We in 2012 celebrated the 425th anniversary of the election of a Deacon Convener. This was the ‘coming together’ of the Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen when the crafts had to combine for their common interests against what they considered encroachments in their privileges by the merchant class of burgesses. We have evidence though, that the existence of special trading privieges given to the craft guilds goes back as far as the 12th century but it was not until June 1587 that a mention is made of a Deacon Convener by the name of George Elphinstone. He was a saddler by trade and a member of the Hammermen Incorporation.
At this time there were bitter conflicts and disputes between the merchant and craft burgesses and to overcome this a conference or ‘commoner’ was held on 22 June 1587 at which the trades were represented by the said Deacon Convener and two Deacons. The outcome of this meeting was the production of the Common Indenture or the ‘Aberdeen Magna Carta’ as it came to be called. This documentry was ratified on the 6 August 1587 and confirmed under a royal charter given by King James VI of Scotland on the 16 July 1617.
The next Convener to be elected was a baker by the name if Alexander Stiven in 1591. The town council however evidently did not like the new office bearer and in that year it declared the office illegal and the election unconstitutional. The next record of election is in 1599 and since that date we have a full and complete record of all the Deacon Conveners down to the present incumbent, the 197th holder of the office. Deacon Convener David N Parkinson of the Tailors Incorporation was elected on the 24th October 2012, having served as Master of Trades Hospital for the previous two years.
It must be remembered that at the time we had no meeting place and that any meetings were held in the various Deacons’ houses and one would assume that the Convener Court, that is the Deacon Convener, the Deacons and the Clerk met in the Deacon Convener’s house or at a convenient ale house or hostelry.
Prior to 1609 the ‘aged and decayed’ craftsmen were admitted to St. Thomas’s Hospital, an institution founded by a Canon Clatt for the reception and maintenance of ‘injured and decayed’ burgesses, merchant and craft alike. On the 6 March 1609 the town council passed an Act restricting the intake to the hospital to those who had been burgesses of guild. Naturally the craftsmen of the day resented this but it proved to be a blessing in disguise for it was this exclusion that induced Dr. William Guild to found a meeting house for the craftsmen.
Dr. William Guild was the second son of Matthew Guild, a leading craftsman in the city who had been Deacon of the Hammerman Incorporation on six successive occassions. It was no wonder then that William Guild (1586-1657) was brought into very close contact with the Incorporated Trades of Aberdeen. He took a Divinity degree at Marischal College and was a prolific author of religious works. He became a Chaplain to the King, and was Minister of the City Kirk from 1631 to 1641. In 1640 he was appointed Principal of King’s College but proved to be a controversial one and was deposited in 1651.
However Dr.Wm.Guild was the Incorporated Trades’ greatest benefactor and in gifting the Monastery of the Red Friars of the Holy Trinity, he really laid the foundations of the prosperity and continuity of the craft guilds in Aberdeen. The Red Friars Monastery was situated between Guild Street – Exchange Street – Market Street and the present Railway Goods Yards. It was erected in 1181 as a palace for King William the Lyon and he gifted the property to the Red Friars in 1211. It remained as a monestery until 1589 when the whole property passed into the hands of the Crown. By this time the building was in a ruinous condition having been sacked and plundered many times.
Dr. Guild purchased the property in 1631 and thanks to his own financial donation and contributions from the Trades, extensive refurbishment commenced. In his mortification in 1633 Dr.Guild decreed that only “good pious and sober men be brought into the hospital” and to ensure this the Deacon and Deacon Convener were to elect a Patron, a ‘Preacher of the word of God at Aberdeen’. Naturally the first Patron was Dr. Guild himself, and the present one is the Rev Iain U Thomson who is the 28th to hold this position. The appointment for life and was very often held by the Minister of the City Kirk or the Principal of the University.
In the same charter Dr.Guild ordained that a Master of Hospital be elected to take care of the buildings and those admitted to the hospital. The first holder of this post was a Thomas Gardine, a tailor, who was appointed in 1632.
In the course of time the severe and monastic life imposed on the inmates of the Hospital proved to be too irksome. The result was that very few aged craftsmen were willing to submit themselves to the rigorous discipline as laid down by Dr.Guild. Eventually the hospital system was abandoned and after an appeal to the Court of Session in 1803 the Master of Hospital was authorised to distribute monies annually to retired members of the Trades – a role which he carries out to this day.
With the arrival of the Railway system to Aberdeen in 1845, the Incorporated Trades were obliged to sell their fine hall and grounds and move to a Union Street site just east of Union Bridge. The cost of the new building was £7,000. By 1895 though, more accommodation was necessary because of increased membership and a new extension to the Green was added at a cost of £12,000.
A mention should be made here of the trades school. This was established within the original Hall in 1808 obviously for providing an education for children of craftsmen. This was continued in the Union Street Hall until 1878 when it had to be given up because of the Education Act of that year. Basically the three R’s were taught at a cost of 2/- (10p) per quarter per subject.
Before he died in 1657 Dr.Guild had made provision for a fund to provide bursaries for craftsmen’s sons to attend the new College of Aberdeen. This educational trust is still in existence but naturally has been extended to include daughters and embraces King’s as well as Marischal College.
The latest change in premises took place in 1964 when Union Street building was sold and our present site purchased. Building commenced in January 1966 and the Trinity Hall was opened in October 1967.
So much then for a brief history of the trades and their meeting halls but what is the purpose of the Incorporated Trades nowadays? With the passing of the reform act in 1846 the members of the Incorporated Trades no longer enjoyed exclusive trading privileges. Gradually, since that date, the Burgesses of Trade have fallen back on one of their original objects ‘The looking after of aged and decayed craftsmen’ or in modern language, the paying of annuities to retired members. Each trade pays and annuity to their retired members on top of the one paid by the Master of Trades Hospital. The trades also pay annuities to widows of members.
In 1771 the members of the day took this a stage further and started a compulsory Trade’s Widow’s Fund. Each person joining a trade has to pay a proportion of his entrance monies to the Widow’s Fund. This fund is managed by a factor and annuities are paid to widows of members/retired members.
This arrangement wasn’t considered sufficient by some members for on 17 June 1816 a Supplementary Widows Fund was started thanks to the efforts and substantial donation by John Leslie, an ex Deacon Convener and member of the Hammermen Incorporation. Membership of this fund is optional and is managed by a Factor in the same way as the Trade’s Widow’s Fund.
As can be imagined the continuance of the Incorporated Trades and the changing of premises did not happen without a lot of work, indeed foresight. We are grateful to the Deacon Conveners/Patrons of the past, starting with George Elphinstone then Dr.Wm.Guild, Conveners John Leslie and Charles Playfair in 1844-46 and more recently to Deacon Conveners James Strachan and George Gorrod who were at the helm when we moved to our present site. We are sure that the Trades will continue to have office bearers of this calibre and because of that we look forward, with confidence, to our next 500 years.
In doing so we will uphold the many traditions of the Incorporated Trades, one of the most important being that before being admitted as a member the applicant must carry out a ‘test or essay’ to the satisfaction of the appropriate trade.