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The Story of Leith
XI. The Trade Guilds of Leith

THE craftsmen were the skilled tradesmen or artisans of the Middle Ages. They were divided into guilds or unions, each trade having a guild of its own. In previous chapters we have already read of the Edinburgh Merchant Guild, and a subdivision of it, the Guild of St. Anthony, whose members had the monopoly of the wine trade in the two towns. These merchant and craft guilds were to be found in every country of Western Europe, and the control of all trade and industry down to the close of the eighteenth century was mainly in their hands. No one was allowed to carry on any trade during those long centuries unless he was a member of the local guild of that trade. These guilds, or trade incorporations, as they were more generally called in Scotland after the Reformation, were just the trade unions of mediaeval times, with this, among other important differences, that membership was not confined to workmen only, but included all masters and apprentices as well. Hence, unlike the trade unions of our day, their rules were so framed that they protected the interests of the masters and apprentices as well as those of the men, and were as strict in promoting excellence of workmanship as they were in obtaining a good price for the work. In other words, the craft guilds of the Middle Ages, unlike the trade unions of today, not only promoted the interests of the workmen employed, but at the same time protected the general public against the sale of inferior articles.

When these craft guilds were first formed we do not know; but it is in the reign of James III. that they first come into prominence in Leith, and play an important part in the building up of industry and trade. The formation and constitution of these guilds were much influenced by our close social and commercial intercourse with Flanders. Many Flemings, both before and after the marriage of James II. and Mary of Gueldres, migrated to Scotland and became members of the Edinburgh guilds. It was owing to such causes that the Guild of the Masons and Wrights, whose Chapel of St. John is today one of the finest in St. Giles’, was to have its place in the religious processions on the great Church festival days "lyk as thai haf in the toune of Bruges or sielyk gud tounes." The part the various craft guilds had in these religious processions points to the fact that, like many other institutions of the Middle Ages, they had a very close connection with the Church. Indeed, a religious purpose would seem to have been a main cause and origin of their formation, and just as every church was dedicated to some saint, so each guild had its patron saint with its own altar in the parish church. Over this altar stood an image of the saint, and a curious thing about the patron saints of the various guilds was that, wherever you went throughout Christendom, the patron saint of each particular trade guild, unless for special reasons, was the same.

This religious purpose finds prominent mention in their charter of rights and privileges incorporating the members of a craft or trade into a guild, which in Scotland was always known as a "seal of cause" —itself a continental term. These seals of cause, erecting the various trades into guilds, were so named from the official seal attached to them, and were granted by the overlord of the barony, who fixed his seal to them to show that they were genuine. In Edinburgh, seals of cause were granted by the provost and magistrates with the city seal attached; in North Leith by the Abbot of Holyrood, who affixed the official seal of the Abbey; and in South Leith by the Logans of Restalrig, whose seal contained their coat-of-arms, a heart pierced with three nails in commemoration of the family’s share in endeavouring to convey the heart of Bruce to the Holy Land. These seals were of lead or wax, and were attached by a cord or ribbon to the seal of cause or charter incorporating the members of a trade into a guild.

Sculptured Stone of the Carter' Incorporation

Most of these seals of cause of the old Leith craft guilds no longer exist, and, considering how often the town suffered in the centuries before the Union of the Crowns from the destroying hand of the English invader, this is not surprising. The oldest existing seal of cause seems to be that of the Tailors, granted by Sir Robert Logan in 1515 shortly after succeeding his father, Sir John, who fell at Flodden. The seal of cause of the Cordwainers’ or Shoemakers’ Guild, granted by this same Sir Robert, was destroyed when Leith was laid in ashes by the ruthless Hertford in 1544. A new seal of cause was granted them by his son, another Sir Robert, in 1550.

In this charter, as in all pre-Reformation seals of cause, the religious side of the guild life occupies the first place. The celebration of masses for the souls of deceased members and the promotion of religious duties and services at the altar of their patron saints, St. Crispin and St. Crispianus, were made a first charge on their funds, to which each member contributed his weekly penny, a relatively larger sum then than now. In all probability it is from these funds subscribed by their members that the guilds received their name, for the word seems to come from the Saxon word "gild," which means a payment.

