Long before there were jobs like tour guiding that people could do if they proved unsuitable for a more useful purpose in life, young Edinburgers would be apprenticed to one of fifteen specific guilds in the city. These would provide them with a trade to which they could dedicate themselves, and in turn they would grow to become the master craftsmen and craftswomen who passed the skills on to other young people.
Each guild elected a deacon to act as its governing representative, and between them the guilds wielded significant power with their leaders often becoming burgesses, giving them a seat on the boards of governors who passed laws and legislation about how Edinburgh ran and operated as a growing city.
Each guild also operated a guildhall, where their members could meet and convene, and where the business of administrating their respective trades would be carried out. Today remnants of some of these original guildhalls can still be found around Edinburgh, so here is my guide to some of these historical trades.
THE GUILD OF SURGEONS
The incorporated barber surgeons were created in 1505 and only became two separate institutions in the eighteenth century. The original surgeons' hall was on High School Yards off Infirmary Street in the Old Town, and still survives as one of the campus buildings of the University of Edinburgh.
In 1832 the new Surgeons' Hall (pictured) opened on nearby South Bridge, designed by William Henry Payfair - today it houses the Surgeons' Hall Museums of surgery and dentistry, and was the location for the riot in 1870 when Sophia Jex-Blake and the Edinburgh Seven - the university's first female students of medicine - were confronted by angry crowds.
THE INCORPORATED TRADES OF SKINNERS AND FURRIERS
Sharing premises on New Skinner's Close in the Old Town, these were the people who provided the furs and animal skins for garment making, and so were also tanners. The furriers made fur hats specifically, but other kinds of headwear would have been the domain of the incorporated guild of waulkers (and later the bonnetmakers and dyers).
THE GUILD OF BAXTERS
Baxters were bakers - and specifically bread makers - who for a time had their headquarters in the Dean Village in Edinburgh's New Town. The stone above the entrance to their guildhall reads GOD BLESS THE BAXTERS OF EDINBURGH WHO BUILT THIS HOUSE 1675 - although the building was later utilised by St Mary's Episcopal cathedral and has today been converted into housing.
The Dean Village was an industrial mill town which provided the flour which would be turned into the bread which fed the city of Edinburgh. Today it's a quiet suburb (and features on my fixed-route New Town walking tour) with a number of historic and picturesque buildings.
GUILD OF TAILORS
The original tailors' hall stands on Cowgate in the Old Town, and is today a pub - the building dates from the 1620s although it was substantially modified in the nineteenth century when it was also used as a military barracks.
INCORPORATION OF CORDINERS
The cordiners - or shoemakers - of the city had their offices on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile, and the building today still has their crest above the doorway. The guild dates from the fifteenth century, but the building itself was substantially redeveloped as part of the Victorian-era improvements of the Old Town.
The symbol of the cordiners is the half-moon knife, which was a tool exclusive to leatherworkers.
GUILD OF WRIGHTS AND MASONS
The two incorporated trades of wrights (carpenters or joiners) and masons (stonecutters) date back to 1475 when they were being treated as a single entity and shared a guild hall at Mary's Chapel on Burnet's Close on the Royal Mile.
The most famous deacon (representative) of the wrights was William Brodie, who achieved notoriety as a thief and would later inspire Robert Louis Stevenson to create one of his most enduring fictional characters.
The masonic lodge of Mary's Chapel survives and is today found in the New Town, where it is considered one of the oldest surviving masonic lodges in the world.
INCORPORATION OF CANDLEMAKERS
Established sometime before 1517, chandlers or candlemakers were a key trade in the city, providing the tallows which allowed people to light their homes. It was a dangerous industry and as such was forbidden from operating on the narrow closes or wynds of the city.
Their guild hall (pictured) was located outside of the original city walls - the candlemakers' hall on Candlemaker Row near Greyfriars Bobby in the Old Town was built in the 1720s and restored in 1979.
Their motto was 'Omnia manifesta luce', or 'All in clear light'.
GUILD OF HAMMERMEN
The incorporated guild of hammermen dates back to around 1477 and represented seventeen distinct trades who worked metal with hammers. They included blacksmiths, farriers, locksmiths, tinsmiths, brass founders and pewterers. (Goldsmiths and silversmiths would later form their own guild.)
The hammermen were granted ownership of the Magdalen Chapel on Cowgate, where they met from 1596 until 1858. The chapel still has the crest of the guild of hammermen above the door, and contains the original deacon's chair which dates back to 1708.
Although people often come to Edinburgh looking for stories of kings and queens, I think the lives of the ordinary folk of the city offer the more revealing or interesting perspective on city history.
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