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Merchant and Craft Guilds
A History of the Aberdeen Incorporated Trades
Part II. Chapter V - A Fourteen Years' Litigation


THE constitution of the Town Council, confirmed by the Common Indenture, remained unaltered until the Burgh Reform Acts. For over three centuries the craftsmen elected two of their number to be constituent members of the Council, while six of the deacons had power to vote at the election of magistrates and office-bearers. The six trades who exercised this privilege were the Hammermen, Bakers, Wrights and Coopers, Tailors, Shoemakers, and Weavers, the Fleshers not being incorporated with the others until after the "sett" of the burgh was fixed. Although there were continual bickerings between the Town Council, the Guildry, and the craftsmen, notwithstanding the Common Indenture, it was not until 1801 that a serious dispute occurred, when a litigation took place that was carried to the House of Lords. This litigation deserves special notice because of its bearing upon the position of the Trades in regard to their private funds.

The Town Council appointed a committee to consider "the amount of the compositions at present paid by craftsmen belonging to the different corporations upon their being admitted freemen thereof, and the propriety of augmenting such compositions." This committee's report, which was given in on 21st September, 1801, narrates that in October, 1641, the Council ordained and appointed that every person, an extranean, admitted a free craftsman should pay for his coin-position 100 Scots, and apprentices within the town 50 Scots each, besides appearing at the time of their admission coinpletely armed with musket and sword, to be sworn as their own property. By another Act of Council in 1643, it was statute and ordained that each craftsman should pay for his composition 200 merks, and apprentices 100 merks, and that craftsmen marrying a burgess of Guild or free craftsman's daughter should pay only 80 merks, all of them furnishing arms as already described. In 1665 it was reported that former acts and resolutions respecting the admission of craftsmen and the amount of their compositions had not been duly observed and attended to, and it was of new appointed and ordained "that each craftsman extranean, at his entry, should pay 200 merks of composition, with a pick or 4 Scots therefore, for the use of the town's magazine, and apprentices as formerly; and that the acts relating to the sons of free craftsmen, and also those who had married the daughters of burgesses of Guild or craftsmen, shall remain the same." From an examination of the Guildry accounts from 1641 to 1681, it was found that the composition payable by the craftsmen at their entry, notwithstanding these Acts of Council, had been "various and arbitrary." The amount paid was sometimes 200 merks, sometimes 100 ruerks each; and that without any cause being assigned for such variation or reduction. From 1681 down to 1801 the composition payable by extranean craftsmen appears to have been reduced to 40 Scots, and by apprentices 24 Scots, with five shillings each for arms money. The Town Council's committee, therefore, resolved to recommend, " after deliberately considering the result of their whole examination, as well as the great decrease in the value of money since the compositions payable by craftsmen at their entry were last established, and particularly that the whole of the corporations in place of 20 merks specified in the said Indenture have for many years past exacted from each entrant a much larger sum, as high as 10 or 12 sterling, without ever accounting for or paying to the Dean of Guild any more than two-thirds parts of the said 20 merks, the committee were unanimously of opinion, except Deacons Smith and Henderson, that the compositions at present payable to the Guildry for the Common Good by entrant craftsmen are considerably too small, and that they ought to be augmented or at least restored to what they were settled at in the year 1643, with ten shillings sterling in name of arms money as an equivalent for what arms they formerly were obliged to furnish at their own expense. The committee therefore recommended—(1) That all the deacons should be ordained to lodge annually a statement with the Dean of Guild or Town Clerk of the compositions actually paid to the trades by each entrant, and to pay over two-thirds part of every composition in terms of the obligation incumbent on them by the Common Indenture; (2) That the second or younger sons either of burgesses or craftsmen shall be admitted freemen of the craft which they profess for payment to the Dean of Guild of 20s. sterling of composition, besides the said sum of 10s. for arms money, and that the eldest sons should only pay arms money but no composition; (3) That all apprentices who shall have served and completed a regular apprenticeship to free craftsmen within the burgh, and whose indentures have been recorded in the town's books within twelve months after the date thereof should be entitled to be admitted free of their respective crafts for payment of one-half of the composition above stated, besides arms money, and two-thirds part of the composition actually paid by them to the craft to which they belonged; (4) That all craftsmen who have married the daughters either of another free craftsman or of a burgess of Guild should be entitled to be free of the respective crafts to which they enter for payment also of one-half of the sum payable by extraneans, and that such persons who enjoy both the above privileges of apprenticeship and marriage shall be entitled to be admitted for payment of one-fourth part of the composition."