The head of each guild in Scotland had an ecclesiastical title—deacon or kirk-maister usually, but sometimes dean - derived no doubt, from the fact that he received the weekly offerings and paid all the expenses of its special altar and services in the parish church. The Dean of Guild, the head of the local trade incorporations in Scotland, is always, as in Edinburgh, a member of the Town Council. In Leith this office was generally held by the provost. The harbour Porters or Pynouris (Pioneers), as they were then called, are mentioned as far back as 1496, and the Carters or Slaiders (sleighers) in 1555. The latter possess several old charters no longer decipherable, in one of which can be made out that they spread a crimson cloth in front of the King’s Wark at the landing there of some old-time queen, perhaps the good Queen Margaret of Denmark, or the gentle Madeleine of France, or, it may be, the fairest but most hapless of all, Queen Mary herself.

‘The Leith Tailors’ Guild or Craft, as it was more commonly called in the old Catholic days in Scotland, was unable to afford a special altar of its own, but adopted that of St. Anthony in the hospital church of that name in St. Anthony’s Wynd, supporting it by their weekly pennies. The Tailors of North Leith joined their brethren of the Canongate at the altar of St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin and the true patron saint of tailors, in Holyrood Abbey. A little chapel to the same saint once stood just east of the great Abbey church, and is remembered today in the names St. Anne’s Yards and St. Anne’s Brewery.

North Leith, in those long past pre-Reformation days, was merely a village, and not a large one at that. The members of each of its various trades were too few to support an altar of their own, and, like their fellows of the tailor craft, continued to associate themselves with their brethren of the Canongate in the upkeep of the trade altar and patron saint at Holyrood, even after Abbot Ballantyne had founded and built in their midst the Church of St. Ninian. In post-Reformation times ship carpenters were the chief craftsmen in North Leith, for most of our shipyards have always been on the north side of the water, but in pre-Reformation times the shipbuilding industry had not arisen in North Leith. The only other North Leith craft guild of which we have any knowledge at this time was that of the Hammermen, who, as their seal of cause informs us, combined with the members of the craft in the Canongate in holding their services in the Abbey, at the altar of St. Eloi, St. Eloi everywhere throughout Europe being the patron saint of the Hammermen’s craft, which included all workers in metals.

Besides the Tailors’ and Cordwainers’ Guilds in South Leith, we find those of the Coopers, Baxters or Bakers, Fleshers, Websters or Weavers, and Hammermen, who must all have had their altars and chaplains either severally or jointly in their great Church of St. Mary in the Kirkgate. Several of the old guild chapels, like the Edinburgh Masons’ and Wrights’ chantry of St. John, are still to be found in St. Giles’, but have, of course, never been used since the Reformation by the trade guilds who formerly owned them. Of the chantry chapels in the parish church that once belonged to the crafts in Leith and the religious activities associated with them hardly a tradition now remains, showing that a large part of Leith’s history is lost beyond recall; and yet these guilds must have powerfully influenced the religious, social, and industrial life of the town, for within their membership were enrolled the names of all the craftsmen and seamen of the town.

Had the records of those mediaeval Leith guilds still existed as do those of the Edinburgh Incorporation of Hammermen what an interesting light they would "aye shied on the story of Leith! There would have been much in those records about the numerous Church festivals, that is, holydays, and therefore holidays—which were held in honour of the patron saints of the various crafts, and especially about Corpus Christi Day, which generally fell about the beginning of June, and was the great holiday of the year everywhere in Christendom. On that day all the craft guilds of the town went in procession through the streets, the members walking two and two in gala dress, bearing with them banners and other emblems, and forming a spectacle of the greatest splendour, each craft vying with its neighbour in the magnificence of its display.

The clergy of St. Mary’s and St. Ninian’s would avail themselves of the opportunities afforded by the solemn processions of the day to improve the religious education of the people. This they did by means of miracle plays, so called because they were representations of the life and miracles of some saint, or of events recorded in the Scriptures. The performers were the members of the trade guilds, each guild having its own play, and their theatre was the street. Perhaps the ancient Kirkgate inn, with the quaint and picturesque sign of Noah’s Ark over the door, was a reminiscence of the miracle play of that name always performed by the Seamen’s Guild on Corpus Christi Day. The annual procession in London on Lord Mayor’s Day is the only reminder we now have in our country of these old trade processions and pageants.

Perhaps, however, the most important part of the business of a trade guild was to protect its members and their trade against the competition of outsiders. Fair rivalry in trade in pre-Reformation times, and, indeed, for long after, was a thing unknown in Europe, and woe betide the stranger of those days who came to Leith and tried to make shoes or clothes or act as a smith, without being a member of the craft guild. His goods would be at once confiscated, and he might deem him-self lucky if he was simply expelled from the town with out being first sent to prison. Nowadays a man may sell what he pleases and work at his trade wherever he may wish, but such freedom was impossible under the old trade guilds. When Edinburgh became feudal superior over Leith in place of the Logans, she declared that Leith, being an unfree town, had no right to have trade guilds at all, and threatened to imprison any deacons of these that the Leithers might elect. The Leithers, however, persisted in retaining their guilds and their deacons, but for this privilege their guilds had to pay heavy dues to the corresponding Edinburgh trade guilds, and thus, just as Leith was the vassal of Edinburgh, so its trade guilds were subordinate to, and in a certain sense subject to, the jurisdiction of those of Edinburgh.

