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.
The Flesher Trade is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most important of the Crafts in any Town and Burgh. Sadly, only by gleaning information from the records of Acts of the Privy Council, the Acts of the Convention of Royal Burghs, Dundee Burgh Records, Warden’s Burgh Laws and early histories of the town, can we piece together the early part of the Flesher Trade history. The explanation for this comes from their new Lockit Book of 1870. The first entry tells how Boxmaster James Hood Wilson’s shop in Union Street was broken into on 22nd September 1869 and documents, books and a portable desk in which they were stored, stolen. Despite the best efforts of the Police, Advertisements in the Press and every effort possible it has never been found.
From the earliest times there must have been considerable rivalry between the various Trades. The best record of this comes from one of the most obvious pieces of satire to be publicly displayed in Dundee. Before the Reformation, in the Old St. Mary’s Church, each Trade had its own Altar and Stall. Above the Baker’s Stall was carved the words “bread is the staff of life”. Undaunted the Flesher Trade had the immortal words “man shall not live by bread alone” carved above theirs.
The Flesher Trade was not one of the large trades in terms of numbers, rarely having more than between ten and twenty Masters. Even in the year 1859, when the population of the town had more than doubled in the previous 100 years, the total number of Masters in the Craft was only nineteen. As with the other Trades the Flesher Craft tended to be dominated by the same families. Even then, although the name may change, for example, the Constables married into the Mastertons, we find that it was because a son-in-law had taken over the business. Again, there are four Barries recorded as freemen in the 1500s and as many as twelve with the surname Constable shortly afterwards.
Cattle rustling was also a common practice, the rustlers killing and skinning the animals, cutting off the heads, and bringing only the carcase to market, thus concealing their ownership. This was forbidden. All animals had to be brought whole for inspection to ensure that they came from an honest source.
There were also dangers of animals being brought to the town and kept for some time before being taken elsewhere. It was therefore enacted that no one “shall buy ony sheep or cattle coming alive, but shall let the awner slay the samen”. This was to ensure that the animals were slaughtered by the butchers and sold in the town and not taken elsewhere, presumably for higher prices.
Animals were slaughtered in the Shambles and sold to the public from the Fleshers Booths running outside the building. As the town grew this inevitably caused problems with hygiene. Many years before, the Council had enacted that the Fleshers could not slaughter their beasts outside their booths because of the noise, smell and blood in the street. Bearing in mind that it was quite common for the poorer people to drink warm milk mixed with blood as a nourishing drink, or blood mixed with oats as a healthy nutritional meal, there could be no waste. Later, however the Fleshers themselves made money from this practice. They auctioned the sale of blood and of dung from the pens where the cattle were kept awaiting slaughter for the benefit of the Trades’ Poor. By 1846 the contract for the dung made £135 and for blood £55. (£7456 and £3038 respectively in 2002). From the very beginning charges were made for the killing of animals. In 1714 the record shows that the charge for slaughtering a cow, calf, pig or an ox was 12d. Scots, and 4d. for a sheep, lamb or goat. This money was used for the relief of the Trades’ poor, its orphans and widows.
Penalties were of course exacted for bad practice. In 1714 a heavy fine was exacted for “Blowing” meat, 40/- for the first fault, £3 for the second and £3 plus confiscation of the animal for the third fault. Blowing or Blawing Meat was the practice of swelling or bulking up meat up before sale to make it appear bigger and better to the prospective purchaser. It is interesting to note that despite the best efforts of the writer, none of the older living members of the Craft admit to any knowledge of this practice. Knowing the honesty of present day butchers perhaps modern farming and food preparation methods are what make this practice redundant
During 1862 complaints were received from the Police Commissioners regarding the lack of provision of water and feed for animals held for slaughter. The noise from hungry and thirsty sheep, cattle and goats must have been unnerving. Curiously enough meat was not as expensive as one has been lead to believe. In 1520-23 animal food, because growing grass needed little labour, was cheap compared to the price of grain. John Cowte sold George Gardyn an ox for thirtysix shillings, and received payment, but for some reason he did not deliver it and became bound to give him “as gude an ox to be esteemit as the old ox that George bocht, and gif he be waur that he gives, to give again as meikle money as he is waur”. During this period the average price of cows and oxen was some thirty-five shillings.
