The feast of Corpus Christi was one of the chief celebrations of the pre-Reformation church in Edinburgh, with both sacred and secular elements. After attending church in the morning, the congregation, including representatives of the incorporated trades, took part in a procession round the town, led by the clergy, during which the consecrated Host was shown to the people and the Lauda Sion was sung by all present. Once the clergy had left the scene, there were plays and dumb-shows and much merry-making, music, food and drink until dark.
One of the plays that was often performed was the Jest of Robin Hood, probably using the text that was afterwards printed by Chepman and Myllar in Edinburgh in 1508. The Hammermen performed this play before King James IV in 1494. The narrator would have stood at one side reading or reciting the words while the costumed actors performed the drama in dumb-show. At the gory climax of the action, Robin Hood looses an arrow at the proud sheriff of Nottingham and then cuts off his head with his sword:
“Robyn bent a fulle goode bowe
An arrowe he drowe at wylle
He hit so the proude sherife.
Upon the grounde he lay full stille
And or he myght vp aryse.
On his fete to stonde
He smote of the sherifs hede
With his bright bronde”
There was also a play involving King Herod and a large supporting cast of biblical and mythical characters, saints, devils and others, attended by assorted knights and squires. Judging by the payments for banner-bearers, torch-bearers and musicians in the Hammermen’s Accounts, it must have been quite a colourful and noisy occasion.
It might seem strange that the Incorporated Trades should each have their own coat of arms and other heraldic embellishments, but this has been the case since the first written references to the incorporations in the fifteenth century. The devices were derive originally from the shop signs that were universally in use before everybody could read and write, usually including a material or product or tool of the trade, such as bonnets for the Bonnetmakers or a hammer for the Hammermen. The latter’s records, which begin in 1494, show that the simple arms that they use today, depicting a crowned hammer, are identical to the arms that were in use the fifteenth century. These were painted on banners that were carried in festive processions and more sombrely on the field of battle.
Over the years this corporate heraldry has become more elaborated and has settled down into an organised system, although not all the incorporations’ coats of arms have yet received the sanction of the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, whose approval is legally required before they can be officially used in public.
The arms of the different Incorporations are found over the centuries depicted in a number of ways, not only on banners but engraved in stone and wood, on gold, silver, brass and pewter, printed in books and blazoned in stained glass.
The ceremony of Kirking the Deacons of the Incorporated Trades takes its origin from the fact that the Deacons were members of the Town Council from 1583 until that privilege was withdrawn in 1833, a period of 251 years. During that period the whole Council processed annually into St. Giles’, where a service of dedication and blessing was held, during which the councillors were reminded of their duties and responsibilities and were charged with the responsibility of doing their civic duty impartially and to the best of their ability.
After 1833 there seems to have been a gap when most of the Deacons were not kirked, but gradually the custom was revived in a number of incorporations. At the present time, a service is held annually at or around Beltane (first Saturday of May, being the traditional time for electing the deacons until the Act of Sett in 1583) usually in the Greyfriars’ Church, which the Deacon-Convener and all the Deacons are expected to attend with their chains of office and their banner-bearers. The service is attended by the Lord Provost and some of the Council and is conducted by the Convenery’s Chaplain, who chooses suitable readings and leads the prayers, Appropriate psalms and hymns are sung and then there is a procession from the church to the grave of Mary Erskine, with whom the Incorporated Trades founded the Trades Maiden Hospital 1704. The proceedings usually finish with an extended informal lunch in a nearby establishment just off Candlemaker Row.
The Riding of the Marches of Edinburgh probably began with the birth of the burgh, as a necessary part of marking out the boundaries and then keeping them untrammelled and in order. The burgesses of the burgh would have taken part, along with the forerunners of the town council, and among them were principally the craftsmen and the merchants who drove the local economy and provided the wherewithal for decent living.
We get brief glimpses of the Ridings in 1494 and 1528 and again in 1589, by which time the event had been attached to the Allhallows Fair (1st November). They are mentioned in the Council Register on 30th October 1579, when it was ordered that a proclamation should be made:
“chairging all merchantis craftismen and vtheris inhabitantis within this burgh to be in radynes the morn be xi houris to accompany the provest baillies and counsall to vesy thair meithis and boundis as ordour hes bene on horsbak and to proclame their Alhallovmes fair to begyn the morn be xij houris”.
