The Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh, also known as the Merchant Company of Edinburgh or just the Merchant Company, is a company or society founded by Royal Charter in 1681 to protect trading rights of the merchants of the City of Edinburgh. It also carries out a significant amount of charitable and educational work. Along with the Incorporated Trades it is one of the Guilds of the City of Edinburgh. The company historically formed part of the now defunct Corporation of the City of Edinburgh.
Edinburgh has a long history as a trading city. Prior to the Reformation there was a Guild of Merchants in the city. However, there was a great rivalry between the Merchants and the craftsmen of the city, the latter forming the Incorporated Trades in the early 16th century. The Merchants - as many guilds in cities of the time - came to have a significant say in the running of the city. The Trades wanted to share in this power, and "constant bickering" ensued between them and the Merchants, who were unwilling to relinquish any.
In 1583, James IV issued a decree sharing places on the town council between the Merchants and the Trades, but giving one more seat to the Merchants. By the late 1670s, the Merchants wished to consolidate their position and petitioned Charles II. In 1681, the King responded by granting a charter creating the Merchant Company of Edinburgh, which was ratified by the Parliament of Scotland in 1693. A further Royal Charter in 1777 amended provisions for the regulation of the Company's affairs, and it was reincorporated by the Edinburgh Merchant Company Act of 1898.
The Merchant Company was founded in order to protect trading rights in the City of Edinburgh. In keeping with its Guild origins, as its members shared many common interests, it took an interest in the running of the city, covering such fields as taxation, postal services and the city's water supply.
The company was also involved in educational and charitable work. As it grew in importance and repute, charitable trusts were often left to the Company to be administered. In this way the Company came to operate several hospital schools: the Merchant Maiden Hospital (now the Mary Erskine School), George Watson's Hospital (now George Watson's College), Daniel Stewart's Hospital (now part of Stewart's Melville College) and James Gillespie’s Hospital and Free School (now James Gillespie's High School, handed over to management of Edinburgh School Board in 1908).
The 19th century was a time of significant changes for the Merchant Company.
The company's trade monopoly was ended - along with those of other guilds - in 1849 by the Trading Within Burghs Act. Nevertheless the company continued to play an active role in issues affecting the city, and it flourished.
At the same time, the hospital school system was falling into disrepute. A Royal Commission had been established to consider the provision of education for the masses; its report changed the rules pertaining to educational trusts. The company wished to consolidate and preserve its position, and took advantage of this; in fairly short order, the hospitals were transitioned to be principally day schools in 1870.
The company operates as a modern business forum, whilst retaining some of its ancient traditions and privileges. It holds social and networking events and continues to manage the various charitable and educational foundations under its care. The company's schools are operated by the Merchant Company Education Board, a registered charity under Scottish law.
The company's coat of arms, granted in 1693, comprises elements reflecting the importance of world-wide trade, the Royal Charter status the company holds, and its origins as a merchants' guild.
The company's motto is Terraque Marique — "by land and by sea".
Along with The Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh they are members of The Court of Deans of Guild of Scotland.
Membership of the Merchant Company is open to those who carry on any of a range of businesses, trades and professions. New members are required to be elected by the Master's Court. Members must reside or carry on their business or trade either in Edinburgh or within 20 miles of General Register House in Edinburgh.