Labor in its many forms was a fundamental part of everyday life in Scotland and the British Atlantic world. Skilled professionals and unskilled laborers performed a variety of jobs, from law clerks in the Court of Session, to Highland kelp farmers, to Lowland nursemaids. Indentured servants bound themselves out to individual masters or companies in exchange for an education in a particular trade or the chance to make their lives a little better. They worked at home, aboard ship, or abroad in places like Virginia or Maryland. Enslaved men and women, of course, faced even greater constraints over their labor, and especially their freedom.
The cases below offer a compelling social portrait of labor and the power relationships that shaped work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They explore the act of work itself and the Court of Session's role in settling legal issues between laborers, their employers, and the wider community in this period.
|Shaw v. Fleming||1 Aug 1776||Elections, Burgh||This case concerns a disputed election in the burgh of Rutherglen. Different trades (including deacons, masons, and weavers) would meet with members of their industry and submit lists of candidates for the elections, a common election practice of the period. Pursuers George Shaw et al. lodged a complaint against the town council of the burgh of Rutherglen. Apparently the town council adopted a practice of restricting voting to resident masons and wrights, and disallowed non-resident masons and wrights from voting. Shaw et al. alleged that this attempt to disenfranchise the non-resident masons and wrights was unlawful.|
|Houston Stewart Nicolson, Esq v. Mrs Stewart Nicolson||6 Dec 1770||Adultery, Divorce||Houston Sterwart-Nicolson was married to Mrs. Sterwart-Nicolson in 1764. Mr Nicolson having brought an action of divorce against his wife for adultery, supposedly with William Grahame a employee and servant of Sir William Maxwell of Springkell, brother-in-law of the pusuer. Mrs Nicolson made a declaration of her innocence, and she insisted that the pursuer misled the situation and created artful stories about his adultery. She, as the defender, objected to the charges and questioned the competence of the witness that her husband, Mr. Nicolson, presented because all of them were servants of Sir William Maxwell, pursuer's brother-in-law.
|John Gardner v. Smith and Wardrobe||1775||Tutor and Pupil||John Smith entered into an indenture to be an apprentice to John Gardner, a wright. Smith’s grandfather John Wardrop also was a party to the agreement, having agreed to provide board and washing for his grandson. The agreement had a term of three years and would be enforced by a £5 Sterling penalty if either side failed to perform its obligations. Smith entered into Gardner’s service, but he left the apprenticeship after about a year. Gardiner charged Smith and Wardrop for payment of the £5 Sterling penalty. However, Smith and Wardrop argued that the indenture agreement was void because it lacked a stamp signifying payment of a statutory duty. They also alleged that Gardner had taken up smuggling and was deficient in providing instruction.|
|Maxwell v. Buchanan||8 Mar 1776||Archibald Buchanan, defender, agreed to be an apprentice to Stephen Maxwell, pursuer. An indenture between the two men specified the penalties that Buchanan would pay if he missed work; it also required Maxwell to pay Buchanan a stipend for board. Several years into the indenture, Maxwell accused Buchanan of theft and had him jailed. Buchanan was released on bail and never brought to trial. He then sought either to return to work or to be free of the indenture. Maxwell refused to receive him and raised an action for the contractual penalties, as well as for damages relating to Buchanan’s failure to complete the indenture.|
|Walpoles v. John Walker||10 Mar 1778||Reduction of a Trust Deed, Fraud, Commission of Bankruptcy In England||This case concerns a trust disposition granted by William Alexander to John Walker in September 1775, shortly before an English commission of bankruptcy was awarded against the former. The largest English creditors of William Alexander held mortgages on two Grenada estates jointly owned by him and his brother. They brought an action to have the above-mentioned trust-deed reduced. In January of 1778 Lord Monboddo assoilzied (absolved) the defender. The pursuers petitioned the Court to alter this decision. They argued that the trust was voided by a petition for a sequestration brought before Lord Gardenstone by William Alexander in April 1777. In addition, the pursuers argued that the trust-deed failed under the statutes 1621 (relating to conjunct and confident persons) and 1696 (regarding diligence), "or, at least, that they ought, without hesitation, to be reduced, on the head of fraud, at common law." Regarding this charge of fraud, the pursuers claimed that they had an indisputable claim to the proceeds of the Grenada plantations, but that the Alexander brothers, aided by the defender, went through elaborate lengths to conceal these profits from their creditors. They further accused William Alexander of sending his trunk of papers to Edinburgh, so as to prevent the pursuers from discovering this fraud. The Court altered Lord Monboddo's interlocutor, sustaining the reasons of reduction. William Alexander then petitioned the Court to alter this interlocutor, which it refused. Similarly, the defender petitioned the Court to either allow the trust to subsist in the person of another trustee, or to declare as bona fide his prior actions as trustee.
