Selkirk Merchant Company  


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First Minute Book (1694-1738)

An Interpretation     

The Minute Book was transcribed in Autumn 1997 by Teresa Maley, the cost being underwritten by an anonymous member of the company. The original text, although conserved, is often obscure and extremely difficult to read. The Company is therefore grateful to Teresa Maley for her scholarship and also to our benefactor for enabling us to understand more of the early business of the Company during what was a turbulent period of Scottish history. Owing to the transcription, we can make some amendments, hitherto impossible, to the History book of the Merchant Company. We can now, also, fill in some omissions and add some things to it.

The earliest Minute, which also incorporated the Company, is dated 13 February 1694. References in the text however, show that an unincorporated organisation of Selkirk merchants was in existence from Candlemas 1693 (i.e. 2 Feb 1693, one of the traditional Scottish quarter days when rents fell due). Seats in the loft were being rented out from at least that time.

The Merchant Company thus predated the Darien Scheme (1695) but roughly coincided with the Act in the Scottish Parliament of 1693 for encouraging of Foreign Trade.  (It also, incidentally, predated the establishment of the Bank of England!).  One entry, dated 1695, intrudes upon and precedes the 1694 minute and appears to have been inserted later, simply one imagines, to use up a blank page and thus save expensive paper.  A few others are out of order presumably for the same reason.

The main concerns of the Company during the years covered by the first Minute Book relate to the administration of the seats in the Merchants’ Loft in the Kirk. Title to a seat, a status symbol, signified membership of the Company and involved paying a debenture and annual rent to it for the privilege. Debenture costs and rents varied according to how near the front the seat was. The front seats cost £10 Scots each with additional annual rent but the later North side ones behind the Weavers were cheaper  and only cost £2 Scots. Other seats were pro-rata. The Kirk itself stood where the present Auld Kirk ruin stands and was demolished in 1747. It should be remembered that, in those days, attendance at Church was compulsory. With the seat came entitlement to use one of the Company's mort-cloths. These were owned by the Company, periodically mended and renewed and rented out to members and their families. They served to cover up an otherwise plain coffin and so give additional status to the bereaved family. In early Minutes, a separate annual rental and charge for use of the moth cloths is identified. Later the entitlement appears to be part of the seat rental. When a new mort cloth was commissioned, as minuted in 1718, it was to be made of good black velvet with silk fringes and be paid for out of Company funds.

Other concerns were the guarding of the Merchant's rights to trade; the participation in the Common Riding; appointment of leaders, treasurers and Standard Bearers and scrutiny of the Company's troublesome accounts. Gifts in charity were often made and carefully noted.

The money collected from the rent of the seats and mort-cloths was lent out with interest. The interest was prescribed in law to be no greater than 5% otherwise it constituted usury which was illegal. They got round this by charging an up- front arrangement fee.

There is mention in 1720 of lending money to usury; but in the context, it simply means interest. Initially it was lent to members and others but latterly only to non-members (Minute 1719), when the members noted how inconvenient it has been to lend money out of their box to any of their Company because it frequently falls that those of their company to whom the money is lent becomes in wrong circumstances in the world.

On 10 Apryll 1697 the Company had ‘’ane mynd ... that ther shoud be mony made redi for the affrican trade’’. A word of explanation is necessary here. In 1695, by act of the Scottish Parliament, a Company of Scotland trading to Africa and the Indies was founded. This became known as the Darien Scheme.  Darien is actually in Panama, not far from what is now known as Golfo de los Mosquitos which speaks for itself. The mosquitos, ill health and the Spanish, who had been in the area for nearly 200 years, saw to it that the adventure was doomed. In any case, it was poorly thought out as a trading mission as the first ships carried cargoes of bonnets, wigs, stockings and heavy fabrics. England initially subscribed to the scheme but suddenly withdrew finance and support.  So it was in a spirit of patriotic fervour and a desire to repair national finances that Scotland underwrote the scheme and something like one third of Scotland's wealth was hazarded on this fruitless project. Incidentally, Hamburg and other European trading centres promised support, showing the extent of Scottish trade connections at that time. Four separate payments into the African trade are recorded in the Minutes; in 1696, 1699, 1702 and 1703, totalling £102/11/0d Scots. This is all a bit intriguing as the Darien Scheme, enacted in 1695, and having mounted expeditions     in 1698 and 1699, had completely failed by 1700. Yet Selkirk Merchant Company was still apparently paying towards it three years later. There were, at approximately that time, two other Scottish colonies in the Americas.  One, in South Carolina, lasted only two years and was gone by 1686. Another, in New Jersey, lasted for twenty years but had failed by 1702. It may be, as Allan Massie surmises in his book, that some of the money collected for the Darien Scheme was never actually paid into it. Be that as it may, by 1708 there appears to have been a satisfactory conclusion reached as reference is made to the remain of the Africa money being used to pay money owed to James Wighelme and Andrew Wigholme.  Africa is not mentioned thereafter and Darien itself is never mentioned. One can only guess that the Company received a pay-out in compensation for its contributions to the Africa trade from the Equivalence under the Act of Union of 1707.

