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Wilson's Border Tales
The Girdle-Marker of Culross

About the middle of the fifteenth century, the crafts or trades constituted the chief burgal powers of Scotland. They had been, about the beginning of the century, regularly organized by the grants of charters, or what were called "seals of cause," by which they are allowed to elect their deacons or deans; their box-masters, clerks, and officers; to make by-laws for the regulation of their internal concerns, and to mend these, from time to time, according to expediency, and what might seem to be for "the guid of the craft." These small bodies were thus, in truth, miniature corporations, reflecting in their pigmy members all the corresponding parts of a burgh-corporate’s machinery, besides enjoying the advantage of having a voice in the larger council of the town where they figured.

When these grants and privileges were made by our early kings, in favour of the poor squalid creatures who, in the still small towns of a thinly peopled country, contrived to earn a livelihood by collecting the products of their handicraft, and getting them disposed of at the fairs or markets originally instituted for that purpose, the object in view was to favour arts and manufactures, by protecting the really skilful artisan against the competition of quacks, and insuring to the public a good article. No idea was ever entertained of elevating what was in feudal times considered incapable of enjoying the benefits of the "art of rising"—the piece of brute matter called a craftsman. It might be protected and moulded for the use of the nobility and gentry, or quickened into powers of producing what would contribute to their ease or convenience. Beyond that, it could not go, and ought not to be allowed to aspire. The kings and nobles who thought in this style, knew little of human nature; any knowledge they had acquired of the humbler orders of society was drawn from bondsmen and hinds who had no liberty, and free tenants who were afraid to exercise it. If the free farmers had not been smitten with ambition, how could the noble passion be expected to be found in the breast of a craftsman, bound to his stall or his loom, denied the free air of heaven, and ground by laws in the formation of which he had no voice?

It is a curious fact that those who are thus most interested in chaining down the human mind, and most desirous of effecting it, should have unconsciously taken the most powerful, nay, ingenious means of breaking the bonds they had themselves imposed. It is impossible to conceive any more effectual mode of making a man feel his strength, or measure the inheritance he has from heaven, than by infusing into his mind the feeling of pride; and this was the very mode adopted by the early Scottish kings when they granted the powers of corporations to the burgh-crafts. No sooner did the humble artisans read their patents, than they conceived themselves important members of society. They were invested directly with a status—the King recognised them as subjects worthy of the royal protection. No one dared enter their craft without submitting to their laws. They were possessed of a vote in the election of a dean, an honour to which they could all aspire—they were above all legislators, and could make by-laws for the internal government of their corporation. Such an accumulation of honours coming all at once upon the oppressed and despised craftsmen, filled them with a degree of importance far beyond what they had any title to arrogate to themselves, and much disproportioned to the cause, when that was calmly contemplated. But the new-born artisans had no time and less inclination to inquire into the grounds of their pride. It was enough that they all thought themselves entitled to be proud of their new honours. No time was lost in inventing the arms of the various trades, fabricating insignia, building meeting-halls, passing by-laws, appointing deans and officers, dining and banqueting, and ogling each other into a confirmation of the truth of their elevation from slaves to the dignity of independent citizens, if not something more.

Such being the feelings of the elective body, the pride of the deacons may be imagined; though no man who has inherited honours, and no one who, by exertion, has earned them, can form a perfect idea of the pride of these ancient worthies—if indeed pride can be said to be the proper term for describing the perking conceit and simpering self-sufficiency by which the miniature aldermen soon came to be better known than by their chain of office, though no pains was taken to conceal that important bauble from the eyes of an admiring, if not, as they conceived, a wonder-struck public. But, though the remnant of the true deacon which has came down to our days, may furnish some idea of the greatness of their predecessors, qualified with a due mixture of ridicule, it must not be supposed that a deacon, in the days we are now adverting to, was not, in reality, a person of some consequence. It must always be recollected that, as society was then constituted, there was scarcely any intermediate status between a rich craftsman and a lord. The modern merchant was scarcely known—the moneyed walking gentleman had not yet risen—the rich farmers were in the country, and did not compete; and there were only thus some law-officers and the burgh officials, to press down the buoyant pride of the deacon from simulating the inflation of nobility itself.

