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The Story of Leith
XV. Leith Shipping in Early Stuart Times


IN Chapter III. was given some account of Leithís commerce and the countries with which she traded down to the end of Scotlandís golden age, which closed with the tragic death of Alexander III. in 1286. In the troubled years of Scotlandís strenuous fight to maintain her national independence against England during the reigns of the first three Edwards, the English, who during that period were in alliance with Flanders against France, did their best to persuade their Flemish allies to have no commercial dealings with the Scots. They did not succeed at this time, however, for the Flemings declared that Flanders was a free country, and open to all nations for the purposes of trade.

Yet Flanders, as the great cloth factory of Europe, could not afford to be on bad terms with England. It was from that country she obtained her chief supply of wool, for England was the only country in Europe at that time peaceful enough for the secure feeding of sheep. Bruges up to this time had been the chief centre, or staple as it was called, of Scotlandís trade with Flanders and the continental port with which Leith had most commercial intercourse. The "intolerable disrespect" shown to Leith and other Scots traders at Bruges owing to the friendly affiance between Flanders and England led to the staple being removed to Middelburg, in Holland, a country not as yet under the control of the dukes of Burgundy, the rulers of Flanders at this time.

The trade of Leith not only suffered from the hostility of England and her allies during times of international strife on the Continent, but was greatly injured, as we have already seen, by the insecurity and lawlessness that arose from strife at home, whether with the "auld enemy" or from the endless feuds of the nobles. Yet, in spite of being thus hampered and obstructed, the trade of the Port steadily grew. In the last year of Bruceís reign the customs duties paid on Leithís export trade amounted to only £439, while forty years later, in 1369, they had risen to twice that sum. By 1424, when James I. returned to Scotland after his long imprisonment in England, the customs revenue from the Port of Leith had again more than doubled itself, showing that, even in those lawless years of Jamesís enforced absence in England, Leithís shipping trade was steadily growing. When we consider the insecurity of those times, and the many obstacles and risks by which oversea commerce was beset and injured, our wonder is that it grew at all.

The unprovoked attacks by the Flemings, of course, led to reprisals, and in the lawless game of piracy Leith sailormen of those turbulent times could stand their own. These reprisals soon led the Duke of Burgundy to see that the benefits of occasional captures of Scottish ships were as nothing compared with the advantages of settled trade. The result was a commercial treaty between Scotland and the Netherlands in 1425, for by this date the dukes of Burgundy had added Holland to their other dominions. This treaty attempted to secure to those from Edinburgh and Leith trading with Flemish and Dutch ports, in addition to other privileges, a valuable right for which they had long clamoured, and without which no commerce could flourish.

By the charter now given, a copy of which is to be found both in the Register House, Edinburgh, and at Bruges, it was mutually agreed that Scots merchants and traders would no longer be arrested nor their goods confiscated, as had been so frequently done in the past, for the debts or the misdeeds of other Scots merchants, who did not always pay their just and lawful debts incurred abroad. There still exists a black list of overseas debts left unpaid, whatever may have been the reason, on which a number of well-known Edinburgh merchants, and even the king, James II., stand high.

The Baltic seaports, and especially the great Hanseatic port of LŁbeck, looked with no friendly eye on ships from the west trading in Baltic waters, and resorted to open acts of violence to injure their trade. The Stuart kings made bitter complaints to the emperor of the attacks and cruelties Scots merchants and seamen had to suffer at the hands of the bold LŁbeckers. It might be that these old Edinburgh merchants trading through their port of Leith had sustained losses through unjustified attacks on their ships by those of the Hansards, and took the method of not paying their just debts in order to recoup themselves for the losses they had sustained through unprovoked attacks on their ships by those of the Hanseatic League.

If the Hansards complained of our local traders for the non-payment of their debts, still more did they resent the treatment they received from them at sea. Leith sailormen were in no way behind the bold LŁbeekers in attacking and seizing the ships and cargoes of others on the high seas when a favourable opportunity arose. Indeed, such acts of piracy were as congenial an occupation to Leith sailormen as a raid into England was to the Scottish Borderers, and were ordinary and everyday incidents of navigation in those unruly times.

