Distinction of Classes, pp.237-239.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

The mention of these magnates leads me to notice the extraordinary distinctions of class which prevailed in these times. During the reign of the Tobacco lords – the then merchant princes of Glasgow – they had a privileged walk at the Cross, which they trod arrayed in long scarlet cloaks and bushy wigs; and such was the state of society then, that when any even of the most respectable master tradesmen of the city had occasion to speak to a Tobacco lord, he required to walk on the other side of the street till he was fortunate enough to catch his eye, as it would have been presumption to have made up to him.1 It was dangerous, indeed, for a plebian to quarrel with any of these magnates. It exposed him to the risk of ruin. We have a similar description of them by Mr. Reid (Senex). “I am old enough,” he says, “to remember our Tobacco lords with their bushy wigs and scarlet cloaks perambulating the plane stanes at the Cross, and keeping the other classes at a respectful distance. No lady would venture to walk upon this aristocratic promenade, but as soon as she came near King William she directly crossed to the south side of the Trongate, and continued her course under the pillars, which then, with the exception of the plane stanes, formed the only flagged footpath of that bustling thoroughfare. It was with no little admiration and wonder that I beheld the powdered flunkies of these lords frisking across their barricaded courts, dressed in plush breeches, with thread stockings, dashing shoe buckles (which nearly covered the whole front of their feet), with massy brass buttons on their coats, and gold bands on their hats.”2

As trade increased and wealth became more diffused the middle classes became more independent, and after the opening of the public coffee-room in 1781 the more marked separation of classes gradually disappeared.

But previous to the beginning of the seventeenth century the distinctions of class were still more marked than they were when the tobacco lords strutted in front of the Tontine. This was more especially shown in the marked separation between the craftsmen and those who called themselves merchants. Socially the latter asserted a precedence which was carried so far that in musters of the citizens, and at weapon schaws and other pubic occasions, the merchant kept aloof from the craftsman, and would not even serve in the same Company with him. But the separation ws still more marked in the matter of trade, for the merchant denied to the craftsman the right to engage in any mercantile speculation, affirming, to use the words of old John McUre, “that they were to hold ever one to his trade and not meddle with theirs.” It is a true description which McUre gives when he says that to such an extent was this carried that “there arose terrible heats strifes and animosities betwixt them which was like to end with shedding of blood, for the trades rose up in arms against the merchants.”3 Mr. Crawford, in his History of the Trades House, ascribes this feeling in a great measure to religious causes, namely, to the adoption by the craftsmen generally of the doctrines of the reformed religion while those of the merchant rank adhered to the tenets of the Church of Rome.4 But the cause lay much deeper than this, and it had begun to operate previous to the Reformation. The more opulent class of burgesses, constituting the merchant rank, had, in Glasgow and other considerable burghs, enjoyed for a long time a monopoly of influence and power, and they viewed with distrust the growing importance of the artisan burgesses or craftsmen. These, on the other hand, rising as they now rapidly were to wealth and importance, viewed with jealousy the position of the merchants, and their attempts to exclude them not merely from a participation in municipal government, but even from those mercantile adventures which were becoming such sources of wealth to the enterprising trader. The parties were ultimately brought together by friendly mediation, and an arbitration was entered into which, in 1605, resulted in the well-known decree called the Letter of Guildry, which was ratified by the magistrates and subsequently confirmed by the king and parliament. By this important deed the Dean of Guild Court was established, and its jurisdiction defined; the relative rights of the merchants and craftsmen were finally adjusted; and, as expressed in a minute of the town council in 1605, it was settled that there was to be no more at any “muster, weapon-shawing or other lawful assembly, any question strife or debate betwixt merchant and craftsman for prerogative or priority, but they and every one of them, as one body of the commonweill shall rank and place themselves together but [without] distinction as they shall happen to fall in rank.”5

1  Principal Macfarlan and Dr. Cleland, art. in Statistical Account, vol. vi. p. 232.
2  Glasgow Past and Present.
3  McUre’s History, p. 157.
4 History of the Trades House, p. 45.
5  16th Feb. 1605.

2 thoughts on “Distinction of Classes, pp.237-239.

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