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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
"Old Haddington" Burgh Elections


THE municipal elections of the burgh of Haddington in olden times were conducted in a style far different from those of the present day. The Municipal Reform Bill of 1833 entirely altered the former mode of election and constitution of Town Councils in all Scotch burghs; and now the ballot has made still further innovations on old customs. The old set of the burgh of Haddington was conform to the “Act of Burghs, of the Scotch Parliament, dated at Edinburgh, 10th July 1655.” The Council consisted, when purged, of sixteen merchant Councillors, and nine tradesmen, or deacons of the crafts; and when full at the annual election, of sixteen old merchants, and four new, chosen by the Council, and eleven tradesmen or crafts—in all thirty-one. After the election of Magistrates, four merchants and two craft Councillors were purged off, to reduce the number to twenty-five. The Council always met three days before the election to make up the leet for Magistrates. Three Councillors were put on the leet for Provost; five for merchant Bailies; and two for trade Bailies; out of which leets the Provost and Bailies were chosen for the time being.

When party politics ran high, obnoxious members were sometimes purged oft For instance, at the election in October 1761, Provost Dudgeon, Dean of Guild Burton, and Treasurer Carfrae, who had only served one year, were purged off, contrary to usual practice. This proceeding was long known by the dignified name of the “damnable purge.” Later cases have frequently occurred in the same way. The public proclaiming of the Provost and Magistrates at the Cross, and at a consecrated stone in the inside of the east end of St Martin's Church in the Nungate, after the yearly election, was a grand affair. Marching in order, with their chains of office, they were preceded by the town-officers and piper in their ancient antique grey dress, with shouldered halberts, and followed by a crowd of town's folk and school-boys. The Town Clerk proclaimed the election of the Provost and Magistrates, along with the Nungate, Gladsmuir, and Burley Bailies, and ordered all the lieges to give due obedience to their orders in all respects, under pain of fine and imprisonment The conclusion was “God save the King,” with cheers.

It was the old custom for the Magistrates and Council to go to the Parish Church before the election, where a sermon was preached by one of the ministers. The writer of this recollects Dr Lorimer once preaching from 2 Chron. xix. 5-7, viz.:—“And Jehoshaphat set judges in the land throughout all the fenced cities of Judah, city by city; and said to the judges, Take heed what ye do; for ye judge not for man, but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment. Wherefore, now let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Take heed and do it, for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, nor respect of persons, nor taking of gifts.” The doctor, no doubt, fully enlarged on the duties and responsibility of magistrates in his usual able and eloquent manner, and no minister could do it better. Such duties and responsibilities are as applicable now as they were in the days of Jehoshaphat. This good old custom has fallen into desuetude in the burgh.

The usual election dinner in the afternoon, paid for out of the town's funds, closed the “ faction" of the year (with the exception of the convener’s dinner on the Saturday). It was often a noisy affair, and an event long looked forward to by the deacons, &c. Robert Fergusson, in his humorous and clever poem on the Edinburgh election, thus hits off the deacons—

“The dinner done, for brandy strang
They cry to weet their thrapple,
To gar the stamack bide the bang,
Nor wi* its laden grapple.
The grace is said—it’s nae o’er lang;
The claret reams in bells ;
Quoth deacon, Let the toast round gang :
Come, here's our noble sel’s,
Weel met the day.'*

The kirking on the next Sunday from the library to the Parish Church, where cake, wine, and spirits were served forenoon and afternoon, as still kept up, closed the affair. A story is told of some of the deacons and their colleagues, who were very drouthy after the convener’s dinner on the previous night, in place of going to the church, returned back to the library, and had a regular jollification with the left drink. One of the deacons stipulated with the Provost of the day that there should be always whisky and small-beer. The old custom of spice and wine, when traders were made burgesses and guild-brothers of the burgh, has now fallen into desuetude. By the old rule of the burgh and Dean of Guild Court, no persons could carry on business in the town unless they were entered burgesses and guild-brethren; old sailors and soldiers excepted, who were called “ King's Freemen.” This grant was a bounty for their services to the country. Burgesses' sons entered at a small sum, but strangers had a considerable sum to pay. At the present time a payment of five shillings has to be made. The Dean of Guild for the time being was the head of the Court, and along with the Clerk, entered the new burgesses. A good number were generally made at a time, when a supper in one of the inns was provided, which was called “Spice and wine.”

