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The Story of Leith
XVIII. The Rise of Newhaven


WHILE we know the names of a large number of Scottish ships belonging to James IV.’s time, we cannot always distinguish the vessels of the king from those of other owners. A recent great writer of Scottish history, however, estimates that the navy of James at its best consisted of sixteen large ships and ten small ones. Such a large fleet of royal vessels shows us that, even although the king sometimes purchased ships from abroad, his own dockyards at home must also have been unusually busy.

The Margaret was perhaps the largest Scottish vessel then afloat; but James was ambitious to possess ships still larger. From the difficulties encountered by the ingenious Jacques Terrell, James’s master wright and chief naval designer, in floating the Margaret over the entrance of her dockyard at the Shore it was evident there was not sufficient depth of water to permit of the construction of larger vessels at Leith. But by men like James IV., Sir Andrew Wood, and the Bartons, this difficulty was soon overcome. Little more than a mile farther west the depth of water at high tides was much greater than at Leith, and there the king resolved to construct new dockyards for the building of larger ships, while he still retained those at Leith for constructing vessels of normal size. This resolution had no sooner been arrived at than work was begun, and even before the Margaret was ready for sea the Novus Portus de Leith—that is, the New Haven or Harbour of Leith, and now so well known as the fishing village of Newhaven—was in process of formation.

The land on the west side of the Water of Leith, however, did not belong to the king. It was the property of the abbot and canons of Holyrood, and would require to be purchased from them before any new harbour could be constructed there; but the royal ships and shipyards had already cost so much that Sir Robert Barton, the clever keeper of the king’s purse, had little money wherewith to indulge in any new expenditure. But difficulties only appeared to be at once overcome; for the king gave the abbot and canons a portion of his rich lands in and around Linlithgow for some acres of the grassy lands so long known as the Links of North Leith, of which all that remains to-day is the Free Fishermen’s Park adjacent to the Whale Brae.

In 1504 trees to the number of one hundred and sixty-three were purchased from the Laird of Inverleith for the construction of the new village. The labourers employed in this work were lodged in a great pavilion brought from Edinburgh Castle and erected on the grassy links until houses were built. But housing was pushed on rapidly, and Newhaven became ere long quite a large village and the seat of a considerable population, of whom many were French, some Flemings, and others Dutch. Mingled with these were a few Spaniards, Panes, and Portuguese.

As James, like his mother before him, was devoted to the Church, he early made provision for the spiritual welfare of his many shipwrights and other workmen at Newhaven. We find that the building of a chapel dedicated to the Virgin and St. James was going on in 1505, and in little more than a year afterwards we see it open for service and the king presenting it with a silver chalice or communion cup. The only remains of this chapel to be found in Newhaven to-day are the west gable of the nave which stands on the right as you go down the Westmost Close, and its little God’s-Acre which forms a green enclosure adjacent in Main Street. Our ancestors in these old times had a happy gift of putting much poetry into their place-names, and so, from the fact of their chapel being dedicated to the Virgin, Newhaven was commonly known by the highly poetic name of Our Lady’s Port of Grace.

Remains of the Chapel of St. Mary and St. James, Newhaven

As the building of a fleet was an undertaking very dear to James’s heart, we soon find him showing the greatest interest in the construction of the New Haven by frequent visits to the works from his royal palaces at Holyrood and Linlithgow, and by encouraging the workmen with gifts of the inevitable "drink-silver," as in 1504, when he sent fourteen shillings by the hand of Sir Robert Barton to "the marinaris that settis up the bulwerk of the New Haven." Three years later, in 1507, the works were still being extended, for in that year we find another bulwark erected and a new dock being excavated.

The Churchyard, NewhavenNo sooner was the first dock ready than shipbuilding began, and preparations were made for the construction of a warship superior to any yet afloat. We find timber and other material for the "great schip," afterwards known to fame as the Great Michael, being brought from many quarters and stored in the King’s Wark on the Shore of Leith and at Newhaven.

