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A History of Moray and Nairn
Chapter V. The Towns of Moray and Nairn


If there had been no cathedral on the banks of the Lossie, Elgin would probably never have been the capital of the county. Burghead, the site selected for this purpose by the earliest inhabitants of the district, had greater historical claims and much greater natural advantages; and after Burghead came Forres. Elgin might have remained a mere provincial town, and the whole history of the district would have been different.

There is probably hardly another town in Scotland* whose legendary origin is so absurdly fictitious. "A variety of etymologies,” says the writer of the account of the parish in the ‘New Statistical Account“ have been given of the name; but the most probable derives it from Helgy, general of the army of Sigurd, the Norwegian Earl of Orkney, who conquered Caithness, Sutherland, Ross, and Moray about the beginning of the tenth century.” Lachlan Shaw, the county historian, though he does not accept this preposterous story, is of opinion that “it was a considerable town with a royal fort when the Danes landed in Moray about anno 1008.” There is not the slightest evidence to justify either the one oc-~ the other of these statements. Elgin was probably founded somewhere towards the end of the eleventh century; but when, or why, or by whom, there is absolutely nothing to show.

It is certain, however, that it was one of the royal burghs in the reign of Alexander I. For in his charter conferring the Earldom of Moray on his nephew, Thomas Randolph, King Robert the Bruce reserves to his burgesses of Elgin, as well as to those of Forres and Inverness, the same liberties they had enjoyed in King Alexander’s reign. In 1151, David I., who had succeeded to his brother Alexander’s right in the kingdom “benorth the Forth” on his death in 1124, granted to the Priory of Urquhart an annual payment of twenty shillings, out of the ferme of my buigh and waters of Elgin (de firma burgi tnei et aquarum de Elgin).

And contemporaneously, or very nearly so, with this, came also the concession of a free “hanse.” Under this grant the burghers acquired the right of free trade within the burgh, and the privilege of associating in defence of their prerogatives.

Possessed of these important privileges, the burgh was placed in a position to make its own way in the world. And it seems to have made good use of its advantages. For a century later, when it was proposed to change the seat of the diocese, a very large church was required for its spiritual wants. The Church of the Holy Trinity, which in 1224 became the cathedral, was probably not within the actual burghal limits. It is described as being only “juxta Elgyn” but we hear of no other within the town; and it is difficult to believe that more than one was required.

The transference was the making of the burgh. The burgesses soon saw that their surest and swiftest road to prosperity lay in the patronage of the Church. The Church on its part was quite ready to aid them. And thus the rise of the two—the burgh and the bishopric—went on harmoniously, rapidly, and simultaneously, till the Reformation parted them, and converted fast friends into deadly enemies.

Towns fostered into importance by the Church are commoner in England than in our own country. But whether situated north or south of the Tweed, they have all the same characteristics. The traces of ecclesiastical influence are manifest everywhere. They are to be seen in their institutions, their habits of thought, their local industries, their buildings. Handicrafts of all descriptions flourish within them, and constitute the greater part of their trade. The town becomes famous for the excellence of its masons, carpenters, glovers, weavers, shoemakers, and the like. The Church with her riches requires and engrosses the services of every craft which can in any way minister to her material comfort. The craftsmen profit in their turn. There is ease and wellbeing everywhere. But as there is no necessity for extraordinary exertion, there is no real inducement to progress. There is no commerce, no manufactures, no wealth, for there is neither the need nor the energy to produce them. And when the support of the Church is withdrawn, the fortunes of the burgh are almost certain to wane.

It is only within recent years that Elgin has awakened from the sedative effects of ecclesiastical influence. Till the middle of the eighteenth century, at any rate, it was

*A monkish-looking town,
Most reverend for to view, sirs.”

