The farther I traveled from London, the more lurid the sex clubs became. So it makes sense that the kinkiest societies lurked in Scotland, even though today it’s a land better known for haggis and deep-fried pizza than for hot-blooded lovers. Founded in 1732, the most influential was called the Beggar’s Benison, and since we have many records of its proceedings, we know its meetings were little short of bizarre. Most exciting, I’d heard that many of the club’s weird erotic relics had somehow survived.
So I set out to visit the Benison’s original home, a tavern in a fishing village called Anstruther. My map told me it was located on the East Neuk of Fife, by the Firth of Forth, which sounded like somewhere Bilbo Baggins might hang out. Soon I was driving along the rugged coastline north of Edinburgh. Its windswept cliffs, which seem carved by a giant bread knife, are beloved by hikers and bird-watchers today, but back in the 18th century, it was a gloomy expanse of coal pits and salt pans, where villagers eked out a harsh life pickling herring or smuggling.
When Anstruther, just one of many small fishing communities, appeared, I navigated down a tight, salt-encrusted lane to the pebbly beach guarded by cawing seagulls. The tide was out, leaving a lush layer of pungent seaweed. Trawlers lay on their sides like beached whales, and a forlorn web of nets were drying on the stone walls. Every so often, tiny rays of sunlight peaked through the gray sky just long enough to remind you of the dismal weather.
Unlike in West Wycombe, nobody was peddling Hellfire Club history here. The only signs of life were a row of fish-and-chip shops and a small museum devoted to fishing, where the town’s local historian, Christine Keay, gave an involuntary shudder when I mentioned the Beggar’s Benison. “Every now and then, some artifact will come up at auction in Edinburgh or London, and there will be a flurry of interest in the club,” she said. “But, no, we’re not promoting it as a tourist attraction.”
And the relics? She didn’t think there was anything in Anstruther.
I slogged across the beach glass to inspect the foundations of Castle Dreel, where the club supposedly held its first meeting in 1732. The group’s odd name—which in full was the Most Ancient and Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Maryland—came from a story about King James V. While traveling in Scotland incognito, he asked a local wench, “a buxom gaberlunzie lass,” to carry him across a river on her back. Rewarded with a gold coin, the delighted woman offered the king her blessing: “May prick or purse never fail you.” This so-called “beggar’s benison” became the club credo.
Castle Dreel was already a ruin in 1732, so the club moved its meetings to a discreet neighboring tavern. Despite alterations, the tavern still exists and is now a pub called the Smuggler’s Inn. It could have doubled as a shabby film set for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, with stone steps down heading to the beach once used for contraband whisky deliveries.
Inside, a weather-beaten little housekeeper looked at me as if I were insane. “You want a room?” she asked. “Here?”
The owner, who was gnawing on potato chips in his office, looked me up and down suspiciously, as if he knew just what I was up to. “Take your pick, mate,” he said, jerking his thumb to the rear of the establishment. I chose a small chamber with an ocean view, so that sitting on my lumpy bed, I could stare across the village graveyard to the North Sea, frothing away like gray Coca-Cola.
Above the public bar there was a more desolate party room, with better graveyard views and a ship’s-cabin theme. In a dark annex, which had exposed stone walls from the original 18th-century edifice, the housekeeper was helping a technician set up a karaoke system. For a whole hour, agonizing feedback came out of the speakers until they gave up and had a drink.
* * *
If a traveler had managed to peep through a keyhole here 250 years ago, he or she would have found a disturbing sight. The meetings of the Beggar’s Benison were historical pageants that Masterpiece Theater has so far been in no hurry to depict.
From the records, we can reconstruct a meeting held on Nov. 30, 1737—St. Andrew’s Day. In miserable weather (the minutes read: “Tempest”), two dozen members, from customs clerks to local gentlemen, gathered in the fire-lit room wearing olive green silk sashes and pornographic medals. On a table in the center of the room, a pair of pink-cheeked posture molls hired from the village girls (“ages 18 and 19”) struck acrobatic poses in the nude, while members inspected the “Secrets of Nature” with a clinical eye. (Touching was strictly forbidden; if anyone was overcome by desire or booze and broke this club rule, he would be thrown into the rainy alley.)