This great ship seems to have been laid on the stocks about 1507, and her construction was carried out under the superintendence of Sir Andrew Wood, perhaps the greatest of James’s many sea captains. In a poem addressed to the king himself by William Dunbar, the famous Scots poet of that time, we have a brief but graphic word-picture of the stir and bustle that reigned in the naval yards of Leith and Newhaven at this period—a word-picture undoubtedly suggested by what he had so often seen at these places with his own eyes. In this poem Dunbar talks of the

"Carpenters,
Builders of barks and ballingars,
Masons lying upon the land,
And shipwrights hewing upon the strand."

To Lindsay of Pitscottie, in Fife, perhaps the most picturesque and attractive writer of Scots history, we owe much interesting information about the building of the Great Michael. Although doubt has been thrown on many of the details of his graphic narrative, yet we must remember that Pitscottie was near neighbour to the Woods of Largo, and is therefore likely to have had authentic information about Sir Andrew and the great ship of which he was commander. Pitscottie, after the manner of the old balladists, tells us that the Great Michael was "a year and a day" in building; but that is only his picturesque Scots way of saying that she took a long time to build, and we know from other sources that she must have been on the stocks for four years at least.

During this long period James took the deepest interest in every detail of her construction, and was therefore a frequent visitor to Newhaven, where his kindly consideration and attractive manner, as in Leith, Soon won for him the devoted and affectionate loyalty of the whole population. No accident to any of the workmen and no case of sickness among the villagers ever failed to call forth his kindly sympathy and ready help. We find him giving fourteen shillings to "ane pure wyff becaus hir husband brak his leg at the king’s werk and had nathing to amend it with." One of his French shipwrights died and was buried in the little churchyard of St. Mary’s Chapel. The king not only paid all the expenses of the illness and burial, but also sent the widow back to her native Rouen to which she longed to return. Even the poor charwoman who kept the court that led to the works is not forgotten when she "is fallen seik." The king’s courteous and kindly bearing encouraged even the humblest of his subjects to approach him with freedom.

There must have been fishermen in Newhaven even in those early days of its history, for we find James going with them to the oyster-dredging. As the fishers were accustomed to sing songs while at work, and the king was passionately fond of music, we may be sure the "dreg song" was struck up on these occasions, for

"The oysters are a gentle kin’,
They winna tak unless ye sing."

In 1506, a year when summer days were more than usually fine, a Newhaven woman brought the king the first strawberries of the season, a fruit for which James had a particular fondness, while on another occasion he received a gift of plums "at the bridge end of the New Haven." Again we see him later in the same season purchasing "hony peris" from a fruitseller at the pier end. A pleasant place evidently was this Newhaven of long ago, with its cottages set in shady gardens, gay with blossom in the pleasant springtime, and rich with fruit in mellow autumn, the honey pears and the plums in all likelihood from trees grown from slips brought by James’s French shipwrights from the sunnier and warmer shores of Normandy and Brittany.

Sometimes King James rode down from Holyrood in the early morning on his favourite steed Grey Gretno, when the exercise and fresh morning air put rather a keen edge on his appetite. On such occasions, there being no inn at this time in Newhaven, he "disjonit" (French déjeuner—to breakfast) at the house of one of his French shipwrights, whose wife was seemingly known to local fame as a cook skilled beyond her neighbours. Royal visits were everyday incidents in Newhaven in those distant days.

Perhaps the most pleasing Newhaven memories associated with those of James IV. are connected with the nameless little Newhaven girl to whose identity we have no clue whatever, for the king never speaks of her except as "the little lass." Children, unless they are of royal blood, do not figure largely in State documents, and are not often met with in local history. King James, however, always seemed to be specially interested in them; it might be because he had lost so many of his own, "which grevit him sae sair that he tvald not be comforted." He possessed in a very high degree all that charm of manner so characteristic of the Stuarts, which drew to him both young and old. At Newhaven we see James’s love for children shown in his interest in this little nameless lass, whose charm and grace of manner seem to have been no less attractive than his own, and whose little heart he was wont to make glad on his visits to his dockyards with the small money gift of a groat, perhaps to buy strawberries from one of those sunny gardens where they used to ripen so early, or, if autumn were the season, to purchase honey pears from the fruitseller at the pier end. What an interesting story of child life in the days when James IV. was king might be written round the title, "The Little Lass in Newhaven."