Unfortunately, however, these great officials did not limit their conceit to corporate domination or domestic displays of greatness. Soon after the societies were completely organized, (1427), the deans began to think that as they were themselves legislators, they might, with some advantage to the state, criticise the acts of the King and Council, and even of Parliament itself—a result brought about entirely by the exaggerated ideas they had been gradually forming of their importance. A communication was opened between the various towns, and it was at last arranged that deputations from the combined trades of each should meet in some central part of Scotland, for the purpose (it was given out) of perfecting a general system of by-laws; but truly of speculating and speechifying, according to this assumed dignity, on the conduct of the King, James I., whose firm, resolute, and rapid measures were then filling Scotland with the mixed feelings of wonder, admiration, and fear. The ancient burgh of Culross or Cures, on the banks of the Firth of Forth, was fixed on as the place of rendezvous; and the deacon of the girdle-makers, so famed for their general monopoly—a person called John Finlayson—was appointed stationary president.

Deacon Finlayson was the proudest of all proud deacons. He was a little fat man, originally intended by nature to be a good-humoured, laughing, easy, silly body; but so far metamorphosed by his unexpected honour of being at the head of the corporation of the girdle-makers of Cures, whose monopoly extended over all Scotland, that an affected gravity, which attempted in vain to press down his jaws, sat, like a cardinal’s cap on the head of a Merry Andrew, on his round globules of cheeks, which humour had previously claimed as her own peculiar property. There was thus a continued strife going on in his manner and speech; the gravity and wisdom of the deacon, combining with the conceit inseparable from the office, carried on an endless war with his natural undignified bonhommie. The laugh which an old companion, cast now in the shade by the deaconship, contrived to draw from him, was often stopped, fragrante delisto, in the very fact; the swelling face was hurriedly puckered up, and a most ridiculous expression of philosophic solemnity cast over features through which the sun of repressed mirth was struggling to burst forth. His speech, naturally short and humorous, had, from the necessity and habit of making long harangues in the Trades’ Hall, assumed a continuity effected by the continued use of small joining words—the pronoun "which" being the favourite stop-gap—and by hems and ha’s and sometimes, in cases of despair, by a most convenient cough, always concluded by the pronoun in such a manner as if the cough had impertinently, and against his wish, been excluding it—teasing the speaker, and interrupting his volubility. These displays were, of course, highly amusing; but no one durst laugh in those days in presence of a dean.

Deacon Finlayson had a portly wife, (Mrs Deacon Finlayson,) and three grown-up daughters, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Jane, all dying for husbands. Being good-looking gaucy damsels, with a father rich and a deacon of the only trade enjoying a national monopoly, they stood in no want of sweethearts—each having a secret one unknown to their father or mother. Next to the ambition of being a dean, Deacon Finlayson was desirous of elevating his daughters to the highest pitch of civil dignity—the burgal dignities excepted — that it was possible then to attain. Nothing less would satisfy his inordinate desire of grandeur, if not glory, than to have three deacons for sons-in-law. The idea smacked of a boldness and splendour utterly intoxicating. Mrs Deacon Finlayson was equally fired with the delightful project; the glowing imagination floated in their minds like a day-dream unearthly lustre, and formed the subject of their continual conversation.