“Within the memory of some still alive,” says Professor Cosmo Innes, “it presented the appearance of a little cathedral city very unusual among the burghs of Presbyterian Scotland. There was an antique fashion of building, and withal a certain solemn drowsy air, about the town and its inhabitants, that almost prepared the stranger to meet some Church procession, or some imposing ceremonial of the picturesque old religion. All that is changed now. Not a single one of its quaint old public buildings remains. The parish church of St Giles,— a building erected in 1224 to take the place of the Church of the Holy Trinity, converted into the cathedral,—a huge, ungainly, yet most interesting specimen of Gothic architecture which stood in the middle of the High Street, and the Town House, with its heavy double forestairs and its rude old tolbooth tower, have been removed. “The irregular tall houses standing on massive pillars and arcades, the roofs of mellow grey stone, broken picturesquely with frequent windows, the tall crow-stepped gables, are poorly exchanged for the prim and trim square modem houses and shops. Much, indeed, has been gained in the way of increased convenience and healthfulness. But the charm which springs from picturesque architecture, and from associations and memories of the past, is lost for ever.

Though the rapid rise of Elgin is largely due to ecclesiastical patronage, this was not the only source of its prosperity. To its feudal superiors, who were, first, the kings, and, afterwards, the Earls of Moray, the burgh was under heavy obligations. David I. was much in the district, and most of the religious foundations in the vicinity owe their origin to his generosity. William the Lion (1165-1214), his grandson, who succeeded him, was also frequently in Elgin, and as Richard, the Bishop of Moray, had been his chaplain, the bishopric was considerably enriched on these occasions. His son, Alexander II. (1214-1249), was a still greater benefactor to the district. He visited Elgin in 1221 and in 1228. In 1231 he spent his Yule here. And in 1234 he granted to the burgh its charter of free guild, “ as other burghs possessed it,” and thus completed the tale of its municipal privileges. On the establishment of the earldom a new superior was interjected between the Crown and the burgh, and henceforward we find few traces of royal interference with civic affairs.

The documents still preserved in the town’s “cageat” prove this at any rate, that the transference of the superiority produced no detrimental effect on the prosperity of the burgh, as was too often the case in other burghs in Scotland. If indeed there had been any conflict between the bishopric and the earldom, the result might have been otherwise. The town would certainly have suffered. Fortunately for the burgh, the bishops and the earls in Roman Catholic days were always good friends; and the rise of Elgin went on unimpeded.

This was especially the case during the earldom of the Dunbars. Many members of that distinguished family held high office in the Church—one of them, Columba Dunbar, even attaining, as we have seen, to the bishopric. Hence we find during their tenure of the dignity numerous concessions and indulgences to the town of Elgin.

Thus in 1390, John Dunbar, Earl of Moray, “in consideration of the many hardships and devastations the Burgh had sustained since the death of his two uncles, Thomas and John Randulph, Earls of Moray,”grants to the town a charter of exemption from the excise or duty on ale brewed within it,” which hitherto had been payable to the “Constable of our castle of Elgin”; and warrants the grant by allowing the burgh to retain the “ferme” due to him in case “ they were anyways troubled or molested thereanent” In 1393-941 Thomas Dunbar, the second earl of the family, grants to his aldermen and bailies of the burgh and the burgesses thereof “all the wool, cloth, and other things that go by ship out of the haven of Spey uncustomed.” Three years later, in 1396, he ratifies Alexander II.’s charter to the guildry, and by another deed formally takes the town under his protection, and enjoins all his judges to do the burgesses ready justice whenever they complain to them.

So in like manner, in 1451, when Archibald Douglas assumes the earldom, we find him confirming the town’s charter of guildry in the same ample terms as his predecessor, Earl Thomas, had done in 1396. And other charters of various earls are extant ratifying in equally liberal phraseology the existing privileges of the town.