While there were no means to compel kings like James II. to pay their debts to foreign traders if they refused to do so, it was otherwise with ordinary merchants. As the Hansards once more threatened to arrest! the goods of all Scots merchants in Prussian ports in order to repay themselves for the loss our traders had caused them, it was plain that the penalty of any Edinburgh merchantís dishonesty was liable to fall on all merchants from our district. For that reason the Edinburgh Merchant Guild would take the matter in hand, and we may feel sure that this powerful body would not be slow to deal severely with any of their members whose business action was likely to lead both to the confiscation of their goods and to the interruption of trade for an indefinite period. They would see to it either that the debts were paid or that the defaulting member was expelled from the guild. Such a punishment would mean the end of his career as a trader, for no one in our district outside the Edinburgh Merchant Guild could under any circumstances whatever engage in foreign commerce.

The Edinburgh Merchant Guild might have a check on the doings of their own members, but they had little, if any, on the skippers and mariners of Leith, who, remembering that their town was "unfree," had little regard for anything the Edinburgh merchant burgesses might do or say in the matter. The Leith skippers gained rather than lost by such enterprises, and their disturbing effect on a trade they were not allowed to share mattered nothing to them.

The Strait of Dover and the English Channel were known to the sailormen of Western Europe at this time as the Narrow Seas, and were always so named. They were a great highway of traffic not only for England but also for the ships of Genoa, Venice, and Spain, sailing to and from Bruges, LŁbeck, and other ports of the Hansards. Hostile English ships were always to be met there, and they were the haunts of the pirates of all nations, among whom were, of course, some from Leith. But however rich a cruising ground they might prove for Leith pirates, the Narrow Seas were no safe place for Leith vessels to venture in the pursuit of trade. The voyage to France by this route, therefore, involved too many risks for traders from Leith to follow generally. That was why it was necessary for Scots traders to have a port such as Bruges in a country like Flanders, more accessible than France then was, to be a general depot or staple for their foreign trade.

We have seen that this trade was so much interrupted by the wars between England, the Empire, and France, that the staple was removed to Middelburg in Holland. The staple town according to law, though not always according to practice, was supposed to have the monopoly of Scotlandís trade with the Low Countries. In 1541 the Scottish staple was removed to the neighbouring town of Veere, and there it remained until Holland joined Napoleon at the close of the eighteenth century. Holland at this time, however, was less advanced industrially than Flanders; but as Middelburg was equally convenient for the markets of Bruges, now declining, and those of Antwerp, now rising, as the great centres of European trade, Leithís commerce in no way suffered, but rather gained, by the change. As time went on the Dutch granted Scotland the great privilege of having a Scots merchant resident at Middelburg, whose duty it was to protect and promote the interests of Scots traders frequenting the port, where they were given the further privilege of having a quay and warehouses for their own use.

Such an officer to-day would be called a consul. Then he had the imposing title of "Lord Conservator of the Scottish privileges in the Low Countries." The most noted of these conservators was Andrew Halyburton, who occupied the office from 1493 to 1503. Halyburton further acted as agent, and bought and sold goods for Scots merchants on commission. His ledger, in which he kept the accounts of his clients, is now in the Register House, and, as his trading correspondents were mostly Edinburgh merchants and leading Churchmen like our old friend the good Abbot Ballantyne, this timeworn ledger gives us an interesting and detailed summary of Leithís trade with the Netherlands at the close of the fifteenth century.

