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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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By Elizabeth McQuillan

Inchkeith Island. <em>Picture:  Simon Johnston</em>

Inchkeith. Picture: Simon Johnston

It is said that the crew of sailors with Columbus in 1493 had it and the Spanish fleet under Alfonso II brought a great dose of it to Naples in 1494 where the French were consumed by it while fighting there. The French apparently gave it to the rest of Europe, while the mercenaries who then went on to join Perkin Warbeck to battle with the English brought with them more than their strength and swords. With them they brought the grandgore to Scotland.

Grandgore sounds as though it might be something rather strong and magnificent. A weapon perhaps? However, in old French it means “the great gore”, or simply syphilis to the rest of us. In 1497 the minutes of the Town Council of Edinburgh recognised the condition for the first time; “This contagious sickness callit the Grandgor.” The Burgh of Aberdeen had made the connection and sussed that it was spread by sexual shenanigans. Turning a blind eye to the boatloads of randy and cankerous sailors roaming their town, they blamed the spread on the loose women, issuing a ruling that “all licht women decist fra thar vices and syne venerie”.

The Scottish population now had an endemic disease that was not going to add to their health or beauty. Sores, rashes, pustules, infections, madness. Unsurprisingly, Edinburgh was not keen on the licentious and suppurating victims of the disease cluttering the streets so they passed The Grandgore Act in September 1497 ordering those afflicted to take Compulsory Retirement.

Splendid as this sounds, there was no remuneration package or retirement complex. Those with grandgore were told to head to the dock at Leith and board the ship provided for them, be ferried away from the city and “there to remain till God provide for their health.” The islands of Inchkeith and Inchgarvie in the Firth of Forth provided the isolation required, and this is where they had to live out the rest of their days.

With the recognition of the disease’s existence came the attempts to cure the loathsome pox. Quacks tried a host of treatments but because the disease presented as a manifestation of symptoms, they could only attempt to deal with these individually. Boring holes into the skull, for example, might have alleviated headaches that were caused by the disease. They might also have killed the patient. Ulcers on the skin could expect the application of a hot iron, and it was deemed good practice to bleed the patient regularly.

By far the most common treatment was the administration of the highly toxic mercury. Patients would have to endure a hot steam room for days, and there either have to ingest the mercury or have it applied to the skin. It was a painful procedure and the treatments would lead to other, more unpleasant symptoms, or death. In the 1500’s guaiac bark was made into a tea and the patient placed in the steam as before, starved, purged and forced to take the concoction as often as forty times per day. This would induce terrible sweats. The thinking was to detoxify the body and apply the “no pain, no gain” philosophy. Extremely ill and dehydrated, many failed to recover from this zealous approach.

Now we are in the 21st Century one might expect this disease to have been relegated to the realms of ancient history. Although the disease waned in the 1950’s with the introduction of penicillin, it has once again become more prevalent. According to BUPA almost 2,500 people in the UK were diagnosed in genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics in 2008. Worldwide, it’s very common, with between 10 and 12 million new infections occurring every year. Women between the ages of 20 and 24 and men between 25 and 30 have the highest rates of syphilis.

Thankfully, should you experience any of the early symptoms of syphilis, you are unlikely to be shipped off to a colony in the Firth of Forth or have mercury administered. A dose of antibiotics will sort a dose of grandgore out in no time at all.