At various times, as we have seen, the earldom was in abeyance through the failure or forfeiture of the line which had hitherto held it. At such periods the superiority of the burgh and of the burgh lands reverted to the Crown. The necessaiy consequence of such interregnal periods was to compel the burgh to apply to the Crown for a renewal of its privileges. This was the case in 1594, after the murder of the Bonnie Earl of Moray. A charter of King James VI., dated the 22d March of that year, grants to the burgesses—the provost, bailies, and community—of the burgh “all and whole the said burgh of Elgin, with all and singular the lands, tenements, yards, tofts, crofts, annual rents and dues belonging to the same, within the bounds and marches thereof.”

The terms of the charter of 1611, granting the earldom to James, son of the Bonnie Earl, seem to have necessitated a further application to the Crown to define the rights of the burgesses. Accordingly in 1633 Charles I. issued a charter to the burgh, commonly known as the town’s Great Charter, in which, after regranting to the burgesses “all and haill the town of Elgin” with the lands pertaining thereto, he incorporated “the said burgh” and “the said lands” into “one free and intyre burgh royal now and in all tyme coming, to be called the burgh of Elgin, and ordained one sasine to be taken for the whole.”

This deed constituted the town's present title, and with it the modern history of the burgh may be said to commence. From this period the list of the municipal rulers is consecutive and complete. Previous to this we know scarcely anything about them.

The first provost of whom we hear is Thomas Wysman, who held the reins of civic affairs in 1261. A certain Walter, son of Ralph, is said to have been provost in 1343. Then comes a gap of nearly two hundred years. The names of only four provosts are recorded during the sixteenth century.

But about 1606 we find one of the most distinguished statesmen of the day occupying the civic chair. This was Alexander Seton, Earl of Dunfermline and Chancellor of the kingdom. The son of George, seventh Lord Seton, Mary Queen of Scots’ “truest friend,” he was her majesty’s “god-baime,” and had received from her as a “god-bairne gift” the lands of Pluscarden. At first intended for the Church, he had taken holy orders in Italy; but the outbreak of the Reformation had induced him to abandon ecclesiastical pursuits, and he joined the Scotch Bar in 1577, when he was about twenty-two years of age. In 1586 he was created an Extraordinary Lord of Session by the style of Prior of Pluscarden, in room of James Stewart, Lord Doune, the father of the Bonnie Earl of Moray. The following year the lands of Urquhart and Pluscarden were erected into a barony and granted to the prior. And on the 16th February 1588 he was appointed an Ordinary Lord of Session under the title of Lord Urquhart. Five years after this he was promoted to the President’s chair of the court; he was created a peer with the style of Lord Fyvie; and finally, in 1605, was advanced to the office of Chancellor of the kingdom, and promoted to the earldom of Dunfermline. He was one of the commissioners of the Treasury, called from their number the Octavians. He was also one of the commissioners for a treaty of union with England in 1604, and the king’s commissioner to Parliament in 1612. He died in 1622. During the days of his connection with Moray he resided in the bishop’s town house, within the cathedral precinct, which from that circumstance is often known by the name of Dunfermline House.

There is perhaps only one other Provost of Elgin who can vie with Lord Dunfermline in distinction. This was St Giles, the patron saint of the town. The burgh records state that on the 3d October 1547 he was duly elected provost for a year; and tradition has improved the story by asserting that the council, under his chief magistracy, passed an edict to the effect that no widow should marry without the consent of the provost and magistrates!

Under Alexander II.’s charter of guildry, and its ratification by the Earls of Moray, the trades of Elgin were entitled to form themselves into corporations. Six crafts took advantage of the privilege. These were the hammermen, the glovers, the tailors, the cordiners (shoemakers), the weavers, and the squarewrights or carpenters. So long as Roman Catholicism endured, these guilds were in the happy position of having no history. Fostered by the Church, each craft pursued the even tenor of its way, jealously protecting its monopoly, carefully attending to its pecuniary interests, priding itself on the skill of its members, exercising a severe but wholesome discipline over its journeymen and apprentices. Each craft had its assigned position in the parish church of St Giles—its patron saint, its separate altar, its priest and confessor. Each craft was a corporation, a trade protection society and benefit society combined. It had no thoughts, no ambitions, no inclinations, beyond its own narrow limits. Absorbed with its own concerns, it had neither the time nor the desire to occupy itself with other and wider affairs.

