Edinburgh today has a wide and varied gay scene involving not just bars and clubs but everything from shops, saunas and cafes to gay sports groups, real ale drinkers and a theatre company amongst many other activities. But it wasn't always so. Back in the days when it was illegal to be gay, gay men (lesbianism wasn't illegal) had to be very careful. But despite that there were bars in Edinburgh where men met such as the Steps bar half way down Waverley Steps in the 1950s or the Kennilworth in Rose Street 1950s -1980s. Although I wasn't around in those days, I believe that Edinburgh was a fairly tolerant place and it certainly was in my experience of growing up gay in the late 70s and 80s. In a book called “Between The Acts” a London soldier stationed in Edinburgh during WWII said “ Edinburgh was a tremendous city, it was so full of sailors and quite quite easy. The place was as if the world had gone mad because it was so easy. But that was Edinburgh”
Of course gay people got attacked both then and now – just like anywhere else.
Around 1979 the Laughing Duck in Howe St became one of the city's first dedicated gay bars. It had a disco downstairs with a clear floor and coloured lights underneath. It was always great fun. Across the road in Jamaica St was Key West which in 1983 had a metal floor and chains hanging from the bar. There was also Fire Island, Edinburgh gay club of the 80s on Princes St (Now the bay window in Waterstones) where acts such as Eartha Kitt and Divine performed. The club was famous throughout the UK. At the same time there was Millionaires or Millies in South Bridge (now Whistle Binkies). But by the late 80s/90s a lot of places were mixed gay/straight (like it is today) such as Hoochie Coochie club above Coasters (now Lava/Ignite) showing an increased level of tolerance.
Here are 2 gay historical walks from the website LGBT history paths. I have put 2 of the walks here but for the rest please visit:
Edinburgh City Centre East - East End of Princes St, Calton Hill, The Triangle & Broughton St
Start at the East End of Princes St. on the pavement in front of Register House. Facing Register House, go to the left-hand corner of the building, where the narrow Register Street opens out into Princes St. On the Register Street side of the building, just past the corner, you'll see a small, boarded-up doorway set low in the stone base. This is all that remains of the large subterranean public toilets known to generations of Edinburgh men as the city's prime cottaging spot, aka “GHQ.”
Cross Princes St. to the Balmoral Hotel. Alongside it, on the Castle side, the Waverley Steps run down to the station. In the 1950s, when any sexual relationships between men were entirely illegal, smartly-dressed gay men met at the Steps Bar, halfway down, for discreet socializing under the lady publican's protective eye. In the 1960s the hotel itself housed another popular gathering place, Le Carousel, which was entered via North Bridge.
Cross North Bridge to walk east along Waterloo Place towards Calton Hill. After the row of buildings on the right there's a gate to the Old Calton Cemetery, where Percy Jocelyn (1764-1843), onetime Bishop of Clogher in the Church of Ireland, lies buried. The Bishop was caught in a clinch with a young soldier in the back room of a London pub. Defrocked and disgraced, the ex-Bishop fled, eventually turning up in Edinburgh, where he lived out his days under the pseudonym of Thomas Wilson, serving as a butler in the New Town.
Cross to Calton Hill, centuries-old cruising area, but also the scene of a 1988 murder, when teenagers set upon a man they assumed to be gay.
Turn left into the street named Calton Hill. This emerges at a set of shallow steps leading down to Leith Street. Look left to the Black Bull pub on the corner, a popular wartime rendezvous for military men. [ : To avoid these steps, follow the street as it descends steeply to the junction of Leith St. and Calton Rd.].
Cross to the wide pavement area in front of St. Mary's Cathedral. The top of Leith Walk, opening out before you, is home to pubs and clubs that, since the 1980s, have formed the heart of Edinburgh's Pink Triangle. On the right is the Playhouse Theatre,
where the first distribution of AIDS red ribbons in Scotland took place (at an Erasure concert) in 1992.
Cross York Place and head downhill into Broughton St., virtually the village street of LGBT Edinburgh. On the right, at 41, above the present-day Baroque Bar, was the all-male boarding house known as Mrs. Kenmure's Apartments which, from around 1930,
advertised Good Accommodation for Naval Men.
Turn right into Forth St. The basement at 11A Forth St., on the right, was once Lavender Menace, Edinburgh's first-ever gay &lesbian bookshop, opened in 1982, famous not only for its richly varied stock but for its ever-popular community notice board.
Other, more recent LGBT landmarks include the Remember When Project, celebrating the history of Edinburgh's LGBT communities and co-producer of these Walks (no.14) and the Equality Network (formerly at no.18).
Return to Broughton St., cross and walk downhill. The Santorini restaurant (32c) was formerly Over the Rainbow, welcoming all LGBT Friends of Dorothy with a giant pair of Ruby Slippers. Just before the corner, is Blue Moon (no.36), pioneer of the city's LGBT cafes, which had its first site inside the old Lesbian & Gay Centre at no.60 - still to come.
Cross Barony St. Pass 52 Broughton St., once home of the late Ian Dunn, pioneering and controversial gay activist, and first editorial office of Gay Scotland magazine, launched 1982.
Finish at 60 Broughton St.,now the site of the very LGBT-friendly Sala café-bar. The building was purchased in 1974 by the Scottish Minorities Group (Scotland's first lesbian and gay rights organisation). For over 30 years, it's been a “GHQ”of a different kind - workspace, social centre, and activist base-camp for LGBT life in Edinburgh.
