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Merchant and Craft Guilds
A History of the Aberdeen Incorporated Trades
Part III. Chapter X - The Tailor Trade

THERE is good evidence to show that the tailors were organised before the close of the fifteenth century. In addition to the ordinary causes which induced all craftsmen to combine, the tailors had two special reasons—they had to take special steps to protect themselves against encroachments by the tailors residing in Old Aberdeen and the outskirts of the town, and they had also to combine for the purpose of excluding females from exercising any branch of the craft. The tailors claimed the monopoly of making all kinds of garments, both male and female, and, as will be seen later on, it was only after a keen struggle that the craftsmen granted women even the partial privilege of making certain articles of female attire.

The first recognition of the Tailor Craft by the magistrates appears to have been on 6th February,1511, when the baillies "consentit and ordainit the dekinys of ye tailzeour craft to call all ye tailzeours of yis burgh befor yame and consider, see, and understand, all poynts of yair craft, and reforme and causs to be reformitt all poynts and falts y' yai fynd amang yair said craft, and quhair yai can not reform thame to present ye said faltis to ye said bailyies.--Council Register, Vol. ix. p. 79.

This power was further extended under the following ordinance, granting to the Tailors the same powers as had been conferred upon the Hammermen [See Hammermen Seal of Cause, pp. 198, 199.] :—

9th June, 1533.—Item, the haill toun being convenit for the maist part in the tolbooth, grantit the same privileges to the tailyours thae haue grantit abefoir to the smythis and sic lik pouar thae chesand and present-and to thame ane sufficient dekin, sicklik as the smythis hes done that sail answer to the town for the haill craft, and dicerns them thair commound seill thairupon.

The oldest existing minute-book of the Tailor Trade has the following preface:—"Acts and Ordinances of the Taylzior traid in Aberdeen ordained be John Forbes, present deacon of the said traid, with consent of the maisters and members of the said Incorporation, to be extracted out of the old registers and hereinsert, homologat, and approven under the hands of Alex. Mitchell, clerk to the traids of the said burgh, in ane fenced court, 1694." The following are the acts and ordinances, including those copied out of the old register :—


Item, it is statute and ordained for the glorie of God that ilk maister, prentiss, and servant keep the holy Sabbath day at prayers and preaching, and that nane wilfully absent themselves therefra under the pains following :—The maisters, six shillings eight pennies; the servant, three shillings six pennies ; and the prentiss to be punished in his person if he has not money to pay the onlaw at the will and discretion of the deacon and maisters.


Item, it is statute and ordained that no frieman speak irreverantly to the deacon in fenced courts or elsewhaur, neither to tak ony speech upon him except he be asked, or ask the same be licence, under the pain of fourty shillings to the poore's use.


Item, it is statute and ordained that if any of the members of the said calling offend ane other be wark, word, or deed, at any tyme hereaifter, the party offending sail pay to the poore of the calling four pounds money tones quotes, by and attour satisfaction by the pairty grived, according to the gravity of the fault.


Item, it is statute and ordained that no freeman shall fee nor conduce with any servant or boy for less than three years, under the pain of fourty shillings, and that they fee them before the deacon for the tyme.


Item, it is statute and ordained be the haill craft, be common vott, that ilk new elected deacon to be chosen hereafter shall have absolute power, with consent of the lait deacon, to choyse, nominate, and elect his six maisters, als freely as if they had been chosen be vott of the haill craft. [This statute was modified to the extent that the deacon "lifted"a certain number of the Trade out of which the boxmaster and masters were chosen.]


28th October, 1631.—Item, the said day forsameikle as the great abuse befoir complained upon be the Magistrates of this burgh and haill deacons of crafts anent the untymeous coming of freemen to burials of freemen, their wives, and children departed, and through not coming with hatts on their heads who are in use to wear them, for remeid whereof the deacon and maisters, with consent of the haill craft, hes ordained and ordains everie freeman that is warnit be the officer to go to burials, that they and every one of them come to their deacon's stair fitt tymously, and convoy their deacon to the burial or burials, and that everie ane have their hatt on their head who has any or in use to wear; and who contravenes hereuntill shall pay to the craft eight shillings toties quoties.


