Shedding light on the life of a candlemaker

Candles are now used for ambience
Candles are now used for ambience
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A NEW 60-page booklet tells the history of city tradesmen whose smelly work made them both unpopular and a dangerous fire hazard

THE yellow glow of thousands of street lights, blinding car headlamps and brightly lit shop windows... flickering television sets, offices aglow even though everyone has gone home.

When darkness falls and night throws a sleepy blanket over Edinburgh, the lights, millions of them, come on.

Dazzling lights, so brilliant and blindingly bright they would have made generations past shade their eyes and wonder whether night had turned to day – for no candle could hold a flicker of light to the power of the electric bulb.

Of course today light at the flick of a switch is taken for granted. Candles are for fragrance, subtle ambience and birthday cakes, and the dark days and even darker nights when the city was at the mercy of candle power for finding our way, long gone.

However, fascinating new research has now vividly recalled the lives and work of the long lost candlemakers, whose vital trade spanned over four centuries and brought light into city folks’ lives . . . albeit at a price.

Scottish Geneaology Society member Richard Torrance ploughed through hundreds of pages of documents dating from the 17th century which recorded everything from the price candlemakers were allowed to charge for their products to the kinds of wick they used and the legal disputes and rows sparked by their smelly and often dangerous manufacturing processes.

Publication of his 60-page booklet coincides with the 450th anniversary of the Convenery of the Trades of Edinburgh – the umbrella organisation set up in 1562 and made up of the deacons of the city’s trade organisations and which now includes the Incorporation of Candlemakers.

To mark the anniversary, the Convenery has thrown open the doors of its Melville Street base for an exhibition which looks at the part its 
members have played in city life down the centuries, from the tradesmen who fought for their country at Flodden, to the organisation’s 
modern-day charitable work.

While some of the trades, such as goldsmiths and hammermen – modern day engineers – still thrive, others, like tanners and candlemakers, exist mostly in name only.

And yet, Richard reveals, in its heyday candlemaking was a thriving and relatively prosperous business for many.

“Of course there was no other means of lighting, so a huge number of candles had to be produced. Tons were made per year, mostly by three or four main producers who employed freemen and apprentices,” he says.

The endless demand for an essential product that quickly burned away into nothing, meant candlemakers were among the busiest and wealthiest of the city’s tradesmen. Despite their status, however, they were largely eschewed by their fellow tradesmen, Richard adds.

For while skinners and hammermen, weavers, bonnetmakers, tailors and goldsmiths were all among the 14 vital trades that made up the Convenery of the Trades of Edinburgh – a cross between a trade union that protected members’ interests and a business organisation that held massive sway over the local town council – the candlemakers were largely 
frozen out.

“Candlemakers were considered to be not in the top flight of the Incorporation of Trades,” says Richard, “although they were subjected to their rules. Apart from a short spell when they were allowed in, their many attempts to get their deacon to be promoted to sit with the other deacons largely failed.”

That, he explains, might have been down to the pure stench their vital business generated. For while everyone wanted candles to light their way, few wanted to find themselves downwind of a candlemakers’ 
production line.

“Candles were made from boiling up tallow – the leftover products from the fleshers, or butchers,” explains Richard. “The smell, apparently, was terrible, even by the standards of the 17th century Old Town.

“And boiling up tallow in closes and wynds was a dangerous practice. These were great big pots of fat, fire was a big problem. The candlemakers would strain off the bits that were no good and dump it outside in a big heap or in the drain that ran down from the Pleasance towards 

“It must have been awful.”

Candlemaking was a bustling 
industry during the reign of James IV – 1488 to 1513 – and held a monopoly on the power of light until new-fangled coal gas, shale oil and paraffin made their debut at the start of the 19th century, spelling the beginning of the end for a centuries-old process.

According to Edinburgh trades historian, Henry Stewart Fotheringham – until recently Candlemaster of the Incorporation of Candlemakers – the original city candlemakers congregated around the busy High Street, side by side with overcrowded houses, shop stalls and businesses, churning out their noxious reek which competed with the equally vile aroma of human and animal waste.

“Then the town council got fed up with them,” he explains. “They were making terrible smells while brewing their tallow and they had a habit of occasionally setting things on fire.”

Indeed a disastrous blaze which started in a candle workshop in Forresters Wynd, swamped the Cowgate and killed the Deacon of the Bonnetmakers’ Guild in the process, the final straw which led to the whole trade being banished from the 
crowded closes to the Bristo Port near the Meadows.

The area soon became known as Candlemaker Row and the tradesmen quickly made their presence felt by building a hall there in 1722 to hold meetings of the Incorporation of Candlemakers of Edinburgh.

According to Richard’s research, it was a massive industry. “In 1739, four of the main candlemakers in town were producing 6651 stones of candle – 42 tons – a year. And they were not the only ones producing candles.

“The council set their prices – in 1771 it was ten shillings and tuppence for a stone of 

However, tight trade restrictions at the time also meant candlemakers could only sell candles “abroad” – to places like Leith and Musselburgh – if Edinburgh’s need was completely satisfied.

Soon, however, it would all go 
horribly wrong.

“The introduction of the Argand lamp and the Carcel lamp was the beginning of the end,” says Richard. “The Argand lamp was an oil lamp that had two burners and was much brighter than a candle.

“The Carcel lamp added a clockwork motor to the oil reserve so it created the light of about six candles. Kerosene lamps came in and the 
demise began.”

Once so wealthy that they were in the process of buying a stunning gold chain to give to their deacon, candlemakers soon found themselves under financial pressure to meet their basic obligations to their members – including payments to widows.

“They had to abandon the gold chain and sell it,” says Richard.

But while candlemaking is a dead industry, the Incorporation of Candlemakers survives – along with the Convenery of the Trades of 

Early next month the Incorporation of Candlemakers will carry out their traditional “Kirking of the Deacon of Candlemakers”, the church service dedicated to the head of their organisation, involving a march that includes all the trades incorporation members, from Candlemakers Row, through the Cowgate to be held at Magdalene Chapel.

They will be out in force the following week too, when the revived Riding of the Marches takes place to commemorate the return in 1513 to Edinburgh of the Captain of the City Band, Randolph Murray, with news of the defeat of the Scottish Army.

And while actual candlemakers may be long gone from Edinburgh’s Old Town, according to former Deacon of the Incoporation of Candlemakers, Peter Rae, their light continues to burn bright.

“All these trades were very important once upon a time. These are trades and traditions which made the city what it is today,” he says.

“Some trades continue now and play a role in helping to support modern apprentices, others may be gone but the incorporations still exist to keep tradition alive and help support the Edinburgh Trades Maiden Fund, which gives money to help girls’ education.

“And you never know, with the price of gas and electricity, candlemakers may soon be back in high demand.”

• Richard Torrance’s booklet about the Incorporation of Candlemakers costs £4 and is available from The Scottish Genealogy Society, 15 Victoria Terrace, Edinburgh EH1 2JL. Tel: 0131-220 3677 or visit the website: www.scots