As It Happens·Q&A

Scottish sex tour explores linen condoms and positions like 'the wheelbarrow'

A new tour by the National Trust of Scotland aims to pull back the curtain on the sexual practices of Scots during from the 17th century to the 19th century.

The National Trust of Scotland launches exhibit on sex from the 17th to 19th century

Gladstone's Land is a former tenement building that is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and the site of a new tour exploring the sex lives of Scots from the 17 to 19th century. (Kate Stephenson)

Read Story Transcript

Ever wonder what condoms were made of before the invention of latex? If you lived in Scotland at the time, the "cringewothy" answer would be cotton or animal gut, according to a historian.

A new tour by the National Trust for Scotland is trading in the usually stuffy tours of crumbling castles for an exploration of the sex lives of Scots from the 17th to 19th centuries.

The tour, for visitors 16 years old and up, is being held at a restored tenement building called Gladstone's Land, which is one of the oldest buildings in Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile neighborhood.

The exhibit features a pornographic novel, sex worker directory and cotton condom replicas. Tickets were sold out on its first weekend, with crowds skewing younger than typical tours held by the National Trust for Scotland.

Kate Stephenson is a cultural historian at the National Trust for Scotland and guides the tours at Gladstone’s Landing. (Submitted by Kate Stephenson)

Kate Stephenson is a cultural historian at the National Trust for Scotland and leads the tours at Gladstone's Land. She spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the risqué new exhibit.

Here's part of their conversation.

So what is the slice of life that you're looking at in this building through its sex life? 

Gladstone's Land… is really not a traditional National Trust of Scotland property. It's urban, it's commercial, it's really a hub of trade, but also residential as well. 

And it's very fashionable in the 17th and 18th century and then declines really quite rapidly in the 19th and 20th century. So over its four or five-hundred-year history, it's got a huge change from fashionable wealthy tenants and owners right the way through to almost slum dwellings. 

So in the tour we're able to not only capture sort of a real history of sex, but also how that affected different classes and how they dealt with some of the thorny issues that it brought up. 

What are you saying about sex in Gladstone's Land, and what were people up to? 

We know in the 17th century, for instance, that people were just as experimental in terms of who they are having sex with, what position they're in, [and] where they're doing it as they are today.

So we know that there's instances of people seizing the opportunity to have sex at the back of a shop when there's no customers around. We know that people are trying all sorts of innovative positions. 

Rangers' Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure of Edinburgh is an 18th-century document that was essentially used as a sex worker directory. (Kate Stephenson)

And so how do you know that? What are the fragments that you have found that speak to this? 

We've pulled a lot of information from diaries. Some of those relate directly to Gladstone's Land and others are much, much broader. 

In other cases, we've got novels, we've got bits of literature. And specifically in terms of things like sex work, we've got an incredible document called Rangers' Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure of Edinburgh, which is essentially an 18th-century directory to sex workers — where they live, how old they are, what they look like, what their skills are in and around Gladstone's Land. 

And how do you know they're experimenting with different positions?

There's an incredible … pornographic novel from the 17th century called the School of Venus, which essentially is a conversation between two women. And they list all sorts of different sexual positions in it. And some of them are incredibly creative. 

We'd recognise many of the sort of the standard ones, but they talk about things like "the wheelbarrow." They talk about a particularly logistically difficult one, which involves the woman bending over, throwing her skirt and her coat over her head. And then the gentleman essentially running at her from behind with a "standing prick," is the phrase that [the book] uses, which sounds incredibly complex. 

Privacy is a big problem here, right? The kings and queens might have had their chambers, but these are people who are sharing their flats with all kinds of people and children and dogs and everything else. So how did they manage?

So you could lock doors. And often people seem to have had sex in the afternoons if they're from big families, because that's a sort of a lull in trading and also a time when your children might be playing outside. Your servants might be out at [the] market. So you are absolutely seizing the opportunity. 

The other thing that you get is a lot of the big beds from the 17th and 18th century have curtains around them. And so you can create … a modicum of privacy by pulling the curtains. And then at least if you are walked in on, they don't see everything. 

But despite the fact that big families were sharing single rooms, even if they were quite wealthy, sex did remain a private act. It wasn't something that you did with the people in the room. 

OK, and speaking of children, what do they do for contraception? 

Well, [it] changes hugely over time. So the earliest forms of contraception are just things like "coitus interruptus." So just pulling out. 

But probably one of the most interesting is the development of the condom. So the earliest examples of condoms you get are either made from animal, usually pig's gut, or from cotton or linen fabric. 

The National Trust for Scotland is hosting a new tour aimed at pulling the curtains back on the sex life of Scots during the 17th to 19th centuries. The exhibit includes this replica cotton condom believed to be used along with an animal fat or oil as lubricant. (Kate Stephenson)

What? Wait a second. Linen? You made condoms out of linen? 

Yep. So there aren't any surviving examples of those. There's lots of the animal gut [condoms]. So we've actually made some replicas at Gladstone's Land, and that's something you get to see on the tour. And we've based that on descriptions that we found and on surviving examples of the animal ones. 

But it just raises so many questions because at least animal gut, you can imagine it forming a barrier, whereas obviously fabric is very permeable. There's no lubrication to it. So it would really chafe. And you've got seams around it, which you could imagine would cause all sorts of uncomfortable experiences. 

So we think, having recreated them, that they must have dipped them in something like animal fat or oil. But it's really just opened up a huge area of research that nobody's really looked into at all, which is absolutely fascinating, but also a little bit cringeworthy. 

LGBTQ relationships were in Scotland at this time [as always] … but what can you tell us about that? How free were people to be able to conduct those relationships at that time? 

Scotland seems to be quite different to England in this respect. So in terms of lesbian couples, there is so little information and that's because it was never outlawed. People just didn't think it existed.

In terms of gay relationships — of men — we have a little bit more information, and that is because we've got court records. 

So in England from the early 18th century, they were very, very heavily persecuted and there were a lot of trials, there were a lot of executions. 

But in Scotland, because of Scots law, which requires two pieces of evidence to condemn someone which you don't need in England, it was much, much harder to prove that somebody had engaged in sodomy, which was what was illegal.

Actually, there were no convictions for sodomy in Scotland during the 18th century and only a handful in the 19th century. And they tended to be tried in lower courts.

But it does mean that it did offer protection to the LGBT+ community at this period.

Written by Lito Howse. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?