This report was approved by the Town Council, and they appointed that the deacons of the several crafts should lodge a particular account and statement of such persons as had been admitted and received members of their respective corporations for the year preceding, and of the compositions actually paid to the trade by such entrants; and they also appointed the deacons to account for and pay over two-thirds part of every such composition in terms of the Common Indenture.

It was this Act of Council which led to the litigation that was carried to the House of Lords, and which lasted for a period of fourteen years. Several serious issues were involved. By this time the Trades had instituted a widows' and other benevolent funds for the benefit of their own members, and the additional sums received from entrants over and above the compositions to the town were paid into these funds. The Trades were willing to pay the composition, but they denied the right of the town to any share of the entry money which was voluntarily paid by entrants into the benevolent funds of the Trade. A memorial presented to the Town Council by the Trades sets forth their case as follows:—

These compositions are exactly of the same nature as a price or feu-duty paid by the craftsmen in consideration of certain privileges of trade at that time conferred on them by the decreet arbitral, and thereby secured to be enjoyed by them ever afterwards. It is therefore clear that the Town Council have no better right to raise these dues on account of the decrease of the value of money than they would have right to increase the feu-duties of such estates as were feued off by their predecessors at that ancient period. And it is equally clear that these compositions cannot consistently with their rights as a legal body be augmented without at the same time proportionally enlarging their privileges.

From the whole tenor of the submission and decreet arbitral it may be seen that these compositions are exactly of the same nature as that above described, and that the craftsmen had no other object in view, nor obligation incumbent on them, in paying these compositions than solely the privileges of trade thereby conferred on them.

In the next place, the memorialists may observe that it is not in the memory of any person alive that any of the trades which the memorialists represent have of themselves increased the present compositions properly so called paid into their funds ; any increase of entry money which they have made is allotted and paid into particular funds destined for charitable purposes, for which the members derive an equivalent advantage; for instance, entrants pay to a fund lately established from 15 3s. to 6 6s. each, according to their classes, for which their widows receive an annuity for life. But surely it would be remote from your honours' views to lay any claim to a share of such funds as these, as if they were compositions, or to maintain that, because the entry money payable to the funds of the corporations is augmented to answer charitable purposes, it should follow as a consequence that a sum which is paid as a fair price for certain privileges should also for that reason be augmented. This decreet arbitral has fixed and settled the principle that these compositions could not be altered without the consent of both parties, and with their consent it must therefore be presumed that any alteration of these compositions was made.

It will be seen that this was a matter of vital importance to the Trades. It involved the future prosperity of their respective benevolent funds, and they accordingly raised an action in the Court of Session to have it declared that the Town Council had no power or authority at their own hands to augment or increase, vary or alter, the fees or dues payable on the admission of craftsmen to the exercise of their respective Trades; that the augmentation or increase of the fees or dues is extravagant, and if there is any ground for alteration or variation thereof in any respect, or any power for that purpose but an Act of the British Legislature, the same ought to and should be modified and restricted, and a regular table of such fees established upon ,just principles of law and equity.

A cross action was raised by the Town Council to have it declared that in virtue of the Charters and Acts of Parliament in favour of the burgh, the Town Council had full power and authority to augment or increase, vary and alter, the fees or dues payable to the town on the admission of craftsmen to the exercise of their respective Trades; and, in particular, that it should be declared that the Act of Council of the 21st September, 1801, is valid and effectual, and that in virtue thereof the Town Council and their successors in office have full power and authority to exact and levy the whole dues and fees thereby established, and to insist for implement of the other conditions and regulations contained in the said Act of Council.

