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The History of Old Dundee
The Town Council


The government of towns by Magistrates and their Councillors, was especially suited to the rude times of early Scottish history, when the burghal system was growing into coherence and paternal rule had become essential to its development. The workmen who were without feudal protection, and had joined themselves into crafts for self defence, and the merchants who found their single-handed ventures precarious, and had united into guilcis for mutual aid, all recognized how needful it was for their safety and strength, that the fathers of the burgh should govern with arbitrary sway, and that themselves should render a ready obedience; and so the rule of Town Councils, and the transmission and continuance of their authority, became established as necessary for the well-being of the community.

The manner in which burgesses were then placed upon the Council in Dundee, could scarcely be tenned an election in the ordinary sense of the word. The old body annually nominated the new—two of the number being craftsmen, and ten, merchant venturers, while the past Magistrates were continued in office for another year as Councillors. The old Council and the new, along with the nine deacons of crafts, then met "in the revestrie of the kirk on Sunday efter forenoon sermon, according to the laudable custom observit be long antiquitie, past memorie of man," and there, from out out of lists prepared by the old Council, elected the Provost, Dailies, Dean of Guild, and other officers. At one time the elections appear to have taken place with some irregularity, but it was enacted "that all common offices, sic as Provost, Dailies, Councillors, Dean of Guild, Treasurer, Kirkmaster, Almshousemaster, Vesiomasters, and Deacons of Warkmen, shall be vacant ilk year at the feast of Michaelmes, and persons of new electit and chosen thereto." And afterwards, when it was found that some had neglected their duty, and " absentit themselves fra the leeting and election of the Magistrates and Council, to the grite hintlerance of his Majestic's service, and the prejudice of the common weill of the burgh, it was ordaint that in case ony person that lies vote sall absent himself heirefter upon the ordinary days fra the leeting and election, that lie sail pay twenty pounds unlaw but favour." No one was allowed to decline office. "Quhen ever ony person be common suffrage and vote, is electit to be Provost, Bailie, Dean of Guild, Treasurer, Almshouse-master, Piermaster, or Commissioner to Parliament, he sall accept the office upon him, and use the samyn faithfully according to his conscience, [giving] his aith to that effect; and quhatsumever person he be that refuses or defers to accept and use his office efter he be chargit thereto, sail incontinent theirefter be either wardit or poyiidit until he pay ten pounds to the common warks;" and notwithstanding, "sail nocht be dischargit of office, but compeilit to accept and use the samyn be our Soverane Lord's letters, or wardit until he accept."

On entering into their places, "the Bailies were sworn and gave their aiths for faithful administration for the year to come, according to their conscience and knowledge, and as God should give them grace and "the hail Council were also sworn and gave their aiths for the faithful discharge of their offices in giving true counsel to the common weill, in convening on the ordinary days and uthier times quhen they sall be chairgit, and in keeping close and secret that quhilk sail be spoken in Council, as also for assisting the Magistrates at all times convenient—be the haly name of God." And it was ordained "that "if ony sall reveal or open the secrets quhilk he hears in Council to ony manner of person, then the revealer sali be dischairgit of fbrder place, and never bruikl office in time coming," but be held as ane mensworn person."

At a season when some negligence had been shown toward civic duties, the Council moralized upon how "the common affairs and the business quhilk tends nocht to ony private man's profit and commoditie, does oft times pass in oblivion, is forgot and negiectit, as we may daily see and understand in the common weill and business of the burgh, which is wonderfully hurt and hinderit in as meikie as almaist na man remembers thereon;" and they enacted, for the better ordering of the meetings, "that ane officer pass and warn the Bailies and Council to assemble ilk oulk on Tuesday at ten hours before noon in the Council- house, there to treat, deliberate, advise, and determine upon the common affidrs, on all business pertening to the common weill, and all uther things being thocht expedient for the present time;" and those not then attending to be each fined two shillings—the Bailie or Clerk four shillings, "and the box to be set on the Councilhouse buird for receiving the pains the next day efter the absents compeir." At a later time, "they reiterat their aiths anent the keeping of the Council ilk oulk on Tuesday, and promittit upon their fidelities and consciences to observe the acts made thereanent, and in case they should be found contravening, to paythe penalties contenit therein,but grudge or contradiction." The enforcement of fines did not, however, amend "their slow and ( negligent convening upon the ordinary days and other days when they were chargit"—of which "lawful warning, sic as had been accusit" for absence, " commonly pretendit ignorance, quhairthrow the affairs of the common weill were oftimes neglectit and overpast; for remeid quhairof it was concludit that the Council be convenit be ringing of the bell quhilk is hung at the east end of the tolbuith, and was usit of before as the common bell of the burgh, but sail not serve to that heirefter, only to the use appointit; and that ilk Tuesday the said bell sail be rung be the officer, fra half-hour to ten, until it be ten stricken; and sic persons as convene nocht before the end of the bell ringing sail pay twa shillings, and sic as absent themselves all the time of the Council, they being within the burgh and able to have convenit, sail pay ten shillings."