The abolition of the old religion changed all this. The Reformation, though to all outward appearance it was only a change of creed, was actually a revolution. Old principles and prejudices, old modes of looking at things, old customs and habits, were swept away in a flood of new ideas. There was not a single nook or cranny of national thought or sentiment into which the new notions did not penetrate. Before a hundred years were over there was a new Scotland as different from the old as light is from darkness.

In the burying-ground of Elgin Cathedral, on a tombstone dated 1687, bearing the glove and shears, the emblems of his craft, and marking the “burial-place of John Geddes, Glover Burges in Elgin, and Issobell M'Kean, his spous, and their relations,” is the well-known epitaph :—

“This world is a cite full of streets,
And death is the mercat that all men meets;
If lyfe were a thing that monie could buy,
The poor could not live and the rich would not die."

Mercat is here used in its old legal sense of a fine or redemption-money.

The guilds of Elgin could not fail to be affected by the change. Suddenly wakened out of their old, quiet, sleepy ways, they became aware of their importance as factors in municipal life. Hitherto they had been more or less identified with the body of the burghers. Now they discovered that they and the general body of the citizens were not one but two.

This discovery was immediately followed by an effort to improve the strength of their position. The six incorporated trades resolved to form themselves into a convenery to protect their privileges. Accordingly in 1657 articles of condescendence were entered into between the town council of the burgh and the crafts, recognising their existence as independent corporations, and making regulations for the management of their respective bodies. The magistrates, however, still retained the right of nominating the deacons of each craft from a leet of three presented to them. In 1700 the trades advanced a stage further. They claimed, and in 1705 were accorded, the right to nominate their own deacons. And in 1706 the trades placed the copestone on their influence^ by obtaining the right to be represented at the council board by three of their members—the deacon-convener and two others selected by the town council from the deacons of the six incorporated trades.

The result of these successive changes was to place a very considerable amount of political influence in the hands of the crafts. The election of a member of Parliament for the Elgin Burghs—which then consisted of Elgin, Cullen, Banff, Inverurie, and Kintore—rested in the respective town councils of these burghs, each of whom chose a delegate. A majority of the votes of those delegates carried the election. The admission of the trades* representatives placed in their hands the fifth part of the representation of the burgh.

No one nowadays will dispute that the concession thus granted to the trades was a step in the right direction. It was a practical extension of the franchise to a class which had not hitherto possessed it. But under the close system which then prevailed it was not likely to be conducive of harmony. The miserable petty squabbles that ensued, the bickerings that took place between the democratic craftsmen and the more conservative town council, soon produced a state of things which threatened to become intolerable. Matters culminated in the memorable election of 1820, which resulted in the Raid of Elgin. The Fife party had the representatives of the crafts on their side; the Grants relied chiefly on their influence with the other members of the town council. But the corruption, the bribery, the treating that were practised by either side to compass its ends would scarcely now be credited. The deacons of the crafts were the special objects of attack, because, in the then state of matters in the council, their votes carried the day. James Cattanach, the deacon of the wrights, received from Lord Fife a parcel said to contain a psalm-book; but every one of its three hundred psalms consisted of a one-pound note. On the other hand, Deacon Steinson received from the Grants “a well-biggit close”—a property only disposed of a few years ago by the last heir of his name. One only of the trades’ representatives to the council seems to have preserved his self - respect. It is recorded of Alexander M'lver, the deacon of the shoemakers, that he refused £2000, and the liferent of a farm for himself and his son.