18th February, 1678.—In presence of Alexander Milne, deacon, it is strictlie statute and ordained unanimously be the haill traid that whatever entering freeman of the craft, or any other freeman thereof, shall anyways reveal or divulge to the Magistrates or any Burgess of Guild, directly or indirectly, any of the craft's secrets, especially anent their procedure when entering freemen of the traid, anent the composition or other expenses and debursements, that the person or persons so doing (being made out) shall never carry public charge amongst the said traid as deacon, maister, or boxmaster, until they give to the traid all satisfaction anent the said misdemeanour.


20th August, 1685.—The said traid taking into their consideration the grudging and clamour of some supplicants or entrants to be fremen of the traid upon the account of the present expenses in giving ane dinner or feast when they are incorporat in this society as freiman, as also anent the complant that when there was ane order of counsel to take trial of the supplicants qualifications, the supplicant, by the information of others, was so instructed that what he could do then, could doe so weill thereafter, for remeid whereoff the haill freemen of the said traid by voice of court ordained for the use of the poore and common good of the said incorporation, the following rates should be fixed :—Prentiss, four score ten merks journeymen, four score ten pounds ; and extranear, 100 pounds Scots.


24th August, 1708.—The which day (for many good and reasonable causes) the traid statute and unalterably ordains that in all tyme coming, the deacon of the said traid shall at his outgoing as deacon pay the whole expenses of the dinner at the election of a new deacon yearly, and that the same dinner be sufficient and after the accustomed manner, and hereby declares that the traids public funds, nor no other private person shall be concerned in payment of the expenses or any part thereof, but allenarly the said off going deacon under the failzie of twenty pounds Scots money to be paid by the contravener for the use of the said traid, and be the said contravener to have no pairt or portion or concern in the said trade until the samen be paid. [In 1711 It was ordained that the dinner was not to cost more than fifteen pounds Scots. If the deacon was re-elected the trade defrayed the expenses of the dinner, and the trade also agreed to pay the dinner at the passing of entrants.]


6th March, 1728.—The trade hereby statute and ordain that no person whatever shall be received as journeyman in this trade for the future, except allenarly such as have served as apprentices to freemen of this trade.


22nd January, 1733.—The trade unanimously statute and ordain that in all time coming no fine that shall be paid into the trade be any member thereof, or by any person whatsomever shall be repaid to the party that shall pay the same upon any application or pretence whatsomever.

Previous to 1661, when the art of needlemaking was introduced into this country, the instruments used by tailors were of a very rude description, bone and box skewers and rough pieces of iron and steel being used for needles, while thimbles were not in ordinary use until introduced into this country from Holland by a Dutchman named Lofting, in 1695.

The female labour question appears to have been a very knotty problem to the Tailor Craft in Aberdeen. The craftsmen had a monopoly of making female as well as men's garments, and they resented very keenly the introduction of female labour, while the proposal that women should be allowed to set up in business as mantlemakers filled them with dismay. They resisted long, but ultimately they had to give way, although even to the last it was only a partial concession which was made. The women were granted certain modified privileges, and compelled to come within the jurisdiction of the craft, but they were not admitted to full membership. The women were simply granted "a toleration" to make certain classes of work, and even in granting this privilege the tailors in Aberdeen were, we believe, the only craftsmen in Scotland who allowed females to share in their special privileges.

When the women first began to encroach on the exclusive privileges of the craftsmen, the Aberdeen tailors sought advice in different quarters. They applied, among others, to the Magistrates, but their honours declined to interfere on the ground that the application by a female for liberty to make mantles was " unprecedented." After several women had been prosecuted for encroaching on the privileges of the tailors, a compromise was effected by which women were to be allowed to make mantles, and, in some instances, petticoats, but on no consideration whatever were they to import or deal in stays and other articles of female attire.

The minutes in the books of the Trade with regard to the granting of "tollerations" to the mantua-makers are very voluminous, and afford unmistakable evidence of the reluctance with which the craftsmen yielded to their demands. On 30th May, 1717, a deputation was appointed to meet with a Rachael Baxter anent a petition she had presented craving liberty for mantle-making ; and after consultation the following minute was adopted :—

