The appeal of the club was that it celebrated sex pure and simple.The bland title, the toast of the beggar’s benison or blessing, concealed a sexual code.Later, such hypocrisy gave way to having the girls dance. Yet the remaining Beggar’s Benison club records show that it was not all drunkenness and debauchery.For this was indeed the start of the Enlightenment, when rational ways of thinking, especially among the educated middle classes, were challenging religious dogma and the grip of uncritical tradition as a source of truth.Passages were read from the erotic classics, including The Song of Solomon and (later) Byron’s Don Juan.A favourite bawdy text read out loud at Benison gatherings was John Cleland’s Fanny Hill - even before it was published.
Social upheaval weakens moral cords and ensuing protest and reaction always take sexual forms, doubtless helped along by the everyday carnal desires of humans.
Where better to bring these divergent forces together but in a private drinking club where ideology could be left at the door?
And what better common bond than the universal interest in sex?
China’s ageing Communist bureaucracy recently burned 40,000 copies of an erotic novel by the scandalous young female writer Wei Hui, which exposed how Shanghai’s youth are challenging the hollow moral faade of a corrupt regime by embracing sexual promiscuity. The erotic revolt started, of all places, in the town of Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife where the first branch of the Benison was founded.
It was devoted to the convivial and unselfconsciously obscene celebration of free sex, free trade (ie smuggling) and subversive political sentiments such as the Jacobite cause and the repeal of the Union of 1707.
And in the all-male Benison they found a secret home to share their frustrations in a unique way. Many were engaging in Scotland’s largest and most profitable service industry: smuggling.