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A Short History

of

The Weaver Craft

of Dundee

by

Innes A. Duffus

Archivist to The Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee

 

Honour and wealth each one attend Who to the Weavers trades a friend All kinds of blessings on them flow While they are on this earth below
anon. Lockit Book 1770/71

 

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. Also in existence are the Three United Trades of Dundee who are involved in the building trades.

The Nine Trades in order of precedence are: --

Baxters or Bakers, Cordiners or Shoemakers, Skinners or Glovers, Tailors, Bonnetmakers, Fleshers, Hammermen, Brabeners or Weavers and Listers or Dyers.

The Trades have always maintained a very strong connection with the church. For much of the 18th Century file three parish churches in Dundee were cared for by the town council and a kirk session. In the 1770s it was decided that Dundee needed another church, but the town council would not fund the building. The Twelve Trades therefore agreed to pay for two thirds of the sum required and St Andrew's Church, The Trades Kirk, was built. In 1775 the Trades, led by their Deacon Convener, marched in procession from their meeting place in the Howff to the opening of their church. This strong connection is maintained by the Trades and the church. Stained glass windows representing the Nine Incorporated Trades and the Three United Trades are on either side of the pulpit and, more recently, two further windows in memory of a dearly loved Chaplain, Rev T. R. S. Campbell, were donated by the trades. These are certainly well worthy of a visit. The Trades also have a Kirkin ceremony each year, currently held on the Sunday nearest St Andrew's Day when a dedication sermon is preached by the minister of St Andrew's church whose minister is Chaplain to the Trades.

The actual origins of weaving will perhaps never be known. It is, however, a matter of record that the western word Muzlin is derived from a loosely woven material produced by the weavers of Mosul in Kurdistan. The people from there were the Mouslin, hence the name Muslin. Similarly gauze was first woven by tile people of Gaza. Both of these cloths were certainly shipped to Europe by The Knights Templar in their otherwise empty ships which had carried supplies and pilgrims to the Holy Land after the First Crusade.

In 1601 the convention of Royal Burghs arranged that 12 Flemings be sent from Leydon to Scotland so that they might teach tile natives the Art of Weaving. Three of them Claus Lossier (shearer), Cornelius Dermis (weaver) and Heurey Turk (spinner and weaver) were sent to Dundee. The intention was to avoid the export of Scottish wool to Flanders, which would then be re-exported to Scotland in the form of woven cloth. It was supposed that by creating a new manufacture here "ample employment would be provided for idle men".

The weavers were so important to the economy of the town of Dundee that it is surprising that they rank only eighth in the order of precedence of the Trades. Although the Town Council granted their charter in 1512, there is plenty of evidence that they were an organized body before that date. For example, the trade possesses a sasine for a tenement in the Seagate dated 1475, and over the years were to invest in considerable property ill the town, from where much of their funds accrued. The Weavers are the only one of the Nine Trades of Dundee which has preserved its original charter granted by the Provost, Magistrates and Council of Dundee. The oldest of its four Lockit Books dates back to 1557.

Another guide to their importance, and perhaps with an eye on their influence, is shown in the recording of The High and Mighty Prince John, Duke of Athol who was made a free master on 4th March 1778.

On 17th February 1789 the Hon. Provost Alex Riddoch was admitted and on 8th January 1798 Lord Viscount Duncan of Camperdown & Lundie, Admiral of the Blue was made a Free Master. One wonders if they were required to pass a trade test like others entering a Craft? Of course the famous Dundee poet William Topaz McGonegall worked with Thomson & Shepherd and so was a member in his own right.

In common with the other Trades, one of their main concerns was to ensure that only material woven by members of the Trade was sold within the town, and much of their time was spent ensuring that no strangers i.e. weavers from outwith the town boundary, particularly Rottenrow as the Hilltown was then known, sold their goods in Dundee. The Hilltown was a source of constant aggravation to most of the Trades throughout their early history. In one case a J. MacDonald was required to make a payment of 100 for exercising craft without entry.

The Weavers do not always appear to have been the most honest of Trades and were constantly being investigated, particularly for their habit of producing cloth that was short of the statutory measurements. In 1667, for example, they were accused of selling narrow cloth, transgressing an Act of Parliament dated 1661, which regulated the breadth of linen cloth. The Weavers, having prevaricated for some considerable time, claimed that they were exceedingly poor persons who could not pay any fine if one were imposed. They also claimed that they did not buy or sell yarn. Also that they did not make any cloth for themselves, or for the market. They supplied only the needs of the inhabitants of Dundee and were not exporting cloth, i.e. selling it outwith the town.

 In these circumstances it did not seem to them that the breadth of the cloth was of any importance. No punishment was applied.

As referred to earlier there was constant trouble with the Hill Weavers before 1697. At that date the Hilltown was brought into the town and the problem faded away. All the trades had the same problem with tradesmen from tile Hilltown. Most of the other trades simply warned off these masters from the Hill who were constantly trying to sell their products as local, but the Weavers regulated the place of the Hill men in their society (Dundee was not the only Royal Burgh suffering from this kind of problem with masters from outwith the Royal Burghs). Dundee Town Council came to the defence of the Weavers by insisting that no one should employ unfree weavers from Rottenrow, or any living within half-a-mile north or south of the burgh upon pain of having their goods confiscated. It was never fully successful and there were similar attempts made to put a stop to this practice over the years. As late as the end of the 17th Century a Dundee craftsman arrested Robert Miller from Strathmartine, who was fined 10 merks and made to promise never to work woolen or linen in future.

