73. Excrement in Scotland during 1600-1650CE
JUN. 01, 2023
Ryan takes Pete round the U-bend to discover excrement in Scotland in the early 1600s. Find out how storing stools in your front garden could make you big money, how being the King’s favourite could leave you lurking in his loo and travel to Edinburgh to discover the nastiness of Nor Loch.
In this week’s dirt-filled episode, we heading back to the early 17th century to witness how the people of Scotland dealt with their droppings.
Officially called 'Scotland', but known locally in Scottish Gaelic as Alba, this is a country that is part of the United Kingdom, located in the northern part of the island of Great Britain.
Scotland is perhaps best known for its geography, with a rugged coastline, deep valleys, monstrous lochs, and tall mountains - like Ben Nevis - the tallest peak in the British Isles at 1,345 meters (4,413 ft).
Apart from its stunning landscape, Scotland is also known for its historic castles, it’s distinctive culture, the language, whiskey, and deep fried Mars Bars.
Every year, Scotland attracts ~16 million tourists – nearly three times as much as the total population which is currently around 5.5 million people. The capital is Edinburgh, the national animal is the Unicorn and the flag is known as the Saltire or St. Andrew's Cross.
The national anthem, “Flower of Scotland" was composed in the 1960s and pays tribute to the country's history, people, and their struggles for freedom.
Scotland has the highest concentration of redheads with an estimated 13% of the population having naturally red hair – the highest proportion in the world.
Scotland is also home to the world's shortest commercial flight - from the island of Westray to the island of Papa Westray in approximately 2 minutes.
The traditional national dish is haggis, which is a sheep's stomach filled with offal, onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices.
Scottish history begins with early man appearing around 12,000 years ago when the last of the Ice Age glaciers melt revealing a swathe of virgin land which could be used to hunt and gather.
6,000 years later, around 4000 BCE, neolithic settlers arrived and introduced settlements where they domesticate animals and do some farming.
2000 years later, they started making Bronze and 1000 years after that, an Iron Age starts, which coincides with the arrival of a group of people called the Picts who dominate most of the northern and eastern parts of Scotland.
The Romans invaded Britain in 43 CE, but fail to conquer Scotland, so they construct a giant wall, supposedly to mark the limits of the Empire, but more realistically to keep them from being attacked by the tribes living north of the border.
By the 6th century, Scotland was split into three Kingdoms, with the Picts in the north, the Scots in the west, and the Strathclyde in the south-west.
300 years later, in the 8th century, the Vikings arrive as well, occupying and settling parts of the mainland and along the northern and western isles.
A century later in 843 CE, Kenneth MacAlpin, the King of the Scots, unites the Picts and the Scots together and they form the Kingdom of Alba.
Within a century, they expanded their territory and the Kingdom of Scotland was formed, ruled over by King Malcolm III – the beginning of a long line of Scottish monarchy.
In the Middle Ages, Scotland has to contend with the obsessions of the English who want to conquer the north and bring Catholicism to the people. This is the time where Scottish forces led by legendary figures such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, fight to maintain their independence.
By the 16th century a Scottish Reformation happens, whereby the dominance of the Catholic Church is replaced by the Protestant Church of Scotland.
But any hopes of keeping Scotland out of England’s grip disappears in 1603, when the Scottish king, James VI, becomes James I - the first monarch to unite England and Scotland and creating ‘Great Britain’.
Despite the union, Scotland remained a separate nation with its own legal and religious systems, but by 1707 the governments of Scotland and England were merged together, and Scotland lost its ability to make political decisions independently.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Scotland entered a period of intellectual and scientific achievement, known as the Scottish Enlightenment, which in combination with the broader Industrial Revolution, transformed the country's economy and society.
In the 20th century, the Scottish National Party (the SNP) was formed with devolution from Great Britain being it’s highest priority. In 1999, the efforts of the SNP led to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, which means that today Scotland has political powers over things like health, education, and taxation.
In terms of devolution from Great Britain though, the SNP has had less success – with a referendum for independence held in 2014, resulting in 55% of voters opting to remain part of the UK.
Disappointed by Britain’s departure from the European Union in 2016, a second Independence referendum was proposed for October 2023, however, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Scottish government cannot hold a referendum without the consent of the English government – and funnily enough that consent has yet to be given.
