Since the 16th Century at least nine trades have advanced the interests of trade in the City of Dundee. These trades are fully autonomous but have incorporated and are known as the Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee. The Nine Trades in order of precedence are:– Baxters or Bakers, Cordiners or Shoemakers, Skinners or Glovers, Tailors, Bonnetmakers, Fleshers, Hammermen, Brabeners or Websters or Weavers and Listers or Dyers.
from Cordwainers, are also known in Scotland as Souters, a name by which natives of Forfar were also known at one time, are the present day Shoemakers or Cobblers. The word Cordwainer is derived from the Spanish “Cordovan” a goatskin leather originally from the City of Cordova. Another old Scots name for the shoemaker was “gressich”.
The beginnings of the Cordiners’ history, like that of the other trades, is now lost in the mists of time. They are particularly proud of their position as second in the order of precedence of the trades.
The first version of the acts of the Craft was published in 1567. It was written in the first year of the Reign of James VI when James, Earl of Murray, was Regent, James Halliburton, Provost of Dundee and John Thomson, Deacon. In common with the other crafts it details conditions of admission, in particular that he should be a freeman of the Burgh, have enough money to conduct his affairs, be proficient in his craft, swear the oath of the Craft regarding obedience to the Deacon and Statutes made or to be made, that he will fortify the common weal, make only good quality goods and so forth. The acts also deal with the proper training and control of apprentices. Under the list of punishments is one of two shillings for failing to turn up at meetings. If a master made any trouble when the trade officer came to collect these fines, he would be fined a further five shillings. How refreshing if something similar could be enforced today.
Apprentices were dealt with equally severely. An apprentice “picking”, that is stealing, would be given forty lashes the first time he was caught. If it happened again he would forfeit his goods and gear and for the third offence, be banished the burgh penniless and without any of his goods, and then only after swearing on oath that he would never again follow the trade. No apprentice was to carry a knife or “whinger” other than for use at work and for cutting up his food. If an apprentice ran away, committed adultery, fornicated or broke the Sabbath the same punishment was imposed as for a thief.
Masters of the Trade who were guilty of brawling and bragging were fined twenty shillings.
A booking fee of 40/- was paid for each apprentice entered into the trade, each Master was charged 6s. 8d for setting up shop in the market, and half a merk when he got married.
In the 16th century, Craft dues were one half penny per week for a Master and one penny for a journeyman. This payment went to help the upkeep of the old and infirmand the orphans and widows of Masters. By 1720, this rose to six pennies for a Master and a further six pennies for each journeyman.
The Cordiner Trade was quite large, with some 35 Masters in 1634. However, with a population of between 4,000 and 6,000 souls, this would imply that each Cordiner would be supplying footwear for about 115 to 170 people. Bearing in mind that only the main street would have been paved and that all the roads outwith the town were nothing more than bridle paths it becomes apparent that the shoemaker was a busy man.
The trades generally were in trouble in 1605, when James VI declared that for a period of one year the Deacons were to lose all their powers except that of maintaining the quality of workmanship within their craft. In Dundee, the council singled out one particular Cordiner and punished him as follows: “The quhilk day the provost & Baillies foresaid has found be ye p’batioun of duist famous witness That Patrick Gourlay Cordiner this instant day (after the p’clamatioun of the L’res anent ye discharging of ye Collector & pr’it dekynes of ye said burt of yr offices conform to ye Decreit given aganes yame be ye Lordis of his Majesty privie counsale & his heiries will declaired toward yame) did utter yir words In a very Seditious & despyitfull manner – That their sould be fair schoulderis & Skynes wtin ye said burt befoir yt any & vy p’son wer permitted to use ye said dekynes offices And yrfoir ye foirsaid provest & baillies considering yt ye said Patrick haid bene tryit of befoir to haif bene a nicht walker & troubler of ye quyit estait of ye town ordains him to be wairdit in ye heich tolbuith quhill thai tak ordor ‘ne him for offences forsaid”.
A free translation reads: “Which day the Provost and Bailies have found, from honest witnesses, that Patrick Gourlay, Cordiner today (after the proclamation of the Laws regarding the discharge of their Offices of the Collector and present Deacons of the Burgh conforming to the Decree against them by the Lords of the Privy Council and His Highness will towards them), did utter these words in an very serious and spiteful manner: ‘That there should be proof of the good standing and honesty within the burgh before any and every person was allowed to become Deacon’. And therefore the Provost and Bailies considering Patrick had been tried before for being a robber, and breaker of the peace of the town, ordered him to be jailed in the tollbooth until they decide upon his punishment.”
