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Issue 96 - Roddy Martine's View

Scotland Magazine Issue 96
December 2017


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Roddy Martine's View

In praise of the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh and the role of the candlemaker

Craft guilds were formed in the Middle Ages and considered an important feature of burgh life throughout Scotland. Each craft jealously guarded its own monopolies and standards of workmanship.

They acquired their own properties and raised funds to provide for the poor, and they shared the patronage of an alter to a patron saint in pre-Reformation times and a seat on the parish church after the Reformation. These all-powerful groups of tradesmen worked handin-hand with religious leaders and local politicians, and the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh still rally under the banner of the Blue Blanket, a flag gifted by James III in 1482. Surviving the Battle of Flodden in 1513, the original is too old and frail to be moved from its case and a replica has been made.

Unashamedly medieval in concept, in this modern age the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh includes surgeons, goldsmiths, skinners, furriers, hammermen, wrights and masons, tailors, baxters, fleshers, cordiners, weavers, waulkers, bonnetmakers and dyers, candlemakers, and barbers. Under a Royal Charter, it still has its headquarters at Ashfield in Melville Street, where the Governors of the Edinburgh Trades Maiden Fund own the ground floor and basement flat.

Until the Scottish Burgh Reform Act of 1833, six of the deacons of the incorporated guilds sat as full members of the Town Council, the remaining eight being permitted to sit with the Council on certain occasions and to have a voice and vote in municipal elections. Until 1846, such guilds exercised exclusive privileges of trade that prevented outsiders from practicing their crafts within the burgh until they had paid their dues and joined the appropriate incorporation. A book on this fascinating history is currently being co-authored by my friend Henry Steuart Fothringham and Charles Kinder Bradbury.

In September, I was invited to a splendid dinner held at the City Chambers of Edinburgh to mark the 500th anniversary of The Incorporation of Candlemakers of Edinburgh. At this, Frank Ross, Lord Provost of Edinburgh, welcomed Wax Chandlers, Tallow Chandlers and the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh. Among the guests was the Master of the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers, a guild that was formed in the reign of Richard III and is one of the oldest livery companies of the City of London.

In the 21st Century we take it for granted that we have electricity in our homes, but this was not the case 200 years ago. It is easy to forget the incredibly important role candles played in lighting up the everyday life of our ancestors. According to the Scottish Genealogy Society historian Richard Torrance, ëIn 1739, four of the main candlemakers in Edinburgh were producing 6,651 stones of candle - that's 42 tons - in a single year.í

At the time, it was every entrepreneurial manufacturer's dream - a product that burned away into nothing and constantly had to be replaced. Until the arrival of coal gas, shale oil and paraffin in the early 19th Century, candle power reigned supreme.

However, there was a down side. The brewing of tallow created a terrible smell and also came with an element of danger. Famously, a candle workshop in Forresterís Wynd, Edinburgh, went on fire and the flames spread to the Cowgate, killing the Deacon of the Bonnetmakers' Guild. As a result, the tallow trade was banished to a rather more secure area that became known as Candlemaker Row, by Greyfriars Kirk. No doubt this was also the reason they were excluded from the Convenery after 1604 and only reinstated in 2011, long after their role in keeping Scottish society illuminated had been overtaken by electric light.

Today, in addition to reminding us of our historic craft skills, the role of the Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh remains both charitable and ceremonial. For some, such envoys from another age might appear a trifle quaint; to others, they embody everything that is fine and honourable in the remembrance of Scotland's times past.


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