And that brings us to today, and Scotland remains a braw and bonnie land, which in the words of national poet, Robert Burns is best described as.. “Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, the hills of the Highlands forever I love".
Excrement! Otherwise known as poop, scat, muck, waste, dirt, droppings, doo-doo, dooty and dung. There are a lot of names for the waste matter which we discharge out of the body through the rectum.
Derived from the Latin word 'excrementum' which means to sift out or separate, ‘excrement’ first appears in English around the 16th century and quickly establishes itself as a mostly scientific and medical term.
In Scotland, the word ‘jobby’ is the most common word for excrement, arising in the 20th century from the phrase to ‘do a job’. During the early 17th century, people refered to faeces as a ‘stool’, with one unknown Scottish author writing that if he had “any quantity of pottage (stew or soup), I was sure to release 2 or 3 stools”.
And fun fact.. the practice of examining human excrement for medical reasons was known at the time as ‘Strunt keeking’, with another author saying, “You that have sometimes braved even my doctorship cannot be ignorant of the science of strunt keeking”.
Generally speaking, the average human ‘drops the kids off at the pool’ at least once or twice a day – with a total daily load of about 100 to 250 grams (3 to 8 ounces).
The Guiness Book of Records lists no winner to the World’s biggest poop, but the fossil of an eight inch long, 5cm wide 1,200 year old Viking plop was discovered in 1972 which is widely considered to be the largest recorded in human history.
In fact, only 25% of a poo is solid matter – of which, 30% is dead bacteria and cell debris, another 30% is indigestible food, 15% are fats, 12% is inorganic substances like calcium and iron phosphate; and 3% is protein. They are generally brown in colour, and that’s because food in your intestines mixes with bile, and something called bilirubin, and it all combines together to make a brown colour.
Living in the Scotland during the early 17th century
Scotland in the 17th century looks very different than it does today - across a relatively barren landscape of bogs, mountains and moorland we find a number of rural settlements based around churches, castles and mills, each linked by a small number of muddy tracks. In the early 17th century, farming was the major occupation.
And when we talk about a farm in Scotland, we are actually talking about six or more families, all working together as tenants in what's called a 'fermtoun', a roughly 300-acre farm, sharing equipment, looking after livestock, and making sure the local town has a healthy supply of food, products and services.
But they’re not the only ones doing farming, because pretty much everyone is at this time. Regular families might survive on what they can grow for themselves on a plot of land roughly 20 acres in size.
And what almost everyone is growing is crops of cereals like barley and oats which can grow quickly in Scotland’s short summer months.
In fact, no matter who you are in this period – your life depends heavily on a starch-based diet - comprised mostly from oats.
So much so in fact, that Scotland in the 17th century is known widely as ‘the land of oats’ – with traditional oat-based foods like porridge, haggis and oat cakes (a type of traditional flatbread) regularly eaten most days by almost everyone.
Oats were so important in fact, that there are reports of children being sent off to university with a sack of oatmeal, and when that sack ran out, having to come home to their parents for a refill.
In 1755, Samuel Johnson, author of the first dictionary, wrote as his description of ‘Oats’… “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, which seems a bit rude, until you discover the response by an unknown Scotsman (possibly Robert Burns) who said, "That's why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men".
Vegetables like potatoes and swede / rutabaga are also common, as well as the occasional meat like pork, and chicken (then known as ‘reek hens’).
Red meat like beef was pretty much being reserved for only the most wealthy people.
But the number one form of protein came from the water – with salmon, herring and eels all consumed in great numbers, as well as oysters that were sold by the bucket load because they were considered a dirt cheap food for the poor. How times change.
At home, food is served based on the hierarchy of the family.. Dad gets the biggest and most nutritious portions, followed by the eldest son, then the younger sons, then the daughters, and lastly the mother.. who would, if lucky, get the smallest plate with just a fish head or a tail to nibble on.
This might seem shocking, but was really considered necessary to ensure that the men, the breadwinners of the family, had the strength to keep doing their job and bring home a supply of money.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, modern researchers have found direct evidence of nutritional deficits in women by looking at skeletons and finding pitting in their bones from a lack of essential vitamins.
Growing food wasn’t just for the rural folk either. In cities like Dundee and Edinburgh, at least up until the late 18th century, people were still involved in growing their own food – some having their own gardens and others sharing common fields.
