Toast given at the Convenor Court Election Dinner 2016 by:
Professor Robert I. Frost, FBA
Burnett Fletcher Chair in History,
University of Aberdeen,
Department of History,
Aberdeen AB24 3FX
Deacon Convener, Patron, Master of Trades Hospital, Lord Provost, Lord Dean of Guild, Members of the Convener Court, fellow guests.
It is a signal honour for me to be invited to propose the toast to the Convener Court of this great institution this evening. I hope that my background will not put you off. I am an Edinburgh boy by upbringing and that most unpractical of trades by profession—a University teacher. Even worse, although my family was in trade, my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before me were members of the Merchant Company of Edinburgh, and I am aware that relations between merchant companies and the incorporated trades of the Scottish burghs were not always marked by the Bon Accord that is the motto of this great city. Furthermore, had I entered the family business of soft furnishings, I note that under Alexander II’s Charter of 1222 to the city of Aberdeen, I would have been classed as a ‘stranger merchant’, and would not have been permitted to cut my cloth for sale in the market of Aberdeen, ‘save from the day of the Ascension of our Lord to the Feast of St Peter in Chains’: that is between May and early June (depending on the date of Easter) and August 1. I also note that according to this charter, the ‘waulkers and weavers’ were specifically excluded from the Merchant’s Guild of Aberdeen, which indicates the nature of the relations between the two bodies: the very incorporation of the trades in the Scottish burghs reflected the necessity of banding together to fight for the privileges of the craft guilds against the encroachments of the predatory merchants.
That being the case, I am happy to reassure you that I am the first Robert Frost in four generations not to be a member of the Merchant Company of Edinburgh, and I have certainly not brought any cloth to cut for sale this evening. I hope, therefore, that I may be permitted to say a few words about this great institution in general, and the Convener’s Court in particular. Let me begin with that famous motto: Bon Accord. For I think it is safe to say—if you will forgive me for my presumption, Lord Provost—that Bon Accord has not always marked the internal politics of Aberdeen. In 1440, in one of the first attempts to bring the various guilds of the city together, the office of Abbot of Bon Accord was instituted, to direct the trade corporations in the play of Halyblude at Wyndmylhill, and to lead them in the various religious processions that took place on Holy days. By 1445, this figure was viewed with suspicion by many among the guilds and on the Council. Bon Accord was in such short supply that the Council issued a decree on 30 April of that year in which:
It was concludit, statute, and ordanit be the comoune counsale and mony others of the gilde for lettying and staneheying of diuerss enormyties done in tyme bigane be the Abbits of this burgh callit Bone Acorde, that in tyme to come thai will give na fies to nae sic Abbotis.
Not much Bon Accord there, then. But rule from above, whether by the Abbot of Bon Accord, or by the Council—especially where fees were involved—never sat well with the tradesmen of Aberdeen. Only when the initiative came from below, could collaboration and cooperation truly flourish, as they did from 1587, when the seven trades elected their first Deacon Convener, George Elphinston—a surname with great resonance in the University as well as in the Town. I wonder who gave the speech that evening. I’d lay odds on it not being the son of an Edinburgh merchant.
Nevertheless, even after the establishment of this splendid institution, there were many times when Bon Accord was indeed in short supply, as my colleague Andrew Mackillop has revealed in a recent article based on the marvellous records held within this building—a matter to which I shall return. He looks at the rioting that broke out on the afternoon of 17 October 1785 in the Schoolhill district. I hesitate to mention it, but the disorder centred upon the Wrights & Coopers, who had just attended the election of their deacon and boxmaster at Trinity Hall. A procession of wrights apprentices and journeymen, carrying their banner and beating a drum, were attacked by cooper apprentices and journeymen; members of their own guild, though I hasten to assure the Deacon of the Wrights & Coopers that the ringleaders of the disorder were not officeholders of the guild, but the unofficial ‘nominal’ deacons and boxmasters, parallel officeholders elected on the same day by the servants of the different crafts, who had yet to acquire freeman status. I assume that such offices have long since disappeared, but they must have added to the difficulties of maintaining Bon Accord.
