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The History of Glasgow
Volume 2 - Chapter XIV - Sir George Elphinstone and the Letter of Guildry


FROM an early period the population of Glasgow must have fallen roughly into two classes, the merchants and the craftsmen. To begin with, the "merchants" were not necessarily traders overseas. Every shopkeeper was a "merchant," just as, to the present hour, the packman is, who sells his wares from farm to farm in Scotland. As early as the year 1209 a statute of William the Lion ordained the merchants of the realm to have their guild, with liberty to ply their business of buying and selling within the bounds of burghs. [Charters and Documents, i. pt. i. p. 211.] For some centuries, however, in Glasgow they did not incorporate themselves under a common constitution. By reason of their wealth and ability they exercised much influence, and thus probably did not feel the need of union. [History of the Hammermen of Glasgow, p. 6.]

The industrial class, or craftsmen, were in a different position. By an Act of Parliament of James I. at Perth in 1424 it had been ordained that in each town each craft should choose a deacon or master to govern and assay all the work done by the craft. At first these deacons had no legal powers to enforce their rulings, and had to apply to the magistrates to do this. By and by, however, they obtained powers by appealing to the magistrates, who granted a "Seal of Cause," or "Letter of Deaconry." The first recorded Seal of Cause in Scotland was that granted by the magistrates of Edinburgh to the Cordiners of that city in 1449. The earliest in Glasgow was that of the Skinners and Furriers, granted by the magistrates and archbishop in 1516. It was followed by that of the Weavers in 1528 and by that of the Hammermen in 1536. [Hist. of Hani;nermen of Glasgow.]

These incorporations of the crafts were, in fact, the trades unions of their time, and their history afforded a curious parallel with the history of the trades unions of four centuries later. Their business at first was solely to supervise the work of their crafts and to make sure that no unqualified person invaded their monopoly. Like the trades unions, they set themselves strenuously against free trade in labour, and permitted no outsiders or "blacklegs" within their bounds. Soon, growing in power, they began to seek to exercise jurisdiction in other than purely craft matters, and from the days of James I. to those of Queen Mary a succession of Acts of Parliament directed them to confine their activities to their legitimate business. They were, however, more numerous than the merchants. In 1604 there were in Glasgow 213 merchant burgesses and 363 burgesses of the crafts. [Act Book of the Dean of Guild Court.] For this reason, among others, the crafts resented the influence exercised and the authority assumed by the merchants. They showed a disposition to resist that influence and seize that authority, and they united in a demand for a share in the magistracy.

In 1584 the trouble came to a head in Edinburgh, and James VI., acting as referee, issued a decree arbitral, setting forth the limits of the separate interests and powers of merchants and craftsmen, and giving the latter definite rights in the election of magistrates, in the management of the burgh patronage and property, and in voting taxes and contributions.

In Glasgow the need for a similar ordinance became constantly more apparent. On 6th July, 1583, the day before the fair, at a weaponschaw of the townsmen, a dispute arose as to

the ranking and placing of the merchants and craftsmen in their several companies, and the dispute ended in a riot. Next day the deacons of the hammermen, tailors, cordiners, fleshers, baxters, skinners, and weavers were summoned before the magistrates, and required to give surety, each for his own craft, that no trouble should arise during the week of the fair. As the deacons averred they could not give the desired surety the magistrates declared that any person, merchant or craftsman, causing disturbance should be fined £100 Scots and banished from the town, and that everyone should meanwhile lay aside his armour and weapons. On the 16th the matter of the riot came up before the provost and magistrates, and it was agreed that the magistrates should draw up regulations to prevent like outbreaks in future. All the parties agreed to abide by the orders made, but nothing further appears to have been done. The space left in the council's records for the regulations was never filled up.

In 1593 an Act of Parliament recognized the power and jurisdiction of Dean of Guild courts in burghs, "according to the lovable forme of jugement usit in all the guid townis of France and Flanderis, quhair bourses ar erected and constitute, and speciallie in Paris, Rowen, Burdeaux, and Rochelle." [Act. Parl. iv. 30.] And in 1595 the Convention of Burghs sent a message to Glasgow that the of er burghs were offended that the community there did not conform itself to the comely action of other burghs by appointing a Dean of Guild and electing guild brethren. Twice the Convention requested Glasgow to send representatives, two from the merchants and two from the crafts, to Edinburgh, to confer with the commissioners of seven burghs on the subject, but though the city at last did send delegates, no conclusion was arrived at, and in the end the Convention, wearying of Glasgow's unwillingness, resolved to "desert the matter." [Convention Records, i. 469, 479, 495, and ii. 27, 28, 96.]

