Sex and, to a lesser extent, prostitution feature regularly in Outlander. Diana Gabaldon accurately reflects this side of 18th century society in her plots and her writing.

Here, we reflect on some of the research that Diana might have done and the culture of the time that contributed to the storyline. We also uncover a fascinating ‘little black book’, which is actually a little red book – a guide to the prostitutes and brothels of 18th century Edinburgh – just like the ones that Jamie and Claire encountered in Paris and Edinburgh.

Prostitution is said to be the oldest profession, so it is no surprise to find that Diana chose to feature it in Outlander. Indeed, prostitutes, prostitution and brothels appear regularly throughout the book series. An early example being when Ned went ‘shopping’ at the House of Ill Repute for a wedding dress for Claire.

Earlier in the chronological Outlander timeline, in the 2017 novella ‘Virgins’ a younger Jamie Fraser and Ian Murray become embroiled in a storyline with prostitutes while they are mercenaries in 1740 France. Fergus, was born “Claudel” in Madame Elise’s brothel in Paris, where Jamie meets Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Jamie Fraser keeps a private room at Madame Jeanne LeGrand brothel in Edinburgh; the Madame is a customer of Jamie’s smuggling business. The theme of prostitution and brothels continues in London in the 1750s and on into America in the 1770s also.


France, especially Paris has long had a reputation for Cocottes (fashionable prostitutes), courtesans (escort, mistress or a prostitute skilful in the art of dignified etiquette) and sex. At the peak in the latter half of the 19th century, Paris has around 200 legalised brothels and maisons.

What is art? Prostitution,” Charles Baudelaire declared in his Journaux Intimes of 1887. His work attempts to put 19th and early 20th-century prostitution in France within the moral and social framework of an era when a demographic shift brought many country dwellers to the city and when the authorities regarded prostitution as a necessary evil to blunt the rampant nature of the male libido. For centuries, French kings and aristocrats had kept courtesans and mistresses; but in Paris in the second half of the 19th century, the sex-for-sale business democratised, invaded the public space and boomed.

Demimonde (or demi-monde), meaning half-world, is a phrase used to describe a class of women considered to be of doubtful social standing and morality – a group of people on the fringes of respectable society. This 19th-century French word derives from a play called Le Demi-Monde by Alexandre Dumas was published in 1855. The play deals with how prostitution at that time threatened the institution of marriage.

A French Classic ‘L’Escole des Filles ou la Philosophie des dames’, also known as ‘Lessons in Seduction’ was first published in 1655. The author of the book is anonymous but Jean L’Ange and Michel Millot have been credited as editors. It was translated and published in the UK in 1680 with a title of the translation is ‘The School of Venus: or; The Ladies Delight, Reduced into Rules of Practice’. The French text was the 1600’s version of today’s top-shelf magazines and online porn – is said to be an eye-opening example of sexual practices in the mid 17th century.

According to historian Hallie Rubenhold, who reviewed ‘L’Escole des Filles’, pornography in the 17th century was ‘Legs-around-the-neck positions, endless “mad sex” and mutual pleasure’. The book is said to be so naughty that Samuel Pepys burned his copy after reading it. Pepys was a navy administrator and Member of Parliament in England, who’s private diary (kept from 1660 until 1669), first published in the 19th century, is one of the most important primary sources for the English Restoration period.

If you’d like to explore more about 18th century eroticism, do an online search for ‘Eighteenth-Century Erotic Texts Online’. One particularly feisty collection of erotic poems in entitled ‘The Ladies Delight. Containing, I. An Address to All Well Provided’. We will leave the bibliography there!

You can see that Diana is far from alone in her imaginative and descriptive talents. We wonder whether her extensive research includes some of these references…?


Bakehouse Close in Edinburgh is famous for several things, not least of which is it being the filming location for Jamie’s print house, otherwise known as A. Malcolm’s printshop in Carfax Close. In the storyline, Jamie Fraser, under the pseudonym Alexander Malcolm, bought the premises in Edinburgh around 1765.

On the opposite side of Bakehouse Close, hidden behind a walled courtyard is Acheson House. This seventeenth century building was built for Sir Archibald Acheson, 1st Baronet, Secretary of State of Scotland for King Charles I. Above one of the doorways he had his family crest carved in stone, a cockerel and trumpet, and a monogram of the initials of Acheson and his wife Margaret Hamilton.

Today, the ground floor of Acheson House is part of the Museum of Edinburgh, with much of the rest of the building forming the offices of Edinburgh World Heritage.

At the time that Acheson House was built, the area – known as Canongate, was the preferred residence for the Scottish nobility and gentry, being close to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and less crowded than the High Street or Lawnmarket. Acheson died only a year after the house was completed (1633) and the house subsequently changed hands several times.

