Being the second of Two Lectures given to the Members of the Six Incorporated Trades; by J Robison, F.S.A. Scot.

January 29th 1920.

In my last lecture I gave a short account of the incorporation of the Kirkcudbright Trades, and went somewhat fully into their constitution. That lecture dealt with the first minute book, beginning 1707, twenty-six years after the incorporation, and ended with the year 1744. The present lecture, with a few detached papers relating to the earlier period, deals with the remainder of the eighteenth century. If there is one thing more than another that has struck me in going over those old documents it is that not the slightest mention is made of great national movements. There is not a single word about the Union of the Parliaments in 1707—the very year that the minutes begin — an event which shook Scottish national opinion to the very foundations, and occasioned serious riots both here and at Dumfries.

There is nothing about the Rebellion of 1715, although one of the principal rebel leaders was Lord Kenmure, residing at Kenmure Castle, within a few miles of Kirkcudbright. This is all the more strange in that that ill-fated nobleman, with his followers, made an attempt to capture Dumfries, and that the men of Kirkcudbright, under Provost Fullarton, and a body of men under Sir Thomas Gordon of Earlston, with the Earlston Covenanting flag at their head, marched to the relief of that town. Neither is there anything of the Rebellion of the Forty-Five. That outbreak only touched the fringe of the Stewartry, when Prince Charlie, on the retreat which ended at Culloden, took possession of Dumfries and exacted a heavy ransom, in the payment of which several burgesses of Kirkcudbright took a part. There is nothing about the frequent wars in which the country was engaged, and particularly regarding the descent by Paul Jones on St. Mary’s Isle, a local event to which one might have expected to find some reference.

Our esteemed Deacon-Convener had a good deal to say in his last interesting lecture on the co-operative activities of the various Trades, and the general minute book with which I am dealing is full of such references. He spoke about the large purchases of herrings by the Weavers Incorporation and here I might be permitted to mention that Kirkcudbright in ancient days had a very considerable trade in salmon, herrings and eels. At the Convention of Royal Burghs in 1616 a number of burghs, including our own, were appointed to meet at Edinburgh to “treitt, resone, vote, and conclude and give answer to the lords his Highness’s Secret Council,” and to take into consideration the measures and sufficiency of the barrels of herring and salmon.

They were also to take into account an order to be set down for the sufficient making of red herring. In the general minute book the references mainly relate to large purchases of meal, and these are very frequent right up to the close of the eighteenth century. In many respects Scotland was in a flourishing condition; in others it lagged far behind its southern neighbour. At intervals all through the century there were frequent failures of the crops and a consequent dearth, and even so late as 1796 there were serious bread riots at Dumfries. Now and again, too, there was an outbreak of the dreaded plague, with its appalling mortality, a grim reminder of which was the old Pest House, situated, so far as I can make out, where Mr James Osborne’s shop now stands. We must remember that agriculture in this county at that period lagged far behind, and that rotation of crops was practically unknown.

Fields had only recently been enclosed, a proceeding which caused great commotions, and gave rise to the body of fence-wreckers called Levellers. When these facts are known one does not wonder so much at the frequent references to the purchases of the necessaries of life, although with such a fleet as the port then possessed it might have been expected that cargoes for the sustenance of the population would have been more frequently run. To give only one instance of dearth, in 1741 grain was so scarce and dear that the Magistrates, to prevent the inhabitants from starving, procured two cargoes of oats from Wales, which they sold at a somewhat reduced price.

It might also not be out of place to mention that, towards the end of the century, the port possessed 28 vessels of 1033 tons, and about fifty years later 54 vessels of 2069 tons. With these remarks I do not intend further to quote from the minutes in regard to the purchase of wheat.

