Pride in Edinburgh

This is the content of a walking tour I compiled for LGBT History Month in February of this year.  I’ve been meaning to put it online since then, but events have been busy of late.   As this is #Pride Month, now seemed like a good time to put this up – especially in these increasingly intolerant days.

The format was originally designed to be spoken, so might be a bit rough and ready, but I’m hoping you can still enjoy it.

Contains adult themes, outdated opinions and language that some readers may find upsetting.


A Queer History of Edinburgh

The earliest times

There are virtually no references to same-sex activity in Scotland before the 1700s. Famous possible LGBT people, like James VI – perhaps –  and his numerous male favourites, or his father, Lord Darnley, described at the time as a ‘great cock chick’, are notable for their rarity.

Of legal cases where homosexuality is mentioned, the crimes seem  sensational, rather than commonplace.  In Edinburgh in September 1570, the earliest named people associated with same-sex activity (whether true or not) were John Swan and John Litster, convicted of

“…the wilde, filthie, execrabill, detestabill, and unnatural sin of sodomy, otherwise named bougarie, abusand of their bodies withutheris, in contrare the lawes of God, and all other human lawes.”

They were strangled at a stake, their bodies cast into fire, and burned to ashes:  the same punishment doled out to so-called witches.  Indeed, sodomy was heavily associated with diabolical actions and witchcraft accusations if it was mentioned at all. Same-sex desire as a concept had no name – if it was even considered.

With the increase in population and migration caused by the agricultural and industrial revolutions from the 18th century onwards in lowland Scotland, queer lives begin to be glimpsed, especially where the law was involved.

Cruising can be traced back into the 18th century, in London and Amsterdam, with the first recorded Glory Hole being mentioned in London in 1707.  “Picking Up Trade” was commonplace by the mid-18th century, with Women of Pleasure jostling for position with Men of a Persuasion.  Public parks, lavatories, graveyards, were listed among the places where people would meet for sex.    Soldiers and sailors seem to feature strongly, being paid for sex, then blackmailing their clients for more money.  But not always.   A paper held in the National Archives from 1761 concerns The Captain of HMS Seahorse, complaining about the activities of his servant William with another sailor.  Their punishment is unrecorded.    Entrapment was not only active in the 19th and 20th centuries: there are many examples from the 1700s in England, but none in Scotland.

The Edinburgh of the early 1700s was a place of rapid change.  Scotland disappeared as a sovereign state, the Parliament ending on the Act of Union becoming law.  One state, with one Monarch, Queen Anne – the last of the Stuarts – commonly remembered for her tragic family and supposed lesbianism:


When as Queen Anne of great Renown

Great Britain’s Scepter sway’d

Besides the Church, she clearly lov’d

A Dirty Chamber-Maid.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century, with its heart here in Edinburgh – the city of David Hume, Adam Smith, Jane Porter and Mary Fairfax Somerville –  was concerned with knowledge and reason, liberty and experimentation.

Part of the culture of Edinburgh and elsewhere, were the growing number of clubs that existed. Some were scientific, some literary or historical, some, slightly more earthy. Many were simple drinking dens, some centred on libertine ideas.    Perhaps the most notorious in Scotland were the Beggars Benison and the Wig Club.  The Beggars was founded in Anstruther in 1731 and was an all male affair.  With the motto “May prick nor purse ne’er fail you” they celebrated bawdy ballads, drinking games involving phallus-shaped cups and an interesting initiation ceremony involving a tray.   Whilst all red-blooded men, much of their activities could well be termed ‘queer’ but only with hindsight.  Some of their badges, sashes and ‘ceremonies’ were obviously mocking Freemasonry, some of their members – if you pardon the phrase – were also notable for their Jacobitism and anti-Union position.  Subversive, indeed.   Forward-thinking in many ways, they shared principles of ‘common sense’ and a professed freedom of sexuality against creeping moral panic (especially around masturbation), alongside fears that Scotland was suffering in the new Union.   They were not kind to the Hanoverian regime in their first years, although latterly their political radicalism subdued, the Prince Regent, later George IV, would be an honorary member.  Later branches formed in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Petersburg in Russia!    The Wig Club, a splinter group from The Beggars, would take its name from the Beggars’ most venerated object:  a wig supposedly made of the pubic hairs from the mistresses of King Charles II.

The rich language of slang of this period, also shows a growing queer culture emerge:

Mollies, Sodomites, Those who navigate the Windward Passage, Madges and Back Gammon Players, among others, give an insight into queer life in the 18th century, in a sense similar to Polari of the 20th century.

In the 19th century, this cultural trend would continue.