The trade hereby grants libertie to the said Rachel Baxter for mantuamaking allenarly within the said burgh, and admittit, and hereby admits, her free in this incorporation for that effect (with and under the restrictions following) that she shall neither take to be prentiss nor employ in any work either within or without doors as servants but only women, and that these women servants, or prentisses, shall be feed or entered in the same way and manner as the other prentisses or servants in the said tailor trade agreeable to their constant practice and constitution; second, that she shall have only the privilege of mantua-making, and no ways make stays, or import the same to sell from any other place, and that the traid's clerk shall be employed to draw her indentures with her prentisses and agreements with any servants who are to be still subject to the rules of the traid in such cases, for payment of ane certain sum of money for banqueting money to the boxmaster of the tayliour traid of this burgh, which is accepted of by them for her freedom in the tayliour traid, as above expressed, and this besides of her expenses due and quarterly penny as use is in such cases; and it is hereby declared that thir presents to be no precedent to any woman in tyme coming, and the said Rachel Baxter obliged herself to implement the haill premises as above expressed, and for that end subscribed thir presents. (Signed) Rachel Baxter. [It Is worthy of note that Rachel wrote a much superior signature to the bulk of the craftsmen, a remark which applies to the other females who were subsequently admitted to similar privileges.]

In another case the minute runs:—

7th November, 1728.—The said day Janet Pirie, lawful daughter to John Pirie, shipmaster in Aberdeen, gave in a petition to the Trade mentioning that she, having learned mantua-making, and being to exercise the said employment within the burgh with the liberty and toleration of the trade for that effect, and therefore craving; that the trade might consider the premises and grant her a toleration and liberty for exercising the said employment upon her payment yearly to their boxmaster such a sum as they should appoint, which petition, being seen and considered by the said trade, they hereby grant liberty and tolleration to the said Janet Pirie to exercise the employment of mantua-making within this burgh, and with and under the restrictions and conditions following, alIenarly and no otherwise, namely:—Primo.—That she shall take no men apprentices, nor employ men servants in any work whatever relating to her employment directly or indirectly, but aIlenarly women apprentices and servants. Secundo.—That she shall only make gowns and petticoats for women, and shall not make or mend any other kind of women's cloaths, and shall not make or mend any kind of men's cloaths. Tertio.—The said Janet Pirie is not to import or sell any stays whatsoever. All which the said Janet Pixie binds and obliges her to stand to implement, and perform under the penalty of twenty shillings sterling for the first transgression, to be paid by her to the boxmaster for the use of the poor, and double the same penalty totics quoties thereafter she shall transgress the premises or any part thereof. And that it shall be lawful for the boxmaster to call and convene the said Janet Pixie at any time he shall think convenient, and crave her oath on her transgressing the premises, and to which proof she hereby subjects herself. And it is further hereby declared that the said Janet Pixie's apprentices shall have no benefit herefrom. And the said Janet Pixie obliges her to pay yearly to the Trade's boxmaster for the said tolleration fifteen shillings sterling money during her exercising the said employment at the term of Martinmas next.

When about half-a-dozen women had been granted this privilege, including Mrs. Catherine Wilson, daughter of Mr George Wilson of Finzean, a grand-nephew of Dr. William Guild, the craftsmen became alarmed at their increasing number, and resolved to increase the dues.

7th November, 1728.—The Trade, taking to their consideration that the number of the women mantua-makers in this burgh is very much increasing, and that the same is a great hurt and prejudice to this Trade, do therefore statute and ordain that every woman who for the future shall be tollerate to work at mantua-making by the Trade, shall pay yearly to the boxmaster of this Trade for such tollerance the sum of twenty-four shillings yearly, without any mitigation or defalcation whatever.

This rate was raised in April, 1734, to thirty pounds Scots for the daughter of a burgess, and four pounds sterling if an unfreeman's daughter. In 1732 the boxmaster was authorised to pursue all mantua-makers " who exercised the said trade, and have no tolleration therefore from the trade," and amongst those who were prosecuted for carrying on the business without having obtained the necessary "tollerance," was Mrs. Ann Forbes, daughter of Lachlan Forbes of Edinglassie. She left the town, however, before the summons could be served. Another instance of the vigilance with which the tailors guarded their privileges is to be found in the following minute instructing a search after skinners who might be suspected of making breeches :—

2nd October, 1772.—The said day the trade granted warrant to the deacon and maisters to search after what power the skinners in this place have for making of breeches, and what expenses may be roared thereanent to be allowed.

