16 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 43

It beggars belief

Byron Rogers

THE BEGGAR'S BENISON by David Stevenson Tuckwell. £18.99, pp. 276, ISBN 1862321345 his book should be the most heroic work on the shelves of any historical library. Its subject is a gentlemen's dining club, which for most of the 18th century, a sort of Rotary in periwigs, met in a small Scottish town. From here its fame spread, so its members included peers of the realm, the odd bishop (though on his elevation he requested that his name be struck from the records). even a king of England, and there were chapters in Edinburgh and, amazingly, in Russia. It is just that until now professional historians have never dared write about the Beggar's Benison of Anstruther on the Firth of Forth.

This is because they thought it a hoax, which, when you think about it, is a fairly large hurdle to overcome. David Stevenson, alas, did not have this excuse. An emeritus professor of history at St Andrew's, he knew it was all true, for in his place of work were the regalia of their ritual, in a locked cupboard where a stunned university had put them after they were presented by a local solicitor. They had been initially offered to the National Museum by the widow of the last owner on the grounds that they were part of the heritage of Scotland, at which point the curator fainted.

For the Beggar's Benison were not quite like Rotary. They met to celebrate three activities, each of which Professor Stevenson attempts to put in some kind of historical perspective. He knew exactly where he was with the first, with treasonable politics, one of the club's officers having been hanged after turning out for the Bonnie Prince, and with the second, large-scale smuggling (Anstruther seems to have been awash with brandy). But it was the third that brought out the mettle of the man.

The regalia of the Beggar's Benison in St Andrews include a pewter plate with carvings, very detailed carvings, known as the Test Platter, a horn like a hunting horn, which was blown when the 'testing' took place, and a snuff-box containing the pubic hair of one of George IV's mistresses, presented by the king. These played a part in the ritual surrounding the club's main preoccupation, which was masturbation in public.

Now these were men who were mostly middle-aged and pillars of their community, none of them homosexual. No orgies were involved, though they got local girls to pose naked as an aide-mernoire, some of whom found it hard to keep a straight face, for the club's minutes record many rows between them and the celebrants. When the latter were not about their ritual they listened to such lectures as one given on St Andrew's Day 1733, on menstruation in skate. All this, according to their records, in a ruined castle, with the winds howling in from the Forth. But why?

Professor Stevenson's attempts to answer something which should just have brought the priest and the doctor running over the fields (though the priest and the doctor were probably already upstanding members) make his book a comic classic. This is because he also tries to put all this into a historical perspective. To him the men who made up the Beggar's Benison were, quite simply, agin everything. They were agin the Hanoverian government, agin the Customs and Excise (though many were customs officers), and they were agin the current thinking on sex. In the 1730s there had been a great health scare about the effects of masturbation, so the thinkers by the sea decided to elevate this into a ritualised, semi-social and beneficial activity. To help him in his rehabilitation he presents them as men of their time and location, which is where the book becomes a march past of other contemporary Scottish thinkers. First is the Revd Daniel McLaughlan, author of the 1735 treatise An essay upon improving and adding to the strength of Great Britain and Ireland, by fornication. Men, he wrote, had a duty to fornicate, for the resulting children would benefit manufacturing industry and fill the colonies, and the world, with good British stock. This helpful clergyman was immediately thrown into jail.

An even stricter moralist was James Graham, who, in the interests of happy monogamy, built a vibrating magnetic bed, which he hired out, and spent much of his later life trying to raise money to build a bigger, better version with music. He too ended up in the slammer.

An old friend makes his inevitable entrance. Of James Boswell the professor writes:

[His] sex-life began inadvertently. Climbing trees, embracing trunk and limbs and hauling himself along, brought him intense sensations that made him think of heaven, and he would fall to the ground in a swoon. He asked the gardener for an explanation, hut 'He, rigid, did not explain it,' the poor man no doubt being unnerved by the young master repeatedly plummeting out of trees with a blissful expression on his face ....

And even then the professor, and Scotland, are not done. After the first world war a Black Watch colonel acquired the regalia, to which he added a wig made out of the pubic hair of Charles II's mistresses (it is a very large wig), and with like-minded senior officers, one of them a VC, revived the Beggar's Benison. These maniacs devised a ritual of their own, which they practised at dawn on the sea shore. No details of this survive, but it is significant

that no sooner had the colonel run out of dawns than his widow tried to get the antiques out of the house.

What makes all this so wonderful is that it is a serious historical work with footnotes, and it is more than this, Professor Stevenson's efforts to do well by his boys is in the end a sort of triumph of the human spirit. A man could do worse than read Scottish history at St Andrews.