Before dealing with the minutes I would like to refer to a detached paper, which shows the rigid discipline which was exercised over the various Trades, and also shows that the ancient enactment as to work being thoroughly good was being acted up to. This is a petition of date 1728, to the Right Honourable the Provost, Magistrates, and Town Council. Dignitaries were dignitaries in those days! The petition was at the instance of three Councillors of the burgh, and the terms they used did not redound to the glory of the masons. The petitioners roundly charged the masons with unskilfulness in their work, more especially in the building and mending of chimney vents. They therefore applied to the Intendant (the old name for the Deacon-Convener) and Deacons of Craft, that they would admit John Mack, who is stated to have been proven to have been a successful mason, to mend some chimneys which had been bungled by the ignorance or villainy of the first builders.

With the exception of two men, the masons agreed to this, the two dissentients being charged with a desire to continue to impose on the inhabitants in all time coming. Like so many of those old documents, we are not told the “conclusion of the whole matter.” To us the chief interest is that this John Meek, who hailed from Perthshire, was the builder of the 1730 church on the Moat Brae and also of the old bridge at Tongland.

The Moat Brae Church.

The minutes under review open with a reference to this church, and in another detached paper we learn that the Trades, after they had erected their Loft in the east end of the church, asked the Magistrates to inspect it and, in accordance with an act of Council, express their approval or otherwise. Apparently approval had been expressed, but the minute goes to show that the church, built only a few years before, could not have been very substantial, at least not so substantial as the Monastery which it replaced, as we then find that the loft was in danger of falling. Repairs were usually effected at a cost of one shilling sterling to each Tradesman.

In my last lecture I had something to say regarding the terms in which the journeymen and apprentices stood to the General Trades, and certainly as time went on these relations did not become more cordial. On 14th May 1746, the General Trades took into consideration the grant they had formerly made in favour of the journeymen and apprentices in May 1724. That this action was necessary appears to have been justified. It is recorded that the General Trades forfeited the privileges of the journeymen and apprentices. Their offence was the serious one of meeting tumultuously, without consent of or acquainting the Convener, and drinking to excess. Not only so, but they quarrelled with and threatened and abused the free masters and their families. Worse was to follow. A majority of the rioters, after being forbidden by the Convener, paraded in a hostile manner through the town. They went to the house of Robert Smith, and endeavoured to force money from a journeyman of his not yet entered in the Incorporation books, and also from a lad of John Hutton’s not yet on the books. Above all, they threatened to burn the Trades Loft — altogether a pretty little riot. The two classes were deprived of the privileges of their grant, and were forbidden to meet as an Incorporation to elect their officers in time to come. The grant they had received was just this right of electing their own office-bearers, which made them practically independent of the General Trades, so that the punishment was a pretty severe one.

Rights of Retiring Conveners.

This same meeting decided that the retiring Convener should have the right to sit next to the newly elected Convener in the Trades Loft of the church for the space of two years, when he had to retire into what was called the rank and file of the Incorporation.

Tumults and Riots in Town.

Another striking feature of the minutes of this period was the number of disputed elections, the arguments on both sides being sometimes very ingenious, and characterised by very plain speaking. Good “copy” for newspapers could have been had in those days. There appears to have been some wild spirits among the Tradesmen, as again the Convener, who was also a member of the Town Council, reported that he had been informed of misdemeanors or riots, the instigators of which had not yet been discovered. This time all the Trades were admonished to behave themselves according to the laws of the nation, and that none, particularly the journeymen and apprentices, be guilty or accessory to any riots or tumults within or about the territories of the burgh (which was a pretty wide jurisdiction) under severe pains and penalties.

Treatment of Apprentices.

To turn from the subject of riots, it is pleasing to note that the General Trades looked after the interests of apprentices with a jealous eye, and any complaint made by any apprentice was very closely looked into. In one instance a Samuel Gordon, shoemaker, had to eat very humble pie for striking his apprentice. This was held to be very inconsistent with the duties of a master, and Gordon was compelled to promise that he would never do so again.

Parades of the Trades.