The circumstances surrounding this case are covered extensively in Jacob M. Price, France and the Chesapeake. In particular, see volume 2, pages 691-700.
|William Baxter v. Bell and Maxwell and Others||17 Dec 1800||The defenders in this case, a group of soap and candle makers, purchased wicks from James Hutchison Jr. In turn, they sometimes sold their goods to Hutchison. Rather than paying separately for each transaction, the merchants periodically settled their accounts and paid the balance in cash or by bill. Unbeknownst to the defenders, Hutchison was selling the wicks on commission from pursuer William Baxter. When Hutchison died, Baxter sued the defenders for the price of certain wicks that they had received. However, the defenders argued that Hutchison owed them a larger sum, and that Baxter must bear the risk of misconduct by Hutchison, his consignee.|
|The Heritors and Kirk-Session of the Parish of Dalmellington v. The Magistrates, Minister and Kirk-Session of Irvine||3 Dec 1800||This case determined which of three parishes—Irvine, Dalrymple, or Dalmellington—was required to provide for the maintenance of James Wallace, an insane pauper. The statutory obligation to aliment certain persons was assigned to parishes based on residency. However, Wallace was an itinerant worker, complicating the analysis. Before losing the ability to support himself, Wallace had been a dance master who spent winters in the town of Irvine but traveled in the summer to teach. He spent his early years in Dalrymple and later went to Dalmellington, where he was employed for a time. More than a dozen witnesses from the three parishes testified about Wallace’s whereabouts over the course of his life, giving sometimes contradictory evidence. The court found that the parish of Irvine was liable, comparing Wallace to tradesmen who travel to seek work in the summer.|
|Ker v. Sir Robert Anstruther and Thomas Smith||1800||Petitioner James Ker purchased a commission for the office of Deputy Clerk to the Bills. The commission did not mention that the deputy clerk would be required to handle plack bills, but Respondent Thomas Smith, one of the principal clerks, requested a letter from Mr. Ker stating that he would perform that duty. After signing the letter, Mr. Ker learned that he would not be paid an additional fee for handling the plack bills. He therefore petitioned the court to relieve him of the commission, with return of his purchase money, or otherwise ensure that he would not be required to handle the plack bills without receiving fees. The Respondents, who were the court's principal clerks, responded that they had not participated in the transaction whereby Mr. Ker purchased his commission from his late predecessor; moreover, Mr. Ker's predecessor clerks had, "time out of mind," performed the duty of which he complained.|
|John Low v. Managers of the Weaver-trade in Brechin||1767||Contracts and Obligations, Trades||While pursuer John Low was a weaver in Brechin, the weaver-trade entered into a contract to purchase a large quantity of victual annually from Sir Alexander Ramsay-Irvine of Balmain. The weavers divided the victual among themselves. After Low moved to Dundee, he sought to retain his portion of the victual. The weavers in Brechin refused, and Low brought suit.|
|Incorporation of Hammermen &c. v. Incorporations of Weaver &c.||1776||Trades||This case was about the governance of the Glasgow trades house, an umbrella group comprising representatives of the various trades. These representatives included the deacon of each trade incorporation, along with “assistants” from each trade. The number of assistants allotted to each trade varied; the first four trades (hammermen, tailors, cordiners, and maltmen) had four assistants each, while the other trades had some lesser number. In 1771, the trades with fewer representatives moved to give themselves equal representation. The first four trades applied for a suspension of the proceedings, and later raised a process of reduction, on the ground that members of the trades house lacked the authority to adjust the number of representatives from each trade.|
|Grieve and Others v. Incorporation of Tailors||1773||Burgh, Corporate Privilege||John Grieve, suspender, was a member of the Incorporation of Tailors in Glasgow. He entered into a partnership with suspenders James Loudon and Robert Robb for the purpose of manufacturing stays, also known as corsets. The Tailors complained to the magistrates of Glasgow that staymaking was reserved exclusively for members of their trade; therefore, according to the tailors, Loudon and Robb had impermissibly engaged in the trade and Grieve had assisted them contrary to his oath. The suspenders argued that staymaking was not included in the tailors’ trade monopoly and should not be added by implication.|