But the ringing of this bell, which not long before had been hung "upon the north-east nuik of the tolbuith " for summoning the Guildry and crafts to assemble, did not cause the Councillors to attend as they ought; and the unlaws were increased, so that " he quha convenes nocht at the bell-ringing—at the least by ten hours—sail pay ten shillings for ilk time of his absence, and the Bailie or clerk notit absent, twenty shillings;" notwithstanding which, " the rare assemblies and convention of persons " continued, and recourse was then had to extreme measures. "It was ordaint that in case ony person be notit absenting himself three days togidder fra the Council, he being within the burgh, and nocht diseasit, that he sail be dischairgit and deleit furth of the number immediately theirefter, and also pay the penalties for his absence." And afterwards this ordinance was made even more stringent. "Sic < persons as have made faith for administration of their offices ilk oulk on Tuesday at ten hours, failing be the space of twa days togidder, they being within the burgh and nocht obtening liberty, sail be deprivit of their offices, and uthers electit in their places but ony calling of them judicially."

These rules were, however, found after trial to be too exacting; constant attendance was impossible, and the expulsion of absentees was impracticable; so the Council resolved to reduce the penalties to reasonable limits, and "concludit that the hail persons absent on the ordinary days and hours, sall pay forty pennies preceislie for ilk day's absence, ilk Bailie six shillings eight pennies, and the Provost, with his awn consent, sall ilk time pay ten shillings." Sir James Scryrngcour, a "dour" and overbearing man, was then Provost, and the Council, not yet having begun to fight with him, prudently gave him the option of paying his own fines.

In prospect of a steady accretion of penalties, a new pirlic box of copper was made for their safe reception. This article, which was probably fashioned by David Gray, a noted pewterer in the burgh, is still preserved, and forms a rather interesting relic of those times and of their craftsmen's work. It is of spherical shape, about nine inches diameter, having a stud passing through which held it to the table, and whereon it revolved. In the side is a slit for the admission of coins, and also a hole, secured by a lock, out of which they might be emptied when the vessel had been turned over, but this could only be (lone after a nut upon the end of the stud, which required a peculiar key to turn it, had been removed. The surface of the box is engrave(l with boldly executed ornamentation, and has several inscriptions in separate round compartments. The first of these is—"Payment for not coming to the Counsell of Dundie," enclosing the initials of the "Baizeis, 1602." The next is—" Lord bless the Provost, Bailizies, and Counsell of Dundie;" in the centre, " Sir James Schrimgeour, Provost, Anno 1602, 14 May." Then a shield having the town's badge—the lily, and the motto, "Dei Donum;" and another shield with the Scottish Lion, surrounded by the words, "Feare God and obey the King."

Shortly after this coffer was made, the fines "upon the persons of the Council quha convened nocht immediately efter the bell-ringing," were again increased to six shillings eight pennies, and upon the Provost, to thirteen shillings four pennies; and the box was ordered "to be set every Council day upon the buird for receiving them," and also "ilk court day for receiving unlaws; and to have twa keys, ane thereof to be delivered to ane Bailie, and the uther keepit be the Kirkmaster." During a time of plague, when all felt a dread at meeting their neighbours, heavy penalties had to be exacted from those absent. "The haul Council agreed to convene ilk Tuesday at ten hours but warning, and remain till twelve, for handling the common affairs, and sielike, at sic uthcr hours as they sail be warnit to keep, under the pain of five pounds." When the pest ceased, the fines were again reduced. It was enacted that "every magistrate that beis absent furtli of the Council- house upon Tuesday immediately efter the preaching and before the dn(ling of the ringing of the Council bell, sail pay thirteen shillings four pennies, and ilk Councillor quha sail nocht " be then present, or "sail nocht keep the preceise hours upon utlier extraordinar days, sail pay six shillings eight pennies, to be presently imput in the common box hinging in the Council house."