On another occasion, poor Patrick Gourlay “was cuffit by Captain John Gray” for no apparent reason and a Magistrate ordered the Captain to be sent to the tollbuith. He refused and several of his soldiers drew their swords in his defence causing an affray. The Convener, in order to resolve the matter, persuaded Patrick not to press charges. The Council took offence at this and ordered poor Patrick to be jailed for not supporting the Magistrate. However, Captain Gray confessed that indeed he had been the troublemaker and honour was restored all round.
In the first year of the reign of James VI and I an Act in England proclaimed that Cordiners were no longer allowed to act as tanners because of the poor quality of workmanship. The Cordiners, particularly of Edinburgh, fought against this decree. The work was therefore to be done only by tanners.
However, by 1617 the Cordiners appealed to Parliament “complaining of the ignorance of barkers and tanners of leather within this kingdom of Scotland and of the many abuses committed by them through their unskilled handling of leather where though the said Cordiners were constrained, to their great hazard and hurt of the country, to make provisions of leather for furnishing the country, abroad”. Parliament ordered that meetings be held between the tanners and the Cordiners to resolve this problem. The tanners admitted that the skills were lacking and Lord Erskine was ordered to bring in tanners to teach the natives how to tan leather properly. Lord Erskine was allowed four shillings per hide for attaching his seal to all hides properly tanned. Four stirk hides from animals under two years of age were to count as one hide.
By 1720, one John Palmer petitioned to the Council against the trade for refusing him entry on the grounds that he was insufficiently qualified. They had asked him to make three different pairs of boots and several pairs of shoes for his Essay. He complained on the grounds that it would be a hardship for him to produce these goods and in any event others who had entered the trade were not required to provide such proof. The council decreed that the same standard should apply to him as to the previous entrant and that he should be admitted to the trade. Despite this ruling, no John Palmer was ever entered into the Lockit Book.
Even as late as 1732, the trade were still concerned at the low standards achieved by their members. At this time, they agreed that Masters sons and sons-in-Law were entering the trade without enough experience. They therefore decreed that prior to entering the trade they would be required to show that they had worked as a shoemaker for at least nine years within the burgh, or if they came from outside the burgh they would be required to produce proof of that length of service. THE Patron Saint of the Cordiners is St. Crispin, one of two brothers Crispin and Crispian from Soissons who went to Rome where they spread the gospel and worked as shoemakers. St Crispin’s day is 25th October, the day of the battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare makes Crispin and Crispian one person and not two brothers. Hence, Henry V says to his soldiers ‘“And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by but we in it shall be remembered.” (Henry V, IV, iii.) St Crispin’s Holiday was every Monday for those who begin the working week on Tuesday. It was still a common practice in the 20th century for some butchers, fishmongers, etc. It was always a no-work day with shoemakers
The Cordiners did not have heir own altar in the town Kirk and shared the altar of the Hale Bluid or Corpus Christi. The Corpus Christi procession took place each year on the Thursday after Trinity and was a wonderful procession and holiday for the populace.
When the Protestant religion gained a firm hold in Dundee, “The Geneva of Scotland” as it was called, had to discontinue this procession. The people, however, were unwilling to lose such a glorified holiday.
Undeterred the shoemakers came to the rescue. The name of their saint, St Crispin did not sound very different from Christi, in the Dundee dialect but they dare not have such a procession without offending the ministers. They therefore transformed Saint Crispin into King Crispin (although there has never been a King Crispin). Thus, they altered a religious ceremony into a secular procession and honour was saved all round.
Indeed the procession was so popular that there is a reel entitled King Crispin. A copy of the music is in the Wighton collection in the local history section of the Dundee Library.