The practice eventually fell out of use but has been revived to commemorate or celebrate particular occasions, such as in 1946, to mark the end of the Second World War. In 2009 the Ridings have been revived on an annual basis and are now an important fixed point in the civic calendar, attended by the Lord Provost, Lord Dean of Guild and the Deacon-Convener of Trades, all in their full robes and chains of office.
All the Incorporated Trades are represented at the Mercat Cross, opposite the City Chambers, proudly carrying their banners in the procession. In 2013 there was a special commemoration for the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. In 2014 the event being commemorated was the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. On both those occasions there was a minute’s silence for the fallen, during which the banners were dipped in reverent salute and a lone piper played the well-known lament, The Flowers o’ the Forest.
About 270 horses and riders make a circuit of the bounds of the city, some 23 miles in all, before riding up the Royal Mile from Holyrood to the Mercat Cross in a grand cavalcade. All those hooves clattering on the cobbles, together with the George Heriot’s School pipe band in full cry, make an unforgettable sight and sound.
The 2015 Riding of the Marches will take place on the 13th of September at 2.30pm in the High Street with over 270 horses riding up the Royal Mile.
Occasionally squabbles broke out between the different trades; these usually arose because of a demarcation dispute in which one craft was accused of attempting to encroach upon the privileges of another. In the case of the Skinners versus the Fleshers in 1684, however, the complaints were of a different nature.
The Fleshers’ abattoir came to be situated on the shore of the Nor’ Loch, immediately next door to where the Skinners had for a long time been accustomed to washing their wool and skins in the loch. The skinners’ main complaint was that the Fleshers were polluting the loch, just where the wool and skins were wont to be washed:
“by the running in of the blood and excrements and washing of the trypes, hes so abused the water, that all along the syde therof with the heat of the sun, it will be ane elne deep of small vermine, so that by dipping a skin ther, it brings out ten tymes more filth then is putt in with it.” [Act Book of the Convenery, 20th August 1684]
The Convenery’s solution was to suggest to the Skinners that they should remove themselves to the Water of Leith in order to obtain a ready supply of fresh running water. This course was adopted and the Skinners thrived in their new clean surroundings.
Meanwhile the Fleshers continued to use the Nor’ Loch as a dumping ground for their offal, blood and entrails. Consequently, the eels in the loch proliferated and grew to a prodigious size. Eel traps were set, providing a welcome supplement to the diet of the poorer inhabitants of the town.
The Magdalen Chapel, in the Cowgate of Edinburgh, is a fascinating building with a no less fascinating history. It has strong connections with the Incorporation of Hammermen, who owned it for over 300 years, and with the Convenery of the Incorporated Trades, which met there for almost as long. The Chapel was founded by a pious couple, Michael McQuhan and his wife, Jonet Rynd, in the 1540s, as part of a charitable “Hospital” or old folks’ home for seven indigent men. Jonet Rynd committed it to the care and patronage of the Incorporation of Hammermen and it remained in their possession until about 1858 when they were obliged to sell it. It now belongs to the Scottish Reformation Society.
The Chapel was used by the Hammermen as their regular meeting place during all that time and also, from 1596 to 1858 by the Convenery of Trades. The coats of arms of the principal crafts of the Hammermen are painted on panels in front of the pulpit area. The south-facing windows include the remnants of the original stained glass (the only pre-Reformation stained glass that remains in its original location in the whole of Scotland), comprising the Royal Arms and the arms of the two founders. Beneath one of the windows is the stone sarcophagus of Janet Rynd, carved with her arms and an funerary inscription. Around the east and north walls are panels inscribed with memorials of donations made to the Chapel and Hospital by generations of craftsmen and others.
In the seventeenth century the Chapel was added to by building on a porch, meeting rooms and a bell-tower. The facade can be viewed from the bridge over which George IV Bridge crosses Cowgate.
The Chapel can be visited by appointment and it is well worth a visit.