The University of Edinburgh has lone been held as a centre of excellence for medical studies. From 1809 to 1812, one of the students there stood out among the students.   Considered to be a bad-tempered, squeaky-voiced eccentric, this Doctor would have a distinguished career in South Africa, the Caribbean and St Helena, rising to become the Inspector General of Military Hospitals.

Dr James Barry

Hated by Florence Nightingale for his temper and his treatment of staff, Doctor James Barry’s reputation as a bully perhaps resulted from the bullying he received himself from his tormentors when young, due to his apparent youthful, somewhat pre-pubescent appearance.  He would, according to one account, shoot one tormentor dead, through the lung – but this may not be true.  The teasing kinda stopped after that. Apparently.

His staff may have hated his brusque manner, but he was a skilled surgeon with a passion for hygiene and on improving sanitation.   And, on his death from dysentery in 1865, he was discovered to be a woman.  When news of this broke, claims that James was a hermaphrodite – perhaps Intersex to use the more modern term – were raised.  The Army in a panic sealed all records about him for 100 years, only opening them again in the 1950s. Only then did the background of James Barry emerge.

Born as Margaret Ann Buckley in Ireland, linked to Venezuelan political radicals and the artist James Barry, it may have been her plan to study medicine as a man and subsequently move to Venezuela where she could practice medicine as a woman – something largely unthinkable in Britain at that time and for another half century.  That plan failed and – for whatever reason – Margaret Ann – James – joined the Army as a Physician!  But this is merely conjectural theorising.

Scandal would follow him. In South Africa, rumours spread that he was in a homosexual relationship with the Cape Governor, Lord Somerset.  An anonymous poster put up in Cape Town, stated Somerset was ‘Buggering Doctor Barry’…  But, on James’ death, the woman who made the discover claimed that he was a perfect woman with signs of having given birth when younger.   Barry’s last wishes, seemingly, had been to be buried in the clothes he died in and without his body being prepared.  Maybe this was why.  Or maybe, like so much in Barry’s life, this story isn’t true. The myths obscure the facts.

Books have been written on the subject and the actor Rachel Weisz said in 2018 she is working on a biopic of Barry in which she will take the lead role.   A committed social reformer, teetotaller and vegetarian, in many ways ahead of his time – he performed caesarean sections long before these became commonplace. Was he Intersex? Was his life as James based on sexuality or, identity or simply, a burning ambition to be a doctor in a society were women’s place was in the home?   We can’t tell.

In less exceptional stories, more queer lives emerge.  In one case from 1852 at Edinburgh Castle Barracks the accused, a Private in the 79th Cameron Highlanders after returning from the bed of another soldier loudly exclaimed : ‘ I have got a damned good f**k!’.

Only with Oscar Wilde’s trial, did a concept of homosexuality become widespread although that word was never used.  “Buggers”, “inverts”, “perverts”, and “unnaturals” were common labels applied.   In Scotland, however, there were no sensational cases in the courts, unlike in England.   Instead, we see a gradual rise in the number of minor court cases involving male homosexuality.   There’s virtually no mention of Lesbians, let alone Bisexuals, in Scotland’s story.   The T doesn’t arrive to join LGB for quite some time, either.

There would be around six sodomy trials a year in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century and double that in the second half as the population grew.  Before that, there is very little evidence.  Queers lives do not appear, really, until the 1900s.  Most found guilty were imprisoned or transported and banished from Scotland!  Those who could afford to, left – for London, or to ‘safe’ havens in Monaco, Paris or Berlin.  The technical death penalty for sodomy was removed in 1887: by the dawning of the 20th century, average sentences for men convicted were between 3 months and 6 years for a range of offences considered unnatural or gross indecency.

Things really heated up with a flurry of male prostitution cases in Glasgow – something of a rising cottage industry! – in the 1920s, where newspapers and politicians frothed at the mouth at the risks to society from homosexuality and, more crucially,  effeminate men. It is around this time that an emerging ‘queer’ subculture begins to emerge, where individuals challenged societal norms and sought out their own kind.   Details about gay women are fewer in number and often dismissive.  In the 1970s, in answer to a question from the Scottish Minorities Group, the Crown Office replied that

As far as female perverts are concerned, they have never been a problem to this office’.

The roaring twenties saw much hand-wringing about gender and acceptable behaviour – best expressed in the 1926 hit Masculine Women Feminine Men – and the apparent scourge of male prostitutes, feminine or feminised men and assorted degenerates, gathering in certain notorious places…


Let’s move on.