Individual properties were home not just to the householder, but if she was still alive the elderly mother, any unmarried sisters, and of course any children that were not old enough to get their own homes.
In some cases, an older son who had married and started a family of his own would also live in the property too, with extensions built onto the house so that they could have their own household as an almost self-contained unit.
Younger brothers that were no longer children but were part-owners in the family business might also live in the house, usually on the upper floor.
And things were getting ever more crowded. During the early 17th century, towns like Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh were growing rapidly. For example, in Edinburgh, over 150 years, the number of people nearly tripled, from around 12,000 people in 1550 to around 50,000 in 1700, and that’s not including the various livestock which also increased at similar numbers.
As a result, the density of housing increased to try and keep pace. Medieval style timber-framed houses were in the process of being replaced by stone structures, and in Edinburgh in particular, limits on space in the old town meant people had to build upwards, meaning that we see the construction of high-rise ‘skyscrapers’ – tenements which could be nine stories high – all filled to the brim with vast numbers of people.
This growth in population meant that growing your own food became almost impossible, driving people to source their food at the market instead.
So, in summary, Scotland in the 17th century is based around two distinct groups of people – those who live in rural communities making their living out of growing crops, and an ever-increasing number of folk being crushed together in the bustling towns and cities.
But wherever they lived, they all had their waste matter to deal with.
Shitting in the country
Today in Scotland, if you want to ‘pinch a loaf’ or ‘release the hostages’, you can have the luxury of retreating into the privacy of a warm and comfortable to relieve yourself, safe in the knowledge that once your business is complete – the waste will be swept away from your home with a simple flush of cold water.
This is a recent luxury, though. Alexander Cumming started the flushing phenomenon in 1775 with the first patent for a flushing toilet, after which soon followed plumbing, sewage systems and treatment plants to process the poop.
In our time period, though, you had do deal with it yourself. In the most rural parts of Scotland, defecating wasn’t so much of an issue – you had a large number of places to pick from, in a bucket, in a field, by the river, behind a barn - pretty much wherever you stood – squat, poop, wipe with some leaves or moss, and you’re away – the poop getting absorbed into the ground or washed away with the river tide.
But in less rural parts of the country, your excrement and urine formed part of your domestic household waste, along with dirty water from cooking, cleaning and washing; food and bones; ashes from the fireplace; building waste, rubble and stones; broken glass and metal.
For most people, all this trash was thrown on top of a ‘midden’, basically collections of discarded trash that builds up (sometimes over generations) into huge stinking piles of refuse.
Across many communities in Scotland, it was common to have your own personal midden, kept in an area in front of the property called the 'foreland'.
Personal waste was considered private property, not public, and something that people were incredibly protective over - going so far as to prevent anyone who might try to steal it.
The farmowners know that to grow strong yields of crops, you have to constantly replace the nutrients in the soil with a fertiliser, rebalancing it so that the plants grow strong and healthy.
The plants take nutrients out of the soil, and you have to put it back in to promote growth, a process that they called ‘gooding the earth’.
And it turns out that the best ways to do this was to apply the nutrient-rich fertiliser from the organic waste rotting in your stinky family midden.
And so, they simply gathered up the midden as needed, carted it into the back garden and dumped it straight onto the ground. As a result, it's not uncommon for people today to find small pieces of broken pottery, glass, and even coins scattered across fields - items which would have been discarded into the midden along with organic waste.
You might think that this extra trash in your soil would make farming more difficult – but the opposite is true, because when spread across the ground, the sharp fragments of these hard little pieces not only added to the nutrient content of the soil, but also acted like little teeth, helping to break up clumps of soil, improving the ability for water and air to get to the plants roots.
So whilst having a gigantic pile of crap rotting outside your front doorstep might not sound ideal, but when it is critical to the survival of your entire family, you learn to live with it.
Middens were so critical in fact, that people literally referred to them as ‘wealth’.
In the town of Banff, there's a 17th-century record of the magistrates insisting that the main route from a local nobleman's townhouse to the parish church was 'absolutely foul' and a disgrace for any noble lord that should wish to walk through such filth to get to the church.
As such, they wanted to clean up the area, but the townspeople argued that the waste was their property and shouldn't be carted off just because the nobles didn't want to get their shoes dirty.
