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Dean of Guild – Their role over the years

The first female Lord Dean
of Guild- SYLVIA HALKERSTON who took up office on 12th May 2022

T  he title Dean of Guild, denoting the senior official representing the Guild, or Guildry of Burgesses, came into being only in 1427, centuries after Burgesses had been instituted as a collective group charged with upholding the laws and customs of the burgh.

In the earlier days Burgesses were headed by the burgh Alderman, whose position was later that of Provost, and it was he who took charge of the Guild when it came into being about 1222.

From 1427 until 1833 the Dean’s position was that of an official of the Town Council and they were appointed as such but, with the introduction in Scottish burghs of the Reform Act in 1833, Deans of Guild were made constituent members of their Town Councils, appointed by their Guilds and not by electoral vote.

In the early days the Dean would have been very much the town’s person, enforcing burgh regulations relating to trade and responsible for the upkeep of council property. Their name, it was claimed, became a terror to evil-doers.

If any attempt was made to encroach on the liberties of the burgh, the Dean would have been instructed to put a stop to the proceedings.

Towards the end of the 16th Century, some Norwegian ships arrived at Newburgh, a few miles north of Aberdeen, and began to unload. But Newburgh was not a free port as far as foreign trade was concerned and was under Aberdeen jurisdiction. The act of unloading at the little port at the mouth of the Ythan was, therefore, an infringement of Aberdeen’s rights, so the Dean of the day was dispatched with an armed officer and men to arrest the ships and take their sails from the masts.

Part of the Dean’s duties also included supervision of the loading of ships bound for foreign ports to ensure that their bills of lading were in order. It was law then that a ship without a proper bill of lading was a pirate and could be attacked without redress.

In 1597, the Dean was required to supervise the burning of a number of witches as well as the execution of four pirates. In the same year he had to oversee the rebuilding of part of the Town House and was paid a special allowance for carrying out these tasks. Above all, it was the duty of the Dean to carry out the instructions of the magistrates and Council.

It was about this time that the Dean of Guild was empowered by statute to exercise the authority of a judge in disputes between merchants and also between merchants and mariners. With the assistance of their Assessors, appointed by a Town Council somewhat jealous of this extension to the Dean’s power and authority, they could decide in such cases in a summary manner.

Dean of Guild Accounts for burning witches 1597
Dean of Guild Accounts for burning witches 1597

However, the Dean never possessed the power of judging any case with regard to property within the burgh, and there was never a Dean of Guild Court, as commonly understood in Scotland, in Aberdeen.

The charter granted by Charles I to the burgh in 1638 specifically mentioned the responsibility of the Dean of Guild for maintaining the standard weights and measures – a service absolutely vital to the population. An inspector of weights and measures, a paid officer of the Town Council, was appointed for this task in the 19th Century.

The Dean’s duties down the years were indeed varied. In 1774, for example, they were responsible for estimating the cost of keeping the streets in repair and lighting, together with the cost of supplying water to the burgh – and all at an assessment of one shilling in the pound of house rents.

The Royal Burghs Reform Act of 1833 brought a number of changes involving the Dean. Under it they were elected by his Burgesses of Guild as the nineteenth member of the Town Council to sit as their representative. Over the next century several Deans of Guild went on to serve as Provost, demonstrating that the Dean’s position remained a significant one in local politics.

Other outcomes of the 1833 Act were less helpful to the Guildry. No longer could the Dean call upon the resources of manpower and finance which had been his as an office-bearer of the Council. While the Act did not change the relationship between Guildry membership and the exercise of trading privileges, the spirit of the age was effectively undermining a situation where, throughout Scotland, small groups of individuals could claim to control the wholesale and retail trade of their locality.

The monopoly on trade had been eroding since the late 18th Century and in 1846, on the recommendation of the Dean of Guild, the Guildry offered no opposition to the proposal to abolish the right of exclusive trading by the Guildries of Scottish burghs. At a stroke of a pen, the original rationale of the Guildry as a trading monopoly was swept away. It was truly time to find a new role.

However, the Dean’s right to vote on some Council matters remained until 1965. Ten years later the statutory link between Guildry and Town Council was finally abolished, and Aberdeen is probably unique among Scottish Town Councils in retaining an informal link between local government and the two bodies of Burgesses.

With change in the air it was also felt that the time had come to end the need to have the Dean of Guild elected annually, and in 1994 the Dean was elected to serve for a four-year term, with the option of a further four years. It was also felt that the six Assessors should also be elected for a four-year term and, as a result of the 1995 ballot, the Guildry had its first woman Assessor, Marjorie Bosomworth.

Although the Dean no longer exercises the role they once held, they still play a part in the city’s pageantry, representing the Guild in full regalia at ceremonial occasions, such as the Remembrance Sunday parade at the War Memorial and the Kirkin of the Council, and maintaining a primary role in the ceremony of admission of new Burgesses at the beginning of a full Council meeting.

With establishment in 1989 of the Court of Deans of Guild of Scotland, the Lord Dean now has the additional responsibility of representing the Aberdeen Guildry on that body.

The Court, through regular half-yearly meetings, was set up to maintain for posterity the place of Guildry Incorporations and to promote the standing of those which may not be as well recognised as others such as that of Aberdeen.

In February 2015 The Lord Lyon of Scotland bestowed the title of Lord Dean of Guild to the Aberdeen Burgesses of Guild, Colin Taylor being the first to take up this new title.

In 2022 for the first time in our history, Sylvia Halkerston was appointed as the First Lady Lord Dean.

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