The Beggar’s Benison, or to give it it’s full title ‘The Most Ancient and Puissant Order of the Beggar’s Benison and Merryland, Anstruther’ was a secret gentlemen’s club that flourished in Scotland in the 18th and early 19th century. The Club was formed in 1732 and had 500 members, all rich and powerful figures from the aristocracy, the landholding classes, businessmen, lawyers and government officials. The Club met regularly at premises in the pretty fishing village of Anstruther in Fife. Its avowed aim was the convivial celebration of male sexuality and the members met to dine and drink, make business contacts, sing bawdy songs and share risqué literature. Young ladies, known as ‘posture girls’ were paid to pose naked for the delectation of the audience but no contact was allowed. The document itself is written in suggestive language using the phrase ‘Merryland’ as a euphemism for the female form, as was common in contemporary erotic literature, and is sealed with a rather saucy emblem in wax.
The name ‘Beggar’s Benison’ arose from a traditional tale said to be about King James V of Scotland. It was told that he was walking in the countryside when he came upon a burn in full spate blocking his way. A young beggar girl offered to carry him across so that he would not spoil his fine clothing and rolled up her skirts in order to wade through the water with him in her arms. He rewarded her with a gold coin and his royal favours and she left him with the following benison or blessing:
May your purse ne’er be toom
And your horn aye in bloom
The club is thought to have been associated both with the enlightenment in Scotland and with smuggling. Members who viewed themselves as progressive in their opinions enjoyed the opportunity to engage in intellectual debate with their peer group and to free themselves, for a short while, from the prohibitions put on the expression of their sexual lives by the church and other institutions of the establishment. The coastline between Edinburgh and Anstruther was a haven for smuggling especially after the 1707 Act of Union when Scotland became subject to English taxes on trade and, as a consequence, smuggling became more acceptable as a pursuit amongst people with certain views. It is likely that some of the business contacts made at the club related to the distribution of contraband. Those known to have been members included: –
• Lord Newark (grandson of David Leslie, Lord Newark)
• Sir Charles Erskine of Cambo, 3rd Baronet, and Thomas and John Erskine who were probably his younger brothers
• Robert Hamilton of Kilbrackmont, a local landowner who died in poverty
• James Grahame, baillie of Anstruther Easter
• William Ayton or Aytoun of Kinaldy, landowner
• John McNachtane, customs officer, nominal chief of the dispersed Highland clan, and cousin to the 2nd earl of Breadalbane, was the club’s sovereign for nearly 30 years.
• David Erskine, Lord Cardross and later the 2nd earl of Buchan, and founder of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland
• William Cummying, first secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Lyon Clerk depute
• Hugh Cleghorn professor of civil history at the University of St Andrews and first colonial secretary to Ceylon
• Thomas Erskine, 6th Earl of Kellie, musician
• Thomas Erskine, 9th Earl of Kellie, merchant and British consul in Gothenburg, became the club’s sovereign in 1820.
There were a number of secret, erotic gentlemen’s clubs in 18th century Britain including London’s Hellfire Clubs and The Wig Club, an offshoot of the Beggar’s Benison, in Edinburgh. The Beggar’s Benison continued to meet in Anstruther until it was dissolved in 1836. Sensibilities were changing as the century matured and such bawdy goings on were not so easily tolerated, even amongst the upper classes.
Sir Patrick Stirling of Kippendavie near Dunblane was a prominent local landowner and probably a typical member of the Beggar’s Benison. The certificate is to be found amongst his family papers along with another, exactly the same, for his brother John. Patrick Stirling, born in 1734, the 5th Laird of the Kippendavie Estate succeeded to his title in 1745 and had extensive business interests in Jamaica, as is indicated on the certificate. He died there in 1775. His brother John, born in 1742, inherited the title from his brother on the latter’s death along with the property in Jamaica. He is known to have bought slaves there in order to give them their freedom. One man, known as Charles, was brought to Scotland and granted land on the Kippendavie Estate. John died in Scotland in 1816.