THE SEVEN TRADES

Who lived and worked in old Dumfries? Robert Edgar in his history of the town written in 1746, was not too far wrong when he supposed that the first inhabitants of Dumfries were a collection of persons from adjacent counties, and particularly craftsmen, smiths, wrights, weavers, tailors, shoemakers, fleshers, etc. The economy was very basic and there was little trade outside the burgh. It was only the burgh folk, the burgesses, who could trade in the burgh.

The wealthiest citizens of the town, and therefore those with the most political muscle, were the merchants. They ran the town council. The people who provided the basic needs of the ordinary folk in the burgh, however, were craftsmen. They made the clothes, the footwear, the bread and beer. By the time of James II, in the early 1400s, these craftsmen were organising themselves into guilds, rather like trade unions, which represented their interests. Soon afterwards, their elected leaders, called deacons, became members of the town council and sat alongside the merchants.

At this time, there were at least eleven different crafts incorporated in Dumfries - smiths, wrights and masons, websters, tailors, shoemakers or cordwainers, skinners and gloves, fleshers, lorimers or armourers, pewterer or tinsmiths, bonnetmakers and listers or dyers. The last four gradually became defunct or were absorbed into other trades. To become a craftsman you had to serve an apprenticeship for five years in return for food and clothing. At the end of this time the apprentice had to sit a test of competency. On successful completion of this he could join the guild and be recognised as a freeman of the burgh. For this right he had to be able to defend the burgh. Each guild had its own flag or standard.

By the late 1500s the trades of Dumfries had finally settled on Seven Incorporations. In 1617, James VI on his Royal Tour of Scotland travelled up to Edinburgh via the east coast. He returned south by the west coast passing through Dumfries on 3rd August. He presented to the Seven Trades, the siller ('silver') gun which was a miniature cannon. This was used as the prize for the annual shooting competition. The gun was converted to resemble a flintlock musket at the beginning of the 19th century.

By an agreement of 1623 the deacon of each of the Seven Incorporations was confirmed as an "ex officio" town councillor. The rest of the council was made up of 12 merchant councillors, a treasurer, a dean of guild, 3 baillies and a provost. 25 members in total. The sitting council elected its successors and the same names occur for decades, often the father would be replaced by the son. Elections were annual although sometimes the council forgot to hold them. This was the case until the Burgh Reform Act of 1833.

The Seven Trades zealously guarded their privileges and the net result was a curtailment of open and free trade. Their minute books are full of entries fining craftsmen for carrying out "unfree trade", something which today would be called "healthy competition".

The merchant councillors were never incorporated in Dumfries as they were in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen or Perth and had no formal leader. The Dean of the town council had to supervise the town weights and measures but he had no other special authority and in 1660 the merchants tried to get a bill for their own incorporation passed by the Town Council. The crafts felt their position threatened and there was a huge row. Eventually the idea was dropped. The date marks the zenith of the power of the Seven Trades. At this time they enforced through the Town Council every possible regulation to protect them from rivals, as did the merchants, their co-councillors. No stranger could settle in the Burgh unless leave was asked and obtained.

The production and sale of any article, whether it was food or drink, fuel, clothing or whatever was controlled under the strictest conditions, a breach of which could be punished in a whole variety of ways - fines, imprisonment, even banishment from the Burgh and removal of burgess rights. Salmon had to be sold at The Fish Cross, anywhere else and the fine was 10 marks and loss of the fish. Fowl or eggs could only be sold at the market place, private deals elsewhere were not allowed - fine, forty shillings Scots plus forfeiture.

Prices too were arbitrarily set. In 1658 candles were to be sold at four shillings and sixpence Scots. Cloth had to be measured in a certain way using yardsticks calibrated on the Dumfries foot. Corn had to be ground exclusively in the town's mills and no grain was allowed to be brought ready ground to the town. In 1661 the Burgh ordered that all vintners in the Burgh had to "sell their French Wyne for fyve groats a pint". This was objected to by one Thomas Irving, the eldest baillie, who vainly protested against the folly of "setting pryce upon any forraigne wair" - an early monetarist! The list of restrictions was endless.

This, of course, could not last and the 18th century with its considerable increase in trade and communication rendered these mediaeval restrictions obsolete and the deacons of guild and their merchant councillor colleagues had to moderate their excesses. Nevertheless 1764 saw them fining one Elizabeth Knox, residenter, who was "in no way free with the trade and had no title to exercise that kind of business" 6s 8d Sterling for patching up an old pair of stays. The stays were forfeit until she paid the fine.

Prices, however, were still controlled until the late 18th century. The minute book of the Tailors for 1792 states that "having taken into consideration that the prices charged by them for work done to their customers had been nearly the same for a century they resolve to form their log at the following rates of charges English money.

1. Gentlemen's suit of clothes:  10s
2. Gentlemen's greatcoat:  5s 6d
3. Livery servant's clothes:  8s
4. Boy's first suit:  3s
5. Ladies' habits:  10s 6d
etc., and anyone charging a lower figure to be fined 10s 6d for each offence"
.

By 1790 there were 70 hammermen, 220 squaremen, 85 tailors, 59 weavers, 236 shoemakers, 23 skinners and glovers and 33 fleshers and the Seven Trades were still a powerful body. A new Trades Hall was erected above the meal market in 1804 and they took possession of it on 4th June 1806. Robert Grainger, the Convenor, purchased an enormous punchbowl to celebrate this event. Over a hundred gentlemen attended and there were countless toasts and replies. The punchbowl was refilled many times. The Trades Hall still exists as the finest building in Queensberry Square.

old pic of Queensberry Square

This, however, turned out to be the swansong of the Seven Trades for by the 19th century they were a redundant mediaeval curiosity. They plodded on for a few years, more as a gentlemens club than anything else. They lost their seats on the Town Council in 1833 and their exclusive privileges were finally banned by Act of Parliament in 1846 as a restriction on trade.

All their ancient relics were auctioned on 8th April 1854. McDowall in his history of the town wrote "Think of these historical relics being handed down like vulgar chattles! The Great Grainger punchbowl lapsed into the moderate seclusion of private life for £2. The accompanying silver divider was separated from it and was sold for 15s. The proceeds of the entire sale amounted to £54.2s.6d and it is certainly to be regretted that the principal effects were not purchased for preservation, instead of being scattered to the four winds". Fortunately Dumfries Museum has collected most of them in the intervening years and the divider was reunited with its punchbowl as recently as 1982 after being parted for 128 years.

The Great Grainger punchbowl

Previous
Chapter
Back to
Index
Next
Chapter