They certainly did in this case. After the scuffles died down on the afternoon of 17 October, the Wrights, led by their newly-elected nominal deacon, Thomas Morice, retired to a private house to consider their retaliation. Next morning, 40–50 journeymen and apprentice wrights, led by Morice, brandishing a sword, assembled at the head of Shiprow. They processed through the streets attacking any cooper they could find, until a huge crowd had gathered. Lord Provost William Cruden, recently-elected Deacon of the Wrights & Coopers, tried in vain to calm the crowd by telling them he would order the soldiers to open fire if they did not disperse. The crowd called his bluff. When the tiny garrison of 15 soldiers succeeded in arresting Morice and a couple of his sidekicks, the mob broke the windows of the Tollbooth and demanded their release, a request that was rapidly granted. Cruden was followed back to his house, which the mob threatened to tear down, until dissuaded by the Reverend James Sheriffs, who was to become Patron of the Incorporated Trades in 1795. I notice that his portrait now guards the entry to the Gents Lavatory. It was not until December that the three were charged, and not until May 1786 that they were tried. Morice was found not guilty by a majority verdict, only one wright was convicted out of three men fined £30 each and imprisoned for two months—rather a lenient sentence for riot.
It would be bad history to present this incident as typical. Historians are like journalists; they cluster round the sensational like jackals round a wounded antelope. It is, however, the many, many years when riots did not happen that are more typical of the work of the Incorporated Trades and of the Convener Court. For Bon Accord does not come easily, and institutions are the pillars on which civil society rests.
Thomas Hobbes, surveying the wreckage of the English Civil War in 1651, famously remarked that:
During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man…[in which state there are] no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
For the full story of these events, see Andrew Mackillop, ‘Riots and reform: burgh authority, the languages of civic reform and the Aberdeen riot of 1785’, published in Urban History, October 2016: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/urban-history/article/riots-and-reform-burgh-authority-the-languages-of-civic-reform-and-the-aberdeen-riot-of-1785/637F07EC11225A5631644F8B2D6F2CB3
I disagree with Hobbes. It is not a common power keeping mankind in awe that ensures prosperity and civil peace. It is civic instutitions that embody the principle of Bon Accord; institutions that seek day by day to educate, negotiate, and quietly settle disputes which ensure that disorders such as that which broke out in Aberdeen in October 1785 are exceptional events. It is such institutions that calm disorder and restore harmony to civil society.
Here in Aberdeen one such institution is the University, which, since its foundation in 1495 has studied and taught the Humane Arts of which Hobbes speaks. Today these humane subjects—Philosophy, Literature, Classics, History, Art—are under threat from a succession of governments that have increasingly seen universities as mere production lines for the practical professions and tools of social engineering. Yet—and here I agree with Hobbes—societies without arts and letters are societies in which the life of man is indeed solitary, nasty, and brutish. But universities can only achieve so much on their own; they must—and I am sure that Principal Diamond would agree—form and deepen links with other institutions to achieve their goals. Since the days of Principal William Guild, the University has enjoyed and benefited from close links with the Incorporated Trades. I am delighted that recently, thanks to the help of several people here tonight—Graeme Nicol, David Parkinson, Graeme Thomson, Ian Webster, David Henderson, and your new Deacon Convener—my own department has begun a fruitful collaboration with Trinity Hall which I hope will develop and flourish.
For historians need records on which to work, and Aberdeen’s historical records are unique in Britain and Europe. The Leverhulme-funded Aberdeen Burgh Records project, based in the History Department, is beginning to reveal the unparalleled richness of the Council records, which—uniquely in Britain—apart from one missing book (1414–1430) are complete from 1398. These sources, together with the magnificent holdings of the Unversity’s Special Collections, will enable the project to construct a completely new account of the city’s past. But in many ways the most important and unique records lie within this building. No city in Britain and none that I know in Europe, where war, fire and flood have destroyed many urban records, has a collection of sources remotely comparable to what you have here. There are Incorporated Trades elsewhere in Scotland and guild records in many British cities. Yet in most cases the records are incomplete, or have disappeared entirely. Here you have an untouched treasure trove.
I therefore hope that the current collaboration between Trinity Hall and the University will continue and deepen. Such collaboration would, I am sure, reveal much about the way in which the Incorporated Trades have quietly, effectively, and unobtrusively contributed to the maintenance of that social peace and harmony that we call Bon Accord. That you still exist as a living, growing, vibrant body demonstrates the way in which your institution, whose attachment to tradition is so evident in this building and at this splendid dinner, has nonetheless always managed to adapt and accommodate itself to the myriad demands of a rapidly-changing world. Many similar institutions have crumbled, declined, or simply disappeared, but you have flourished. At the heart of that success has been the Convener Court which, since its institution in 1587, has managed the various rivalries, disputes and crises that have disturbed the city and its trades over the years. I have over the last few weeks, been involved with your new Deacon Convener in a rather difficult and nasty case, and have been privileged to observe at first hand his quiet, unflustered and calm approach to the problems we have faced. You have, if I may say so, selected as your Deacon Convener someone who embodies the values of this magnificent institution, values that have helped preserve Bon Accord in this great city for half a millenium, and will, I am confident, continue to do so for many years to come. May I invite you to charge your glasses and join me in a toast to the Convener Court.