James Bruce (1754-1819), the weaver


James Bruce first appears in the records on 5 March 1785, when “James Bruce, weaver” and “Amelia George, daughter of the deceased James George” announced to the parish of Dundee that they intended to marry, which they duly were on Friday 25 March. This proclamation of a marriage, by the way, was the equivalent in the Church of Scotland of announcing the banns in the Church of England.

A family historian would normally work back from this to find a record of James’ baptism, and therefore his parents. Unfortunately, while the gravestone in the Howff provides a solid piece of evidence for his death (and is unusual for someone in my families at that era), no-one has yet found any baptism for him, nor any earlier details than his marriage. I believe that I’m at least the fourth person to look for these facts and none of us appear to have found them – I know I haven’t; I’ve got a copy of the researches of Ewen Collins, who was married to another descendent of James – he couldn’t find them and he had received many details from Hamish Bruce, who in turn had previously corresponded with great-uncle Bob’s son. It must be pretty unlikely that Uncle Bob, for instance, had the crucial details and neglected to pass them on.

So why are there no baptismal details for James? According to his gravestone, he would have been born about 1754. One romantic explanation is that this was not long after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, and Jacobite sympathisers were not too keen to give their details away to the clergy, who represented the hated Hanoverian government. Alternatively, his parents might have not agreed with all the doctrines of the Church of Scotland – Scotland had many more shades of non-conformism than England – and so declined to have James baptised. Perhaps most likely, if indeed he was never baptised, is that they simply never got round to it.

Of course, it might be that James actually was baptised but we simply cannot find or recognise the records – they might be lost, they might be somewhere in the records of the other churches – only the Church of Scotland’s records have been well indexed – or it may be that James was rather older than the grave suggests so we are simply looking in the wrong years – it’s clear that people of that era were less obsessed with birthdays than we are now, and forgetting a couple of years was quite common.

Just a few shadowy details emerge – we know he had a brother named John, possibly a sister named Janet but we don’t even know if he was born in Dundee. But, a weaver he was, and it would have been in linen that he worked. The years when James was bringing up his family were the golden years of the linen weavers.

Linen had become Scotland’s most important export in the latter part of the 1700s, but there were different types of linen and these were made in different areas. Dunfermline, for instance, was the centre of fine work, such as damask tablecloths and napkins. Dundee, on the other hand, specialised in plain and coarse linens, which might be used for such things as sheets or even bags to contain sugar or cotton. One piece of Dundee linen survives that has great emotional significance for anyone who cares for the naval history of Britain. Tattered and patched it may be, but the foretopsail of HMS Victory from the Battle of Trafalgar and now on exhibition as the only surviving sail from then, was woven at Dundee. In later years, Dundee linen would also play a double role in the creation of American civilisation. The wagons that rolled across the prairies had covers that were often woven on the looms of Dundee. The precise type of weave, a rather close one, originated in the town of Nimes in France, and was known as “Serge de Nimes”. When the wagons were no longer needed, there was no waste. An inspired gentleman bought the material and cut it up to make tough trousers for the miners of California – his name was Levi Strauss and he gave America, and then the world, “denims”. Or so the story goes.

For workers like James, the period from 1750 to the 1790s saw significant changes for the better. Wages had started to rise during this period, in some areas in the 1750s, in other in the 1760s, and while prices had also risen, they had not gone up by the same amount. A series of reports compiled by clergy across Scotland for what has become known as the “First Statistical Accounts” tells a similar story across much of the country. The best period had been from the mid-1770s to the late 1780s, when wages rose much faster than the price of food, with the result that the authors described workers consuming more butter, meat and fresh vegetables than before and even buying commodities that they had never bought before, like tea, sugar and rice.

Even so, the expectations of most weavers in Dundee, as elsewhere, were strictly limited.

As with most trades, there were three “grades” of weaver – apprentice, journeyman and master. Apprentices were pretty much as we might expect. An apprentice was indentured to a master for a period that was usually about seven years, plus, in Dundee, a further year “for meat and fee”. This last year was regarded as being payment for board and lodging because the apprentice lived with his master for the period of his apprenticeship – indeed, the master was responsible for both the welfare and the morals of his apprentice. Such an apprenticeship might start as early as twelve years of age.

The masters were all members of a craft guild, and were the only craftsmen allowed to trade in the burgh. Even then, they were restricted in what they could sell – only merchants, who belonged to the Merchant’s Guild of Dundee, were allowed an unrestricted ability to sell goods in Dundee. Masters of the trade crafts were only allowed to sell what they – or their employees – had made themselves.  Most weavers could not afford to become masters of their trade and remained as journeymen, who were employed by masters.  The original term was “journie man”, which, taken from the French “jour” for “day”, meant a man paid by the day – though it should not be taken that he received his money daily. It is likely that many journeymen stayed in the same employment all their working lives, and, because of the costs, very few made the transition from journeyman to master without having influence.

The masters belonged to guilds and, in the case of Dundee, there were nine guilds or Trades:

  • The Baxters, now called the Bakers;
  • The Cordiners, or Shoemakers;
  • The Skinners, or Glovers;
  • The Tailors;
  • The Bonnetmakers;
  • The Fleshers, or Butchers;
  • The Hammermen;
  • The Brabaners, Websters or Weavers;
  • The Waulkers or Fullers of cloth. In 1693 they united with the Listers or Dyers to become the Dyers.

As early as 1124, King David I had framed laws for the regulation of various trades, requiring them to care for their poor and sick and laying down standards to control the price of the goods and the quality of the workmanship. The Bonnetmakers are the oldest Dundee Trade, with an incorporation in 1496. From 1564, the Trades met in the Howff. The Trades paid the council a rent, which in 1691 was £5 12 shillings a year, for the privilege of standing in the snow, rain and gales to hold their meetings there. Realising that they needed to act as a single body, the Trades formed “The Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee” in 1581, headed by a Convener and Boxmaster.

The Nine Trades were immensely important for Dundee – in the 1770s, for instance, they, rather than the burgh council, agreed to fund half the cost of St. Andrew’s church. They also elected the Provost and Bailies of the burgh, audited the burgh accounts and supplied the Stent Masters who valued property and collected the Stents, the equivalent of today’s council tax, on behalf of the burgh.

For James, the chance of becoming a Master of the Weavers’ Trade was slim. He would have had to own all his own tools and equipment and have a wife and a house in which to house any apprentice. He would also need to be a Burgess (freeman) of the Burgh of Dundee. Becoming a Burgess required not only a considerable amount of money and authority, but influence and a possible dash of bribery. The only people who automatically qualified as Burgesses were the sons and sons-in-law of existing Burgesses. This lead to a self-perpetuating group with the same family names cropping up all the time. If a Master had only daughters, then it was not unknown for his apprentice to marry his master’s daughter. This suited both parties – the apprentice got his ticket to be a Burgess and Master, and the Master kept his business in the family. However, as Innes Duffus, Archivist to The Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee, commented to me “Nowhere are the views of the daughter mentioned!”