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Issue 48 - Beggers and Jezebels

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


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Beggers and Jezebels

Annie Harrower-Gray uncovers the lusty past of a sleepy fishing port.

The little fishing port of Anstruther, tucked away in the East Neuk of Fife is hardly the place you would expect to find that most urban of institutions the gentleman’s club. It was here though in 1732 that the Beggars Bennison opened its door to members and was to become perhaps the most notorious of all secret Scottish societies.

The ancient and Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland took its name from a mythical incident in which James V in his disguise as the piper, ‘Rob the Ranter’ or ‘The Gude-man of Ballangeich’, came to the Dreel burn in Anstruther to find it in spate. Not wishing to get his stockings wet, he hired one of the beggar women waiting by the ford to carry him over the King rewarded her with a gold coin for lifting her skirts and he received her bennison or blessing before making his way to Dreel castle on the opposite shore.

Dreel castle therefore became the official meeting place of the Beggars and the joys experienced by its members were all based on their dream of promiscuity, tax-free alcohol, and the repeal of the Acts of Union with England forged in 1707. Merryland was the imaginary kingdom where these mainly middle-aged Jacobites, Hanoverians, customs officials and smugglers found something in common and could share their erotic fantasies.

At the clubs twice-yearly meetings prospective members faced an initiation ceremony. Unlike members of its fictional counterpart, the Jezebel club, invented by the journalist William Creech to highlight the growing problem of prostitution in Edinburgh, the initiates did not need a partner. They were provided with a specially made pewter receptacle named the testing plate. The spokeswoman for the Jezebels, Lydia Harridan would have been horrified at the loss of trade caused by such self-sufficiency.

Both in morality and miles, Anstruther was a long way from Edinburgh so why did Scotland’s erotic revolution begin in this little provincial town? Anstruther was in 1732 a key port linking Scotland to London, France and the Baltic and as such politically as well as economically important.

It was home to prosperous lairds as well as businessmen and they were all upset by changes in post–union Scotland mainly the huge increase in duty on alcohol to supplement English industry.

It was not only increased taxation that offended these gentlemen but publications such as Onania first printed in London in 1715 and still circulating in the 1730’s. These journals offered the view that autoeroticism, or the sin of Onan was damaging to health and could even cause blindness. Of course they all offered a cure for a fee. Panic swept through a society that had replaced the old Puritanism and Presbyterianism with Libertinism, a complete and shocking abandonment of conventional moralities.

The elite of Anstruther were outraged that not only had London deprived them of the camaraderie to be found in a dram but of their solitary pleasures too.

In protest, the sin of Onan became the main focus of the club and no longer a solitary pleasure but one to be practiced publicly in front of other members. The Beggar’s regalia, a part of which is now in the special collections department at the University of St. Andrews, also relied heavily on erotic symbolism.

Robert Lumsdaine, one of the founder members decorated his home, Innergelly House with a statue of the Beggar’s pagan deity Mercury, above its door. Here Mercury appears in his respectable form. Only the members of the club would recognize the intended joke. Mercury was the god of autoeroticism, free - or in this case smuggled trade and a notorious trickster.

In the East Neuk smuggling was encouraged rather than criminalized. Cases brought by revenue men against the smugglers usually failed as juries refused to convict. The gentry hearing these cases benefited more than anyone from the sale of contraband. In 1755, one magistrate Andrew Johnstone was found to be sitting on the bench whilst heavily under the influence of smuggled gin.

The Beggar’s were not all about duty free drunkenness though. This was the age that gave us the philosopher David Hume, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and the intellectual enlightenment. Sex was taken seriously as a subject of scientific enquiry. The Beggars hired local girls as ‘posture girls’ to illustrate their physiology lectures on such subjects as ‘The Menstrual Cycle of the Skate’, and ‘The Gender of an Earthworm’.

There were not enough scientific topics to provide a lecture at every meeting but enough to maintain the myth that there was some intellectual purpose to the club.

The Beggars claimed to be a benevolent society and were certainly generous in paying the young ladies to turn up on nights when there was no lecture and nothing for them to do other than dance naked around the members.

Creating myths seems to have been a speciality of the Beggar’s Bennison. They claimed to meet at Dreel Castle but it is much more likely they held their meetings in the comfort of Robertson’s Commercial Hotel now the aptly named Smugglers Inn. After Charles II visited the castle in 1651, Oliver Cromwell’s army all but demolished it and many of the stones were used to build a manor house for LordAnstruther.

Today all that remains of the fortress is a few sandstones under the west wall of Dreel Lodge.

As well as claiming links with Dreel Castle and the mythological Mercury, the club attached itself to the Medieval Lord known as Fisher Willie who according to the Beggars seduced Venus as she rose up from the waters of the Forth in the form of the Isle of May.

Branches of the Benison opened in both Edinburgh and St. Petersburg and many clubs such as the Wig Club modelled themselves on this frustrated fraternity.

Despite the Jacobite leanings of some of its members the club survived the aftermath of the 1745 rising. It struggled on even though the French revolution brought about a new respect for the lower orders that caused the upper classes to curtail their hedonist behaviour. The Beggars Bennison was finally disbanded in 1836 on the eve of the prudish Victorian era.

Did this revolutionary club meet so that the local gentry could air their disgruntled views on the political issues of the time, plot subversive activities and recreate the bawdy age of James V? Or is this explanation simply another myth that was generated by the Beggars to create intrigue? Could it simply have been a place where middle-aged men obsessed with their libidos could get together and dream of being the young rakes they probably never were.