The strife between the merchants and the crafts—the classes and the masses of that time--meanwhile continued, the latter claiming an equal share, both in the government of the city and in the sea-going trade. The merchants resisted this claim on the ground that each man should keep to his own business. Through these disputes arose "terrible heat, strifes, and animosities, which threatened to end in bloodshed, for the craftsmen rose up in arms against the merchants." [McUre's History of Glasgow, pp. 161-2.]

The man who in the end brought the matter to a settlement and laid the foundations for amicable co-operation between the merchants and the craftsmen remains an interesting figure in the city's life of that time.

It is commonly understood that the founder of the overseas trade of Glasgow was William Elphinstone, a member of the noble family of that name, who settled in the city about the year 1420. Setting up the business of curing salmon and herring he sent these commodities to France, and traded them there for cargoes of brandy and salt. It was no doubt a descendant of his, John Elphinstone, who in 1508 obtained a licence from James IV. to build an embattled house in High Street, [Privy Seal Reg. i. 1696.] became a bailie of Glasgow in 1512, and before 1520 was rentaller, or tenant, of Gorbals and Bridgend on the archbishop's lands of Govan. [Charters and Documents, i. 495.] In 1521 his son George appears as rentaller, [Diocesan Reg. 26, 78, 82.] and in 1554 his son again, another George, was entered as tenant of these lands. In 1563 he purchased the lands of Blythswood tc the west of the city from the parson of Erskine. In 1579. George Elphinstone of Blythswood converted the old family tenancy of Gorbals and Bridgend into a permanent possession by obtaining a feu charter from Archbishop Boyd for an annual consideration of £6 and eight bolls of meal. It the charter of confirmation which Sir George Elphinston

secured from a later archbishop in 1607 it is stated that these lands had been held by him and his forebears "beyond the memory of man." [Great Seal Reg. 1609-10, p. 201.]

Meanwhile in 1572 George Elphinstone was one of the bailies who made over the Church property in Glasgow to the University; [Charters and Documents, pt. ii. p. 149.] in 1579 he represented the city at the Convention of Burghs, [Records of Convention, i. 83-90.] and in 1584 he was one of the magistrates appointed by Archbishop Montgomerie. [Burgh Records, i. 113.]

It was probably a son of the bailie who secured for his family its final rise to consequence in connection with the city. In 1594, at the baptism of Prince Henry, George Elphinstone was knighted. In 1595 he had his lands erected into a barony as the Barony of Blythswood, [Inventure, No. 5, p. ioo. It was upon the authority of this charter that, after acquiring the lands of Gorbals in 1650, the magistrates of Glasgow exercised baronial jurisdiction over that district for about two hundred years. (See The Barony of Gorbals, Regality Club IV. pp. 1-60. See also the monograph on Gorbals by Superintendent Ord).] and five years later, in September, 1600, he was admitted a burgess of Glasgow as Sir George Elphinstone of Blythswood. [Burgh Records, i. 288.] At the same time, as nominee of the Duke of Lennox, and upon the recommendation of King James, he was appointed Provost of the city. [Burgh Records, i. 213.] Two months later he obtained from the king charters of the barony of Leyes and of the New Park of Partick. [Great Seal Register, 1593-1608, P. 381.] So far as appearances went, Sir George Elphinstone was a wealthy man, with every prospect of becoming a great one.

Though the burgh records for part of the period are missing, he appears to have been chosen Provost each year till 1605. In October of that year, the last of his appointment, the council records bear that the city fathers "all in one voice," in respect of the singular care, great zeal, and love he had shown the burgh, and the kindness of him and his forebears to the town, elected him their provost for the year, and that he as a free gift made over to the common good of the town all the fines which might accrue to him in the term of his office. [Burgh Records, i. 234.] Meanwhile there had occurred the crisis in city politics, by the successful settlement of which Sir George is chiefly remembered.

As already mentioned, the incorporations of craftsmen were pressing, more and more urgently, like the trades unions of to-day, for a direct share in government, and their jealousy of the merchant class showed itself in disturbances of the peace. As late as 13th July, 1605, a certain "fleschour" of the town was summoned before the magistrates for intruding himself into a merchant's place when the town guard paraded for the keeping of the fair, and for drawing his whinger to enforce his claim. [Burgh Records, i. 228.]