"The main point now is, how to get it accomplished deacon." said the deaconess. "I dinna respect Cures deacons—yoursel, as the head o’ the only trade that has a national monopoly, aye excepted—sae muckle as Edinburgh deans, wha hae an awfu’ state about them. I fear they’re ayont the mark o’ Cures damsels, even though they be the dochters o’ the dean o’ the girdle-makers wi’ braw tochers. I’ll never forget, while life’s in my body, the day when Deacon Currie o’ the Edinburgh waukers dined in this house, wi’ his chain, his powdered wig, his lang siller-headed cane, his knee-buckles, his shoe-buckles, his shirt-buttons, an’ abune a’ his diamond breast-pin, glittering like a knight’s star. The dignity o’ that cratur sae far outstripped the pride o’ our Cures deans, that I couldna help thinking I was i’ the presence o’ an unearthly being. The honour o’ a match between Deacon Currie and twa ither o’ the equally stately deans o’ Edinburgh and our three daughters, might remain as a monument o’ the glory o’ Deacon Finlayson i’ the kirk-yard o’ Cures, for a hundred years after baith you an’ I are laid aneath the stane whar it would be engraved."

"That’s a proper view o’ the subject, Mrs Deacon Finlayson," replied John—giving, as was customary with people of her rank in those days, her full title—"an’ maybe your dream may come sooner to pass than you imagine. There’s to be a meeting o’ the delegates frae a’ the touns held here, on St James’ e’en, at the whilk I, as head o’ the national craft, am to preside. I’ll try to pick out three o’ the best o’ them for our lassies, and ye may be weel assured that Deacon Currie winna be unnoticed. He’s a grand cratur that—no muckle ahint the dean o’ the girdle-makers o’ Cures; but there’s Deacon smart o’ the Edinburgh bonnet-makers, an’ Deacon Saunders o‘ the glovers, maist princely dignitaries, an’ mony mair, amang whom we can pick and choose for our sons-in-law. I carena a plack for their money—it’s their honour I look to were they as puir as the puirest beadsman o’ St Andrews, their offices o’ deacons wad cover and make amends for a’. I’ll furnish the siller if they bring the glory o’ the deanship.

"But will there be a delegate frae Edinburgh, for ilk ane o’ our dochters," asked the lady.

"The design is to send ane for the combined trades o’ a hail toun," replied the deacon; "but Edinburgh, being the metropolis, is to send five—surely three o’ them will be bachelors."

"I hope our dochters winna refuse them," said Mrs Finlayson, who had some suspicions of the secret lovers.

"Refuse a deacon?" ejaculated the wondering official. "Mrs Deacon Finlayson, maun I chide ye, or pity ye, or laugh at ye?"

"Nane o’ them a’, Deacon Finlayson," answered the mistress. "I see the absurdity o’ the thing as plain as ye do. I could as soon suppose that my dochters wad rejounce the staff o’ life--our girdle cakes, our sheep’s heads, or our haggises—as refuse for husbands else kings o’ our crafts."

"Kings ye may weel ca’ them, Mrs Deacon Finlayson," replied John; for we are sune to be engaged in royal business. Jamie, the loun, is no behavin himsel; and wha is sae capable o’ chastising him and keeping him richt as the deacons o‘ Scotland? But that’s a secret o’ awfu’ import—no a cheep o‘t to the ladies o’ my brither deans. Discretion is the soul o’ the wife o’ an official."

Whilst Deacon Finlayson and his wife were thus making matches in their glowing fancies, the three daughters were sae busy maturing them in their love-stricken hearts. They cared no more for the glory of a dean than they did for the beggar’s badge on the breast of the beadsman. They toyed their respective apprentices, who, while they had now the hearts to love, might afterwards have the fortune to be elevated to that high station. They all knew each other’s secrets, and formed a combination to defeat the united purposes of their parents. Their plan was to avoid, if possible, meeting the deacons; and, if this could not be avoided, to put on a decided manner of repulsive coldness, and even aversion, strong enough to cool the pride and ardour of even a dean. If this failed, and any one should be attempted to be forced into their parents’ choice, this was to be the signal for a general rebellion, and all the three were to elope and be secretly wedded to their sweethearts, who were ready to receive them with open arms.