The prohibitory laws of the trade guilds compelled strangers to settle just outside the towns, where they formed new suburbs, in order to be free to carry on their trade. In this way arose in Leith the suburb of Yardheads, on the lands of the canons of St. Anthony. One would have expected that Leith’s unhappy experiences at the hands of the Edinburgh merchant and trade guilds would have taught her to see the injustice of these old-world narrow and exclusive trade notions, and to have consideration and sympathy for the stranger craftsman who came to live within her gates; but it was not so. On the contrary, she acted towards strangers exactly in the same narrow and selfish spirit from which she herself suffered so much. Thus in 1676 we find all the Leith trade incorporations sending in a petition to the Kirk Session as superiors of the Yardheads to take some action "anent ye unfree men that live in ye Yardheads by whom they afledge they are injured in their respective trades." When such was the attitude of Leith in matters of trade in spite of the fact that all she suffered as a town resulted from the same unjust and tyrannical spirit, we can hardly be surprised at similar notions prevailing among the merchant burgesses of Edinburgh.

The Leith guilds had the monopoly of trade within the town, and all who were not members were unfree men in the eyes of the Leithers, just as they themselves were unfree in the eyes of Edinburgh. At an earlier date, in 1630, the Tailors’ Guild complained to the Session and Bailies against the uncouth (stranger) tailors in the town, and the Session and Bailies thought the complaint a very just and reasonable one, and determined to prohibit the "uncouth" tailors from plying the needle any longer within the bounds of the town. The Kirk Session of the parish church, from the Reformation down to 1833, seem to have exercised many of the powers now vested in the Town Council, and the two Edinburgh bailies who were deputed by the city to rule Leith were in virtue of their office always members of the Kirk Session.

After the Reformation the trade guilds, under the name of trade incorporations, became more important bodies than before in Leith, and wielded a large influence both in Church and local affairs. Leith, being a vassal town, had no town council, and the only way in which the people could express their wishes, and unite together to have them carried out, was through their trade incorporations, which, in consequence, occupy a very important place in local records. In Edinburgh and other royal burghs the local records are the burgh records, recording the acts of the Town Council, whose place in Leith was largely taken by the Kirk Session of the parish church. It is to the Session records of South Leith Church we must go if we wish to become intimately acquainted with the people of Leith and many of their doings from the days of James VI. down to 1833, when Leith obtained a town council of her own.

The trade incorporations of Leith during that long period practically represented the whole of the people of the town gathered together in groups according to their occupations. The Leith trade incorporations were divided into four groups:—

1. The skippers and mariners of the Trinity House.
2. The maltmen, brewers, and sledders or carters.
3. The craftsmen and meal men.
4. The traffickers, and all other gentlemen and indwellers in Leith not members of any of the other corporations.

The oldest and wealthiest of these incorporations is that of the Masters and Mariners of the Trinity House in the Kirkgate. From time immemorial they had received certain dues called the "prime gilt" on each ton of goods from all vessels unloading at the port. These dues were abolished in 1872, but out of the funds thus obtained they erected a seamen’s hospital or almshouse for the keeping of "poor, old, infirm, and weak mariners." This hospital, like mariners’ guilds in other ports, they dedicated to the Holy Trinity. The hospital was demolished in 1816, and the present Trinity House erected on the site as a guild hall for the meetings of the Masters of the Incorporation.

The Kirkgate showing Trinity House

The convening-room of the Incorporation is a very handsome and stately apartment, and contains an interesting collection of objects, all more or less associated with those who "go down to the sea in ships." Among these are Raeburn’s fine portrait of Admiral Duncan, the hero of Camperdown, and next to it that of Captain Brown, the master of the Trinity House who sailed the admiral’s flagship, the Venerable, throughout the bold manoeuvres of that stirring sea fight. Captain Brown’s descendants are well-known citizens of the town today. Facing Admiral Duncan’s portrait, at the opposite end of the hall, is Scott Lauder’s huge picture of Vasco da Gama passing the Cape of Good Hope. Here, too, may be seen an ancient portrait of Mary of Guise and a model of the vessel La Belle Esperance in which a more than doubtful tradition would have us believe she came to Scotland, while in the entrance hail stands a huge antique and richly carved piece of furniture, the Incorporation charter chest of former days.

