Trading has always been the lifeblood of any community and that has been particularly so with Dundee from at least the 12th Century. In 1199, during the first year of his reign, King John granted the Burgesses, or Merchants of Dundee a Charter. This gave them the privilege of free trade throughout all his lands with the exception of the City of London. At that time, roads were not suitable for moving large quantities of goods, hence major trade was by sea and Dundee’s position on the River Tay enabled it to become an important northern port.
In 1209, during the reign of King William I of Scotland, a Statute allowed all merchants to establish their own guilds within the Burgh boundaries. As the second town in Scotland after Edinburgh, it is probable that many Dundee City merchants took full advantage of this development. In many ways, The Guildry was a body of protectionist self interest, wielding its authority to preserve the prosperity of its members, levying taxes, restricting the right to trade on imported goods and governing the Crafts.
Nonetheless, it did look after those of its members who had fallen on hard times and, over the centuries, has done much to promote Dundee’s trade and industry as well as its harbour and international position.
In 1515, The Guildry obtained from the City Burgh Council a document known as ”The Merchant’s Letter” reaffirming its rights and privileges, including trade association with Flanders, Zealand, Danzig ( Gdansk ), Denmark and France.
From as early as 1526 until the reorganisation of Scottish local government in 1975, the Dean of Guild was a member of the Town Council occupying an important and influential position.Indeed, the Dean of Guild Court acted as a planning authority for the construction of new buildings or the reorganisation of existing buildings within the confines of the old Burgh boundaries.When Dundee achieved City status in 1889 the title of Dean of Guild was amended to that of Lord Dean.
Nowadays, with a membership approaching 200, The Guildry Incorporation of Dundee continues to uphold the traditions of the City with The Lord Dean playing a prominent part in its ceremonial life. The Guildry’s 4XX symbol is thought to depict a steelyard balance and was also used, in differing versions, by merchants throughout Western Europe from the 13th Century. It was widely recognised as a symbol of quality when stamped on goods and correspondence and may also be found on the gravestones of former prominent Dundee merchants.
Professor Annette M. Smith has written a fine comprehensive history of the Guildry copies of which may be purchased from the Clerk to the Guildry.