw them lose more than half of their battalion.

During the First World War the regiment rose to 35 battalion, 15 of which served in the front line. They suffered many casualties during the conflict; of the 100,000 men who fought for the regiment during this time, 40,000 were wounded and nearly 12,000 killed. Of particular poignancy is the number of brothers who were killed, some on the same day.

On July 1915, brothers Robert and William Archibald died near La Boissell. The men had adjacent regimental numbers, suggesting that they enlisted together. On the same day 23-year-old twins Alexander and John Laing were killed in France. John, a baker from Penicuik, died trying to provide cover for survivors from C Company. His brother Sandy, a Leith policeman, died by his side.

One of the darkest days in the Regiment’s history was 22 May, 1915. A special troops train carrying the Leith-based 7th Battalion was en route to Liverpool, from where they would then embark for Gallipoli. The signalmen outside Gretna forgot that a local train was still on the tracks and gave the all-clear to the troop train. The impact was so intense that the troop train was reduced to half its previous length. Minutes after the northbound express from Euston crashed into it, setting it on fire.

It is still Britain’s worst ever train crash, killing three officers, 29 non-commissioned officers and 182 soldiers who were either killed outright or burnt to death.

Today the regiment, albeit functioning as part of a larger battalion, is still seeing action and still suffering losses.  The 1 Scots have just arrived back from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. Company Commander Major Graeme Wearmouth describing the country as a “minefield” but says his warriors were every bit as good as the jocks of old.

“We had a tough six months, they fought well, they fought hard and they made progress.” he says of their fighting in the notoriously dangerous Helmand Province.

Unlike the fighting days of old, he says that their role nowadays is as much about winning over the locals. “When we arrived, the relationship with the locals wasn’t that great and it was a bit of an uphill struggle,” he said. However, in the end they began to break down the barriers, to the extent that they set up a neighbourhood watch scheme.

During the tour the company lost two men, Corporal John Moore and Private Sean McDonald, and a number of other soldiers were injured. And although the men were glad to be returning home, their thoughts were never far from the ones who didn’t make it.

“As we got on that helicopter,” says Wearmouth, talking of the day they left, “every man was thinking of John and Sean. But we made progress and their deaths were not in vain.”

Billy Wolfe

By Kevin Gilmartin

William Cuthbertson “Billy” Wolfe, former leader of the SNP, has died aged 86. The  First Minister,  Alex Salmond, said he was “deeply saddened” by the news . “Billy Wolfe blazed the trail in the professionalisation and organisation of the SNP,  and he more than anyone transformed it into a modern political party,” Mr Salmond said.

Born in 1924, Wolfe was educated at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, and later qualified as a time-served chartered accountant. As a soldier for the British Army in the Second World War he became involved in several organisations whose aims were to celebrate and highlight Scotland’s cultural distinctiveness within the UK.

Becoming convinced of the need for Scottish independence, Wolfe joined the Scottish National Party in 1959.  In 1962 he stood for the SNP in the West Lothian by-election, where he came second to Labour’s Tam Dalyell. Defeated but encouraged by the strong showing of support for the party in an area where it  previously had very little, Wolfe turned his attention to the organisation of the SNP, which had only existed for 28 years, and realised that it needed a clearly defined political stance. Under Wolfe’s guidance the party established the SNP Trade Union Group, identifying with Labour trade union campaigns and promoting distinct left-of-centre policies.

Wolfe served as deputy leader from 1966 to 1969 before succeeding Arthur Donaldson as party leader. During his time in charge he led the SNP to their greatest election victory, taking 11 seats in the House of Commons in the 1974 general election. He also led the party through the events of the controversial Scottish devolution referendum of 1979 before stepping down that year.

Wolfe served as president of the SNP from 1980 to 1982, and in the following years remained active in the SNP as an ordinary party member.

Outside of politics Wolfe ran Chieftain Forge, a spade and shovel forge manufacturing agricultural machinery. The business closed as the party’s demands left him time for little other than politics, and one of his machines can currently be seen in the Summerlee Heritage Park in Coatbridge.

A keen writer with a love of poetry, Wolfe often penning verses in the Scots tongue. His book Scotland Lives: the Quest for Independence, was published in 1971.

He is survived by his wife, Kate, and four children from his previous marriage, David, Sheila, Ilene and Patrick. Intensely proud of his Scottish heritage, he had a flagpole and Saltire in the front garden of his South Lanarkshire home.  The family flag, of which Billy was so proud, is now at half-mast.

Kevin Gilmartin