Heraldic Arms of the Mariners of the Trinity House

The carved stones which once adorned the front of the old building are now built into the gables of the present Trinity House. The one in the south gable, which sets forth the date, and at the same time the purpose of the ancient erection, is in very quaint and picturesque spelling and lettering, all of the olden time, as may be seen from the illustration below. The second stone shows the motto and heraldic emblems of the Mariners’ Incorporation, representing the cross-staff and other nautical instruments in use in the sixteenth century when the old hospital was built. Beneath this is a modern tablet bearing this legend:—

"INSTITUTED 1380. BUILT 1555. REBUILT 1816."

Their prime-gilt dues on all shipping entering the harbour were abolished in 1872, but long before that date the Masters and Mariners of the Trinity House had become a wealthy corporation. They had invested much of their funds in land in Trinity, which takes its name from their incorporation, and from their annual income they provide pensions for old members and the widows and families of those of their own number. Thus the Masters and Mariners of the Trinity House of today carry on the same benevolent work as the ancient guild of the Holy Trinity, and though the exterior of their guild hall today has nothing in its appearance to suggest the long history of the Incorporation, we have only to step inside to feel that the institution has a tradition behind it that goes back through many centuries.

As an almshouse for their poor the other three trade incorporations had King James’s Hospital, whose site is marked by the inscribed panel in the wall of South Leith Churchyard in the Kirkgate. But besides the Mariners’ Hospital of the Trinity House and the New or King James’s Hospital (the successor of the old or St. Anthony’s hospital) several of the other trade incorporations had almshouses for the poor and decayed members of their own trade. One of these, now sorely troubled with old age like the pensioners who once occupied it, still survives in Water Street. Over the central gable is an inscribed panel which gives all we need know of the history of the building in a nutshell.

Sculptured Stone, Trinity House

We Coopers In The Town Of Leith Built This House For The Use Of Our Poor.
Renewed 1827.

The buildings of King James’s Hospital not only provided accommodation for many of the poor of all the trade incorporations save the Mariners’, but were also used by some of them as their guild hall. But, like the Mariners’, some of the trade incorporations seemed to possess convening houses of their own for the transaction of their business. These convening houses have now disappeared, but the sculptured stones which embellished the fronts of three of them still remain. That of the Carters shows a carter in charge of a horse and vehicle, and is now built into the inside wall of South Leith Churchyard. The other two sculptured stones are those of the Carpenters of North Leith in Carpenters’ Land, and of the Leith Wine Porters or Stingmen, as they were called because they carried their burdens slung from a sting, stang, or pole, as is shown in one of the illustrations to Chapter XXXII.

It was the trade incorporations that gave the first blow to Edinburgh’s supremacy over Leith. In 1731 they determined to test the legality of the dues exacted from them by the incorporated trades of Edinburgh. They brought their grievances before the Court of Session, who in 1734 declared their charters, granted by Logan of Restalrig, good and valid, and their incorporations to be free and independent of those of the city. The distinction between freemen and unfreemen was still maintained, however, in the dues exacted by the Edinburgh Town Council for the importing and weighing of goods at the harbour of Leith, unfreemen, among whom Leithers were included, generally paying twice as much as the free and privileged burgesses of Edinburgh who lived some two miles away. The distinction between freemen and unfreemen, however, in Leith, as elsewhere in Scotland, ended with the Burgh Trading Act of 1846, when the special privileges of the trade incorporations were swept away, and it was made lawful for any person to deal in merchandise, and to carry on or exercise any trade without being a burgess or guild brother, or a member of any guild or incorporation.

In their day of power these guilds or incorporations played a great part in the social, religious, and industrial life of Leith. The tombstones of their members in Restalrig and North and South Leith churchyards, often beautifully adorned with the mottoes and heraldic emblems of their craft, show their pride in having been members of their trade incorporations, whose importance was recognized even down to the early decades of the nineteenth century by the appointment of their Masters to service in the police commission, who looked after law and order in Leith when she was still under the dominion of Edinburgh, and had no town council of her own. And we today are reminded of the great part once played by these incorporations by the inscription on the pediment of the Town Hall in Constitution Street, which bears to be "erected by the Magistrates, and Masters of the Trade Incorporations."

A Cordwainer's Tombstone, Restalrig Churchyard

A Cordwainer's Tombstone, Restalrig Churchyard

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