Indeed, of no period of Leithís overseas commerce, until that of our own day, do we know so much. In Chapter III. we saw this commerce being carried on for the most part in Flemish ships. But in Halyburtonís time the cargoes set down in his ledger are imported in Leith ships, commanded and manned by Leith skippers and mariners. While the nobles were impoverishing themselves and their lands by their eternal feuds and strife, there was arising in Leith a prosperous middle class of wealthy shipowners, not merchants, because Leith was an unfree town, but bold and daring navigators, whose skill and enterprise not only enriched themselves, but brought wealth and prosperity to the Port. We have seen the middle class, in this case a merchant class, slowly but surely rising in Edinburgh from the days of Robert the Bruce, in men like William Fairley and Walter Curry, and now, in the reigns of James III. and James IV., in Sir Alexander Lauder and Touris of Inverleith. To these two classes, the merchants of Edinburgh and the skippers and shipowners of Leith, the early progress and prosperity of the two towns are mostly due.

We see this trading class in Leith, in men like Gilbert Edmonston and Peter Falconer, not only acquiring wealth, but also spending it to the great benefit and adornment of the good town. The growing prosperity of the trading classes tempted the younger sons of noblemen and gentlemen to enter their ranks, and thus in Leith we find members of the great and powerful Logan family becoming master mariners and joining the Bartons in their persistent spoliation of the Portuguese. And just as in Bruceís time we had Edinburgh merchants associated with noted events in their countryís history, in which their swords were more fitting instruments than their pens, so here in Halyburtonís ledger are names around which time and story have cast the magic spell of romance, the names of some of those stout and gallant burghers

"Who on Floddenís trampled sod,
For their king and for their country,
Rendered up their souls to God."

Had Andrew Halyburton foreseen, as he looked out on the ship canal at Middelburg and penned his accounts, that of all the Scots ledgers of those long-past centuries his alone was destined to survive for our perusal, he might have done more to satisfy our curiosity. As it is, he often puts us Leithers out of all patience, for he persistently mentions Leith ships without naming their skippers, and as often speaks of skippers without naming tbeir ships, as when he sends home to "My Lord of Holyruidhous" óthat is, Abbot Ballantyneófour puncheons of wine of Orleans in the Julyan, and on another occasion sends the good abbot two puncheons of claret by Gilbert Edneston. This shipman, the owner and skipper of the Julyan, was none other than Gilbert Edmonston, the founder of the chantry of St. Barbara in St. Maryís Kirk at this very time, perhaps out of gratitude for being brought to his desired haven after a more than usually perilous voyage. For storms raged then as now, as in the great gale of Maryís time, when the windows of St. Gilesí were blown in, and the pier and bulwark of Leith washed away. And on such wild and stormy nights in those times no friendly gleam flashed from the May and Inchkeith to guide mariners on their course up the Firth. For this reason it was that in all seafaring countries sailormen and their ships remained in harbour during the winter months. It was the centurionís disregard of this rule that led to St. Paulís shipwreck on the voyage to Rome.

But although this custom had been made a law of the land by the Scots Parliament it was not observed during the reign of James IV., for in Andrew Halyburtonís ledger we find Leith mariners fearlessly voyaging to and fro across the stormy waters of the North Sea all through the winter months, as Gilbert Edmonston did through the ten years of this old conservatorís accounts. And it may be, as time and again he steered for the harbour mouth on his return voyage, the man on the lookout, in sounding his trumpet warning of their approach to outcoming vessels, as ships now sound their siren, would add a note only used aboard the good ship Julyan as a signal to their womenfolk that they had reached port once more in safety. Gilbert Edmonston was dead before 1510, but whether he found his last anchorage beneath the heaving waters of the North Sea or under the shadow of the altar of St. Barbara in the Lady Kirk we cannot now tell. All we do know is that the families of the Edmonstons and the Bartons were bound by the closest ties of friendship, and that when Gilbert Edmonston passed away his widow, Elizabeth Crauford, became the wife of that noted Leith navigator, Robert Barton of Barnton.