A club official produced a large pewter plate, called the Test Platter, placed it on an altar, and folded a white napkin upon it. At the blowing of a horn, three initiates were led in from a small room. Perhaps the sheer anticipation, combined with glimpses of the posture girls, was enough to achieve a priapic frenzy. Or perhaps, like modern sperm donors, the waiting room was conveniently supplied with the club’s pornographic literature. In any case, the trio advanced to the platter and went to work until they produced a “horned spoonful.” The two dozen other club members then followed suit. (“24 met, 3 tested and enrolled. All frigged.”) The three flushed initiates were then presented with a diploma and handed phallic-shaped drinking vessels, called “prick glasses,” charged with fine port wine. A toast was offered to “Firm Erection, fine Insertion, Excellent distillation, no Contamination.” The prick glasses turned out to be party jokes; when the new members tried to drink, port spurted down their chins and shirts.
The club sovereign then reverently produced the most legendary of the Benison props—a wig that was supposedly made from the pubic hairs of King Charles II’s many mistresses—and put it on his head to raucous toasts and cheering.
The festivities continued until 3 a.m., as the waves lashed the castle ruins and rain pelted the tavern windows.
Surely someone at the Smuggler’s Inn knew about this? I ordered an Old Jock beer in the downstairs pub, which had a permanent clientele of about six, and began an informal poll on the Beggar’s Benison. Two characters unexpectedly came to life. One had found a copy of the records at a flea market. Another had bought an academic book about the club.
“A couple of years ago, some really young lads started a rock band called the Beggar’s Benison,” one remembered fondly. “They had heard about it, and knew it was sort of naughty-sexy, maybe a bit shocking to get some attention. They put up posters for their first gig all over town. Then I tipped them off as to what the club was really about. They ran around the village all red-faced, tearing down their posters. Wasn’t exactly the image the poor bastards were after, being associated with a bunch of wankers.”
Still, there did seem to be a perverse pride in the Benison. Wankers though they were, the members were also rebels. They were against the Scottish Kirk, or church, which repressed every whisper of sexual freedom. They were against the English, especially their taxes, and many were involved in smuggling. And the masturbation was an act of defiance against the new anti-onanism tracts coming out of London, which argued that self-abuse was a medical danger that could lead to blindness and consumption.
The next morning, with the beer still sloshing around inside me, I sat down to the “full Scottish breakfast” of fried eggs, fried potatoes, and fried tomatoes.
“Fancy some fried bread with that, love?” the waitress asked.
As diverting as the Smuggler’s Inn was, I hadn’t had any luck finding the fabled relics. The pub’s owner finally confirmed that he had no secret cupboard of masturbatory items. One book I found guessed that the items might have ended up in the United States in the 1980s—a plausible enough notion, given that so many off-beat European artifacts, such as Napoleon’s severed penis, found homes on American shores.
To solve the mystery, I tracked down historian David Stevenson, who has to qualify as the world’s leading expert on Scottish masturbation cults. Professor emeritus in Scottish history at the University of St. Andrews and author of The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and Their Rituals, he lives in a suburban home on a hillside by the Firth of Forth. When I entered his living room, his wife looked at me askance. “So you’re one of the strange people interested in the Beggar’s Benison, are you?” she inquired.
“I first heard of the club when I was a student in Edinburgh,” said Stevenson, a soft-spoken, grandfatherly figure with a silver beard, who was wearing socks and sandals. “One or two scholars had touched on it, but they didn’t want to get their fingers dirty.”
And had the relics stayed in Scotland? I asked eagerly.
“It’s a miracle that they’ve survived at all,” he said. “I’m sure there were many more clubs of this nature at the time, only their relics were destroyed, so we don’t know about them. But yes, the Benison items never left these bonny shores. In fact, they’re only a few miles away. I’ll get you an appointment.”