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Market Tolls

W  hile the fairs attracted sellers and buyers from a wide area, the weekly market existed primarily for the benefit of Burgesses. All goods had to be displayed for sale in open market on fixed days and at fixed hours so that everyone had an equal chance to buy.

Prices, too, were regulated, whether of household consumables or of raw materials for industry. Breaking the code resulted in a fine.

Those from outside the burgh who brought goods to the market or who bought from it had to pay market tolls. These tolls and fines all went to swell the Royal coffers, as did the customs on goods imported and exported through the harbour. The King expected townsfolk to act as unpaid collectors and as baillies to run the burgh and add to his income.

A number of charters given by succeeding Kings show how Aberdeen Burgesses benefited from their patronage by the granting of trading privileges and exemption from tolls and customs, not only in the burgh but throughout Scotland.

Another privilege granted by King William gave Burgesses freedom to act as a corporate body with powers to make its own rules of local government, a precursor to the establishment of a Town Council.

A later charter given by William’s son, King Alexander II, dated only Alyth 27 February, conferred on Aberdeen rights and privileges similar to those previously granted by William the Lion to Perth. These included control of wholesale trade in wool and skins throughout the Sheriffdom of Aberdeen and a grant to my Burgesses of Aberdeen, except waulkers and weavers, that they have their merchant guild.

Thus, the Guild was established in emulation of the King’s burgh of Perth and of every other burgh with pretensions to overseas trade in cloth. The surprising thing is that this is the last mention of the merchant guild of Aberdeen – records of burgh administration beginning in the 14th Century refer simply to the Guild or Guildry of Aberdeen.

While craftsmen, even as Burgesses, were restricted to dealing in goods of their own manufacture within Scotland, they could import raw materials from abroad for their own use.

Merchant Burgesses, on the other hand, could buy goods from many sources through the network of local markets, selling them at home and overseas and importing manufactured goods and agricultural produce. This kind of trade, not based on manufacturing input, was the jealously guarded prerogative of the Guild brethren who paid significantly higher entry fees to the Town Council.

Craftsmen could join the Guild only after forswearing the practice of their craft and by making up the entry fee to the higher rate.

In the early 15th Century when regular records began, every Burgess paid a basic fee, in real terms probably £100, but Guild members had to pay a further sum greatly in excess of that. Sons and sons-in-law of Burgesses paid at the lower end of the scale, but newcomers to the burgh had to pay handsomely for the privileges they sought.

Economic pressures were partly responsible for the deterioration in relationships between the crafts and the Guild in the later Middle Ages. Robert the Bruce encouraged the development of his burghs to generate wealth and to hasten the economic recovery of Scotland in the aftermath of the first War of Independence.

In 1357 the need to pay the English for a King’s ransom and to conclude the second War of Independence seriously inhibited economic development of the kingdom.

To raise this ransom, £20 million at today’s prices, foreign trade needed to be encouraged by all possible means, and the merchants were favoured as a class over their competitors – foreign merchants and native craftsmen.

A general charter of privilege to the Burgesses of all Scottish burghs, issued in 1364, effectively reinforced Aberdeen’s control of exports from Aberdeenshire and, by restricting commerce to the merchant class, undercut the position of craftsmen Burgesses.

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