The Law and LGBT people

Following the 1707 Union and the removal of a Parliament in Scotland, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, became the centre of political and social discourse in Scotland.   It has been likened to a Parliament by proxy.   Here, Godly doctrine was upheld and it’s fair to say that the Calvinist principles of the 1560 Reformation were alive and kicking in the first half of the 20th century.  This was reflected in how gay people – men – were treated by society.

There were heightened concerns over dance-halls in Scotland during the interwar period, which were linked to fears about growing immorality.  Several cases were brought during this period over the use of female dance partners, who could be hired for an evening, most notably the case involving immoral earnings at the Kosmo Club during the 1930s.

The vast majority of venues available to men and women in the period prior to the 1980s were low-key and discreet, where one might find a potential partner, lover, or one of the TBHs (To-Be-Hads).  Additionally, in a period when all homosexual acts were outlawed, small but thriving networks of male prostitution were established in Edinburgh and Glasgow, beginning around the 1880s.  This more organised network focused its attention in Glasgow on the riverside Broomielaw and Clyde Street, where they would ply their trade.  ‘Self-employed’ male prostitutes could be found outwith the city centre in places and spaces such as Cathkin Park and Queen’s Park throughout the same period. In Edinburgh a similar trade existed in Leith, Dalry, Gorgie and the New Town and one of those locations was Maxime’s Palais de Danse in West Tollcross, which opened in November 1921.

Former Maxime’s Palais de Danse, Edinburgh

Maxime’s was to attract police involvement when it was found to be a venue of private leisure activities for queer men, which often involved soldiers stationed at a local barracks!

William Merrilees, former Chief Constable of Lothian and Peebles, would be part of a ‘crusade’ against debauchery and he led a self-styled war against homosexuality in the 1930s. He seems to have held a genuine horror of feminine men, something in which – in Scotland’s hard-man culture – he was not alone.

He regularly visited bars, brothels and bathhouses in pursuit of morally-challenged men and his prejudices were those of authority and the majority.  His Glasgow contemporary, Robert Colquhoun, recalled in his biography that a ‘dapper’ business man strangled by a young man who’d rejected his advance was murdered because he was evil.  He deserved it is how I read this.

Merrilees, notable for his small stature and missing fingers, approached this endeavour with gusto (and, on occasion, in drag?), but even he was surprised by the scale and scope of queer subcultures within the capital city.   Merrilees believed that homosexuality was typified by two strains of persons: the effeminate queer, whom he referred to as ‘bitches, poofs and pansies’; and their criminal associates.  Working within vice in Edinburgh Merrilees considered male homosexuals as an insidious threat to order and morality, and a cankerous breed which required to be removed permanently from the streets of the capital.

Merrilees was awarded the Police King’s Medal for his work in the 40s and was so well-known – and regarded – that he starred in his own episode of  the popular TV show This is Your Life in 1966.  This, just one year before partial-decriminalisation of male homosexuality, in England and Wales.

Scotland, however, clung on to its legal ban on male homosexuality for some time to come…another 14 years, in fact.

It is remarkable, and a testimony to the brave few who stood up to be counted, that the first ever international LGBT conference was held in Edinburgh while male homosexuality remained against the law.  The Scottish Minorities Group hosted the first ever International Gay Rights Conference in Edinburgh from 18 to 22 December 1974.  It was co-organised by Ian Dunn and Derek Ogg.   Ian Dunn had organised the first meeting of what was to become the Scottish Minorities Group in 1969. Derek Ogg later founded SAM (Scottish AIDS Monitor) in the 80s.

The conference aimed to provide an international sharing of experience, so that delegates could find out the social, political and legal situation for men and women from other countries. The conference included sessions on the rights of young homosexuals and of gay women, and the problem of lesbian invisibility was explicitly addressed by a delegate from CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution) in New South Wales.

There were about 400 delegates at the conference, which led in 1978 to the establishment of the International Gay Association, later to become the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA).   Sponsors of the conference included Gore Vidal, Iris Murdoch, Christopher Isherwood and Hamish Henderson.  Edinburgh City Council refused to host a civic reception for the conference and the press reaction to the event was entirely predictable.

Society was changing slowly, politically and socially.  The establishment of our Parliament in 1999 was a sign of things to come.

HM The Queen at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 1999

Here, one of the first acts of the infant parliament was to overturn the UK Parliament’s 1988 Local Government Act – better known for Clause 28 (or Section 2A).  Passed in the height of the AIDS hysteria affecting the country, this was a bitterly-fought battle to come. The demonising of the disease in the media and the association of HIV/AIDS with gay and bisexual men worsened their stigmatisation, and this association correlated with higher levels of sexual prejudice, such as homophobic/biphobic attitudes in this, the infamous Aids capital of Europe.