An entry in the Lockit Book between 1770 and 1771 has two pieces of doggerel pasted at the top of the page. These were obviously pasted in before the written entry for 1771 and are not covering over other entries, so must have been put there at that date. The first is quoted on the inside cover of this history and the second reads: --

The Weavers art it is most fine

 'Mong other arts it is the Prime

Ever since the great fall

Aye wax and is renowned so,

Nor rich nor poor, without it go

 While on this earthly Ball

How very needful is the work

Of the Poor Weavers Trade,

Through all our Ages,

which is but short

 'Tis decent to be clad

Our clothing sure clothing

Is needful as our food

Since, sin, cam, fine Linens

An emblem of all good

If people would but give an ear

Many good lefson might they lear

 From the quick Weaver's speid

Frail man, his days are soon cut off

Like to the Weaver's warp and woof

Soon, soon cut is Life's Thread

A day a week, a month, a year

Soon to an end doth come

So frail man, he will disappear 

When cut off from the thrum

 Our stays here and days here

Are very Short and Brittle

They short are, goes swifter

Then does a Weaver's shuttle.

With the advent of jute, and thanks in some respects to the Crimea War and the American Civil War with their demand for jute products, Dundee more than doubled its population in a period of some 20 years in the 19th Century. Such was the demand for labour that many of the dispossessed from the Highland clearances came for work. Many more from Ireland were shipped across to file West Coast and brought to Dundee in cattle trucks, where they were put into ready-made slum dwellings built by the mill owners. One area of the Hilltown was known as Candle Land because the gas company refused to put in gas in case the occupants committed suicide. Presumably the other saying Lochee and nae lichts had a similar derivation. Because the demand for workers in the mills was mainly for women Dundee became a very matriarchal society. The women of Dundee were reputed to have the most beautiful hair in the whole world. This was because of the fact that after leaving the mill at night, they would spend so much time brushing the jute out of their hair.

In complete contrast the mill owners lived mainly in Broughty Ferry, a suburb of the town which boasted the highest number of millionaires in the world at that time. At the height of the jute trade some 40,000 people were employed in the industry. By the middle of the 20th century this slowly decreased, due to the development of man-made fibres and the build up of factories in Bangladesh the principal source of raw jute. By 1998, there were only 80 people left in the industry working at Tay Spinners in Arbroath Road. The last raw jute imported from Bangladesh arrived at Dundee harbour on board the ship Banglar Urmi on 20th October 1998 and gave work for only some three months, after which the only jute to be woven will be at Verdant Works a prize winning historic working museum. A visit to this museum is of interest to every visitor to and to every resident of Dundee.

The present Rules &.Regulations of the Craft, adopted 23rd April 1918, allowed the Deacon and Assessor to stay in office for a maximum of five years instead of indefinitely. It also stated that the craft was open to any qualified person in Great Britain.

At the opening of the Minute Book of 1875 the craft numbered only 15 members although it still collected feu duty from a number of properties. Members attending the biennial dinner of the Nine Trades were made an allowance of 5/- each.

From 1838 onwards, starting with a total of 260, an allocation of surplus funds was made to each member and widow of the craft. Payments are recorded to Rob. J. Baxter of Melbourne, Australia; C. E. Walker, Lindula, Ceylon; Jas. Philip, Johannesburg: and J.C. Walker, Montreal, Canada, between 1918 and 1927. This practice continued until 1950, when it was decided that surplus funds would be distributed lo charities. The first was made to the Handicapped Persons Club and in the following year, in addition, to the Old People's Welfare.

In 1886 the fees for strangers, i.e. those not the sons or sons-in-law of members, was raised to 60, a very large sum indeed in those days. However no one appeared to be willing to pay such an amount and, as a result of there being no new applicants for 30 years, this was reduced in 1916 to 50.

By 1943 strangers fees appeared to be negotiable when a Wm. Bruce offered to do some work for the Trade and was admitted for 40. However by 1953 the Weavers joined most of the other Trades in setting the fees at 25.

Not until 1913 was an ex-Deacon given a replica of the Deacon's Badge in recognition of his services to the Trade.

In 1915 it is recorded that Deacon Norman Walker was killed on 25th September at Loos in Flanders. He was a Captain in the 1st/4th Black Watch.

The craft had a strange sense of values. In 1916, for example, they gave the princely sum of 2 to the Clerk on the occasion of his marriage, whilst at the same time each member was allocated 3 from their surplus funds. (Perhaps this was a measure of the tree value of a Clerk to the Craft).

By 1998, however, the Weaver Craft was again thriving and, due partly to the development of man-made fibres ,and packaging, this ever-changing Craft survived where the jute trade became extinct.

It is precisely this ability to meet ever-changing trade, and a determination to survive that can be traced through all of the Trades in Dundee. Although still a closed Craft, by 1998 the Weavers had widened its membership to include Craftsmen connected with developing, spinning, weaving, maintenance, marketing and selling of textile products.

The Craft at that time had over 70 members and was looking forward to taking an ever increasing part in the life of the City of Dundee.

Dundee, October 1999

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The Weaver's Prayer

My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me
I do not chose tile colours
And He weaveth steadily

Sometimes He weaves in sorrow
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside

Not till the looms are silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll His canvas
And explain the reason why

Why the dark threads are as needful
In a skillful weaver's hand
As those of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.
                                                             Anon.

Printed by PDQ Print Services, 110 Commercial Street, Dundee.