In the meantime, the important meeting of the delegates took place at Cures. A bright constellation of the dignitaries, from all parts of Scotland, graced the Trades’ Hall of Cures; and, among the rest, were seen the famous Deacon Currie, Deacon Saunders, and Deacon Smart, who, as fate would have it, were all bachelors. Deacon Finlayson took the chair; and the affairs of the government of James I. of Scotland were to be subjected to their inquisitorial power. The principal ground of complaint against the King was that he had granted to the aldermen and council of the different towns, "the charge or privilege of fixing the prices of various kinds of work, which they are to regulate according to the estimate of the raw material and the wages of the workmen, as also the power of appointing the wages to be given to wrights, masons, and such other handicraftsmen who contribute their skill and labour, but do not furnish the materials." On these important subjects, speeches were uttered extending in length to whole hours; and many days were employed in shewing up the injustice of the King’s conduct, and devising the means of opposing the new law. The King had no authority, they alleged, to give power to the councils to fix the price of their work, or the wages of their workmen. How could the King or the magistrates judge of their profits? Had they not as good a right to cheat the public with their work as James with his laws?— And who had the power of preventing them from keeping a clipped sixpence from a journeyman, if any of their lady deaconesses wanted a bandeau, to appear at the next trades’ dinner? James’ conduct in regard to them was only a part of his general tyranny. The bloody Heading Hill of Stirling--the jail of the Lord of the Isles in Tantallan Castle—the prison of the Countess of Ross, his mother, in Inchcolm—the block at Inverness, still wet with the blood of the Highland chiefs—all cry out against the tyrant; and to this ought to be added, the remonstrances of the deacons of the crafts of Scotland against an encroachment on their rights and privileges. Such were the sentiments of the meeting; and it was carried with acclamation, that they should persist in charging their own prices for their work, and making their own terms with their journeymen. The meeting then broke up, the three favoured deacons being invited to remain for some days at Cures, to be caught by the charms of the girdle-maker’s daughters.

Three days after this meeting, Scotland was astounded by one of those bold measures which King James was in the habit of taking when his authority was attempted to be resisted. He had got secret notice of the actings of the deacons; and the Parliament, which happened then to be sitting, declared that the provisions regarding the appointment of deacons of the crafts, within the royal burghs, had been found productive of grievous injury to the realm—for which reason, they are henceforth annulled; and it is ordained that "no deacon be permitted, after this, to be elected, whilst those already chosen to fill this of/ice are prohibited from exercising their functions or holding their usual meetings, which are found to lead to conspiracies." This extraordinary enactment was published throughout Scotland, and a written copy was handed in to Deacon Finlayson, as he sat at the foot of his table, banqueting with Deacons Currie, Smart and Saunders, his intended sons-in-law who were very peaceably allowing themselves to be caught in the toils of marriage.

"What proclamation’s this?" said Deacon Finlayson, as he opened the paper.

"Read it aloud," cried the three deacons, by this time getting elated with liquor and matrimonial hope.

"The King has maybe repented o’ his ill usage to us," said Deacon Finlayson, as he arranged his spectacles.

"It may be as weel for him," said Deacon Currie. "A quick repentance saves wrath an’ aften wae. I hae nae spite against Jamie; but if the deacons o’ Scotland dinna stand to their richts, wha will or wha can?"

Deacon Finlayson began to read the proclamation with a loud voice, which, as he proceeded, degenerated into something little short of a "greet." Having finished the document, he laid it on the table, and looked at his brother deacons. Their office was abolished, their honours faded, their glory ended. The three deacons saw their hopes of matrimony scattered to the wind, groaned deeply, and deplored their fate. The three daughters, who heard the proclamation read, smiled with delight and tittered in their sleeves. Their deacon-nightmares were put to flight. The charm of their three knights was dispelled, and they would be at liberty to marry their apprentices when they became journeymen.

Deacon Finlayson, thus shorn of his honours, was greatly humbled. His three intended sons-in-law he ascertained had no money; and, being deprived of their title, what were they more than other men? He allowed his daughters to marry the young men they loved, and settled good tochers on them, as became an indulgent father. King James afterwards repealed the harsh statute, and Deacon Finlayson lived to see his three sons-in-law made deacons under the new law.

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