Care of the animals was also important. For example “that ony of them be fundin hoching nowt (hamstringing beasts) on the Hie Gait, he sall pay eight shillings unlaw; and gif it be provit that the nowt stand bleeding on the gait to be punishit sicklyke”. The cutting of the hamstring of a beast to prevent it wandering off must have been a particularly cruel practice and, if this also resulted in the poor beast bleeding in the street, would also have been very distressing for passers by to see and hear. Again the Bailies “had given licence to the fleshers to tak an officer with them, and apprehend and bring to the law any that present nocht all their mutton to the mercat – that are outmen and hald part of houses – or any that bring their flesh blawn, or infekkit with pokks or lung evil, to be convictit therefor, and their gudes escheatit” (confiscated). The practice of swelling meat is by no means the result of modern factory farming. The difference is that the law was much stricter in bygone days.
Even as early as 1562 two Masters of the Craft were detailed to examine the animals to ensure that they were not diseased as well as ensuring that no meat was sold in bulk so that people could not cut it into smaller pieces for sale at a profit. The Trades had to ensure that best prices were always obtained for their Masters.
The power of the Church ordained that flesh should not be eaten “during lentrene and uther days forbidden by the Kirk”. Lentrene was a soup made exclusively from vegetables and containing no meat products. A lentrene day meant that no meat should be eaten that day.
Severe shortages in 1567 had brought an Act of Parliament permitting the eating of meat on only four days each week and no meat was to be eaten the other three days. This shortage was not so apparent in Dundee where it was only forbidden on Friday and Saturday in line with the old canonical law. There is, however, considerable doubt if this law was rigorously enforced, at least in this part of the country.
The only exception to the selling of meat through the market came on the various ‘Fair Days’ when the “dustifuttit men”, travelling merchants who were allowed to sell their goods free from any inhibitions, came to town for the period of the Fair. In common with other towns Dundee had an annual fair day, normally falling on the Patron Saint’s day. In Dundee, for example, the fair was held on Assumption Day of Marymas, 15th August. It was first known as Our Lady Fair and was later corrupted to Lady Mary Fair. A second Fair was introduced by the Scrymgeours, the Constables of Dundee, in the fourteenth century on the nativity of the Virgin, 8th September and known as “the Latter Fair”, Much later, in the 18th century, a third Fair was introduced about a mile and a half outside the town at “Stob’s Muir” and called “Stobs Fair”.
Cattle were freely sold at this time and the damage to local business must have been quite severe.
It is recorded that in 1803 “the show of black cattle and horses was not as great as usual”, but by 21st July 1809 “the Stobs Muir Fair was held on Tuesday last. There was a greater show of cattle than usual”.
A carnival atmosphere took over and much strong ale and spirits was consumed. Stobs Fair in particular was literally a riotous affair, traditionally ending in bloodshed. 1809 was the year in which the 25th Regiment of Foot were involved in a pitched battle with some artillery soldiers over the breaking of a drum head. Swords and bayonets were used by the soldiers and the populace used stones. The laconic comment report mentioning that “one or two were killed and others wounded” made the event appear nothing out of the ordinary.
Fleshers were also brought before the Magistrates for misbehaviour. The Burgh Records of 15th April 1609 state that: “Quhilk day ye Baillies Counsulle & Dekynes of Craftis of ye burt of Dundie being c’venit hes convicted Thomas Paterson tallzer (cutter of meat) in speaking Irreverentlie aganes ye Magistrates viz yt he was as honest ane man as any of yame & gif yae wer out of offices he suld quarrel & find fault we yame for wrangis done to him. And yrfoir Ordanis ye said Thomas hais incurrit ye panes c’tainit in ye Actis maid Anent p’sones Irreverentlie speaking aganes ye Magistrates viz to haif tint his freedome wtin yis burt & to be wardit ay & qll he Make Ane suffict Amends to ye Baillies effendet.” Thomas Paterson had no doubt been upset by some action of the Magistrates and was suggesting that they were corrupt in some way. If they were not in office, when it was unlawful to insult a Magistrate, he would, in modern parlance, ‘sort them out’. However this was a direct challenge to their authority and the Magistrates duly jailed him until they considered he had made sufficient amends for his behaviour. Another Flesher, James Watson, was convicted on 31st December 1603 for striking a Flesher by the name of Black while in Edinburgh, presumably the result of a dispute over business. All in all however there appear to be fewer Fleshers who crossed the paths of the Magistrates and one must assume therefore that they were either better behaved than most Craftsmen or were too busy to get themselves into trouble.