To come to the year 1787, it appears to have been a custom of the newly-elected office-bearers to hold a parade. There was a resolution forbidding this, but the office bearers of that year declared that they would adhere to the old custom. The General Trades considering this most improper conduct, prohibited every Tradesman, with his journeymen and apprentices, from taking part in such a parade. Every Deacon and Boxmaster walking and parading or encouraging anybody else to do so, directly or indirectly, was fined 5s and 2s 6d respectively — a nice distinction between the two offices. Its addition, the offenders were to have no votes in the Incorporations till they paid their fines. To leave no loophole, the General Officer was directed, at every election thereafter, to inform the newly-elected men of the Act, so that ignorance could not be pleaded. Five years later this resolution was rescinded, and it is to be presumed that the parade took place annually until it gradually fell into disuse.

The Church Loft and Mortcloth.

I have already spoken of the state of the Trades Loft. In 1746 the stair leading on to it was in a very bad way, and it was ordered to be repaired. To meet the cost, it was decided that every entrant freeman to any of the Incorporations who had the freedom of the Loft had to pay to the General Boxmaster 12s 6d. besides the mortcloth dues, or 2s 6d more than formerly. Ten years later it is recorded that William Lennox had provided fringes for the mortcloth, and every Deacon was ordered to pool his Trade to cover the cost. This entry is rather interesting in that it shows the numbers pertaining to each Trade. The Squaremen numbered 18; Shoemakers, 15; Hammermen, 14; Weavers, 29; Tailors, 10: the Clothiers occupying a lowly position with 3 members. This shows a total of 89 members.

Later the Tradesmen were each ordered to pay 18s for the privilege of the Loft and mortcloth, so that they were becoming somewhat dear commodities. A new mortcloth was purchased in 1785 at a cost of £14 sterling, but the price ultimately rose to £15 odds. Every freeman was to pay his equal share, and if he neglected or refused to do so he was debarred from the privileges of the mortcloth and the mortcloth fund, and rendered incapable of being elected or electing any office-bearers in the Trades till he had satisfied the claim. Every person not a freeman in the burgh and territories had to pay 5s for the use of the cloth, and freemen not contributing to the fund had to pay the same. Every person without the burgh and territories had to pay 7s 6d. besides 1s to the General Officer for taking and bringing back the cloth. Each contributing freeman was to pay 1s for each member of his family who died, and no person was allowed to use it unless they did pay. About this period two small mortcloths were also purchased, and a former General Boxmaster has preserved the names of those who applied for them. The Deacons also made up lists of those who had contributed to the expenses of the mortcloth, and their names are recorded. Many of these names have disappeared from the town and district.

Before leaving this part of the subject, it may not be out of place to mention that the Incorporation had what it considered to be a great honour conferred upon it, when, in 1771, Mr William Kirkpatrick of Raeberry, a West Indian merchant, presented to “the worthy Convener, Deacons, and Free Tradesmen of Kirkcudbright” a carpet for the front of the gallery in the church As he states in his letter, this was his way of showing gratitude for the tender marks of esteem extended by the Trades to his brother, Provost John Kirkpatrick, whose tombstone is to be seen in the churchyard. The Trades received the gift with every token of respect to the donor, and thought it their duty to have a copy of Mr Kirkpatrick’s letter engrossed in the minutes, in the hope that “when the posterity of the Incorporated Trades of this burgh shall have the pleasure of reading the same they will remember their duty of gratitude to the worthy author thereof that becomes reasonable beings to their best benefactors.” Mr Kirkpatrick was also elected a free member, and allowed to choose any Incorporation, “as his forefathers did in times past.”

The Tailors’ Oath.

As showing how seriously the Tradesmen of a century and a half ago took their duties, I quote the oath which every entrant to the Tailors’ Incorporation had to take: —

  • That I shall be a faithful and true Brother of this Trade, and that I shall not pack or peill with unfreemen, nor keep any journeyman so as to be partner with him.
  • I shall not take any of the Freemen’s booths or houses over their heads without their consent.
  • I shall not tryst any of the Trades servants, journeymen, or apprentices without their consent.
  • I shall conceal the Trade’s secrets.
  • I shall not transgress the Acts and Customs of Trade in exacting sixpence sterling per day for my own work as Freeman Master.
  • I shall avouch, practise, and maintain the true Protestant religion during all the days of my lifetime.
  • I shall obey the Deacon, and his Officer in his name, in all his just and lawful commands.
  • So help me God!