Threatened by the idea of the people rising up, the magistrates decided to simply warn the townspeople that the situation was out of hand, and remind them of their duty to properly maintain their middens by mixing in sand to absorb liquids and prevent it from seeping out onto the street.
Other town councils like Elgin, Banff, Selkirk, Peebles, and Stirling introduced measures to license waste collectors to move the middens to locations outside the borough. People would keep what they needed for their own farms, and the rest would be carted away by the council – leaving the place slightly less smelly.
Interestingly, many of the people who took up licenses to collect the waste were actually lawyers. Not to collect the waste themselves of course - they were well-educated and smart enough not to do the dirty work themselves – they just knew there was a profit to be made from the waste by selling it on to the larger scale farmers.
So, in essence, the council charged the people as part of their common fees (the equivalent of modern day council tax) and the lawyers make money on top from gathering and selling on the waste.
And there was never enough waste to keep the farmers happy – so many lawyers became very wealthy from selling crap. You can make your own lawyer joke here.
Inevitably though, the councils saw how much money the licensees were making, so they decided to take on the challenge of collection for themselves. Interestingly, many of the 'cleansers' the councils employed were actually from one place - Dundee, because throughout the late 16th and early 17th century Dundee had the notable reputation for producing the best waste collectors.
While the collection of middens was evolving, the use of them didn’t really change for centuries. In fact, people were still hoarding their poop right up until the 1920s, when sewers began to be installed across the country.
It might sound odd, but if you’ve got a compost heap in your garden – you’ve created your very own little midden for gooding the earth too!
Shitting in the cities
In the cities and towns of Scotland during the early 17th century, we find people who had much less land to live off of, and spending much more time in closer proximity to other people – so, using the toilet and disposing of the waste wasn’t quite as easy as their country folk friends.
The overwhelming majority of families used simple chamber pots made from pewter, wood, brass, earthenware or glass - known locally as 'pos', 'gazunders', ‘chanty’ or ‘cunniak’, which for convenience were often kept under the bed, to be used at night - especially by the elderly and infirm.
But what did they do with the waste that they collected in their pots?
Well.. Middens were still a thing, but often communal, either kept in back yards or specific locations based around the town as designated by local authorities.
There was a network of ditches that weren’t intended to, but often served as open sewers, and of course some people either lazy, inconsiderate or just plain ‘caught short’ dumped their load wherever they saw fit.
In fact, if we’re looking for a description of Edinburgh during the 17th century, we canlook to Sir William Brereton’s review, written during a business trip in 1635 describing the place as:
‘doubtless a most health-full place to live in were nott the inhabitants most sluttish, nastye and sloath-full people... Their houses of office [toilets] are never emptied, until they bee full, soe as the scent thereof annoyeth, and offendeth the whole house’
This needs to be taken with some caution though. While it’s likely true that Edinburgh did have a bad smell, it’s worth noting that at this time most towns and cities (including those in England) had similar issues. Perhaps Edinburgh is being picked on here because throughout the 18th century, English authors were keen to write sensationalistic, purposely anti-Scottish comments.
Their exaggerated accounts of Scotland in past and present were often highly engineered with myths and legends created as a way of making their own country appear better than it was, or at least painting a picture of the past as a grim and unsophisticated time to elevate their own modern society as cultured and refined.
Once such legend is that of ‘Gardy Loo’, which suggests that at 10:00 PM every night, the windows of Edinburgh’s buildings would suddenly open out and all the residents would empty their dirty chamber pots into the streets below shouting the warning ‘Gardy Lou!’.. a corruption of the French expression, ‘Prenez garde a l’eau!’ meaning ‘beware of the water!’
It’s often told today, but this story is an exaggeration. Whilst it was possible that some dirty water would probably have been thrown out of windows on occasion - it certainly wasn't solid waste or latrine waste - well not always, because, after all, organic waste was valuable, and beyond that – most people had a respect for their towns.
It may well have happened at some times – sufficiently often that laws were put in place to prevent it from happening. In 1662 a statute was enacted that imposed a fine for anyone, "discharging and casting out of water pots and foul water and filth at windows upon the high streets and vennels night and day".
And to ram this ruling home, the statute also added that if you were caught doing it – you didn’t pay your fine to the authorities - you paid it directly to the person who reported the offense - which basically incentivised neighbours to keep an eye on each other and make sure that the law was being followed.