In 1604 the magistrates and ministers intervened, and on 8th November, having agreed to submit their differences to arbitration, the merchants and the crafts each appointed twelve commissioners, and each body of commissioners appointed four oversmen or referees. The deliberations of these commissioners resulted in the signing of a "decree arbitral" or "letter of guildry" on 6th February, 1605. This was submitted to the town council three days later, and ordered to be registered in the burgh court books, and it remains the governing charter of the Merchants' House and the Trades' House to the present day. [Gibson's History, pp. 339-361.]

The Letter of Guildry provided for the annual election of a Dean of Guild, who must always be a merchant, and of a Deacon-Convener, who must always be of craftsman rank, as well as a Visitor of Maltmen, who must be of that craft. It defined the duties of these officials, and their powers, and, in a series of fifty-four articles, laid down a code of rules for the admission and conduct of burgesses. It provided that the Dean of Guild should have a court of four merchants and four craftsmen, which should meet every Thursday at ten o'clock to decide disputes between merchants, align holdings and buildings, oversee the Master of Works and weights and measures, punish usurpers of burgess privileges, and tax the guild brethren for the support of distressed members and their families. Any burgess of good character, or the widow of one, might become a Guild brother by paying thirteen shillings and fourpence to the hospital and showing that, in the case of a merchant, he was worth five hundred merks, and, in the case of a craftsman, two hundred and fifty. Sons and sons-in-law of Guild brethren had to pay a slightly higher fee. To induce apprentices to prefer their masters' daughters in marriage it was ordained that no apprentice should be admitted a burgess until he had served a burgess "for meat and fee" two years beyond his apprenticeship, nor a Guild brother till he had been a burgess for four years. An incomer to the town might become a Guild brother by becoming a burgess, satisfying the Dean of Guild as to his character, and paying a fee of thirty pounds, with 13s. 4d. to the hospital. If he married the daughter of a Guild brother his fee was substantially reduced. Future Guild brethren were forbidden to traffic in certain small wares, such as butter, milk, eggs, herring, candles, and onions, as such traffic was "not agreeable to the honour of the calling of a guild brother." And, for the converse reason, burgesses who were not guild brethren were forbidden to trade in silks, spices, sugars, confections, wine, wax, indigo, cloths above twenty shillings the yard, etc., nor to deal wholesale in certain goods. Cramers, or street stall-holders, were restricted to deal only in the less honourable wares, and were only to be allowed to set their "crames" on the street on Mondays and at fairs. No burgess or guild brother was to buy goods with borrowed money on pain of a fine of twenty pounds and loss of burgess rank. This rule was made "in respect of the greit hurt and domage that friemen of this burgh hes susteinit be sic doing heirtofoir." Evidently speculation was not unknown in those days, but the rule must have placed a serious handicap on expansion of trade.

An officer was to be appointed to measure all cloths coming into the town for sale, especially the woollen cloths from Galloway and Stewarton, and no one else was allowed to do the measuring.

Regulations were also made for the appointment of a Deacon Convener from among the craftsmen, to exercise control over the craftsmen and their assistants. Each apprentice at his indenture was to pay a fee of forty shillings and twenty merks, and on becoming a burgess he was to pay two pennies weekly—a sort of health insurance premium of that time.

Provision was also made for the election of a Visitor of the Maltmen, whose business it was to see that no work in connection with brewing was done on "the Saboth day," and to see that no unwholesome grain was used in beer-making. It was declared unlawful to buy malt, meal, or bear for the purpose of selling it over again, and it was also forbidden to buy grain except in the open market. The making of malt, either for home use or sale, was confined strictly to members of the craft. Every making of malt for sale was subject to a tax of eight pennies and every kiln of corn to one of eight pounds, the money to be devoted to the support of the decayed brethren. [Charters and Documents, i. pt. i. pp. 605-620.]

On the whole, the Letter of Guildry must be regarded as a wise measure, well in advance of the spirit of its time, notwithstanding the close monopolies it attempted to set up in favour of certain trades. In any case, backed up by an order of the town council that there should be no further disputes as to precedence between merchants and craftsmen at weaponschawings and other assemblies, [Charters and Documents, i. pt. i. p. 620.] it proved effective for its purpose. For the authorship of the measure credit has, by common tradition, been given to Sir George Elphinstone This tradition is supported by the facts that Sir George was provost at the time, and presided at the meetings at which the measure was passed, and he was also the chief of the three oversmen appointed to settle any differences which might arise in the framing of the proposals.

Almost immediately after the successful arrangement of this important matter Sir George became involved in the first of a series of troubles which seem to have harassed him till the end of his career.

