The lords, lairds, nobles and wealthy libertines of 18th-century Scotland, supplemented by a few customs officials and smugglers with gold coin, had ample opportunity to have their fancy tickled in the East Neuk of Fife.
Anstruther was home to the Beggar’s Benison – or The Most Ancient and Puissant order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, to give it the full title – a gentlemen’s sex club which opened in 1732. This was a place where the chaps could play in Merryland, “merry” being the popular euphemism for sex at that time.
Sex was obviously on offer, with veiled dancing girls and game strumpet doing the 18th-century equivalent of a lap dance with “extras”. Lewd and libidinous behaviour was positively encouraged – young ladies, for example, were paid to position themselves naked for examination.
For all the lusty goings-on, in a climate where masturbation was considered morally questionable, this particular activity seemed to be enjoyed and the club’s members embraced their, erm, members in a big way.
“The novice was ‘prepared’ in a closet… [by three other Members] … causing him to propel his penis until full erection,” writes history professor David Stevenson in The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and Their Rituals. “He then came out of the closet, a fanfare being provided by ‘four puffs of the Breath Horn’, and placed his genitals on the Testing-Platter, which was covered with a folded white napkin. The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice penis to penis.’
After some pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, booze-quaffing from phallus-engraved drinking vessels and the reading of seemingly titillating verse from the Song of Solomon, the initiated were blessed with the words: “May Prick nor Purse ne’er Fail You”.
But these chaps apparently enjoyed wanton “frigging” as a two-fingered salute to the Establishment, and considered it representative of intellectual enlightenment. Some might postulate, however, that they just enjoyed getting their bits out.
A snuffbox gifted to the club by honorary member George IV is said to have contained pubic hair from his mistress. Perhaps they used it for fly-tying.
Having said that, the Wig Club in Edinburgh, founded in 1775, also had a fixation with pubic hair. The wig, after which the club was named, was reputedly woven from the pubic hair of courtesans and had been in the Moray family for three generations. Nice. The elected president even got to wear the fabulous pubic relic at meetings.
According to Old and New Edinburgh (Volume 5), the Wig Club members “generally drank twopenny ale, on which it was possible to get intoxicated for the value of a groat, and ate a coarse kind of loaf, called Soutar’s clod, which, with penny pies of high reputation in those days, were furnished by a shop near Forrester’s Wynd, and known as the Baijen Hole.”
There was also some quite explicit literature on the go during this time of Scottish enlightenment. Fanny Hill, written in the 1700s by John Cleland – son to the Commissioner of Customs in Scotland – was a lusty piece of erotica that covered all manner of sexual encounters, including homosexuality and prostitution.
Shocking for its time, the book had its first public reading at the Beggar’s Benison. It was likely well received. Cleland, clearly libertine in his thinking, was arrested and the book removed from sale.
The libertine code by which Rabbie Burns lived his life is well recorded, and Lord Byron (the son of an Aberdeenshire heiress) famously liked to put it about a bit, fill his senses, and had lovers wherever he went.
He started with a shocking affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb, then Lady Oxford and sundry others. He hung out with poets and writers in Switzerland and Venice, and made love to the beautiful women he met.
Byron was very close to his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, and is said to have had an incestuous relationship with her. He was considered to have been fairly liberated, and – having ticked off adultery, incest and sodomy – didn’t have much left on his “to do” list.
Our very own Doctor of Love, sexologist James Graham, was born in Edinburgh in 1745. He raised a few eyebrows and skirt hems in his time. Having dropped out of medical school, Graham travelled in America and Europe learning about electricity, magnetism and other “new sciences”.
On his return to the UK, he set up practice sequentially in London, Bristol and Bath, and advertised his skills in Effluvia, Vapours and Applications aetherial, magnetic or electric. He offered lectures and advice on sexual health, positioning and all baby-making matters.
Graham also advocated very specific care of the male genitalia for best results, which included washing with very cold water which would “lock the cock and secure all for the next rencontre”. This would also much improve the testicular condition: “certain parts which next morning after a laborious night would be relaxed, lank, and pendulous, like the two eyes of a dead sheep dangling in a wet empty calf’s bladder, by the frequent and judicious use of the icy cold water, would be like a couple of steel balls, of a pound apiece, inclosed in a firm purse of uncut Manchester velvet!”
Graham even invented a Celestial Bed, which had all manner of electrical gadgetry, magnets, mirrors, perfumed gases – as well as a pair of turtledoves within the domed structure.
The device was specifically angled for maximum penetration and was linked to organ pipes (of the musical variety) that would play a celestial tune as the couple banged away. The harder a couple went at it, the greater the intensity of the music.
Graham must have been getting something right, as he had a following of aristocrats and female admirers – including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – and wealthy couples paid handsomely to have a session on the bed to make babies.
Suffering with a Messiah Complex, in debt and committed to an asylum for a time (he took to wandering around naked but for clods of earth about his person), Graham died without receiving medical-establishment endorsement for his techniques.
Little can be found about his actual electrical appliances, though some were phallic in shape and one might guess that he came up with the precursor to the modern vibrator. However, you don’t need to be a qualified medic to figure out that the application of high voltage would be better suited to raising Frankenstein’s monster than genital stimulation.