A plaster frieze showing the procession was part of the Cordiners’ room in the Trades Hall until it was demolished. The frieze was saved and is on display in the Albert Institute & Museum. It is some 11 feet long and was commissioned by the Trade from Alexander Methven, a house painter and amateur artist, but was unfinished until 1822, when another young Dundee artist, Harry Harwood, completed it in time for the final procession on the occasion of King George IV’s visit, some 40 years after it was begun. The procession is headed by the Earl Marshall and the King’s Champion in full armour, followed by King Crispin and four pages holding his train. Behind them are the Convener and Deacons of trades followed by the Craftsmen. The Champion, of course, is mounted and the Deacons are in their finery. The Deacons and Past Deacons marched in the procession before the King wearing white satin coats, breeches and cocked hats. It was all very lavish and expensive.
Although of no great artistic merit, is well worth visiting as it illustrates just how important the trades were in earlier times.
After completion of his apprenticeship, his extra year “for Meit and Fie” and four years as a journeyman the applicant would then be required to perform an “essay” or “Masterpiece” to show that he was competent to enter the trade as a Master. This was a remarkably difficult and complex essay. The following is an extract from the Minutes of 1730: –
“He shall be obliged to meet to satisfaction of the Trade a pair of Gaibt or stronger Boots A pair of Jackie or light boots and a pair of sea boots a pair of mens shoes with timber hiles and another pair of the same with leather hiles and a pair of mens pumps and such kinds of Womens shoes as the fashien calls for ye time or such Entrie and a pair of spatter Dashes or button’d boots.”
Whilst undergoing this examination the applicant would be locked in a room to ensure that there was no cheating and the key held by the Deacon. When he had finished, the work would be examined by two or three experienced Masters to decide whether or not it was of a sufficiently high standard for entry into the Craft.
Only then, and provided he had sufficient money and influence to become a Burgess or freeman of the Burgh, could he be formally entered into the Trade, but only having paid all the trade fees, taken the oath and provided a “Denner” for all the Masters of the Trade. A very long and expensive process which was well beyond the means of most of the Apprentices who would spend their working lives as journeymen. Sons and sons-in-law of Masters were required to go through the same process but they did have the great advantage that their craft dues and the price of their Burgess ticket were very much reduced. To give some idea of the costs involved at this time a would-be master was required to pay three pounds for his application to be allowed to perform his essay, plus some £40 for his burgess ticket. After that came all the normal dues and “accidents”, extra fees levied when the trade was short of money and, of course, his weekly payment to the trade.
The reason that a burgess ticket was so important was that without it no one could set up their “buith” or shop in the market to sell their goods to the public. Burgesses, of course, also had obligations to the burgh such as assisting in “watching and warding”, before the advent of a police force. This entailed assisting the bailie of their ward to keep the peace and to help convey wrong doers to the toolbooth. They were also required to carry out drills and manoeuvres at “Wapinshaws”, literally “weapon shows” where they paraded with their own weapons for the defence of the burgh. Payments were also levied for many small infringements of the Rules of the Craft, for every apprentice entered, and of course when the Master married. The gathering of money in this way was very important because the trade was responsible for its “decayed brethren, widows and orphans”. This alone was a very good reason for becoming a master as it gave a form of security for the master and his family in the event of misfortune. The only other source of money would have been the Kirk Poor Fund. A further benefit was that the trade was able to bulk buy meal at a low cost and re-sell it to its members. This was particularly valuable when crops failed and when trade was bad.
There is a very strange Act, which states “that na servant of ye said craft take upon hand, fra this furth, to bark (tan) or sell ony coat which happened to be shaped by a Taylor”. The penalty was the quite large sum of five shillings. This is something of a mystery as one would have expected that the leather going into the making of a coat would have been treated before reaching the Tailor. The only reasonable explanation is that the Cordiner would have made a leather coat and the tailor would only have been permitted to use “cloath”. There is no evidence either way for this explanation.
For a time Cordiners had been in the habit of allowing their journeymen to take leather and tools home to do their work there. This had the effect of the journeymen doing work on their own behalf and in 1722, it was decreed that the journeymen should only work in the masters’ premises.
The property where most of the Cordiners had their booths in the mid 1600s was in the “Wooden Lands” next to the home of the Moncur family at the top of the Overgate, by the West Port. This was the Gat which William Wallace would have gone through to the Carse after he had reputedly slain the Governor’s son. It is in the area today beside Brown Street and Blinshall Street, near where the Scouring Burn flowed. Outside the port and a little to the west was the ground on which the “Wapinshaws” and the staging of plays were held.