In 1603 the king had infefted his cousin, Ludovic, Duke of Lennox, in a feu of the lands and barony of Glasgow. [Charters and Documents, i. pt. ii. p. 258.] The difficulty of communicating with the duke in London probably suggested to the magistrates the desirability of relief from the need of consulting him as to the appointment of provost and magistrates. Accordingly in 1605 Sir George Elphinstone rode to London and secured from the king a letter allowing the city to choose its own magistrates free from any superiority of the duke. [Charters and Documents, i. pt. ii. p. 269; Priv. Coun. Reg. vii. 141.] By the Lennox party in Glasgow this was regarded as a movement to oust them from their long-accustomed position of influence. [Burgh Records, i. 243.] In July, 1606, the common procurator and two others rode to Edinburgh to prevent the ratification of the king's letter by parliament. [Ibid. i. 249.] At the same time Sir Walter Stewart of Minto and his friends raised a riot in the city, and with a large armed party drove the provost and his friends to the Castle Port, the northern entrance to the city. Sir George Elphinstone and his party found refuge in the house of the Earl of Wigtown, and were protected by him, the Master of Montrose, and the Laird of Kilsyth, all privy councillors, at the hazard of their lives. [Priv. Coun. Reg. Vii. 213. Burgh Records, i. 251, 253.] As a result both parties were committed to prison by the Privy Council—Sir Matthew and Sir Walter Stewart and their friends on the one side, and Sir George Elphinstone and James and John Elphinstone, his brothers, on the other. [Priv. Coun. Reg. vii. 233, 234.] On the matter coming to a judgment Elphinstone was assoilzied, while the Stewarts were heavily fined. [Priv. Coun. Reg. vii. 247.] In a later letter the king stated that he understood the strife to have been caused by a rivalry for the provostship. [harters and Documents, i. 237. Burgh Records, i. 255.]

In the year after the settlement of this difference another source of trouble for Sir George arose. By way of relieving the debt under which it found itself the town resolved to create and exploit a monopoly in the milling of grain. It possessed its own Old Mill on the Molendinar, and it leased from Archibald Lyon his New Mill at Partick, from the archbishop his mill at the same place, and from the Laird of Minto the sub-dean's mill at Wester Craigs. The whole of these it leased for 4400 merks per annum to George Anderson and James Lightbody, and passed a resolution that every citizen must take his grain to these mills to be ground under pain of heavy fines. Now James Elphinstone, Woodside, Sir George's brother, had a mill of his own, at which Sir George and his tenants naturally preferred to grind their corn. They raised a suspension of the action of the town council, and by way of reply the council directed them to be fined, imprisoned, and deprived of their burgess privileges. [Burgh Records, i. p. 274, and on.] The action came before the Privy Council, [Priv. Coun. Reg. viii. p. 179. ] and dragged on for years. Again and again the city sent representatives to Edinburgh to attend to its interests in the "guid-ganging plea." [Burgh Records, i. 297, 298.] In 1609 the difference was submitted to the Earl of Abercorn and the Archbishop of Glasgow, and is stated to have been amicably settled; [Priv. Coun. Reg. viii. 706-7.] but as the thirlage and sucken enacted by the town was made perpetual in 1615, Sir George and his brother appear to have really lost their case. [Burgh Records, ii. 309.]

From that time Sir George appears to have taken no further part in the public affairs of the city, though in 1615 he acted as chancellor of the jury which was empanelled for the trial of John Ogilvie, charged with the crimes of being a Jesuit and assisting the supremacy of the pope, and who was found guilty and duly hanged. [Spottiswood, iii. 222-6; Pitcairn's Criminal Trials, iii. 330-352; Charters and Documents, i. 276.]

In the following year Elphinstone secured from the college a lease of the teinds and teind sheaves of his lands in Gorbals and elsewhere, [Inventure, No. 8, p. 100.] but this appears to have been his last transaction towards the building up of a great estate. No record remains of his descent into difficulties, or the reason for his final ruin, but in 1634 the crash came. In that year he conveyed to Robert, Viscount Belhaven, the whole of his possessions, including Woodside, Cowcaddens, Nether Newton, Blythswood, Gorbals, and his house in Glasgow, with the offices of bailliary and justiciary he had secured over them. [Inventure, No. 9, p. 101; Charters and Documents, i. 496.] In the same year he died. [Charters and Documents, i. 345.] Some idea of the value of his great estates may be gathered from the fact that a year later the town council agreed to buy the lands of Gorbals and Bridgend for 100,000 merks (£5,555 11s. 1d. sterling), though the bargain did not take effect. [Burgh Records, ii. 35.] So complete was Elphinstone's ruin that, as recorded by M`Ure, "his corpse was arrested by his creditors, and his friends buried him privately in the chapel adjoining his house."


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