New walking tour will allow fans of Gentleman Jack to follow in her Edinburgh footsteps
She was known as Gentleman Jack, as anyone who watches the top-rated BBC drama of the same name will know and, as soon as lockdown eases, fans of the series will be able to follow in the footsteps of the 19th century diarist, courtesy of a new walking tour taking in highlights of her 1828 visit to the Capital.
Often described as the ‘first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister was born in 1791. A dedicated diarist, she captured her life as a successful businesswoman, science enthusiast, traveler and mountaineer in 26 volumes, with many of the entries written in code. It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that a surviving relative deciphered the code to uncover her secret, Lister's love affairs were with women. It was a discovery that then risked being lost forever.
Stef Lauer who devised and will lead the tours, explains, "Her relative wanted to burn them as he didn't want the Lister family name tainted, so we are lucky these documents are still there to be read. It took nearly a century to break the code to reveal she was a lover of women, something frowned upon at the time, although lesbianism didn't have a name until much later, instead Anne thought of herself as one of a kind, unique."
In 1828, Lister traveled to Edinburgh to explore the city with her companion, Scottish noblewoman, Sibella MacLean, her diary entry for Saturday, May 30, recording that they climbed Arthur's Seat: ‘Wind very high, dared not stand but sat a while on the topmost crag admiring the fine views all around me. Well worth the trouble, amply repaid. Descended in 10 minutes right down in a straight line down the crag, never dreaming of its being so bad. Ladies should not attempt it but go round.’
A day later the pair visited Trinity’s chain pier, she wrote, 'Sunday, May 31, 1828: The man drove us to the Trinity chain pier… Handsome streets and houses almost all the way. The chain pier good and a very great convenience but not so long, so broad nor... so handsome as that at Brighton, yet most convenient for passengers embarking.’
So what brought her to the Capital?
"She was an avid traveler and fell in love with Sibella," explains the 40-year-old tour guide, who has been fascinated by Lister’s story for two decades. "Together they spent many weeks in Edinburgh towards the end of the Age of Enlightenment, so Edinburgh was the place to be. That it was the Athens of the North would also certainly have brought the women here."
At that time, she says it was normal for women to share rooms, even beds. However, if sharing rooms was accepted, Lister and Maclean would not have been able to live openly as lovers and, in practical terms, it was still dangerous for women to venture out together unaccompanied.
"Although Anne dressed practically, which was seen as inappropriate for women of the day, she was always quite hurt when mistaken for a man - thus the nickname Gentleman Jack. In 1828, Edinburgh would have catered for the gentry to be out and about at all hours, for example, before there were street lights, there would be people outside the bars and restaurants equipped with torches, waiting to guide the gentry to their home - like mobile street lamps."
Such tales feature in the tour, which comes as the second series of Gentleman Jack starring Suranne Jones is in production at Shibden Hall, Halifax, Lister’s ancestral home.
The full-day tour (half day tours will also be available) will start in the New Town, break for lunch in Princes Street Gardens, and then continue into the Old Town, stopping off at locations Lister would have known. "With diary pages in hand we will have Anne's words in mind as walk, seeing Edinburgh through her eyes and weaving Anne's story into the fabric of the city," reveals Stef, adding, "We will start at Charlotte Square and weave our way through the places where they stayed, ate, worshiped and so on."
Among the locations Lister lodged were George Street and the Grassmarket, where she stayed in a place still familiar today.
"George Street back in the day had many lodging houses, each would have a shop on the ground floor and the same person who ran the shop would have rooms to let upstairs but the first few nights Anne spent in Edinburgh, she actually stayed in the Black Bull in the Grassmarket, a place that in those days was still where sheep and cattle were sold, it would have been noisy, dirty and smelly but also buzzing and vibrant. She would have wanted to soak all that in and then be able to revisit it through her writing."
Despite living life to the full, Stef confesses she is unsure how Lister would have felt about becoming an lesbian icon.
"Anne was a bit of an odd one. She wasn't looking for like-minded women. She liked girly girls with pretty smiles and curly hair, not another gentleman-like looking woman. To be able to go to a LGBTQ+ festival... I'm not sure what she would have made of it. I'm not sure she would have liked it."
She adds, "It has been amazing to see how everyone is now getting interested in Anne Lister since the TV series became an international hit. She died far too young, but in her short life she was one of the very few female landowners. Being the gentler sex she wasn't allowed to go to university or have a have a tutor, that is still a fascination for me, that somebody in that century should be able to throw off the chains society had put on her to live her authentic life."
The Anne Lister Walking Tours of Edinburgh are supported by Somewhere EDI and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, for more details, visit annelistertours.co.uk