Many a jovial meeting there was on the occasion of a making of burgesses. There was no Forbes Mackenzie Act then. At one time it was the rule that to disobey the orders of the Provost incurred the deprivation of burgess-ship.

The old dress of the town-officers, which was changed for the worse, at least in point of effect, in Provost Lea’s time, demands notice as a relic of old times. The dress was made of a darkish grey coarse cloth. The coat or surtout was of the old-fashioned cut, with single collar and broad lappels, well trimmed with black braid, and mounted with large black buttons; long waistcoat, short knee-trousers, black leggings, and cockades on the hats. George Cairns, Peter Currie, John Randale, Willie Baird (“Bairdie,'), Sandie Nicol, &c., were officers long ago. When in full dress, they looked quite dignified, and able and willing to uphold the authority of the magistrates. They assembled at the library every Sunday forenoon and afternoon, and marched before the magistrates with shouldered halberts to and from the church. The magistrates were saluted by the officers at the church door, and were ushered by the head officer into their seat. The officiating minister always recognised their presence. It is recorded, however, in Miller’s History that on the 23d October 1738, the ministers refused to salute the magistrates as usual in the kirk after the blessing. The Treasurer was ordered to pay them no more stipend till, by their greater civility, they gave ground to reverse the act Mr Patrick Wilkie and Mr Edward Allman were the uncourteous ministers.

The Gladsmuir, Nungate and Burley Bailies were elected by the Council, as they still are. The former may now be said to be defunct. The Nungate Bailie was of old of no small importance. All small offences for disturbance of the peace and disputes betwixt parties were duly looked into and adjudicated upon. The duties of the Burley Bailies were to assess for damage done by trespass of cattle, &c., and the same rules as to tabled money were followed as in the Nungate procedure before spoken of. Old Haddingtonians will still recollect the names of John Winton (“the Earl”), Simon Sawers, Robert Tait, George Kemp, &c., as having filled the offices of Gladsmuir, Nungate, and Burley Bailies.

The burgh of Haddington could not be said to have been altogether a close one, as the trades' element entered largely into the constitution of it. There were seven deacons always in the Council, and two tradesmen, who were called “Crafts Councillors,” one of whom was elected Trades Bailie. Two deacons were thus excluded from being members of the Council, and they were called “Ridden Deacons.” The trades chose one of their number in the Council to be their convener, and many a hot faction took place and much money was spent to obtain the honour. “The Convener and the Nine” was always a toast at election dinners. They were called the “Bunch, of Wands,” and generally, like the flesh-market dogs, fought all on one side.

It is perhaps interesting at the present time to note that the nine incorporated trades of Haddington in their best days numbered over two hundred and fifty members, who indirectly had a voice in parliamentary and municipal elections, and directly by their representative deacons at the Council Board. We find that the number of electors in the burgh in 1836, three years after the passing of the Reform Bill, was only two hundred and twenty-one.

The old burgh system in its day brought out a number of curious characters which the present generation have no experience of. Deacons and deacons’ wives were “nae sma’ drink” when a Parliamentary election came round. Every craft had their own stories and reminiscences of old election times, which were often rehearsed at their annual election meetings. A story was handed down in the Shoemaker Corporation that some deacons were once for a purpose invited to the Earl of Lauderdale’s seat at Hatton, in Mid-Lothian, where they were handsomely treated for some days with the best of everything, and got port wine to their “parritch.”

The Corporations when in their glory were strong and important bodies. The weavers often numbered over forty members at their election—the skinners as many. At a contested election for deacon in 1806, of the shoemakers thirty-five voted. James Donaldson is now the only remaining member. The whole nine Corporations are either defunct or nearly so. They served their time and generation, and have now become matter of history and old reminiscence.


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