With increasing overcrowding of the Old Town and the building of Edinburgh’s New Town from 1767, Old Town went considerably down-market. In the process, the once rather grand Acheson House was split up into dark, depressing tenements, commonly found in medieval Edinburgh as well as other cities like Glasgow, New York and Berlin.

Note: A tenement is a type of building shared by multiple dwellings, typically with flats or apartments on each floor and with shared entrance stairway access. They are often run-down, inner city dwellings. To make the best use of limited space in the city tenement buildings were erected in Edinburgh in the early 1700’s. Houses were extended upwards, like a modern sky-scraper, built on top of each other but without being planned that way. Overcrowding and a lack of sanitation gave these areas the reputation of being slums.

In many cases, tenements were demolished during the 20th century. Tenement demolition happened to a lesser extent in Edinburgh, leading to their preservation and World Heritage designations in 1985.

The image below shows Tenement buildings in Advocates’ Close off High Street in the Old Town; this is a third of a West mile along The Royal Mile from Bakehouse Close (aka Carfax Close and A Malcolm’s print shop):

The 4th Marquess of Bute purchased the Acheson House in 1935 to save it from demolition. This was after The Old Edinburgh Club and the Cockburn Association started a campaign to save the building from demolition. The Marquess commissioned architects Neil and Hurd to restore the building. His father, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, was the ‘Keeper’ at Falkland Palace responsible for much of its restoration between 1888 and 1900. The Palace had become increasingly ruinous since the late 1600s.

Note: Falkland Palace is a very popular location on our 7 day Outlander Tour as it is Falkland that doubled for 1940’s Inverness, the scene of Frank and Claire’s honeymoon. Falkland Palace is also the filming location for the apothecary where Claire shops for medicine for Alex Randall.

The 4th Marquess, like his father, had a passion for architecture. In 1936 he published a pamphlet entitled “A Plea for Scotland’s Architectural Heritage”, which argued for the preservation of Scotland’s smaller burgh dwellings.

By the early 19th century, Acheson House became a brothel, taking its name – ‘The Cock & Trumpet’ also even more appropriately known as ‘The Cock & Strumpet’ from the Acheson family crest still over the doorway. Like much of the Old Town, the house and living conditions had become overcrowded and run-down.

In the 1830s, Edinburgh detective James McLevy wrote:

One morning I happened to be earlier on my rounds than usual and though houses like the Cock and Trumpet do their business during night and are therefore late openers I found the door open…..going straight in I passed through a room of sleeping beauties reposing blissfully amidst a chorus of snorts.”

McLevy caught the master of the house red-handed with stolen hens and ducks. The lasses of the house were called to help gather the evidence, and McLevy describes their: “swollen, sleepless eyes, their disheveled hair….”.

As always, the detective got his man, and in McLevy’s words his prisoner had: “fallen from being master of the Cock and Trumpet to being the occupant of a prison. Such is the ascending and descending scale of profligate life”.

One of the earliest photographs taken in Edinburgh, by photography pioneers Hill and Adamson, shows one of the working girls standing in the doorway under the cock and trumpet emblem. It’s a very eerie image as photography was in its infancy back then: she looks like a ghost.

The Cock and Strumpet may have employed quite a few girls featured in a book called ‘Ranger’s Impartial List Of Ladies Of Pleasure’, first published in 1775, written by one James Tytler. The book, a kind of TripAdvisor of its day for prostitutes, provides a profile for each ‘lady’ and a pull-out map shows where to find them. A similar publication, ‘Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies’ was first published in London in 1757. It sold for half a crown, the equivalent of £15 or a week’s rent back in those days. The author, John Harris, is thought to be the drunken poet, Samuel Derrick, who sounds somewhat like our Mr Tytler…

Believe it or not, James Tytler (1745 – 1804) was the son of a Presbyterian minister, who initially followed in his father’s footsteps as a preacher. He then became an apothecary – like Master Raymond and to an extent Claire and Geillis. Amongst his other notable literary achievements – he was the editor of the second edition of Encyclopædia Britannica.

Tytler also became the first person in Britain to fly by ascending in a hot air balloon in 1784, gaining him the nickname James “Balloon” Tytler. After becoming a preacher himself, he studied medicine and then opened a pharmacy in Leith, near Edinburgh. Sadly, this pharmacy became a financial failure and Tytler fled South. He reputedly became an alcoholic, although he managed to father several children. He returned to Edinburgh in the early 1770s and separated from his wife and five children.

Using the pseudonym “Ranger” Tytler published ‘Ranger’s Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh’ as a private book detailing 66 working ladies in the city.

Once again, his upbringing and education failed to serve him well. In 1785 he became bankrupt again, possibly due to the costs of his engaging in hot air ballooning. Then he was sued for divorce after siring two more children via his mistress. Outlawed in absentia by the Scottish High Court for political dissent, he moved to Belfast and then the United States in 1795. Once in Massachusetts, he edited the Salem Register, published some works and sold medicine. On 9 January 1804, it is recorded that Tytler left his house drunk and was found drowned two days later.