The first known proprietor of the property was Andrew Witchard in 1541, a slipper maker (sword slipper). He sold it to John Brown another slipper maker in 1559. Not until 1616 was it owned by William Stevenson, a tanner. Ultimately, in 1682, a descendent as the first person to use the title Deacon Convener of the Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee and Deacon of the Cordiner Trade bought the property. Thereafter it became the place most favoured by Cordiners. Stevenson was buried in the Howff. The “wooden lands” was a three story wooden building which housed a series of “Luckenbooths” which individual Cordiners leased and from where they worked and sold their goods. The property was later bought by Mitchell & Gowans, thread makers, whose turnover, in 1792, of coloured threads amounted to £33,696. They continued in business until 1837.
By 1782 at the publication of the first Dundee Directory there were some 62 shoemakers listed as working in Dundee.
Whilst it was the practice of all the trades to keep un-freemen, tradesmen from outside the burgh, from entering the burgh and selling their goods in Dundee. In 1600, the Cordiners made an agreement with the Cordiners of Brechin allowing them to trade in the Burgh on market days without presenting their goods for examination. The Dundee Cordiners were likewise able to trade in the markets of Brechin on the same basis. Other than the minute of agreement, there is no explanation for this very unusual arrangement.
Joseph Dempster was a Cordiner who came from Edinburgh, but had not sufficient capital to become a Master. In addition to working as a shoemaker he was also Town Bellman. The are many stories about Dempster including one when he was so short of money when making a pair of shoes that he was unable to pay for material for the uppers. Desperate for the money for the shoes he remembered that he had a quarto Bible bound in calf. He stripped the leather from it, blackened it and an unsuspecting Dundonian proudly walked the street wearing his new shoes.
The Cordiners appear to have a larger number of misbehaved members than most trades. In 1640 David Gray confessed to many times when he had blasphemed against his Deacon and fellow masters. He made a sworn statement to the effect that this practice would stop and agreed that fines would be imposed for each such word used. This statement was registered in the Books of Council. The idea of a “swear box” seems to have a long history.
Thomas Guilde “callit Gabriel Symmer his Deacon, an mensworn man (perjurer) and nocht worthy of his office” for which he was “to tyne his freedom and mak amends to Gabriel”.
William Sadler claimed in public “that ane act producit against him wes wrang made, and uttered irreverent speeches in presence” This cost him twenty merks “and to mak ane humble amends to the pairties offendit”.
Criminal activities were punished by the Crown. In addition the trades were equally concerned with any effect this may have on their standing. In 1720 Thomas Gilkie, a Dundee Cordiner, was convicted in Edinburgh. The Dundee Council deprived him of his burgesship and ordered him to be scourged through the town between the hours of ten and twelve noon at the five most public places and given five stripes at each place. The five places were, the head of Thorter Row, the Cross, the north door of the Shambles at the head of the Seagate, Tendall’s Wynd and finally at the Tron. Naturally, he was also banished from the Trade.
1737, was the year in which Alexander Donnet, convicted of theft, was “whipt, conform to sentence” and “cast out from the brother hood”. Severe punishment indeed, which of course meant that he could not longer conduct a business in the town.
During the first quarter of the 19th century, when reform was well under way, the Cordiners, in common with many of the other trades, were having problems in attracting members. They proposed to enter life members at a reduced rate. The Nine Trades however, as guardians of the poor fund, would not allow this to happen on the grounds that not only would it open the door to false claims for pensions but would also restrict the rights and privileges of the trades. By the late 19th and early 20th century, there were fewer and fewer tradesmen left in the city making shoes. However, with the advent of steam power and the rise of jute weaving, leather belting for machinery took over and remained the backbone of the trade until today even that business has died away.
A serious situation arose in 1995 when the Trades’ Banner and the original Lockit Book were both stolen. However, through a “sting” operation by the local police force both were recovered.
Today there are no members of the craft making shoes and all their efforts are devoted to carrying out charity work, particularly for educational purposes and supporting the Nine Incorporated Trades. Most of the Trades now work through this body in order to make their efforts more effective.
- 1588-1625 Privy Council
- 1836 Joseph Dempster
- Lockit Book Extracts
- Sundry Extracts
- The Acts And Statutes
- Cordiners Documents and Pictures
- Edward Parker & Co.