Insulting the Convener.

In past times the Deacon-Convener exercised very considerable power, and his authority was backed up in no uncertain fashion by the great body of the Tradesmen. At times, however, he was defied by some irascible member, and on these occasions there was a fluttering in the dovecots. An instance of this occurred in 1768, when the General Trades took into consideration the fact that their Deacon-Convener, William Comline, had been very much injured in his character and reputation by Robert Smith, Deacon of the Hammermen. Smith went so far as at sundry times to call Comline a d—d liar and a scoundrel. Not satisfied with this, he had abused several of the members who, presumably, had been trying to compose matters. The sentence of the General Trades was, “Now therefor we fine and amerciate the said Robert Smith in the sum of twenty shillings sterling, to be paid by him within fifteen days after he shall be charged by our General Officer so to do.” Now and again, however, the Deacon-Convener had to obey the behests of the rank and file, one being called sharply to account for having taken it on himself to call a meeting for the election of office-bearers. It was ordered that this must be done by the Deacons, and members of Trades were forbidden to engage to vote for any member of his Trade before the meeting. Any member in debt to his Trade was rendered incapable of voting till he had liquidated his debt. Very often, during the period we are dealing with, the Deacon-Convener is described as the Chief Ruler, and there also appears to have been a Deputy Deacon-Convener.

Another feature which has struck me is the large number of trades which have disappeared from the town—nailers, buttonmakers, ship chandlers, glasswrights, glovers, coopers, to mention a few. Some trades, such as that of wigmaker of course disappeared as fashions changed. Somewhere between the years 1681 and 1707, when the minutes commence, there had been a Fleshers Incorporation, but it had, from whatever reason, disappeared. Long years afterwards an effort was made to revive it, but without success. I wonder if they had the same motto as The Fleshers Incorporation of Glasgow — “Arise and slay.”

The General Clerk’s Salary.

The General Clerk was in receipt of a salary. It is recorded that the General, considering that the salary was very small, and that it had not been augmented for a great number of years, unanimously agreed that it be increased to 20s. It did not matter very much what it was increased to as it appears to have always been in arrears. On the other hand, perhaps that was all he was worth, if he was held in the same estimation as the clerk to the Clothiers Incorporation. That official, when being re-elected to the office, was contemptuously referred to as “such as he is.” The General Officer also had a salary, and John Fisher, the bellman, had a payment of 2s 6d for ringing the Tolbooth bells when the Siller Gun was shot for, while John Connell was paid for music on the same auspicious occasion. In 1774 William M’Gowan, the General Clerk, was, to quote the words of the minute, “called off by death.” but a certain John Waddell, a wigmaker, offered his services for the benefit of the defunct’s widow, and these were accepted till the next election.

The Field Day.

In the first minute book I was somewhat puzzled by the expressions “field election” and “field day,” but this is cleared up in a minute of 1770. It appears to have been customary, after the election of the Deacon-Convener, Deacons, and Boxmasters, to have a field day. The oldest minute book shows that the election and field day were held at Foreland of Castledykes, but however long the locus was there I cannot tell. Certainly at least one other election was held there. I wonder if any of the members can tell the exact position of this Foreland, or if the name still lingers amongst us. However that may be, the fact remains that those convocations were not always harmonious, and the journeymen and apprentices appear to have been the storm centre. At the election of 1770 a majority of the Tradesmen were fully determined that, as for some years past there had been disturbances raised by the journeymen and apprentices at the general election by their being allowed to meet with the masters on the field. much to the dishonour of the whole Trades, this must be out a stop to. It was therefore ordained that the journeymen and apprentices should not meet or appear on the field during this election of the Convener and other public officers for the General, or stay there with colours. or otherwise, under pain of being taken particular notice of and “delaited down” to the civil Magistrates. However stormy the proceedings may have been on the field, the Convener and his officers appear to have had a quiet little celebration all by themselves. It is recorded that they met to sign the election, as it is termed, and drink a glass. More serious business followed, as they proceeded to fine the absentees, a chair being poinded in one case.