Here is a line that Tytler wrote, perhaps outlining his own weaknesses, as well as those of those who sought out these working women:

“In the fair one’s embrace the prodigal escapes from the snares of the gamester, nor is he laid open to the wiles of the sharper. With her the youth is taught then lesson of the mind practised in genuine taste, and learns the right of things. Here the drunkard drops a while his swinish appetite, and gazes like a man upon beauty. The lawyer in the café of love, forgets his quirks and equivocations, and is for that short space honest and upright. Behold the merchant also stealing from business under the mark of night…”

One entry in ‘Ranger’s Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh’ which is quite an eye-opener is that of Lady Agnew.

Book historian Sarah Hutcheson describes Ranger’s Impartial List as:

… usually giving each woman’s age and a brief physical description, whether she is good tempered or quarrelsome, and a few other notes about attributes, characteristics, or personal history.

The preface contains a tongue-in-cheek defence of sex and the sex trade, calling the “volunteers of Venus” useful for the community since they encourage generosity and distract people like “factious malcontent[s]”, drunkards, and lawyers from causing their usual mischief.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who has been described as a complicated and divisive figure, perhaps shares this accolade with Tytler. It is believed that Tytler’s was popular within Scott’s social circle.
Tytler’s life is a great example of the renowned line from Scott’s play ‘Marmion’

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive”

The line reflects how complicated life becomes when people start lying to each other, just as Tytler’s did. Of course, Walter Scott’s life was colourful too. He survived a bout of childhood polio – which left him lame. In later life he is said to have struggled with depression. He was made bankrupt, which led to a prolific period of writing in order to pay off his debts. He married a French woman Charlotte Geneviève Charpentier and they had five children. In 1818, he led an expedition in Edinburgh Castle which rediscovered the lost Crown Jewels of Scotland.

Weaving some of the tangled threads of this blog-post together, Encyclopædia Britannica described Sir Walter Scott as “Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer who is often considered both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the historical novel.” In that sense, he was a fore-runner and an inspiration to Diana Gabaldon, who has given talks on the influence of Scott and Waverley on Outlander. Indeed, she gave a presentation to the 9th Annual Scott Conference held at the University of Wyoming in 2011.

Walter Scott was probably the single-most significant catalyst in the re-popularisation of Highland life and culture in the 19th century, after is suppression and repression during the 18th century. His novels, ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘Waverley’ romanticised the Highland way of life and the Jacobite cause.

Social scientist R. Celeste Ray has written that ‘the impact of Sir Walter Scott and Highlandism in current heritage lore cannot be overemphasized.

The Oldest Profession

Back to the oldest profession… In 1560, as syphilis spread across Scotland, an Act was passed in Edinburgh giving uninfected ‘whoremasters and harlots’ the opportunity to confess their conversion to a new way of life, or face public punishments ranging from branding to death.

In 1721, poet Allan Ramsay wrote about the drinking dens and brothels of the Old Town in Edinburgh. Nothing much had changed by 1767 when James Boswell wrote frankly about his copious drinking binges and visits to the city’s many brothels. Boswell, like Sir Walter Scott, is one who helped to put The Highlands back on the map though the published journals from his Highland and Island travels with Dr Samuel Johnson.

In 1773 Samuel Johnson and James Boswell made their celebrated journey through the Highlands of Scotland and the Hebrides. Johnson published his great account, the “Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland” in 1775, and it became one of the most acute – and popular – social commentaries of its age.

By 1797, the Cowgate area of Edinburgh had become a notorious red light district with countless brothels and pubs. That same year, The Edinburgh Magdalen Asylum opens in the Canongate, originally as a half-way house for women coming out of prison. After four years it officially becomes a refuge for women who want to leave prostitution.

A lesbian fling shocked Edinburgh in 1809 when two school teachers, Miss Marianne Woods and Miss Jane Pirie from the posh Drumsheugh Gardens school were spotted displaying “inordinate affection” for each other. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine starred in 1961 film, The Children’s Hour based on this story.

In 1828, Mary Patterson is discharged from the Edinburgh Magdalen Asylum on the 8th of April, after 18 months’ incarceration. One day later she is murdered by Burke and Hare, who were Edinburgh’s equivalents to London’s Jack the Ripper sixty years later.

The Burke and Hare murders were a series of 16 killings committed over a period of about ten months in 1828 in Edinburgh, Scotland. They were undertaken by William Burke and William Hare, who sold the corpses to Robert Knox for dissection at his anatomy lectures.