The Blue Blanket is the name of the Edinburgh Tradesmen’s Banner. Its early history is bound up in so much mythology that it is difficult to sift the actual facts from the fiction. Legend has it that it was given to the tradesmen and craftsmen of Edinburgh by James III in 1482, but there is no authentic document of the period that records the supposed event. It is also said to have been carried as the battle flag of the Edinburgh Trades at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, when a large number of craftsmen died defending it and their king. The tattered remains of the Banner are reputed to have been brought back to Edinburgh the next day by Randolph Murray, captain of the Guard, and handed over, with the dreadful tidings of the defeat of the Scottish army and the death of the king.
The first definite reference to the Blue Blanket in a historical document occurs in 1543, at the beginning of the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. In that year is was raised in the Council Chamber by the Deacons of the Incorporated Trades, who were protesting against encroachments on their privileges and deprivation of their ancient rights.
James VI mentions it in his idiosyncratic book, The Basilikon Doron. In the first edition, published in 1599, he wrote:
“And the Craftes-men thinke wee should bee content with their worke, howe bad and deare so ever it bee; and (if they in anie thing bee controlled) up must the blewe-blanket goe.”
Subsequent editions alter the wording to read:
“And the Craftes-men thinke we should be content with their worke, howe bad and deare so ever it be: & if they in any thing be controlled, up goeth the blew-blanket.”
Just as regimental colours are renewed from time to time when they become worn and tattered, so the Blue Blanket has been renewed several times. The version that survives at the present time appears to date from just after the restoration of Charles II to his throne in 1660, probably sometime in 1661. It is in the form of a large swallow-tailed gonfalon hanging vertically from a horizontal pole and it is about ten feet high and more than six feet across. In its top left canton it bears a saltire, between the arms of which are a royal Crown and a Scottish Thistle. The main feature of the banner, however is the inscription, which is contained in two ribbons and which reads:
“FEAR ∙ GOD ∙ AND ∙ HONOR ∙ THE ∙ KING ∙ WITH ∙ A ∙ LONG/ LYFFE ∙ AND ∙ A ∙ PROSPEROUS REIGNE/ AND/ WE ∙ THAT ∙ IS ∙ TRADDS ∙ SHALL ∙ EVER ∙ PRAY ∙ TO ∙ BE ∙ FAITHFULL/ FOR ∙ THE ∙ DEFENCE ∙ OF HIS SACRED MAIESTIES ∙ ROYAL ∙ PERSONE ∙ TILL ∙ DEATH”
This saying has resonances with other Covenanting war-cries of the post-Restoration period and it may not have appeared in the earlier versions.
The Blue Blanket is too fragile to be removed from its case and it is no longer blue; over the centuries it has faded to a non-descript pale greyish brown. In 2012 a new version was made for ceremonial use and it has appeared in Edinburgh on several occasions. It is waved from the platform of the Mercat Cross every year at the Riding of the Marches and it is carried in solemn procession at the Kirking of the Deacons. In 2014 it was carried from the Church of the Greyfriars at the head of the procession which went to the spot where Mary Erskine lies buried, for the Incorporated Trades to pay respect to her memory as their principal benefactor.
Mary Erskine founded two boarding schools for girls in Edinburgh. The first was for the daughters and granddaughters of merchants in 1694; it is now known as the Mary Erskine school. Her second foundation was the Trades Maiden Hospital, in 1704, which educates the daughters and granddaughters of Edinburgh’s craftsmen and tradesmen. It is administered by a board of Governors which includes the Deacons of all the Incorporated Trades.
Mary Erskine was born at Garlet House, Clackmannanshire, and was baptised in the parish of Clackmannan on 12th May 1629; her parents were Robert Erskine and Beatrix Stupard. Mary’s father is supposed to have been a distant relative of the Earl of Mar, whose surname is also Erskine, but the exact relationship has not been established. Mary had two younger siblings, Cicilia, born 1632, and William, born 1635. Nothing else seems to be known of her life until May 1660, when she became engaged to marry her first husband, Robert Kennedy, writer (lawyer) in Edinburgh. They were married in Edinburgh on 19th July 1661, having signed their pre-nuptial contract of marriage on 21st June. She was 32 and Robert Kennedy was 28.