The Siller Gun.

Reverting again to the Siller Gun, on 10th August 1796, it was resolved to shoot for it on the Saturday immediately following the election of the Convener, who was authorised to apply to the Magistrates for the use of the gun, which was in the town’s possession, and to come under an obligation to return it immediately after the competition. On this occasion the competition was postponed till 4th June, the King’s birthday. The winner of the gun received a hat valued at 15s., the winner among the journeymen and apprentices getting a hat valued at 7s 6d. A long paper in what I might call for want of a better name, the “Scrap Book,” gives some interesting details regarding the regulations for the competitions.

Each freeman, with his journeymen and apprentices, was to assemble at the houses of the respective Deacons by nine o’clock in the morning, and proceed to the churchyard or Moat Brae, the whole Six Trades to be assembled by ten o’clock. Anyone resident in the town, and failing to attend this muster, was not allowed to compete. At eleven o’clock the Incorporations, on the command of the Convener, proceeded to the place of competition in the order balloted for. Each Deacon had to go in front of his particular Trade, the Convener being at the head of the procession. The journeymen and apprentices walked immediately behind the Masters of the Trades to which they belonged, and the colours of the respective Trades were carried before the Deacons.

Judges were appointed on the field to set up the board to be shot at, fix the distance, and appoint the place where the guns were to be fired from. None but freemen were allowed to shoot for the Siller Gun. The winner, to quote the regulations, was to “receive that gun, and have the honour of carrying her home in his hat, walking at the right hand of his Deacon. At the same time he shall receive the present of a new hat.” Should there be any ties the contestants had to fire till a decision was reached. Immediately after the Masters had shot for the gun, the journeymen and apprentices shot for a new hat, the winner having the privilege of “carrying it home on his head at the right hand side of the Deacon of the Lads to whom he belongs.” Each competitor had to provide his own gun, to he carried unloaded to the field. I expect the weapon would be akin to the old Brown Bess of the British army, which was only warranted to carry straight for a few yards, as it is stated that, should the gun fail to go off at once, a second trial will not be allowed. There were more conditions, but these need not be detailed here. All were exhorted to behave with decency and sobriety under a penalty of 19s. to be paid instantly. Failing instant payment the delinquent was to be imprisoned by the Convener till payment was made. In case of failure to pay he incurred the displeasure of the hail Incorporate Crafts, being considered an unruly and improper Member in all time coming, and being debarred from ever afterwards shooting for the Silver Gun.”

If any Tradesman should “breed, or attempt to breed, any disturbance or riot, over and above the penalties narrated, he was liable to be further imprisoned by order of the Convener for such time as he considered right and proper.” With such pains and penalties facing them, we may take it that no one would care to take liberties with the Convener while the competition was going on.


At the present time, when one hears so much about profiteering, it might be worth while pointing out that in 1781, when a cargo of meal had been bought, some of the venders tried to create a “corner” and held out for a price much higher than the contract allowed. The contract price was offered to them, but this they refused to accept. The meal appears to have been taken by force, the market price being tendered, and the Trades authorised the Deacon-Convener and the Deacons to defend any actions that might he raised against them. A levy was to be made over the several incorporations, and this would be felt all the more in that the General was not blessed with too much of this world’s goods. Among the proposals to raise money for this purpose was one that the church loft be divided into six equal parts, one for each of the Trades. It was held that the loft was not fairly and equally divided and occupied, and it was also pointed out that more freemen were admitted than could be accommodated with seats. It was therefore moved that no more be admitted till this division of the loft was made, but apparently the proposal was dropped, and nothing farther is heard of any action against the Trades in connection with the meal.

Provost Alexander Birtwhistle.