Time - about 30mins
The old Fire Island on Princes Street with distinctive bay window Habana and CCs - 2 of today's gay bars
Edinburgh City Centre - Central, Princes St Gardens, Princes St, New Town
Start in the square next to the National Gallery, traditionally Edinburgh's “Speakers' Corner”, scene in the 1980s of demonstrations against the Thatcher government's notoriously homophobic Clause 28 (in Scottish law - 2A)
Cross the foot of the Mound at the lights, picturing the thousands of marchers flooding uphill on Scotland's first Pride March in 1995.
Pause at the entrance to Princes St. Gardens West, at steps descending to the men's public toilets. Now very mundane, this was once a magnificently-appointed Victorian public convenience, featuring a circle of wooden cubicles. In an era when gay men could only meet in secret, it was known as the Wheel of Fortune.
Go down the steps past the Floral Clock. Turn left and go down the steep path that runs down past the Gardeners' Lodge House on your right. At the bottom of the slope, take the path forking to the left. A little way further ahead, on the grass to your right, you'll see the small memorial stone with a plaque commemorating the Holocaust. Remember that gay men, lesbians and other sexual minorities suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, alongside Jews and Romany Gypsies. Walk west through the Gardens to the Ross Bandstand, site of Lark in the Park, 1988 festival of LGBT fun and protest. [ : To avoid steps entering and leaving the Gardens, enter and exit the park from Kings Stables Road, just off Lothian Road].
Come out of the gardens and cross Princes St. to visit the following landmarks: On the opposite side of Princes St. on the western corner of Castle St. is the site of the International Club, a discreet gathering place for 1950s gays. Midway between Castle St. and South Charlotte St., above Waterstone's Bookshop, look up to the handsome first-floor bay window. This was once Fire Island - Edinburgh's first large-scale commercial disco, reached by an unmarked door at number 127. During its late 1970s-1980s heyday it hosted the legendary Eartha Kitt and other stars. This stretch of Princes St. was also the site of a celebrity visit from an earlier age: The playwright Oscar Wilde, later imprisoned for sodomy after a famous trial, came to Edinburgh on a lecture tour in 1884. He stayed at a hotel where Marks & Spencer's women's clothing shop stands now, and spoke on the very gay topic, “Beauty, Taste & Ugliness in Dress.”
Go into Castle St. and turn right, heading eastwards along Rose St. From the 1950s through the 80s, the Kenilworth (at 152-4) was Edinburgh's best-known pub for gay men and lesbians alike. Frenchie's (at 87) entered from the lane around the corner) still retains its own distinctive atmosphere and loyal male clientele. Further east (49) is the Saltire, formerly Paddy's. Veterans of the mid-twentieth century scene still speak fondly of its landlady, Mrs. Crossan, widow of a famous footballer. Note that all these pubs shut firmly at 10 pm, at which time their gay patrons reconvened at the now-vanished but once wildly popular Crawford's Tearooms in Frederick St. (According to some informants, the Castle St. branch was just as gay).
Walk up Hanover St and turn left into George St. to the venerable Assembly Rooms, scene of Lothian Gay & Lesbian Switchboard's fabulous ceilidhs and balls. Now a major Fringe venue, this once housed the Edinburgh Festival Club, where drama queens from all over the world converged at the bar during the annual cultural orgy every August.
Walk back to Hanover St, turn left, and follow it downhill as it becomes Dundas St. At 25A West & Wilde Bookshop, flagship of LGBT literature's movement “from back street to High Street”, was here from 1987 through the 1990s. Dundas St. at Great King Street.
Walk west along Great King Street to St. Vincent St. Enter St. Vincent's St. Turn right and go downhill to St. Vincent's Church. Keeping the church on your right, enter St. Stephen's St . Just past the corner of Silvermills was the site (now flats) of Tiffany's nightclub. Groundbreaking discos run by the Scottish Minorities Group were held here 1974-76. These attracted huge crowds, coming from all over Scotland and beyond. They stopped abruptly when the venue's owners, Mecca (of Miss World fame) discovered it was being used for gay and lesbian events (shock horror!) and pulled the plug.
Go back to St. Vincent St. and uphill into Howe St. mourning the disappearance of two important pubs of longstanding: the Laughing Duck in Howe St and Key West in Jamaica St.
Finish with a visit to 9 Howe St., the LGBT Centre for Health and Wellbeing, co-producer, with the Remember When Project, of these paths.
Time - about 50mins
GAY PRIDE 2012
Edinburgh has held pride marches since 1995 but there was also a Lark in the Park event in Princes St Gardens in 1988 to protest about section 28. In 1995 there was also a gay highland games in the meadows. For some years Edinburgh shared pride with Glasgow but now they are both separate and Edinburgh gets a gay party every year.
Pride 2012 was held on 30th June and followed the route from the city chambers down the High Street, Canongate, Abbeymount, Royal Terrace and finished outside the Omni Centre. It rained at the start of the march but by the end the sun was shining and hundreds of people enjoyed the day. There were stalls in the Omni centre and a stage outside where singers and drag acts entertained the crowds. The bars were incredibly busy and most were done up with banners and balloons. People had come from all over and partied hard and long into the night. A very pleasant day.
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