The great highway of Scotlandís commerce all through those long centuries was the North Sea. On its shores were, therefore, her chief ports, Leith, Aberdeen, and Dundee. Of these Leith was, as she still is, by far the most important, and indeed was the chief port of the country until surpassed by Glasgow in the early nineteenth century. The days of Leithís greatest fame were those of the reign of James IV. It was Robert the Bruce who first foresaw the importance of a navy to a small country like Scotland with her large seaboard; but James IV. was the first of his successors who had the wisdom and enterprise to build it. In doing so, James was only following the example of the other rulers of Western Europe, who were all showing the greatest interest in matters pertaining to the sea. Columbus had just discovered America, and Vasco da Gama the sea route to India, and, if Scotland was to have any place at all among the nations of Europe, she must become a power at sea. This James determined to make her, and, in carrying out this policy, he was so wisely and ably supported by the skippers and mariners of Leith that our town became noted both at home and abroad for the number and size of its ships, and still more for the skill and daring of its mariners, who successfully fought their way at sea against all who sought to oppose them.

At this time Scotland had no ships of war properly so called. The kingís ships, which had already won renown by their victories at sea, were only used for purposes of war as necessity arose. They were merely armed merchantmen, and in times of peace were engaged in the work of trade and commerce. For the king, like some of the great Churchmen and some nobles like Lord Seton, had ships of his own, which he, too, let out for trading ventures at so much per voyage. This had been for long a custom of English monarchs also, and Henry VII., Jamesís contemporary on the throne of England, constantly hired out the royal ships to merchants, who were thus saved the expense of their upkeep and maintenance. The larger the ships the more popular they were, as they not only held more cargo, but were less likely to fall a prey to the pirates who were rampant on all the overseas trading routes.

Sculptured Stone from Ship Carpenters' Covening House, now in Coburg Street.

Besides the Flower and the Yellow (Jarvel), which had won so much renown under their famous captain, Sir Andrew Wood, there were several other ships belonging to the king, which were mostly engaged in trade between Leith and the Netherlands, and especially to Middelburg, at this time the staple town for Scots trade and one of the chief commercial ports of Holland. One of the great advantages in those times of a staple town to which the trade of the country was largely restricted was that the ships could sail in convoys and thus minimize the risks from pirates, against whose incursions into the Firth there was built the fort whose remains we still see on Inchgarvie.

Noted as Leith was at this time for her seamen, her shipwrights were few and unskilled, for until the reign of James IV. the art of shipbuilding had been little practised in Scotland. Most of her ships had been built in the Netherlands and in France, and, as her relations with England could never be called friendly even in times of peace, it was to France she now went for shipwrights to begin the work of naval construction in Leith, and to train its workmen in their craft. And so towards the close of the year 1502 John Lorans, "the French wricht that cam first for the schip bigging" (building), arrived in Leith. He was followed by others, mostly from Normandy and Brittany. Among these was Jacques Terreil, who afterwards became master wright and chief naval constructor of the Great Michael. A greater difficulty than labour, however, was obtaining oak "tymir" for the work, and we see Barton, Terrell, and others sent all over the country, and even to France, "to cheis tymir for the schip." This ship was the Margaret, named after the young Queen Margaret Tudor, whose marriage with James the Leithers had celebrated with such joy as a bond of perpetual peace with the "auld enemy." A special dockyard had been prepared for the Margaret. In January 1505 she was launched with much sounding of trumpets and playing of minstrels, as became so unique an event, whose success was chiefly due to the wisdom and skill of Jacques Terrell.

There were further rejoicings and flourish of trumpets when the masts were erected, when coins for luck were placed under the heel of each, as we now put them in the foundation stones of buildings. All her other equipment of tackle, sails, and ropes had to be imported from Flanders, for the great roperies of Leith, whose business connection is now world-wide, did not arise for more than two hundred years after the days of James IV. Leith, however, at this time, from having no great depth of water, was found not quite suitable for a shipbuilding port. It was only after nearly a hundred casks had been lashed to the Margaretís hull that she could be floated out of her dockyard, and the king and Jacques Terrell were thus led to seek a new haven, where there was a greater depth of water, about a mile farther west.


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