The History of Leith

July 16, 2007

The Incorporations

We cannot begin to understand what life was like in Old Leith without some knowledge of the incorporations. Every individual in the port was affected by these powerful societies, for even those who were not themselves members of any incorporation inevitably had dealings with those who were.

The incorporations decided whether a man should be allowed to work at his trade, and where he should work; the prices he charged were strictly regulated, as were the wages he paid and the men he employed. In sickness the tradesman depended on his incorporation to support him, even if meagrely. Widows and orphans of members were looked after, and in deserving cases even the childrens education was provided for. Socially and economically the Church and the incorporations were the warp and woof on which the Leithcr worked the pattern of his own and his familys life.
There is a unique interest attaching to the incorporations of Leith, for the long-standing animosity between Edinburgh and Leith originated in the citys refusal to admit that the corporations in the port had any legal standing at all.Edinburgh was a royal burgh, and so, among other rights and privileges, had the right to establish trade incorporations, and to engage in foreiga trade. Leith was not a royal burgh, and so, although it was a port, it had no right to any foreign trade. This was plainly ridiculous, but it was the law—as both Edinburgh and Leith knew very well. Moreover, no man could be a member of any incorporation in a royal burgh unless he firstly became a burgess, and came to live within the city limits. And a merchant had to become a gild brother before he could engage in any business. The intolerable burdens Edinburgh sought to lay on Leith therefore, were not just a display of local animosity: the impositions were strictly according to law, a law which operated all over Scotland.
The trouble between city and port began in the fourteenth century, when Logan of Restalrig was granted right to establish the little village of Leith as a burgh barony. This privilege was rather grudgingly granted; but the more powerful nobles and barons were bitterly complaining that all the trade of the country was being concentrated in the royal burghs, and they bullied the king in granting many of them the right to set up burghs of barony on their own lands. These burghs had fewer privileges than the royal burghs: notably they were forbidden engage in any foreign trade, but they could have their on incorporations. Burghs of barony would never match the wealth and power of the largest royal burghs, but the corporations, and the markets many of them had, ensured much more business to them than would otherwise have been possible which brought financial gain to the superior.
Edinburgh must have viewed the upgrading of Leith to the status of a burgh of barony with the utmost dismay With a source of trade rivalry only a mile and a half fro the city competition could not be avoided, and this was the last thing any trade wanted in the Middle Ages. It was a happy day for the capital when Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig desperate for money, sold the superiority of the Shore of the harbour to Edinburgh. This happened towards the close the fourteenth century, and in the course of the next two hundred years more and more of Leith passed into the ownership of the city until, with a large acquisition from Mary of Lorraine, mother of Mary Queen of Scots, the whole of the port, except the area of St Anthony, became subservient to the city.
It was now that the battle was joined. Edinburgh refused to recognise the incorporations of Leith, and denied that members of these bodies had any right to continue in their trades or crafts, unless they became burgesses of Edinburgh and removed their homes to the city, joining the appropriate incorporation in Edinburgh. Moreover any application for burgess-ship or membership of an incorporation would be subject to a vote, Not surprisingly, Leith paid no attention to all this, and carried on as before, maintaining that their incorporations had existed long before Edinburgh had become the superior, and that as Leith was still a burgh of barony, Edinburgh had no right to interfere with their ancient privileges.
Unfortunately none of the Leith incorporations was ever able to produce a seal of cause. The seal of cause was the charter of a corporations foundation the one final and incontrovertible proof of establishment. Campbell Irons said the oldest seat of cause among the Leith corporations was that of the Tailors, dated 1515 the Cordiners seal was dated , 1550 and that of the Weavers 1554 He makes no mention of the source of this information, and as none of these charters has ever been produced, even when asked for by a Government Committee, we must suppose Irons is quoting hearsay. In 1833 the Master of the Traffickers was asked by the Commissioners on Burghs, Have you a charter? and he lamely answered, We had, but it is lost.

Source-Old Leith at Work, James Scott Marshall

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