The common kist, which contained the charters, writs, and valuable documents belonging to the burgh, was secured by three locks, the keys of which were, "according to the accustomat order, disponit for tine year," to the treasurer ane key, to a councillor ane key, and to a representative of the crafts ane key, who were required to be together present at the opening of the kist, "and when any evident was taken out to tak ane pledge for inbringing of the same." It was, however, ordained that "the kist should nocht be opened without ane Bailie and three of the Council at the least being present, and the three keepers of the keys also, and (,,If it beis done utherways, it sail be repute ane prove draucht, and a defamation to the keepers for ever, and they sail never [again] bear office in the guid town."

In order that the business of the burgh might be transacted openly and honestly, and without the influence of improper motives, it was enacted "that na common office or public action suld be given or disponit be private or sinister reasons or wayings, but in convenient public time and place, quhair Provost, Bailies, and Council, and all uthers having votes, suld be presently warnit to reason the matter and give their determination as they think best for the common weill. And it was declared that all private donations, bypast, "or that may be proponit, contrair to these terms, shall be of nano avail, force, nor effect."

The inhabitants of the burgh were generally law-abiding, and ready to give to the Council the honour which was due to unquestioned authority; but some of them—men and women—were turbulent railers that did not show themselves amenable to the paternal rule. For these, condign punishments were provided. "Gif oiiy person be fundin missayingl or blaspheming ony of the Council chosen for the time, or oiiy taxters,2 or eujr3 of wine or ale, or ony person doing business at the command of the Provost, Bailies, or Council," that blasphemer "sail pay to the Kirkmaster forty shillings; and gif the person " pay not, and "lies not guids strenzeable to be poyndit, then the man [offending shall] lie in the stocks forty-aucht hours, and the woman in the cuckstule." Disobedience was, however, punished more rigorously than evil speech. "Gif ony person be fundin disobeying any one bearing office within the burgh, he sail pay five pounds of money but ony forder process," and if lie pay not "his readiest guids sail be poyndit therefor and quha beis convictit sail come to the Mercat Croce and upon his knees desire forgiveness of the person quhom he has offendit, and gif lie disobey shall tyne his freedom." But if the offender "lies not guids nor geir strenzeable for the soum, in that case he sall lie forty-aucht hours in the stocks," and then the next market day make amends upon his knees; "and "if lie disobey thereafter, shall be banished the town for year and day, but ony mitigation." It was a grave offence to "give ane cuff or draw ane whinger in presence of the Provost, Bailies, and Council, in the court, or any uther convention that should be made," for which the offender had "to pay ten pounds to the common guid, by satisfaction of the paiitie;" but if committed elsewhere, it was more venial, for "quhaever gives ane cuff or draws fine whinger utherways privately, sail pay to the common guid forty shillings, by the said satisfaction of the pairtie."

At one time it was considered desirable to encourage the burgesses to attend the meetings and express their Judgment upon public affiuirs, and it was declared "to be lesum for ony neighbour or inhabitant that lies knowledge of ony purpose concerning the common weill, to come before the Council in the Council house and declare his gude purpose." But too many had gone to give advice, and after a while it became necessary to restrain public opinion by ordaining "that na person heirefter sail presume to speak in the Council without he first crave licence of the Provost and Bailies to that effect, that matters may be cumlie and ordorlie intreated as effeirs." There were other disquieting influences which sometimes disturbed their deliberations. In the street below the meeting-place, hucksters and shoemakers had established their booths, and upon market days they made much noise, probably by crying, as the fashion then was, What d'ye lack?" and by "using of their craft, thereby continually perturbed the judgements and counsels halden in the Tolbuith and Councilhouse." So it was found necessary to make the street "red and wadi of the hucksters, and have the shoe market removit at the feast of Whitsunday, and placit and put be- east the bear market—because the hucksters are against the common weill to occupy that place."

The persons of the Council in these old days, appear to have generally performed their difficult work with much judgment and discretion. Perhaps they were narrow in their opinions and restricted in their sympathies, but these were characteristics of the time which they could not avoid; and if often too rigorously severe, they were usually influenced by inflexible impartiality, by conscientious convictions, and a high sense of Christian duty. The business which belonged to the general good, was always to be considered before any matter of personal interest; for "na particular actions shall be receivit be the Council but only what appertenes to the common weill, until the common actions be first discussit." All was done with dignity and in order; even in small matters they acted "high and clisposedly," whether it might be in hearing "the bellman give his aith for faithful administration of his office," instructing "the Dean of Guild to wair the sylver being in his hands upon ane green clayth to the Councilhiouse buird," or ordaining "the treasurer to deliver to the officer, ane cloke, in recompense for his cloke tynt in the town's service."


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