Incorporation of Wrights and Masons

Trades of Edinburgh | Incorporation of Wrights
Trades of Edinburgh | Incorporation of Masons

The terms of the seal of cause granted to the Wrights and Masons of Edinburgh on 15th October 1475 leave it rather unclear as to whether or not these craftsmen had already formed themselves into a single recognised body. It seems much more likely that up till that time there had been two separate groups of craftsmen, one for the Wrights and one for the Masons, which might or might not by then already have been granted individual seals of cause. The two incorporations eventually became known as the United Incorporations of Mary’s Chapel, the name being derived from their regular meeting place in Niddry’s Wynd on the south side of the High Street. In pre-Reformation times the name was often given as St. Mary’s Chapel but the “St.” part disappeared at the Reformation. Recently there has been a move to restore the Saint to the official name.

The main burden of the Incorporations’ joint bill of supplication was concerned with establishing an altar of their own in St. Giles’ Church. It was to be dedicated to their two patron saints, St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist; the Evangelist was patron of the Wrights and the Baptist was patron of the Masons.

From 1475 the Wrights and Masons seems to have been treated as a single incorporation, although they each had their own deacon: “The two deacons are to have their proper place in any processions through the town, just as is done at Bruges or suchlike good towns”. This is a valuable piece of evidence that there were already processions and other public activities involving the craftsmen in the Burgh, held on the Continental model.

The famous painting by Roderick Chalmers (who was a freeman master) of the Wrights and Masons working at Holyrood is on loan from the Incorporation to the Ashfield Collection and is prominently displayed there as one of the principal treasures of the collection.

The painting, showing the ten disciplines embraced by the Wrights and Masons, is a copy by Roderick Chalmers, dating from 1720, of an earlier painting. The crafts depicted are, from left to right, those of the sievewright, slater glazier, cooper, mason, wright, bowyer, painter, plumber and upholsterer, placing the senior crafts in the centre of the picture.

The most famous freeman of the Wrights and Masons was Deacon William Brodie, wright, who was a respectable deacon by day and a despicable criminal by night. He secretly took wax impressions of his clients’ keys while he went about his work and was then able to break into their premises and commit theft on a large scale. He was eventually caught and one of his accomplices turned king’s evidence. Brodie was hanged on 1st October 1788, at the age of 47. There is a public house named after him on the Royal Mile.

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