The Howff, Dundee’s Old Burial Ground, shows evidence of important Fleshers. One of their earliest stones is dated 1613. The engraving reads “tomb of Margaret Gourlie wife of David Satire. Flesher 1613″, and has the arms of the Gourleys marshalled with the emblems of the Flesher Trade. Another such grave, dated 1673, is to Catherine Constable, wife of John Masterton Flesher. The fact that Catherine had been a Constable suggests that John, her husband, had been an apprentice and journeyman of one of the Constable family. He had married his Master’s daughter, thus acquiring the qualifications for becoming a burgess and therefore a Master in his own name. This was normal practice throughout the trade’s history, which suited both the Master and his Journeyman. The Journeyman qualified as a Burgess and Master of the Craft through being a son-in-law, and the Master kept the business in the family. Streets were invariably named after the principal person living there. However the story behind Couties Wynd is particularly interesting. At one time Couties Wynd lead from the Shore to where St. Mary’s Church still stands and would have been travelled by David Earl of Huntingdon after the storm in which he was almost lost. His house was on the east side of the Wynd and was known as “Earl David Huntingdon’s Haw”. It was first mentioned when King Robert was in Dundee in 1380.
In 1510, in the reign of James 5th, many robberies and frauds were committed. In order to detect such things the King, reputedly, travelled through various parts of the country in disguise and with his Court and guard a good way behind. It is recorded “the King in his journey over the Munth, met with one Coutie a Drover (Flesher) belonging to Dundee who was going for cattle. And they both walked together talking most comfortably when they were espied by a band of Robbers who came and attacked them. But though the King and Coutie fought long and defended themselves most manfully, they both being very able men, especially the King, who it was reported was a match for any two men if not more, and Coutie having a Dog with him which did more than both, and all growing feint by reason of the Many Villains they had to encounter were almost overcome, when the King said ‘Feight on Cowtie, the face of a King is terrible’ (Coutie never knew before who his royal traveller was). The villains hearing this, understood the meaning of these words, fled off with the greatest precipitation fearing they would all be taken, and so left the King and Coutie together for which it is said the King so rewarded Coutie’s Noble Action with a Complement of the place he lived in giving him the Wynd which was known for centuries as Cowties Wynd from him”. This story was recorded in 1775 and has romantic overtones. The King’s prowess, not to mention the fact that the dog was a better fighter than both he and Coutie, hardly bears closer inspection.
In common with the other Trades the Fleshers were constantly pursuing and prosecuting ‘unfreemen’ from selling their products in the Town. An Unfreeman was one who was not a Master of the Flesher Trade and in particular meaning anyone who was not a Burgess of the town. In 1816 they prosecuted several parties for infringing their rights and initially the case went in their favour. However in December the Court of Session ruled against them on the grounds that all those prosecuted had been soldiers or the children of soldiers and were therefore entitled to trade in any town in Great Britain. These people would have been “King’s Freemen”. There had been a shortage of fighting men in the late 1700s and the King had decreed that any man who served in the Army or Navy could, on his return, have the same privileges as any other freeman of the town without having to become either a Master of a Trade or a Burgess of that town. In this instance they had picked the wrong case to fight.
It is strange that the town was very aware of the habit of unfreemen trading within its boundaries.
In practice the town had encouraged unfreemen, and had even given them space in the slaughterhouse. It is possible that this was because the Flesher Trade was much smaller in numbers than the population required. We know that the other trade apprentices were required to serve from five to seven years before becoming a Master. In addition no master could employ another apprentice until the first one had completed his full time. Then the young man would perform a “Master Piece” to prove that he was competent and that he could work to a high enough standard to be accepted into the Trade. Somewhere along this process the Fleshers must have got things wrong and there were not enough Craftsmen for the business available. In no other case did the Town Council ever allow unfreemen from any other Trade this liberty.
Great damage was being done to the Trade by this practice, affecting their ability to care for their poor, through being unable to collect the dues for each animal slaughtered. As a result their financial position would have been quite serious. They were not taking in enough money to pay their rent on the shambles and struggling to pay their poor. Similar problems beset the other Trades and the Magistrates normally upheld any case brought by any of the Trades in supporting the punishment of unfreemen. Obviously this would also be in the interests of the town in that it made the Magistrates function of controlling trading in the burgh much easier, and of course by the Trade caring for its own poor, widows and orphans it relieved the town of any responsibility.
