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The Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh are the trade and craft bodies of the City of Edinburgh, Scotland, in much the same way as the Livery companies are in The City of London, but on a much smaller scale. The Incorporations are not "guilds", that term being properly reserved in Scotland for the merchant bodies in the various burghs. The Incorporations have never referred to themselves as guilds; indeed they came into existence, mostly in the latter part of the fifteenth century, in order to counter the growing power of the merchant guild, known as the Royal Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh. By 1562 the Incorporations formed what became known as The Convenery of Trades of Edinburgh, an umbrella body that still exists and which looks after the interests of all the Incorporated Trades of the burgh. The Convenery consists, in the narrow sense of the word, of the Deacons of each of the Incorporations, plus the two Trades Councillors. In the broad sense of the word, however, the term "Convenery of Trades" embraces all the Freemen of all the Incorporated Trades of the Burgh, together with their journeymen and apprentices, in a convivial fellowship of mutual support.

Until 1833 the Deacons of the fourteen Incorporated Trades sat with the Town Council in their deliberations. In 1583 the Act of Sett of the Burgh laid down that six of the Deacons, known as the Council Deacons, should sit as full Council members at all meetings of the Council, and the remaining eight Deacons, known as Extraordinary Deacons, were to sit with the Council only when certain topics of business were being discussed and to take full part in the annual elections of Councillors and office-bearers. Historically it was necessary to become a Burgess of the Burgh before one could be admitted as a Freeman of one of the Incorporations. Once an applicant had submitted his essay and been accepted as a Freeman, he was expected to set up his own business and to employ journeymen and train apprentices. The Incorporations were able to prevent any outsiders from practising their trade in the Burgh until they had paid their dues to the appropriate incorporated trade.

Origins and background

The Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh historically held the power to regulate their various trades in the town. There are fifteen incorporations in Edinburgh, fourteen of which had Deacons who were permanent members of the Convenery of Trades from its beginning. Unlike the worshipful companies of London which are given precedence based on their date of founding, the trades are given precedence by the Act of Sett of the Burgh of Edinburgh, in a "decreet arbitral" by King James VI in 1583. The cited reason for this was that many of the trades "no longer possessed their original seals of cause and did not know the year in which they had been founded".

Each trade elects a Deacon – an office dating back to an Act of Parliament in 1424. Their role was originally one of quality control. To ensure the products of their respective trade matched up to the standards expected of the craft. The role of Deacon later became combined with the role of that of Kirkmaster (treasurer). The privilege of the Deacons sitting on the Town Council was rescinded following the passage of the Scottish Burgh Reform Act in 1833. The Deacons undertook other work, for example The Deacon of the Goldsmiths was also the Assay-Master at the Edinburgh Assay Office until 1681 (an organisation that they still operate to this day). Over time they took on roles as trustees of various charities. They were also the Governors of the Edinburgh Trades Maiden Hospital, founded by the Craftsmen of Edinburgh and Mary Erskine (1629-1707). This charity still exists but its name was changed in 2015 to the Edinburgh Trades Fund.

The Convenery of the Trades of Edinburgh consists of the deacons of all the incorporated trades and today acts as the ruling body of the Incorporated Trades. Its present-day main focus is the various charities and events operated by the Incorporated Trades. They also assist the various Incorporated Trades wherever they can. The Convenery is headed by the Deacon-Convener of the Trades of Edinburgh, who holds the distinction of being the first tradesman in Scotland, and third citizen of Edinburgh after the Lord Provost and the Lord Dean of Guild. From 1598 until 1858 the Convenery of Trades met in The Magdalen Chapel in Cowgate. Today it meets at its own headquarters, known as Ashfield, 61 Melville Street, which also contains a dedicated museum.


In order to become a Freeman of any of the trades one used to have to become a Burgess of the City of Edinburgh first. The grant of Burgesship was historically the gift of the Lord Dean of Guild, an office in the Council of the City of Edinburgh. However, Local Government Reform in 1973 changed this precedent and the office of Lord Dean of Guild was transferred instead to the Merchant Company of Edinburgh. Though the City of Edinburgh council retained the power to grant Burgess-ship, it came to be awarded only honorarily to those who "have distinguished themselves through their work or efforts, or to recognise the respect and high esteem in which they are held by the people of Edinburgh". This caused an issue for the Incorporated Trades, as it meant prospective Freemen first had to approach the Merchant Company of Edinburgh to get their Burgess ticket, before they could join their trade. Edinburgh City Council arbitrated an agreement between the Merchants and the Craftsmen, and now nominations for Burgess-ship are accepted from either organisation, adjudicated by a committee with representatives from both the Merchant Company and the Convenery of Trades and chaired by the Lord Dean of Guild. In 2017 a new body was created, called the Burgess Association of Edinburgh, to include all the Burgesses of the City, thus fostering friendship and co-operation between the Merchant Company and the Convenery of Trades.

Present-day activities

Many of the trades have taken on a more charitable focus, and some even accept Freemen who have not received a Burgess ticket.

The Incorporation of Surgeons is now The Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and operates as one of the four surgical colleges in the United Kingdom and Ireland, the others being The Royal College of Surgeons of England, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. The Incorporation held the unusual privilege of being the only body with a monopoly on the distilling of alcohol ("aquavite") in the burgh.

The Incorporation of Goldsmiths owns and operates the Edinburgh Assay Office. Today its Freemen include jewellers, gold and silver smiths, bankers and financiers. Historically, many of its membership helped form the Bank of Scotland in 1695. It retains the statutory role of assaying and hallmarking gold, silver, platinum and palladium wares before they can be sold.

The Kirking of the Deacons

Every year the Deacons are "kirked" at Beltane, in a ceremony, known as The Kirking of the Deacons, in which the Deacons march in ceremonial dress along with their banner-bearers, led by the Convenery's Officer bearing the Blue Blanket, under escort from the High Constables of Edinburgh, from Candlemakers' Hall to Greyfriars Kirk. They are met by the Lord Provost and some of the Council where a ceremony is conducted by the Convenery's Chaplain. Psalms and hymns are sung and Clement Cor's Prayer, the traditional dedicatory prayer of the Convenery, is said. This is followed by a procession from the church to the grave of Mary Erskine, with whom the Incorporated Trades founded the Trades Maiden Hospital 1704. Before the Local Council Reform of 1973, this ceremony was undertaken by the entirety of Edinburgh Council, where they would be "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."

The Riding of the Marches This is a modern revival of a tradition that stopped in the early 1700s. It is an annual event held in Edinburgh to commemorate the return in the year 1513 of the Captain of the City Band, Randolph Murray clasping the Ancient 'Blue Blanket Banner' (the banner of the Edinburgh tradesmen, said to have been awarded to the craftsmen of Edinburgh by James III in 1482) with news of the defeat of the Scottish Army at the Battle of Flodden.

List of trades

1. The Incorporation and Royal College of Surgeons
2. The Incorporation of Goldsmiths
3. The Incorporation of Skinners
4. The Incorporation of Furriers
5. The Incorporation of Hammermen
6. The Incorporation of Wrights
7. The Incorporation of Masons
8. The Incorporation of Tailors
9. The Incorporation of Baxters
10. The Incorporation of Fleshers
11. The Incorporation of Cordiners
12. The Incorporation of Weavers
13. The Incorporation of Waulkers
14. The Incorporation of Bonnetmakers & Dyers
15. The Incorporation of Candlemakers
The Society of Barbers
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