On the Act of Union the Minutes are, likewise, curiously silent, despite it resulting in increased trade with England.  Alongside carefully recorded sums levied for the right to sit in the Kirk loft, many and frequent references are made to ‘’enterie’’ money.  This was a £14 Scots; (by 1700 a fourteen was 1 Merk Scots or 14 shillings), charged to all individuals who either joined the Company by renting a seat in the loft or those who moved forwards a row. There were five rows. This enigmatic fee, which was assiduously collected and noted, is eventually explained in an entry in December 1724 when it becomes clear that the 'fourteens' were a 'kitty' for drink!

As Allan Massie states in the History, the Company jealously and zealously husbanded the seats in the Kirk loft. However, the incident he mentions that took place in 1709 when members of the Incorporation of Weavers were banned from the ‘’Mairchants Loaft’’ was less an assertion of status but more because the Weavers, who had infultrated the loft, were ‘’mouthsome’’.  Later, in 1714, the Merchants struck their true colours by banning ‘’mechanicks and fleshers’’ from the loft. (Mechanicks were labourers belonging to what was considered an inferior occupation. Again, in 1735, one James Miller, proposed for membership, was objected to ‘’becaus a mesenger (deliverer of summons etc.) and no merchant’’ and does not appear to have been admitted. In 1720, it was decided that if the first son (ie. inheritor) of any of the Company be a mechanic he is debarred, but any other sons who ever be a merchant could join.

In 1719, in a protectionist move, the Company considered that several inhabitants within the burgh who are neither burgesses nor widdoes [of the] Merchant Company, and that also, several Burgesses to pack and peel (engage in wholesale trade) with several unfree ‘’treaders contrair’’ to standing acts of Burgh, and rules of Mechandizing therefore the Company recommend  to their treasurer to inquire who are guilty thereof and to prosecute them before the dean of Guild and his brethren and Gilderie. They wanted them fined and pay conform to their demerit and the money given to the Company. It is not recorded if they succeeded.

Further protectionist moves in 1729 saw the drawing up of a petition (where the bottles bought from Mrs Chisholme went, see below) to the ‘’magistrates and Councell ... for a seall of cause and they unanimouslie condescend thereto so that they may have the haill freedomes and priviledges of Brugh as other merchants in other Brughs hes’’. Once more, in 1733, the ‘’Royall Burrowes (Convention of Scottish Burghs) were petitioned anent the loss they (the Company) sustain through their not haveing the priveledge that the other merchants hes viz in Jedburgh and other burrowes in the Kingdome’’.  Note that the concept of a United Kingdom had not yet gained hold more than 100 years after the act of 1603 (Union of the Crowns) and that this is also an early example of Borders inter-town rivalry! The Merchants were simply protecting their rights.

Financially, the Company generally tried to run a tight ship but were frequently frustrated by absent or tardy accounts, treasurers of doubtful integrity and frequent failures to collect money owing. Most years nevertheless showed a superplus (surplus) on the annual accounts.  A recurrent problem was the collection of annual rates due on the kirk loft seats, which were the responsibility of the thesaurer (treasurer), elected annually. The quality of the accounts varied from year to year but usually balanced. When they didn't, various contrivances wer used. One such was having the treasurer swear on oath that he had spent the balance, unaccounted for, on the Company's behalf. Thus, in 1714, John Lukupe, thesaurer since 1709 (sometimes referred to as boxmaster) whose attempts are not altogether clear, was asked to take his ‘’Path as to the veritie of what money he pay'd out’’ to Andrew Wigholme (doormaster of the loft since before 1700) who was unwell. This he did, and the company accepted his oath, which they had little choice other than to do, as Andrew Wigholme was already dead. However, they insisted thereafter that he obtained at least six separate member's signatures before paying anything else out.