But, while that might have prevented the people of Edinburgh from throwing their waste out of windows – that didn’t mean they weren’t averse to getting rid of it elsewhere.
In some properties in Edinburgh, and other Scottish towns, there were things called ‘jaw holls’ in their floors or walls which had the purpose of allowing people to pour dirty water away so that it could run outside directly into a maze of ditches in the streets outside.
These jaw holls were designed to drain liquid waste and rainwater, not human waste, but unsurprisingly, some people did that anyway, resulting in both the jaw holls and the outside ditches becoming blocked with excrement.
This obviously caused a nasty smell and often drew complaints from neighbours, which were often directed to the local authorities, who received so many that they actually set up ‘nuisance courts’ to assess the various grievances and pass judgements and penalties on the guilty.
In 1617, for example, a ‘nuisance court’ in Stirling received a complaint form a James Duncanson, who said that his neighbour, Patrick Kinross, had constructed a jaw holl through which ‘water and filth’ fell into his home ‘to his grete herme’ (great harm); the court sent people to assess the complaint and Patrick Kinross was ordered to lay drains to protect his neighbour’s property from future damage.
But, as overcrowding became more of a problem and many of the new houses were being built without gutters or jaw holls, a significant number of people were now in the position of having to go to a larger effort to deposit their waste, especially those living on the upper floors of tenements.
Sometimes it was just easier to sneak out of your house and secretly dispose of it somewhere out of sight.
In June 1612, Perth Council received a report about a group of residents who were throwing their waste in inappropriate areas to which the Court concluded that ‘these persones that lies fulyie should be waidit’ [these people who drop their waste should be punished and penalised]’
But clearly this wasn’t enough of a prevention, because filth continued to grow on the streets at such a level that some local councils had to find alternative methods with dealing with it.
Some funded communal, public toilets, known as ‘common houses of easement’. But in a town called Ayr, the local Council had to get even more involved, concluding that they needed to pay employees to keep the streets clear.
They started by trialling different individuals over several one-year periods between 1611 and 1616, before finally settling on just a man called David Huntar who did the job for eight straight years in a row between 1616 and 1624 for a salary of just six Scottish pounds a year (about £700 or $1000).
His job was to collect and heave the towns muck out into the countryside – a job so big that it is said he had to use 160 horses pulling sledges to get the excrement out.
And while much of that waste came from the streets, some of it was collected from homes which were using holes in the ground as a latrine pit.
Called ‘schields’, but sometimes known as ‘closets’ ‘jakes’, ‘houses of office’, ‘close stools’, ‘easing chairs’ or ‘chairs of office’ – these were deep pits that had a wooden plank (with a hole cut out) placed over the top of them.
These schields were often part of separate outbuildings in backlands, but on occasion were also built indoors too.
Obviously, a growing pit of stinking sewage in close proximity to where you live led to some pretty awful smells, so homeowners would sometimes have to add lime and sand to try cover the waste and suppress the smell.
But the bigger issue was that inevitably, the pit would become so full that it might start to overflow, and it was their responsibility to empty it – requiring them getting down into the muck and digging it out to be carted away.
And if they didn’t - angry neighbours would of course go straight to the nuisance court and raise a complaint.
In 1614, for example, Alexander Bowie, of Steven Law’s Close in Edinburgh, complained to the city’s court that his neighbour, John Moffat, had ‘tua [two] privies’ which ‘daylie breks out and ryns [runs] in the Laithe houses [basements] of his tenement, rotting and consuming the walls thairof to his great hurt and skaith’.
In this particular case, the court found in favour of Mr Bowie and ordered John Moffat to clean his privies out immediately.
Which seems like a wise judgement to us.
If you were to visit the heart of Edinburgh today, at some point you’ll likely find yourself overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the city streets. You’ll probably want to take a rest - and where better than a visit to Princes Street Gardens, a public park situated in a valley between the Old and New Towns.
Springing to life in 1830 and taking 46 years to develop, the park is now a beautifully landscaped public space which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to see the lawns, flowerbeds, trees, bandstand, fountain and the world’s oldest floral clock.
But prior to this being a place of calm and serenity, the site of Princes Street Gardens has a much more tense and chaotic history.
It all starts around 15,000 years ago when the Ice Age ends and a large valley is left behind, gouged out of the ground by a glacier.