A curious case is recorded in the books of the Trade which also illustrates the antipathy that existed with regard to women interfering with the privileges of the craft. On 30th October, 1661, George Watt was charged with having "wilfully and contemptuously questioned the lawful authority and just and good government of the burgh in giving order with his ain hand without the magistrates' permission to tak and apprehend ane piece of stuff, belonging to Isobel Wallace, servant to the Lady Craigievar, from the said Isobel her servant woman who was carrying the same out of the town for behoof of her said mistress, and in detaining and refusing to produce the same before the magistrates according to the council's order made thereanent." Watt raised an action against the Magistrates before the Privy Council; but for doing this it was complained that he "did all that in him lay to mak ane great rupture and division between the counsell and the tradesmen within the burgh," the result being that he was "deprived of his libertie and freedom of the tailor trade within this burgh in any time hereafter," it being also "ordanit his boothe and chope door to be closed up." In the following year it is recorded that Watt "craved upon his knees the magistrates and counsells pardon," and on doing so was "reponit to his freedom and liberty on payment of 90 merks scots and five shillings of arms money as use is."

The first mention of upholsterers in connection with the Tailor Trade occurs in a minute dated 14th September, 1767, when the Trade "granted warrant to the boxmaster to prosecute before the magistrates, George Bartlett, who had sett up the trade of upholsterer without any manner of freedom or title thereto." From that date all upholsterers had to join the craft, their essay being "to stuff and make ane cover of a sopha." Numerous complaints were also made about this time against tailors who, while qualified to make only one class of work, undertook to make work for which they had not been tested; and it was declared " contrary to the constitution of all communities that any should work and practice any piece of material work wherein they are not sworn to be qualified by the ordinary course of tryal, and conform the constitution of the communitie, therefore the said traid statute and ordain that no entrant freeman for the future that qualifies himself only for men's work, and refuses, or does not qualify himself for women's clothes by passing a say for both, or either, shall be tolerate or allowed to work either in women's clothes or men's clothes without he pass the say conform, and that his working or practising the said traid shall only be conform to his say passed at his admission."

The tailors had numerous disputes in regard to hours and wages. In 1720 the rate of wages was fixed at four shillings Scots (fourpence sterling) per diem, the working hours to be from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. On 2nd August, 1734, the hours were fixed from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and these hours continued for over thirty years; but the journeymen ultimately rebelled against both the long hours and miserable pay :-

20th May, 1768.—Whereas ane illegal combination has lately been entered into by the journeymen tailors to oblige the freemen to raise their wages from eightpence to tenpence per day by refusing to work themselves, and detering others by threatening all the country lads from engaging to serve the masters of the trade, whereby great inconvenience has been brought on many of the members of the trade, the meeting having taken the same under serious consideration, and being of opinion that eightpence a day is the highest wages the masters can afford to their journeymen, and that the jcurneymen have at present no reason to complain of the lowness of their wages, as the price of meal and other necessaries is of late much fallen, have unanimously resolved, and do agree, in order that the young men may not be encouraged in their unjustifiable attempt by the conduct of any particular master or any difference among them, that they shall strictly observe all the former acts and regulations of the trade with respect to the journeymen; and particularlie that no freeman shall employ any married journeyman at more wages than eightpence a day, and that they shall not employ any journeyman who shall refuse to work at those wages, and shall take upon him to work for himself within the freedom or liberties until they be brought to trial and punished therefor, and that under the penalty of ten pounds Scots, to be paid to the boxmaster, for every breach of this resolution whenever the majority of the trade shall find the same incurred.

The following minutes give particulars of a strike which took place among the journeymen in 1797, when a number of them had been summoned before the Magistrates and sentenced to fines and imprisonment for their conduct

19th June, 1797.—It was represented to the trade that their journeymen had entered into an illegal combination for the purpose of raising their wages. The trade unanimously recommended Mr. DI`Donald to give in a statement of this matter to the clerk and authorized him to bring a prosecution against the delinquents for redress, and the whole number agreed to this, and not to give any additional wages to their servants, the said wages having been twice raised within a few years.