In 1987, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 75% of the population said that homosexual activity was “always or mostly wrong”, with just 11% believing it to be never wrong.

One UK MP said “I do not agree with homosexuality. I think that Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS. I think that’s probably the best way.

In the hostile environment, media attention focused on the new devolved legislature in Edinburgh.  In 1999, the Bank of Scotland pulled out of its deal with US TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who describes Scotland as a dark land overrun by homosexuals.

Banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities, the act was repealed by the Scottish Parliament in 2000, despite a ferocious Keep the Clause campaign and support from the Daily Record. Clause 28 was repealed in England and Wales in 2003.


Throughout the 80s and 90s, in Edinburgh certain venues occupy a significant place in the queer history of the city: The Laughing Duck, Fire Island, and the Blue Oyster Club, for example.  From 1982 until 1990, queer bookshops The Lavender Menace on Forth Street and then later West & Wilde on Dundas Street, provided an alternative beacon for LGBT people.

Fire Island was launched in what was the West End Club in Edinburgh’s Princes Street on a Monday night in May, 1978.

At the time Bill Grainger was running Glasgow’s first ever regular gay disco SHADOWS in Glasgow’s west end.  Many people used to travel through every weekend from Edinburgh to visit Shadows and kept complaining that Edinburgh should have a similar club.   Bill contacted the Edinburgh based Tam Paton (manager of the BAY CITY ROLLERS) and he introduced him to the owner of the West End Club for Fire Island to be held there every Monday evening.  It would become the first club in Scotland to regularly feature big name recording artists which included: Eartha Kitt (twice); Village People; The Three Degrees; DIVINE (twice); Hazell Dean (many times!);  SEVENTH AVENUE (later to become BIG FUN); Su Pollard, plus many more artists promoting their latest single.

Seventh Avenue, on stage at Fire Island

During the last couple of years of its existence there were constant rumours that the club was closing and eventually the owner of the building sold the valuable premises to Waterstones and the club closed in September 1988. The last record that was played at Fire Island was the ABBA hit ‘Thank You For The Music

The place of pubs can’t be over-estimated in the social history of queer people. Until decriminalisation, queer-friendly venues were few and far between.  In 1990s, gay-friendly businesses became more openly geared towards gay customers. The Pink Pound was on its way.  Younger, more affluent LGBT customers sought pubs and club nights that reflected their identities. Where pubs had been discrete before the 1990s, a confidence now emerged, with a legitimacy that the illegality of pre-1980-1 had prevented.  Indeed, in oral histories from LG people collected in the late 80s and early 90s, a will to remain hidden or anonymous can still be glimpsed among older gay men, who remembered the persecution of earlier decades:

“None of these men wished a return to some sepia-tinted, halcyon queer past but wished to make two main points: queer life during the post-war period wasn’t all misery, gloom and furtive fumblings; there was colour, vigour and plenty of evidence of how queer men shaped their own experiences in the face of hostility, homophobia and potential criminalisation. Secondly, the march of progress, and widening rights was met with relief and joy by these men but they were conscious of how their experiences had led to a measure of disconnection with a later generation of LGBT Scots.” Jeff Meek, 2014, Queer Scotland

The Blue Oyster was one of the very few specifically gay bars in Edinburgh, along with that other much-missed pioneering place, The Laughing Duck.  Monroe’s Bar in Hanover Street held ‘Menergy‘ disco nights on Thursdays and Fridays, in the mid-1980s.

Now for a bit of drama!

In 1958 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland overwhelmingly rejected the Wolfenden Report, which helped begin the move to the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967 in England and Wales.  The Wolfenden Report recommended to parliament the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in private between consenting adults over 21.

Also in 1958, the Lord Chamberlain lifts the ban on reference to homosexuality on stage. An interesting footnote in the history of Queer cinema can be traced back to a place not too far from the centre of Edinburgh,  Drumsheugh Place.

In 1934, Lillian Hellman wrote a play that would become infamous at the time. A hit on Broadway, but banned in the UK, The Children’s Hour tells the story of two women teachers accused on a lesbian affair by one of their pupils and a tragic ending.


A film was made of the play in 1961, starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner.  What’s less well-known is that the story the film and play are based on, took place in Edinburgh as far back as 1809. Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods opened a school for girls in Drumsheugh Place, one of many private schools that catered to the gentry of Edinburgh’s New Town.  One of their pupils, Jane, granddaughter of Charlotte Square resident, Lady Helen Gordon, accused the two of ‘inordinate affection’.  Lady Gordon spread the rumour and soon, all of their pupils had left. The teachers sued and won, but were ruined – the lurid accusations of their pupil was enough to destroy their careers.