An Act of George II. attempted to deal with the evil, but with little success. It was not till the passing of the Reform Act in 1832 that this disgraceful state of things was brought to an end. By that Act the right of election was taken away from the town council, which had hitherto so shamefully abused it, and placed directly in the hands of the people. And Peterhead was added to the list of the electing burghs. By extending the scope of the franchise, it was intended to intensify the difficulties of corruption. The Act had the desired effect. The town councils were reduced from being political factors of the highest importance to their proper sphere of administrators of municipal affairs. As for 'the trades’ guilds, they sank at once into mere friendly societies; and as such they continue to this day. They had outlived their usefulness. The days when society had need of hammermen to forge its armour and to shoe its horses, of glovers to make its gauntlets and to provide its buff jerkins and buckskin breeches, of weavers to manufacture its linens and its homespuns, were past. The unfreemen—the merchants—had driven them off the field. Free trade was the logical concomitant of reform.

The six incorporated trades formed the aristocracy of trade within the burgh. They did not, however, exhaust the list of its industries.

In the seventeenth century the brewsters of Elgin were an important fraternity. In 1687 there were no less than eighty private brewers within the town. William Douglas, who was then the principal innkeeper, is said to have brewed within three months as much as 4000 gallons of ale and 400 gallons of aqua vitae. As the population of the buigh was in those days only about 3000, the consumption must have been considerable. Long before this, however, the citizens had acquired a reputation for “drouthiness.” In the statutes of the cathedral of 1238 there is a special prohibition to the vicars against frequenting taverns “in a crowd, as is the custom of certain laics,” under the penalty of total abstinence from all intoxicating liquor the following day. In the middle of the seventeenth century we have the first authentic notice of a very useful class of public functionaries, the tasters of ale, who probably had existed for some time previously. Their duty was to test the quality of the drink supplied to the citizens. Unfortunately the manner in which they discharged their important functions was not always satisfactory. In 1547 complaint was made to the town council “ that they sae filled their bellies that they lost the very taste o’ their moos, and were consequently unable to pronounce a discreet opinion thereon.” To remedy this, the council increased their number to eight, in order that there might always be one at least who had the proper judgment of his senses. Much about the same time, too, the town council attempted to grapple with what was fast becoming a serious “skaith” to the community—the manufacture of ale of inferior quality by the “brewster wives” of the town. It was enacted that

if any of these worthies made “a washy or evil ale,” she should be fined “in ane unlaw of aught shillings, and be placed upon the cock stule.” Ale continued to be the beverage of the district till quite modem times, when whisky unfortunately took its place. At the present day the manufacture of whisky is by far the most important, one might almost with truth say the only, industry of the district. In the year ended 30th September 1896, there were twelve distilleries in active operation within the two counties of Moray and Nairn. Three new ones were fast approaching completion in Morayshire, while large additions were contemplated to those now at work. The quantity of proof-spirit distilled within the same period was one and three-quarter millions of gallons; and the amount of malt used was 97,000 quarters.

The quality of the spirit produced, by the Speyside distilleries in particular, is of the highest order, owing to the remarkable perfection to which the process of distillation has been carried, the special suitability of the waters of the Morayshire burns and rivers, the use of peat in the malt-kilns, the quality of the barley used for malting, and above all to the fact that malt, and malt alone, and neither sugar nor unmalted grain, nor any other substitute, is used in its manufacture. As yet there seems no prospect of diminution in the Morayshire whisky trade. Every year, indeed, sees an increase over the one preceding.

The withdrawal of ecclesiastical influence from the burgh was not immediately followed by a decline of its fortunes. On the contrary, Elgin seemed to awaken to a new life. There can be no doubt that an amount of energy pervaded all classes, which, had it lasted, might have placed the little town on a much higher level amongst the burghs of Scotland than it now possesses. We have already shown how the local trades, released from the fetters of ecclesiastidsm, attempted to assert themselves, and how ignominiously they fell. The same result attended the foreign trade of the district.

The trade with the Continent, especially with Holland, which the necessities of the Churchmen had fostered, and probably engendered, assumed what may be considered a surprising importance in the seventeenth century. Findhorn, a little village a few miles north of Forres, at the mouth of the river of the same name, was the principal seat of the tr