Prior to 1718, when Frances Vogan was appointed thesaurer, the accounts were a nightmare. Various previous treasurers failed, for the most part, to submit any accounts. William Johnstone, thesaurer from 1714 to 1718, produced no accounts until pressed in late 1718. He ad still not paid what he owed to the Company three years later! Accordingly the Company, on 11th April 1721, debar him entrance to the seat Sabbath next and for tua Sabbaths thereafter with Certificatione if he do not pay within the three Sabbaths he is to be debared from the seat forever and his name to be scoured. The threat must have worked as his name appears continually until 1726 when he quyt his seat of the loft and is paid £8/10s/0d Scots by the Company to redeem it.

Another entry raises some doubt as to accuracy. In the accounts of 24 of Maii 1730 is an item to Mr(s) Chisholme for three botles of Wyne and three botles of aill at the meeting to get the petition drawen ... £3/6/0d. In those days, three pounds six shillings should have bought much more that that, this entry therefore appears to have been expediently imaginitive. A subsequent entry in 1731 notes that for aill at counting only 6 shillings was required.

With the appointment of Frances Vogan as treasurer, the standard of accounting improved immeasurably.

Because the Company was financially buoyant overall in the period covered by the first Minute Book, it was able to lend quite large sums. In fact, in 1727, £200 was lent to the Magistrates and Town Councell of Selkirk at the standard 5% rent. Further, in 1732, one Philip Scot in Oakwood was lent ane hundred merkes(£66/13/4d) due for repayment in 1736, but unpaid by 1738. At that time the Company had, in bonds and vouchers, £481/10/8d Scots, which amounts to approximately £3000 in today's terms. It is interesting to note that the Company is only a little wealthier today!

The Company, in spite of its vicissitudes, was thriving. In 1739, there were in all, 40 members. Then as now, they did not always turn up for meetings, attend the Standard Bearer or ride on Common Riding day if they had a horse. It is not clear, however, if they rode the marches or whether they simply rode in procession. Various fines were imposed at ‘’vairious’’ times: sixpence for not attending a meeting, one merk for not riding with the Standard Bearer, half a merk for not attending the standard bearer at his house at the first drum. The ultimate sanction, banishment from the Kirk Loft, was reserved for weavers, mechaniks and those who failed to pay their debts of fulfil their obligations.

In 1720, as noted in the History, a banner for the Merchants to be carried before them at all publick processions was commissioned. It was paid for by a levy on all members spread over three years. In that year also a halberd was made, and the first Standard Bearer was appointed in 1721. The standard cost £32/9/0d, the halberd £2/0/0d.

Every year, from 1721 until 1738, there was an uninterrupted succession of Standard Bearers. The History can now be amended and some new names added for that period.  It was not always unalloyed joy to be elected Standard Bearer!  With the honour came an obligation. When elected, the Standard Bearer was also ‘’appoynted ... to give ane intertainment upon the Common Ryding day to the Merchant Company to the value of tuentie shillings sterling and that it be handsomly and gentily done with Certificatione if he faill in any part either in Carying the Standart or giving the entertainment foresaid he shall amitt and lose his seat in the Loft his freedom of the Mortcloth and excluded the Companie’’.  Twenty shillings sterling was twelve pounds Scots, now equivalent to £75) which many could barely afford. In 1738, it is also noted that on the Common Riding day ... the Standart bearer is to intertain the Company that day with a Boll of punch (possibly a measure equivalent to 145 litres or, simply, a bowl). At any rate, then as now, the Common Riding was a convivial occasion!

Seemingly, satisfactorily, the first eight Standard Bearers carried out their duties and obligations. However, the list in the History as alluded to earlier, needs to be amended. The standart was carried in 1723 by David Elliot which fills in a blank space; in 1725, Frances Bryden ('e', not 'o'); in 1726, Thomas Stodart (one 'd' only) and in 1728, Thomas Hauie, not Andrew Glen as listed.

A real crisis arose in 1729. James Scot, flesher,was elected by plurarity of ‘’votts’’ but refused and was immediately banished from the Company, in all tyme comeing.  Ane new Standart Bearer was appointed, one John Murray. Two months later, shortly before Common Riding day, the Company elected Frances Bryden to cary the Coller for this year for James Scott who [fales] alowise to cary it. John Murray must have avoided banishment as his name reappears two years later as occupying a seat in the Loft. This may have been, initially, an elegant way of ridding the Company of a lowly-regarded flesher who had nonetheless been a member (The ruse failes, as he was back in his seat the following year!). As a corollary to his late appointment, Frances Bryden was paid three shillings sterling to himself and the Company undertook to pay to Geroge Scott where the dinner is to be made thirteen shilling sterling. The cost of being Standard Bearer was obviously now becoming an important factor and it should be remembered that Frances Bryden had already carried the flag and endured the cost in 1725.

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