The Merchant Company has a rich history interwoven with the fabric of Edinburgh life in the last 300 years. In its early days, the Company concerned itself with such matters as the city water supply and expressed regret that too many trading premises were being turned into ‘brandy shops’ or ‘tippling places’. However, eventually the status and influence of Members was seen by public- spirited benefactors as an efficient and perpetual means of putting into effect their last wills and testaments and, as a result, charitable trusts were left to the Company to administer.
This, coupled with shrewd investment, resulted in the Company becoming one of the biggest landowners in Scotland. For example, one of the Master’s responsibilities until recently was that of the Chairman of the Trustees of the Harbours of Peterhead and Chairman of the Managers of the Feuars of Peterhead. It also saw the Company assuming many responsibilities, relating mainly to the young, the poor and the elderly. In 1694, Mary Erskine, possibly the widow of a Company Member, gave over 10,000 mercs for the “maintenance of burgess female children” which established the Mary Erskine School. Further legacies resulted in the opening of George Watson’s College in 1741, for the sons of “decayed merchants”, Daniel Stewart’s College in 1855 and James Gillespie’s High School (the latter was handed over to the management of the Edinburgh School Board in 1908).
As time passed, the focus of the Company moved completely to education and charitable works and one of the Company’s major functions now is the Merchant Company Education Board.
As time passed, the focus of the Company moved completely to education and charitable works and one of the Company’s major functions now is the Merchant Company Education Board (Scottish Charity No: SC009747) which has the ultimate legal responsibility for George Watson’s College and Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools.
The Master of the Merchant Company is ex officio Chairman of the Merchant Company Education Board. The Board appoints three members of the Master’s Court as Governors of George Watson’s College at any one time and also appoints the Chairman of the Governing Council who must also be a member of the Company and becomes ex officio a member of the Education Board.