In 1840, Dr William Tait took over the Edinburgh Magdalen Asylum. Arguing that the atmosphere of violence and the location caused depression and a loss of self-respect among the women, he moved it to a rural location where remains for a further 100 years.

Later, in 1842, Dr William Tait published Magdalenism, an account of sex working Edinburgh at the time. Women in the city’s 200 public brothels were typically in their late teens; some were as young as nine or ten. There were three classes of brothels: the first for noblemen, merchants and military officers; the second for businessmen, clerks and theologians; and the third for soldiers, sailors and country folk. In addition, the High Street was said to be awash with ‘sixpenny whores’. A regular visitor to these brothels was Robert Louis Stevenson, author of ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’.

Tait described how most prostitution occurred in the Old Town on streets such as Black Friar’s Wynd, the Grassmarket and the High Street. However, areas of new Town eventually became less upmarket and prostitution has started to occur in the East End, such as St. James Square by 1841. A gradual extension of prostitution into the New Town continued into the 1900s.

A survey in 1842 found that when the General Assembly met in Edinburgh that the brothels were particularly busy.

From 1892, The Burgh Police (Scotland) Act allowed police to prosecute women for ‘being a common prostitute or streetwalker’.

In 1935, Edwin Muir described the prostitutes of Edinburgh, moving freely between the working-class areas of the city and those reserved for the middle and upper classes, so demonstrating the extraordinary ability of these women to transgress class and gender boundaries. Muir said:

The prostitutes [. . . ] live as members of the proletariat, in the poorer districts, but their main beat is Princes Street, and it has in their eyes the prestige and familiarity of a business address.

This is very reminiscent of the scenes from Outlander where Bonnie Prince Charlie frequents

Of course, the oldest profession still continues to this day.

In 1933, Asher Barnard, the owner of the Kosmo club, was accused of running a clandestine prostitution operation in the club that involved men hiring women as dance partners for an entire evening and then taking them off-site for sex.

This is featured in Louise Settle’s 2016 book, ‘Sex For Sale in Scotland: Prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow, 1900–1939’. The The last chapter – titled ‘Dance Clubs and Ice-cream Tubs’ looks at how developments in technology, commerce, entertainment and policing methods have shaped the ways in which prostitution is/was organised, controlled and experienced.

Between the end of World War II and the 70s, Dora Bryce became Scotland’s most famous madam running a brothel in Danube Street in the New Town. About 15 women worked at the premises where immaculately dressed Bryce played host. Bryce was permitted to continue running the brothel as it was rarely a source of trouble, although she was arrested regularly. It’s estimated her line of work led to 47 encounters with the law and, aged 71, she was jailed for four months in 1972 for living off immoral earnings.

In 1982 the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 came into force; Edinburgh became the first city in the UK to effectively decriminalise brothels. This prohibited soliciting, but also gave Local councils the power to license massage parlours and saunas, effectively allowing brothels. The number of saunas more than doubled between 1990 and 2000. In the mid-1980s, so called tolerance zones were set up in certain areas of the city. Following complaints by locals and police raids, many of these licensed operations have close down.

In March 2017, the Scottish National Party backed changes to prostitution laws to criminalise those paying for sex, but not those who sell it. Today, it is not illegal to sell sex in Scotland, however there are strict laws against “soliciting”, street prostitution and “brothel-keeping”.

Did you know that Edinburgh has its own prostitute ghost called Rosie. Chambers under the bridge in town known as Niddry Street Vaults used to be used for all kinds of underground purposes including witchcraft, gambling and body smuggling. Most of the vaults are now part of nightclubs and pubs. One such pub, the Banshee Labyrinth, is said to be haunted by Rosie, a prostitute ghost who likes to leave her mark on pub goers by scratching men’s necks!

We do hope that we haven’t put you off visiting Edinburgh. It is a super place to visit, with a lot of history and amazing buildings.

6 Responses

  • Anne McRae Young

    That was an awesome and interesting piece of Scottish history! Thanks Andrew. Most appreciated

  • JP Phillips

    VERY interesting! Many thanks!

  • Donna

    Having recently discovered that some of my ancestors lived along Canongate in various closes during the 18th century, I found your article fascinating. One relative was a baker with his shop opposite the Canongate Kirk. What a surprise to find that there was actually a Bakehouse Close, which must surely be where he lived and worked. Another relative was a brewer in the Cowsgate (at foot of Campbell’s Close) area which I now see was a red light district. Your article has helped me flesh out the lives of my ancestors in a way I never thought possible. Thank you so much. Donna

    P.S. My direct ancestor, David Arnot, master blacksmith, moved to Falkirk as a young man, and hopefully found a more settled atmosphere.

  • Judi Ruppel

    That was interesting. I was standing by the church’s doorway reading the graffiti on the door to my travel partners. Sent a chill up my spine to know that Jacobites were standing there waiting for execution.


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