Both actions were heard before Lord Newton, who had previously suggested the propriety of a counter declaration being brought at the instance of the magistrates with a view to enable therm to vary the rate of dues. As the papers in these two actions cover over five hundred pages of foolscap it is impossible to do more than give the decisions. It may be here explained that the craftsmen regarded the action of the Town Council as an attempt to obtain a "grip" over their funds such as they possessed, and still possess, over the Guildry funds. The Council, it is true, repudiated any such intention; but the instructions to counsel that were prepared on behalf of the Trades leave no doubt that such was the impression among the craftsmen at this time. On July 4th, 1807, Lord Newton pronounced the following interlocutor:—

The Lord Ordinary of consent of parties allows a Summons of Declarator at the instance of the Magistrates and Council of Aberdeen against the Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen, to be repealed incidentor in this process; conjoins the two actions ; and in respect it is not denied that the exigencies of the burgh require the increase of dues complained of by the Incorporated Trades, assoilizes the Magistrates and Town Council from the declarator at their instance, in so far as regards the dues payable to the Guildry of the town in name of composition for entry; but finds that the Magistrates have no right to claim from the Trades any further part of the composition paid by intrants to the Trades than the sums specially fixed in the Common Indenture, and which the town have been in use to receive past memory; therefore decerns and declares in terms of the declarator at the instance of the Trades, in so far as respects the composition paid by the intrants to the Trades; and decerns and declares in terms of the declarator at the instance of the Magistrates, in so far as respects the sums paid by the intrants to the Guildry in name of entry ; superseding extract till the first sederunt day in November next.

Against this interlocutor both parties gave in representations, and on 11th March, 1808, the following interlocutor was pronounced :—

The Lord Ordinary, having considered the representation for the Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen with the answers thereto for the Magistrates and Town Council of Aberdeen together with the counter representation for the Magistrates and Town Council with the answers thereto for the Incorporated Trades ; in respect the power of the Magistrates of Aberdeen to augment the dues of entry of Guild burgesses has been recognised by a solemn judgment of this court in the case of Duncan against the Magistrates, finds that, upon the same ground, they are entitled to raise the dues of admission upon Craftsmen burgesses when, as is admitted in the present case, the exigencies of the burgh require such augmentation, as the same is not to be considered of the nature of a custom or tax, but as a reasonable price or compensation for the advantage which the Guild burgesses or craftsmen burgesses are to derive from their admission into the incorporation; therefore adheres to the former interlocutor, assoilizing the Magis trates and Town Council from the action of declarator and reduction brought at the instance of the Incorporated Trades against them, in so far as regards the dues payable to the Guildry in name of composition for the entry of craftsmen burgesses : 2nd—Finds that, upon a just construction of the decreet arbitral of 7th July, 1587, which usually passes by the name of the Common Indenture, the Dean of Guild or Magistrates of Aberdeen are entitled to demand from the Deacons of the incorporations two-thirds of the sum which is exacted by them on the admission of intrants into their incorporation, and that the sum acclaimable by the Dean of Guild or Magistrates is not to be limited to two-thirds of the sum of 20 merks, which at that time was in use to be exacted for said admissions; and in so far varies the former interlocutor as to decern and declare in the declarator at the instance of the Trades that the Magistrates and Dean of Guild are entitled to demand two-thirds of the sum actually paid for the admission of craftsmen into the incorporations ; and with this variation adheres to the interlocutor brought under review, and refuses the desire of both representations. And, as the case has now and formerly been very deliberately considered, dispenses with any representation against this interlocutor. But supersedes extract till the third sederunt day in May next.