This valley fills with melted ice-water, and becomes a lake.. or in Scottish, a Loch.
The Loch sits there doing Loch-things for a period of time, until eventually the water recedes enough, that by the 14th century there is no mention of it at all.
However, around the middle of the 15th century, King James III orders the valley to be flooded – and he wants to do this to strengthen the city’s castle’s defences – Edinburgh Castle at the time being the most besieged castle in Britain.
And so, a nearby stream is dammed and the valley is filled with water, again, and soon becomes known as ‘North Loch’ ‘Nor Loch’.
But that isn’t where the story of Nor Loch ends, because throughout the Middle Ages, as the Old Town became more and more crowded, it became commonplace for citizens to come and throw their household waste directly into the loch.
And so, over the next two hundred years, Nor Loch transforms from a large marshy lake into a gigantic open cesspit - a foul and disgusting part of Edinburgh that produced such a vast amount of methane that it concentrated in clouds so large that it is said that in places it replaced oxygen in the air and caused people to suffer symptoms of hypoxia - like confusion and hallucinations.
And it wasn’t just household trash and raw sewage that went into the lake – it was blood, meat, offal, dirt and animal excrement from the various slaughterhouses, skinners and tanners too.
And into this stew of rotting mulch also went criminals - people who were sentenced to death by the punishment of ‘dookings’, where large crowds would witness them be submerged in the Loch as a form of trial by ordeal.
In 1628, for example, a man called George Sinclair and his sister confessed to committing incest and were sentenced to death in Nor Loch.
They were placed together in a large wooden chest, holes were drilled in the sides, and the chest was thrown into the loch for them to drown in. 200 years later, in 1820, workmen digging out a drain found a chest, opened it and found their skeletons inside.
Drowning in the Loch was also an essential part of Edinburgh’s witchcraft-trials too, where men and women who had been accused of being in league with the devil were dunked in the Loch to see if they were guilty or not.
They’d have their thumbs and toes tied together then be put on a ducking stool and dropped into the filthy water. If they drowned they were not considered evil, and if they survived this was enough proof that they should be immediately dragged from the loch, strangled, and then burnt at the stake.
It is estimated that more than 300 men and women were subjected to this kind of ‘ducking’ at Edinburgh’s Nor Loch, with eleven women being executed like this in a single day in 1624.
But Nor Loch wasn’t just used for capital punishments, it was also a hotspot for suicide, with one particular location known as ‘The Pot’ being the site for many a sad and desperate soul killing themselves in the water.
But it’s not all bad news, because Nor Loch was also a haven for eels.
A creature which is remarkably resilient and can adapt to a variety of environments, happily surviving in low-oxygen water and scavenging on food scraps and rotting meat – something that Nor Loch was full of.
In fact, Nor Loch was where Edinburgh’s eel farm was kept, with fisherman pulling out vast numbers of eels on a daily basis to be bought and consumed by the public.
One such purchaser of Nor Loch eels was a guy called Johnnie Dowie, a tavern owner who was famous for serving a speciality eel pie.
Fortunately, just after our time period in 1685, drowning in the loch was outlawed as a form of punishment. And shortly after, a couple of other laws were passed too – one, to prevent cattle from drinking from the Loch, and two, to prevent people washing from their clothes in it - not because they were worried about the dangers associated with drinking or washing in dirty water, but because the authorities were worried about the amount of water that was disappearing during times of drought.
Eventually, by the mid-18th century the smell of the loch had become so offensive that wealthy residents complained about the pollution, and an initial plan was proposed to reroute an entire river to wash out the Loch, but this never actually happened and ultimately the entire Loch was drained completely.
Sir Thomas Erskine
Born in Scotland on the 4th September 1566, to Alexander and Margaret Erskine, their son, Thomas Erskine, grew up in a life of luxury.
His parents owned some pretty significant estates in Scotland and enjoyed the benefits of having lots of money and prestige. Thomas was fortunate to be educated at Stirling Castle where he made friends with a classmate called James, in fact, his father became a guardian of James – so the two boys spent a great deal of time together at school, and at home, helping to build what would become a lifelong friendship.
Now, the thing about James was, he was quite a unique child, because at just one years old, James had become King of Scotland when his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, abdicated the throne and fled to England.
Therefore the boy that Thomas Erskine was close personal friends with none other than King James VI of Scotland.