Due to expansion, the town had decided that the shambles were becoming a danger to health and should be demolished and replaced by one near the Greenmarket. Despite the protestations and legal actions of the Trade the decision was made.
In 1770 the town required them to move, and after going to the Court of Session the Fleshers lost an expensive case.
A new site was built by the town on the west side of the Greenmarket. This was also eventually lost during another redevelopment of the town when Whitehall Crescent was proposed.
The first History of Old Dundee in 1775, records that on April 4th. “The plea betwixt the Town Council & the Flesher Trade, which was for Some time before the Lords of Session, was by them decided in favours of the Town Council they therefore, in Consequence of their Sentence, were obliged to remove, & being Wednesday, they went to the New Flesh Market, which is Situate near the Shore, at the back of the Large Warehouse, being in Whole a large Oblong, divided in Midst, which makes two Equal Squares, the one Called the Town Market, being that which the members of the Flesher Trades Possess, and the other the Country Market, being that which the Country Fleshers (unfreemen) and others, who are not members of that Corporation in this place, Occupie. It is neat and handsome has walls on the outside nine feet high, & the roof on the inside is supported by round Stone Pillars, and is divided into different Stalls each being separated from another by a Wall Builded of Brick, and has a well at the Eastend which runs out at one of the pillars of that called the Town Market, and water whereof runs through both in order to keep them clean & sweet. In short it is one of the Neatest of its kind in this nation.
This Year also the Slaughter Houses for the Free Butchers of this Town were builded. There are Nine of these, & form two sides of a square, & the rest is inclosed by a high wall & great gate. They stand at a very small distance from the common passage or Ferry over the Tay here.”
THE Fleshers, however, were totally obsessed with owning their own property, which overcame any financial know-how they possessed and caused them to become bankrupt and several times be insolvent. They were only saved by the particular loyalty of their masters who, time and time again, came to the rescue and gave personal guarantees for debts. These guarantees were regularly lost when the debts were called in. More than once the Trade bought totally unsuitable property
In 1826 they bought premises between the Overgate and the Ward burn. These were sold at a loss when they realised that they were totally unsuitable. In 1828 they bought and sold another site in Long Wynd. In 1835 they bought the old Dundee Soap Works in Chapelshade and converted it for their own use. Once again they had not considered the large number of possible objectors and the Sheriff declared against them. The cost of this fiasco was over £2100, which was not cleared for some forty years.
In 1839 the Trade was bankrupt, paying out only 8/- in the pound. The soapworks was paid to clear its debts, making little over half the asking price, but no lesson was learned.
A few months later they borrowed more money, bought the Dudhope Nursery in Douglas Street, and built a slaughterhouse. All their efforts were spent trying to keep their heads above water, and this left little energy or time for any other involvement in the community. The Trade moved banks regularly in an effort to borrow more money and to control their debts, to very little avail. Again personal guarantees were lost and eventually, in 1877, the Dundee Police Commission recommended that the Shambles be taken over.
By 1869, much too late, they agreed that unfree men could join the Craft, although a Trade Test was still required of them. Later, in common with other trades, the Flesher Trade was opened to suitable candidates from the general community.
It may well be that because of their small numbers, or perhaps because they were always struggling to keep themselves solvent, they were less able to give to devote time to the important work of the Nine Trades. No Master was elected from the Trade as Convener, until 1794, when William Watson was appointed. Thereafter no more were elected until recent years, by which time the purpose of the Trades was predominately charitable and not directly connected with the work of the butcher. William Clark was elected Convener in 1931 and David Craig in 1986.
Indeed even today, despite the advent of Superstores, there are a number of thriving family businesses with connections to the Flesher Trade going back several generations.
Many families with long ties to the Flesher Craft still have businesses in the City. The names Robertson, 1884 (now Craig), Scott Jarron, 1935 (now Scott Bros.), Fitzgerald, Black, Grossett, McKay, 1960 (now Irvine), Gray, Piggot and Matthew spring to mind.
Many of these modern Masters have given valuable service and held office in the national bodies of their Craft and individually are winners of many awards for quality and service. Throughout recent difficult trading times these Masters have innovated and brought best possible practice to their chosen Craft. Their forerunners in the Craft would indeed be proud of their achievements.
Today the Craft numbers are in the eighties and it is a thriving, solvent and forward- looking Trade. A proud and important group of men, its future is assured and it takes a prominent place in the development of the Nine Trades.