Scotland’s Royal Burghs were set up to foster trade and prosperity in the country and Haddington is one of the earliest. Of course, having created new, independent self-governing communities a means of running them had to be found. The natural solution was to appoint a council from amongst the premier citizens, the merchants. This seemed to work for a bit, but then the next rank of citizens, the craftsmen, feeling the yoke of the merchants was impeding, if not damaging their progress, universally managed to win privileges for themselves and join the merchants on the councils.
Just as the burghal community had a charter issued by the Crown, listing their rights and privileges so the craftsmen united, trade by trade, and often in the teeth of sustained opposition from the merchants and sought their own protection. An incorporation’s charter was termed a seal of cause and by the 14th and 15th centuries they were being sought in burghs all over Scotland. They were the trades’ constitutions and contained all their rules and regulations. Eventually, most burghs had 8 or 9 incorporations (but some had over a dozen and some had none).
In some ways, an incorporation was just like a merchant gild. Each incorporation had a monopoly of its own trades within the burgh limits. Membership was restricted to craftsmen and the incorporation controlled their own numbers to make sure each had enough work. They fined strangers or competitors and destroyed goods that did not pass muster. And they tried to control prices and behavior.
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. Before the Reformation some paid for a special altar and priest dedicated to the incorporation’s own patron saint in the parish church. Their funds were used also to support members’ widows and orphans, their poor, and others who were unable to work.
After the 17th century very few new incorporations were made. Most trades arising from new technology could be fitted in to an existing incorporation – in fact, that helped to keep their numbers up. So, the Hammermen’s incorporation, for example, in most places eventually included anyone who worked metal, from gold and silversmiths to the ordinary blacksmith with many other specialists along the way.
For several centuries it would be fair to say that council, merchant gild and incorporations simply stitched up opportunity within their home burghs for their own membership. Right of membership was passed from generation to generation: immigrants being admitted only at need – and at a higher fee than locals. 19th century reforms began the dismantling of the system. Trade was opened up, adult franchise was extended, and all that was left for the incorporations was their charitable activities. In Scotland’s cities they still survive as significant forces: Glasgow distributes over £500,000 annually. But in smaller places incorporations often vanished or became moribund. However, their presence lingers on in placenames and archives, a rich source of social, local and family history.
The holdings at the John Gray Centre include many surviving documents from the Nine Trades of Haddington and the museum at the John Gray Centre includes some of the surviving objects used by them and their members.