In the year 1790 there was a disputed election of Magistrates and Councillors, and the General considered a petition by Alexander Birtwhistle, merchant and late Provost, and another; but it was held to be a matter affecting the community as a whole, and they declined to interfere. Provost Birtwhistle was celebrated by Burns in the Heron “Election Ballads” as

“ – – – – roaring Birtwhistle,
Wha’ luckily roars in the right.”

And again in “The Laddies by the Banks o’ Nith” —

“To end the wark here’s Whistlebirck,
Lang may his whistle blaw, Jamie.”

Lord Daer.

In 1790 the General Trades decided to present an address to Lord Deer, whom Burns met when he dined with Professor Dugald Stewart. “The first time I saw Robert Burns.” says the Professor, “was on the 23rd of April, 1786, when he dined at my house in Ayrshire. My excellent and much-lamented friend the late Basil, Lord Daer. son of the Earl of Selkirk, happened to arrive the same day, and by the kindness and frankness of his manners left an impression on the mind of the Poet which was never effaced.” We know, too, the estimation in which Burns held the noble family of St. Mary’s Isle. Even in the “Election Ballads,” where he so unmercifully lampoons his political opponents, he gives expression to his feelings of genuine esteem for them. That he conceive a feeling of great regard for the young Lord is shown by his describing the meeting:

“But wi’ a Lord ! — stand out, my shin;
A Lord – a peer—an earl’s son ! —
Up higher yet, my bonnet !
And sic a lord ! – lang Scotch ella twa,
Our peerage he o’erlooks them a’,
As I look o’er my sonnet.

I watched the symptoms o’ the great,
The gentle pride, the lordly state,
The arrogant assuming;
The feint a pride, nae pride had he,
Nor sauce, nor state that I could see,
Mair than an honest ploughman.

Then from his Lordship I shall learn
Henceforth to meet with unconcern
One rank as weel’s another.
Nae honest worthy man need care
To meet wi’ noble, youthful Daer,
For he but meets a brother.”

If there is one name above another that ought to be venerated by Kirkcudbright people it is that of the “noble, youthful Daer.” To him is Kirkcudbright indebted for the beautiful woods which adorn the town and district. It was at his instance that Castle Street and Union Street were brought into being, followed at a later date by St. Cuthbert Street and St. Mary Street. There is no need to speak here of his political opinions, which were far in advance of his day and obnoxious to the Government. When he passed away at an early age it was to the deep regret of the whole of the inhabitants of this town and district.

To revert to the General Trades. The minute states that, in consequence of instructions received by the Deacons from their respective Trades, and in respect of the attention lately shown the whole Incorporated Trades by the Right Honourable Lord Daer, eldest son of the Earl of Selkirk, who is now Provost of this burgh, they hereby unanimously resolve to present a letter or address to Lord Daer expressing their gratitude for his former attention to them, and for that purpose appoint the Convener, with the whole of the Deacons, as a committee, or any two of them, to wait upon Mr Thomson, their clerk, and get such a letter framed as to them should seem proper, such letter to be signed by the Convener and all the Deacons in name of the whole Incorporation.” Unfortunately, like so many of the matters chronicled in these old minutes, one never hears the sequel, and we are left in ignorance as to how Lord Daer received the address if it was ever drawn up.

We have now come to the end of the second volume. We have companied with our predecessors for about a hundred years. We have seen what manner of men they were, and how manfully they stood up for what they conceived to be their rights, not neglecting the rights of others. Strong-minded men they were, not afraid to speak out, and whatever measure of prosperity this old burgh may enjoy at the present time, a considerable portion of it may be rightfully ascribed to them. What was so fittingly said by our present Deacon-Convener in his delightful little poem on “Old Kirkcudbright” may be equally well said of our predecessors in the Six Incorporated Trades:

“Around the Council table sit men of upright mind,
And but one single purpose their hearts together bind:
They heed not, they, oppressor’s might— shrink not at baron’s frown;
There can he no dissension when all are for the town.