In medieval times almost all of East Lothian was owned by a few, mostly titled, families and the Crown. The exceptions were the burghs, established as independent self-governing communities with their rights defined in charters from the Crown, the Church or a magnate. Burghs were meant to encourage trade and so merchants prospered above producers and craftsmen creating tensions that were only balanced when the latter themselves gained rights to organise, usually on a craft by craft basis.
In Scotland these bodies were ‘incorporations’ (other countries call them guilds) and their hard-won rights were usually stated in an official document called a ‘seal of cause’. This was their constitution and contained all their rules and regulations. Most of the rules concerned the regulation of the prices and quality of goods, training and enlistment to the craft, and aid and ailment to the membership. Eventually, many burghs had 8 or 9 incorporations but some had over a dozen and some had none: it all depended on size and prosperity. What was common to all was that members had to be citizens (burgesses) of their home burghs, they were monopolistic, and that they were united in opposition to competition from outside their own domain.
From very early times incorporations saw that looking after their business interests could be extended to looking after their social interests. The members met to perform plays on holidays, to have feasts, or simply to sit together in church. Their funds were used also to support members’ widows and orphans, their poor, and members unable to work.
By the 17th and 18th centuries few new incorporations were being made – new technology and trades were shoehorned into existing bodies: a hammermen’s incorporation might include goldsmiths and gunsmiths as well as blacksmiths and farriers. Even when a burgh had several incorporations, they only looked after a small part of the community. Their monopolies were increasingly anachronistic and limiting and the reform movements of the 19th century rendered them irrelevant and eventually moribund.
In East Lothian, Haddington had the most complete set of incorporations: there were nine. Musselburgh too had several but the smaller coastal communities often only supported a single Sailors’ Society, which united everyone from merchant, mariner and craftsman involved in seaborne activities. Other trades organisations, like the Tranent or East Linton Carters, were friendly societies and hence had a different, more limited, set of rights and perogatives. We have several records relating to the trades and their incorporations in the Archives.
The legacy of the trades incorporations is the freedom and support they established for the working man that was remembered in later, unconnected self-help organisations. The concepts of mutual aid, self-improvement, co-operative association and workers’ rights are all rooted in the incorporations.
Browse our collections here to see what else we have in connection with incorporations or visit our expert site. If you could help us tell the story of East Lothian’s incorporations and trades societies email us, go to Your Stories or leave a comment below.