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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
The City Tron-Men; or, Chimney-Sweepers


The personal history of these men is almost entirely unknown; and probably few incidents in their humble progress through life would be found worthy of recording. The elder of the two, David Gilchrist, was a worthy enough person in his way; and he is still remembered by some of the sable fraternity of Edinburgh. He lived in the College Wynd, and died about thirty years ago.

At a remote period, there was only one individual, of the name of Hamilton—resident in the West Port—who devoted his attention solely to the sweeping of chimneys. He kept a number of men and boys in his employment; but the city, notwithstanding, was very indifferently supplied. In order to remedy this state of things—as well as to avoid the barbarous system of "climbing boys"—twelve men, previously porters, were appointed chimney-sweepers for the city, with an annual allowance of one guinea, and. certain other perquisites. They were called "Tron-men," from the circumstance of their being stationed at the Trone, or public beam for weighing, which formerly stood in front of the Trou Church. The Trone appears to have been used as a pillory for the punishment of crime. In NichoVs Diary for 1649, it is stated that "much falset and cheitting was dailie deteckit at this time by the Lords of Sessioune; for the whilk there was dailie hanging, skurging, nailing of lugs [ears], and binding of people to the Trone, and boring of tongues; so that it was one fatal year for false notaries and witnesses, as dailie experience did witness." The iveigh-liouse, which stood at the head of the West Bow, built probably about the beginning of the seventeenth century, as a substitute for the Trone, was removed in 1822, on the King's visit to Scotland, in order to make way for the Royal procession to the Castle.

A small wooden apartment was subsequently erected for them at the east end of the City Guard-House, in which to deposit their apparatus; and where the men themselves were daily in waiting, ready to supply, in rotation, the demands of their customers. In case of fire occurring, the duty of keeping watch at night in the Guard-House devolved on one of their number alternately.

In the Print, the dress and apparatus of the "City Tron-men" are accurately described. They wore flat bonnets—a coat peculiarly formed—and knee-breeches and buckles—with a short apron. A ladder—a besom—with a coil of ropes and a ball, completed their equipment. Besides enjoying a species of monopoly within the city, they formed themselves into a Society, the entry money to which was five pounds, and the quarterly dues 3s. 6d. This high rate was no doubt suggested from exclusive motives. As the city increased, many new sweepers had commenced on their own account in the suburbs, and not a few had been admitted to participate in the privileges of the Tron-men ; although the annual allowance of a guinea continued to be limited to the original number; and, as a distinguishing mark, none but the twelve were permited to wear the broad bonnet.

The Society of Tron-men, like most other exclusive bodies, were not without entertaining a due estimate of their own importance and respectability. As an instance, one of the members—Robert Hunter— was expelled the Society, and virtually banished to Leith for the space of five years, for having brought dishonour on the fraternity, by assisting the authorities at the execution of Captain Ogilvie—the paramour of the celebrated Catharine Nairne—on the 13th November, 1765.

After his condemnation, every exertion was made by the friends of the Captain to procure a reversal of the sentence, by an appeal to the House of Lords. The competency of such a proceeding had not then been finally settled; and, with the view of giving time for considering the question, four successive reprieves were obtained for the prisoner— the first three for fourteen days, and the last for seven. He was then warned to prepare for death, an appeal from the High Court of Justiciary having been deemed irregular by the officers of the Crown. Finding all other means of escape impossible, the Captain's friends contrived to bribe the finisher of the law ; in the fallacious belief that if the rope failed he could not legally be thrown off a second time. Accordingly, on the day of execution, no sooner had the culprit been turned off than "the noose of the rope slipped, and he fell to the ground." The Captain was immediately laid hold of; but he resisted with great vigour. By the "assistance of the city servants," he was again dragged up the ladder and despatched. As one of the " city servants," Hunter had rendered essential aid, for which, as affirmed, he received a reward of five pounds; and his conduct having been greatly censured by his brethren of the Tron, he was expelled the Society in the manner already described. This is not the only instance in which the Tron-men were associated with the common executioner in the performance of his duty. In 1746, when the standards belonging to the army of Prince Charles were publicly burned at the Cross, by order of the Duke of Cumberland, they were carried in procession from the Castle by the hangman and thirteen chimney-sweepers. The standards were destroyed one by one, a herald proclaiming to whom they respectively belonged. Hunter died about the year 1813.

"When the City Guard-House was demolished in 1785, the Tron-men, along with the Guard, were accommodated in the Old Assembly Rooms-—a part of the premises being appropriated for their use, to which they-entered from Bell's Wynd. Owing to the great increase of the city, and sundry other causes, the chimney-sweepers began to feel the attendance exacted from them irksome and disadvantageous. In order to rid themselves of the grievance, they went to law with the Magistrates in 1808, and again in 1810; but in both instances they were defeated. In 1811, however, determined to be no longer held in bondage, they sold the property of the Society—made a division of the proceeds—and broke up the union. The city being then provided with an efficient fire establishment, and deeming it useless to contend with them, the Magistrates tacitly sanctioned the dispersion of the Tron-men, by refraining from all attempts to compel their attendance.


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