As the boys got older, their friendship continued, and in 1585, when Thomas was 19 years old, James made him one of the Gentlemen of His Majesty's Bedchamber, a rather sexy sounding job, but was actually more of a significant political role than anything untoward.
In 1600, when Thomas was 34, he and James were invited to hangout with some acquaintances called the Ruthven brothers at their home in Perth in central Scotland, when they pulled a dagger on the King and kidnapped him.
Thomas took part in a rescue mission during which time James was saved and the Ruthvens were killed.
As a reward, James awarded Thomas a third of the Ruthvens lands and gave him the title Lord Erskine of Dirletoun.
A year later in 1601, James made him a Privy Councillor, which while being a nice pun for this episode, unfortunately doesn’t have anything to do with excrement – it’s just a name given to a close advisor to a monarch.
But the titles didn’t stop there, because in 1603, James travelled to England and ascended the throne, becoming James the 1st – the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland at the same time.
And James brought his best friend with him, making Thomas Captain of the Guard. But it’s a year later, in 1604, where we are most interested, because that’s the year when James gives Thomas another promotion.. this time, to a role called Groom of the Stool.
So, within the Privy Chamber, which was the name for the group of Jame’s closest advisors, there was a smaller more select group of people known as the Gentlemen of the Chamber
These were James’ best friends, hanging out with him full-time, hunting, playing games, attending ceremonies and generally having a level of access and influence that others couldn’t hope to have.
Some of them were assigned specific roles, like ‘Groom of the Chamber’, which simply meant helping the King with his appearance – helping him wash, putting on his outer clothing.
But Thomas had the most coveted role, Chief Gentleman of the Chamber, otherwise known as Groom of the Stool.
Groom in this instance meaning Officer of the English Royal Household, and Stool meaning ‘significant seat’ - and thus, as Groom of the Stool, Thomas was charged with assisting the King with all things related to his, um, throne. Not the actual kingly throne, the toilet.
Because by 1598, the term "stool" had also started to be used to refer to excrement, and as the Groom of the King's Stool, this became a play on words which described Thomas’s role as someone responsible for ensuring that James had the most excellent bowel movements.
Thomas would prepare the toilet, assist with the removal of the King’s underwear, keep the king company while he defecated, ensure appropriate hygiene using wet linen or a brush made from hay known as an ‘arsewhip’, dressing the king again, and all while doing his best to restrict the King’s senses from the smell of the resulting product.
Thomas was also personally responsible for transporting the royal toilet on journeys, a toilet which was a chamber pot housed within a wooden box that was covered in cushioned brown velvet and fringed with silk.
For some unrelated reason, as Groom of the Stool, Thomas was also directly responsible for the king's finances too, but that’s by-the-by.
And Thomas must have been good at his job, because he remained Groom of the Stool for eleven years, every day of which he would accompany his friend as he sat on his padded, velvet-covered stool and defecated.
During this time, he might have been asked for counsel, listened to personal issues and political woes, and of course offered his advice and guidance – all while readying himself for a gentle wipe of the kingly arse.
The two men remained the closest of friends until James’ death in 1625, when Thomas, never forgetful of their home-land, made sure that James was remembered as “King of Great Britain" and not just ‘King of England’ – a title which would have pleased his friend, and certainly the people of Scotland.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that during his reign as King, James made several notable achievements, for example, introducing the King James Bible (which became the defacto version of the Bible for English-speaking Protestants), bringing about peace with Spain, promoting Jacobean literature, such as the works of William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
But another, perhaps accidental achievement, was the promotion of indoor toilets. Because while a simple chamber pot in a wooden box might seem unsophisticated to our modern bottoms, in the early 17th century, the King’s toilet was seen as being startlingly new technology.
And as-is so often the case when famous and powerful people adopt new technology, it becomes desired and fashionable to everyone else – and so during our time period we start to see versions of Jame’s boxed commode rolling out across Scotland in the homes of the rich and wealthy.
And so, there you go, we’ve completed our motion and it’s time to wipe and flush this episode down the pan, but before we do, I’d like to offer my most sincere thanks to my own privy council.. without whom, none of this episode would have been possible:
o Richard Oram, Professor of Medieval and Environmental History, at the University of Stirling
o Dr Aaron Allen, Institute for Academic Development, at the University of Edinburgh
o and Archaeological researcher, Morag Cross