One of the judges hearing the case, Lord Meadowbank, was less convinced. Sex between women, he said, was “equally imaginary with witchcraft, sorcery or carnal copulation with the devil.”

Not an unusual thought in early 19th century Scotland: sexual attraction between women was inconceivable to most.

From drama to international politics and a now unsung LGBT Hero.

Harry Otter Whyte (1907-1960) is a name most Scots will be unfamiliar with. Yet Whyte, the son of a house painter from Edinburgh, occupies an interesting position in the homosexual rights movement, but not in Scotland. In fact Whyte campaigned for the tolerance of same-sex desire in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.  Born in Carlyle Place, off London Road, Whyte was ‘the Scot who challenged Stalin’.  Whyte’s activism was the result of Stalin’s decision to re-criminalise male homosexuality, which had been decriminalised by Lenin during the early 1920s.  Whyte had moved to the Soviet Union during the early 1930s taking up a position with the Moscow Daily News, after learning his trade in a variety of positions in Scotland and England including a spell with the Edinburgh Evening News, which he had joined straight from school.

Harry Whyte

While living in Moscow he began a relationship with a Russian national who, after Stalin’s recriminalisation of homosexual acts, was arrested during a public clampdown on ‘sexual immorality’.  This arrest, coupled with Whyte’s growing unease with Stalin’s increasingly vice-like grip upon Russian society, prompted the Scot to write a 4500 word letter to the Soviet leader. In this letter Whyte argued that homosexuality was conducive to Marxist-Leninist concepts of communism.  Indeed, Whyte compared the conditions facing homosexuals as analogous to the condition of women and ethnic minorities oppressed by capitalism and imperialism.  The Scot had also sought the opinions of Communist Party members and of two prominent psychiatrists who argued that same-sex desire was neither dangerous nor medically suspect.

Stalin, who is said to have personally read the letter, was unconvinced by Whyte’s argument, sending it to the archives with a scribbled note, ‘an idiot and a degenerate’.

Stalin perceived homosexuality as a symptom of bourgeois degeneracy and a threat to the healthy male body.  Stalin’s dismissal of Whyte’s please for acceptance and tolerance marked an end to both Harry’s stay in the Soviet Union and to his hopes for a communist nirvana.

Whyte returned to Britain unaware that he had been monitored by the British intelligence services since his twenties, an interest that would continue until his death.

In December 1941 Whyte was called up for service, occupying a position as a temporary  coder on the Arctic convoys, his fluency in several languages outweighing any concerns over his former communist sympathies and homosexuality.  However, when the war ended ,the British intelligence services resumed their monitoring of Whyte who was now working freelance for a variety of publications, including the Daily Express and Daily Herald.  By the early 1950s, MI5 quietly noted Whyte’s homosexuality and that he had drifted away from Soviet Communism and had become an alcoholic.

Whyte’s obvious dissatisfaction with the direction of communism, and his deep frustration with the societal conditions for homosexuality might explain his drifting existence; by 1950 he was working for Reuters as a freelance correspondent in Turkey. Turkey seems to have agreed with him and soon after his arrival in Ankara he began a relationship with a local man.  What is sad is that Whyte never felt comfortable as a gay man in Scotland.

Whyte is an almost unknown figure in the history of LGBT rights, but his courage in challenging Stalin’s antipathy towards homosexuality, and the great personal risk he took advocating sexual liberty under communism,  makes Whyte as one of Scotland’s earliest homosexual rights advocates.

Whyte grew up not far from the heart of the current so-called Gay Village, near Broughton Street: there’s quite a long queer history to this area.  Public executions once took place here, while in the reign of Mary, Little Picardie grew up, the home to some of her court and followers from France – now recalled by Picardy Place.  By the twentieth century,  the area had a somewhat seedy reputation, with street walkers mingling with the great and the good, and some places would become refuges for the queer outcasts.


The Imperial Hotel, which once stood where you now find Omni, was one of these queer havens.   Built in 1803, it had become a bit down at heel by the 50s. One commentator later recorded that at the Imperial Hotel in Leith Walk ‘there would be fifteen hookers and the place would be absolutely stinking of hairspray and beehives’.

The Imperial Hotel and beehives may have gone – but the focal point for many people in Edinburgh’s LGBT community is still  there.  While many freedoms and rights  have been won, the rise of hostile politics and attack on minorities continues.

new-pride-flag-01 (1)

Holyrood may have been described as the ‘gayest parliament in the world’ – a sign of how far Scotland’s march to equality and diversity has travelled –  but there is still much work to do.  The fight for equality goes on.

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