They had at least three sons and two daughters, as far as the Edinburgh parochial register shows:
1) Thomas, baptised 6th July 1662
2) Eupham, baptised 26th June 1664
3) Robert, baptised 6th October 1665
4) Mary, baptised 3rd September 1668
5) John, baptised 27th October 1670
Thomas, the eldest, was named in honour of Thomas Wallace, advocate, (who became a baronet in 1669), who was Robert Kennedy’s employer. Eupham, the elder daughter, was named after Wallace’s wife, Eupham, daughter of William Gemmell of Templeland.
None of the five children survived childhood, all of them apparently predeceasing their father, who was buried in the Greyfriars Churchyard, Edinburgh, on 18th February 1671, aged only 37. Mary inherited all her husband’s estate, which amounted to a total of about £1,967. The loss of all five children, while not an uncommon event in the seventeenth century, must have been a great sadness to Robert and Mary. It is possible that it could be one of the factors which caused Mary Erskine to turn her attention away from domesticity and towards business instead, as a refuge from her disappointed expectations.
Having lived as an eligible widow for a little over three years, Mary Erskine married for a second time, on 23rd September 1675, at the age of 45. Her new toy-boy husband, who seems to have been much younger than herself, was James Hair, a newly-qualified apothecary with a shop in the High Street, whose father was identified in the Burgess Roll as James Hair in Glentochar. The couple began to build up a portfolio of properties in Edinburgh on both sides of the High Street and in Cowgate, both commercial and residential. This formed the basis of Mary Erskine’s future wealth and it is what enabled her to be so generous in her donations to her two principal foundations near the end of her life. James Hair died in July 1683, so Mary was once again left a widow. There being no children of this marriage, it was easy for her, unencumbered by any distractions of motherhood, to turn her mind to the serious business of making money in order to use it for philanthropic purposes.
When she was widowed for the second time she was aged about 54 and she had another twenty-four years to live; it was during that time that she made her fortune. She gave money to several impoverished relations and it seems, reading between the lines, that she did not expect some of her “loans” which she made to needy friends to be repaid. She made a number of charitable donations to worthy causes, including George Heriot’s School and the poor people of Edinburgh and Canongate, but her two outstanding gifts, both made in her lifetime, were the major endowments gifted to the Merchant Maiden Hospital (now the Mary Erskine School) and the Trades Maiden Hospital.
She lived to the age of 78, long enough for her to have had the satisfaction of seeing the constitutions of both her hospitals ratified by the last Parliament of Scotland. She died on 2nd July 1707 and was buried in the Greyfriars Burial Ground two days later. There was no gravestone to mark the place but fortunately the exact spot is known from another source, in the southern-most corner of the enclosure which afterwards became known as the Covenanter’s Prison.
In 2014 the Governors of the Trades Maiden Hospital were given permission to put up a memorial entablature immediately below the one already provided by the Merchant Company. It is a single piece of Yorkshire sandstone with a moulded border and it bears this inscription:
IN GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE MARY ERSKINE WHO WITH THE CONVENERY
OF THE TRADES OF EDINBURGH
TRADES MAIDEN HOSPITAL
AND WAS BURIED HERE
4TH JULY 1707
In the late eighteenth century the deacons of the Incorporated Trades were lampooned for having airs and graces above their station, by wearing fancy gowns and putting gold chains and medals round their necks. That, at least, was the opinion of the newspapers of the time. This was at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment, a spectacular explosion of new thought, the centre of which was in Edinburgh, embracing all the sciences, arts and crafts, as well as philosophy, education, reason, religion, logic, rhetoric and the whole gamut of academic and intellectual activities.
Robert Burns was one of those who noticed the pretentions of people in high places and wrote a couplet on the subject:
“Ye dainty Deacons and ye douce Conveners
To whom we moderns are but causey-cleaners.”
(Robert Burns: The Brigs of Ayr)
Like all generalisations the criticism was in some cases justified and in other instances it was unfair. Personal vanity is a foible which afflicts different people in different degrees, and there are but few fortunate souls who remain altogether untouched by it.