5th July, 1797.—The magistrates sentence upon the complaint at the instance of the deacon with concurrence of the Procurator Fiscal against certain of the journeymen taylors having been publicly read, the court appoint the same to be put to immediate execution and to be copied into their sederunt book, and of which the tenor follows—" July, 1797.Assoilizes the defender, James Aliaster, who has been passed from by the complainers and discerns, and having advised the proof brought by the complainers and whole process, Finds, that the complainers have brought sufficient evidence of the combination stated in the complaint, and therefore fines and amerciates each of the defenders, Malcolm Robertson, William Troup, William Sinclair, Robert Torrie, William Anderson, William Mackenzie, Alexander Smith, John Robb, James Beverley, James Ross, David Mackenzie, and John Inues in nine shillings sterling to the private complainer, and in one shilling sterling to the procurator fiscal, and further discerns and ordains them and each of them to be incarcerated in the tolbooth of Aberdeen for eight days and to find sufficient caution, acted in the Burgh Court books that they shall immediately after being set at liberty return to the service of their former masters respectively, and serve them at the rate of seven shillings and sixpence a week, and that they shall not leave their service without giving the toasters one months previous warning at least of their intention so to do. And grant warrant to the towns sergeants to commit the said defenders prisoners to the tolbooth of Aberdeen, and to the keeper of said tolbooth to receive and detain them therein for said eight days, and thereafter until they pay the fine awarded against them respectively, and find caution as aforesaid, signed, George More, provost; William Littlejohn, baillie; Charles Farquharson, baillie; Robert Garden, baillie."

The following account, rendered in 1727, will give some indication of the prices charged by master tailors about this period:—

The tenacity with which the special privileges of the craftsmen were maintained was well illustrated by a litigation which was commenced by the Tailor Incorporation in 1817, and lasted for four years, in regard to an infringement of their privileges by Messrs. James Mowat & Company, manufacturers, and James Stott, a servant of the company. It was contended that as the partners of the firm of Mowat and Company were burgesses of Guild, they were protected against the conclusions of summons. The Magistrates took this view of the case, but, on appeal, the Lords of Council and Session found that the Seal of Cause obtained by the Tailors in 1533 necessarily implied the exclusive privilege of exercising their craft within the burgh; that being a member of the Guildry did not warrant an infringement of any of the privileges of the crafts any more than a member of one craft would therefore be entitled to exercise another craft; and they therefore found that Mowat & Company were not entitled to employ persons as tailors in the burgh who were not members of the Tailor Incorporation. The defenders were found liable in expenses, amounting to £143 1s. 11d.

There are remarkably few convictions recorded in the books of the Tailor Trade as compared to some of the other crafts, the principal offences being the opening of "slop" shops, working to unfreemen, and working in private houses. Their charity also took some peculiar forms, as, for instance, on 26th May, 1798, the Trade granted warrant to the box-master to lend Alexander Thomson £3 sterling on his bill to enable him to make a voyage to London for the benefit of his health; and another instance is recorded of a widow being presented with a mangle, " said mangle to remain the property of the Trade."

An additional fund was established in 1756 for increasing the stock of the incorporation, to which a certain proportion of the entry money was allocated; and in 1785 a daughters' fund was also established, both of which have proved of great benefit. In 1832 Alexander Watson left £100 to establish a mortification for the purpose of educating sons of freeman tailors from eight to eleven years of age.

What is known as Milne's Mortification, founded in 1736 for the education and fitting out of tailors' sons, was originally under the management of the Patron, Convener, Master of Hospital, seven Deacons, and seven members of the Tailor Trade, but in 1765 a decreet arbitral was pronounced, whereby a sum of £300 was paid to the Master of Hospital, to be divided among the other six Trades, as a consideration to them for renouncing and conveying from themselves and their successors, in favour of the Tailor Trade, all right and title to the balance of the mortification.

The Tailor Trade obtained a private Act of Parliament in 1853 "to confirm the titles and conveyances, and to amend and regulate the affairs of the said craft." The ground and properties purchased from time to time by this Trade include the Sillyward Croft, near Schoolhill ; Craigmill Croft, Gallowhill Croft, Coul's Croft, Summer's Croft, two rigs at Sandy-lands, northmnost half of Symon Croft, pieces of land at Ferryhill and Cooperstown, six lots of the land at Pitmuxton, Combs Croft, now called the lands of Newbridge; ground in the neighbourhood of the harbour, &c., &c.

Whether it was the case that the tailors of the olden days were not poetically inclined, or had more practical matters to attend to, it is hard to say, but their "brod" containing their coat of arms is not—like those of the other Trades—adorned with any poetic eulogy of the craft.

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