|William Cunninghame and Co. v. James Craig of Baidland||1778||Aliment, Maryland||In July 1769, John Craig, son of James Craig of Baidland, contracted with Cunninghame and Co. to serve for five years as an indentured servant in "any of their stores in Virginia or Maryland." Towards the end of his contract, he allegedly became gravely ill. Cunninghame and Co. advanced money to cover his medical bills. Cunninghame & Co. brought action against Craig of Baidland for repayment of this debt, claiming that they had extracted a guarantee from his son to accept the bill provided they released him from his contract. The cause came before Lord Ankerville, who assoilzied (absolved) the defender. The pursuers then petitioned the Court for review, arguing that it was the "natural obligation" of parents to pay for their children's support. Furthermore, the pursuers claimed that they had been obliged to advance the money in question as a result of the "duty incumbent on every man to save his neighbour's life." In his answer, James Craig wrote that he could not afford to cover the expenses of his adult son who had supported himself for years. Furthermore, Craig noted that after settling in North America his son "acquired habits of dissipation and extravagance" and that most or all of the sum advanced by the pursuers was likely to sustain this spendthrift lifestyle, and not to cover medical bills. After all, “It may likewise be observed, that if the assistance may not be had, of the most skilled, even for a less sum than the salary due to John Craig, very miserable must be the situation of numbers, both in America and elsewhere.” Craig's answers concluded by asking what would happen if every parent were compelled to accept the bills of their children who, living in far-off lands, made unverifiable claims of sickness as the cause of their debt.|
|Lamb v. Neilson||1784||Apprentice||Andrew Lamb raised a charge to enforce an indenture executed by George Neilson, his apprentice, and William Neilson, a cautioner. The Neilsons sought a suspension of the charge, arguing that the indenture was void because it had not been properly stamped. Lamb argued that he could still obtain the stamp and pursue the action.|
|Sibbald v. Maben||1784||Apprentice||Thomas Sibbald, a student at Heriot’s Hospital, entered into an apprenticeship with William Maben. In accordance with the school’s regulations, the indenture provided that the master would feed, clothe, and board the apprentice. However, in a separate agreement, Sibbald’s father agreed to relieve Maben of these obligations. Sibbald initially lived with his father and commuted to Maben’s shop near Edinburgh, but Maben later closed his shop and moved to Dunse, in another county. In consultation with an official at Heriot’s Hospital, Sibbald’s father notified Maben that he considered the apprenticeship to be at an end. Maben sued for damages, on the ground that Sibbald had deserted his apprenticeship.|
|Stewart v. Graham||1782||Impress Service||This case addressed whether a standard press-warrant, which authorized the impressment of seamen, applied to a man who had worked aboard ships while enslaved. The man in question, James Graham, accompanied a slaveholder on voyages between Scotland and the Caribbean, performing duties such as steering and reefing. However, when Graham’s enslavement ended, he became apprenticed to Grant, Wood, and Company, a carpet manufacturing company in Glasgow. The petitioner in this case, Lieutenant William Stewart, subsequently attempted to press Graham into naval service based on his sailing experience. Grant, Wood, and Company petitioned the magistrates of Glasgow to prevent Graham’s impressment, and Graham appeared on his own behalf. After allowing the parties to gather proof, the magistrates found that Graham could not be impressed because he did not voluntarily choose a seafaring life. Lieutenant Stewart appealed to the Court of Session.|
|Barry, et al v. Incorporation of Weavers, et al||1789|
|Erskine and Burns v. Thomson and Son||1789||Documents available. Full description in progress.|
|Folsetter and Wright v. Lord Justice Clerk's Interlocutor||1786||Documents available. Full description in progress.|
|Mitchell v. Lord Alva's Interlocutor||1787||Documents available. Full description in progress.|
|Principal Clerks of Session v. Charles Steuart||1788||Documents available. Full description in progress.|
|Purdie v. Lord Swinton's Interlocutor||1788||Documents available. Full description in progress.|
|Purdie v. Tod||1789||Documents available. Full description in progress.|