The Trades were not satisfied with this decision, although it defined their position more satisfactorily than ever it had been, and an appeal was carried to the House of Lords. Their lordships, however, confirmed the judgment of the Court of Session, giving the Town Council power to increase and vary the amount of the composition. The Trades, however, now knew how they stood. Whatever rate was fixed by way of composition to the Common Good could not interfere with any sums they might choose to levy on entrants as contributions to their benevolent funds. Their right to possess such funds was recognised, and, so long as they paid the composition demanded, the Town Council could not interfere in any way with them.

Fourteen years after the dispute began—and a costly dispute it proved to both parties—the following arrangement was arrived at between the Town and the Trades in regard to this vexed question :-

At Aberdeen, the twenty-sixth day of September, Eighteen hundred and fifteen years, in presence of the Town Council.

Which day the Provost stated to the Council that several meetings had lately taken place between the Magistrates and the delegates appointed by the Incorporated Trades with the view of bringing about an amicable settlement of the claim of the Dean of Guild for his proportion of compositions payable to the Trades on the admission of intrant members agreeably to the decreet arbitral in 1587 (usually called the Common Indenture) and the decreet of the Court of Session, afterwards affirmed by the House of Lords ; that he had now the satisfaction to inform the Council that an arrangement had been concluded between the parties whereby it was proposed that the Dean of Guild should receive two hundred pounds in full of all claims for bygone compositions, and that in future the compositions (whereof two-thirds to be paid to the Dean of Guild) should not be less than what is contained in the resolutions of the delegates after engrossed.

That a minute agreeable to this arrangement had been drawn up and agreed to by the delegates for the Trades, and it was the opinion of the Magistrates that the terms therein stated are fair and reasonable for both parties and should be acceded to by the Council. Which having been considered by the Council they unanimously approved of the Magistrates' procedure in this business and the arrangement recommended by them in the terms of the minute now laid before them, and they authorise the Dean of Guild on payment of two hundred pounds to discharge the incorporations of all claims he might have for his proportion of bygone compositions paid to the Trades preceding the date hereof, and appointed the said minute to be recorded in the Council Register for preservation, of which the tenor follows, viz.:-

"Trinity Hall, the twenty-third day of September, Eighteen hundred and fifteen. At a meeting of the delegates appointed by the seven Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen for endeavouring to settle with the Magistrates respecting the Dean of Guild's proportion of compositions payable to the Trades on the admission of intrant members in terms of the Common Indenture. Convener Nicol in the chair. Having resumed consideration of the subject of said composition, and the terms of the Common Indenture, 1587, and decreet of the Court of Session dated 4th July, 1807, 11th March, 1808, and 10th February, 1809, afterwards affirmed by the House of Lords, and having communicated with the Magistrates relative thereto, the said delegates unanimously resolved:-

"That the seven Trades shall pay to the Dean of Guild two hundred pounds sterling in full of all demands for his proportion of bygone compositions paid to the Trades on the admission of intrant members preceding the twenty-sixth day of September current.

"Unanimously resolved that from the date hereof and until the thirty-first day of December next, every extranear intrant shall upon his admission pay to the Boxmaster two pounds sterling and each apprentice one pound sterling in name of composition.

"Unanimously resolved that from and after the said thirty-first day of December next all intrants shall be obliged upon their admission to pay to the Boxmaster in name of composition sums of money not less than the following, viz.:—Extranears ten pounds sterling; apprentices five pounds sterling; and all freeman's sons-in-law two pounds sterling each—and that two third parts of all the said compositions be paid by the Deacon or Boxmaster to the Dean of Guild agreeably to the Common Indenture.

Unanimously resolved that a minute to the above effect be entered in the Sederunt Book of each of the said Trades. (Signed) William Nicol, Convener; William Milne, Hammermen; Alex. Barron, Baker; George Gibb, Wright and Coopers; Geo. Anderson, Jun., Tailors; William Marr, Shoemakers; Jas. Henderson, Weavers; Alex. Neilson, Fleshers."


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