During the years 1508-11 we know little of what went on in Newhaven, as the king’s accounts for those years have not come down to us. The Great Michael, by far the largest ship built in Europe in those days, was still on the stocks. The best account we have of this great ship is from the pen of that picturesque old chronicler, Pitscottie, whose word-pictures are so often credited with owing much to the free play of his imagination.

According to Pitscottie, the Great Michael wasted all the woods of Fife except those of Falkland in addition to all the timber that was brought from Norway. Here Pitscottie must have put a great restraint upon his powers of story-telling, for when we examine the account books we find that he has understated, rather than exaggerated, the amount of timber used in her construction. Not only were supplies of timber sought in all parts of Scotland, but they were also largely imported from the Continent, and especially from France and the Baltic or "Estland Seys."

The dimensions of the Great Michael, as given by the same chronicler, were two hundred and forty feet long, thirty-five feet broad, with sides of oak ten feet thick. With such dimensions as these, it is not surprising that she wasted all the woods of Fife, and required in addition many cargoes of timber from Norway and other lands beyond the sea.

Besides the timber, much of the other material employed in the construction of this great ship also came from the Continent, and chiefly, of course, from those countries with which Leith was accustomed to trade most, such as the Low Countries, France, Scandinavia, Denmark, and Poland. We see the enmity between England and Scotland that did so much to hinder their mutual trade in olden times in the fact that tin and copper from Cornwall were got via Antwerp.

The guns came mostly from Flanders, though many were made in Edinburgh Castle and stored in the King’s Wark on the Shore. Hundreds of "gun-stanes "—the general name for cannon balls at this time—were also imported from Flanders. With them came canvas for sails, and most of the ropes and cables, while much of the rigging also came from France—from Dieppe and Rouen. Pitch and tar, of which large quantities were required for the dockyards, were, like so much of the timber, brought from Denmark and other countries round the "Estland Seys."

For lighting purposes there also came from Flanders chandeliers—that is, candlesticks of a more or less ornamental kind—and horn for bowets to the ships. Bowets were lanterns in which horn was used instead of glass, a highly expensive material in the reign of James IV. The Great Michael had twenty-six bowets altogether - twenty-three small ones and three large, two of these latter for the stern and one for her bow. Then there were the "night-glasses," or sand-glasses, which in those clockless days were used to indicate the hall-hours at sea as is still done by bells.

The compasses for the ship were also got from Flanders, and George Paterson, a member of a family of Leith mariners, was commissioned to choose them and bring them home with his ship from Middelburg. The skippers engaged in the work of importing these various stores were the Bartons, that fire-eater William Brownhill, John Lawson (the name-father to Lawson’s Wynd), and Captain Lamb, of whose family we have already heard and of which we shall hear still more.

The "Great Michael"

The Great Michael seems to have been launched in October 1511, but the event is nowhere definitely stated. So notable an incident, however, could not fail to be celebrated as a gala day in Newhaven, and so we find payments being made to Scottish trumpeters "at the outputting of the kingis gret schip." James would be there and so would Queen Margaret, and with them a brilliant train of lords and ladies from Holyrood. Congratulations on the success of the day’s event would be showered from all sides on Sir Andrew Wood and Jacques Terrell, the master wright, who in those days was designer as well as builder.

When finally out of the builders’ hands and furnished with her full equipment, she made a brave show as she rode at anchor some two miles from the shore, with her richly carved and decorated forecastle, her huge poop, her four great masts alive with banners and streamers, and her sails, as was the custom of the age, emblazoned with the royal and other coats-of-arms.

But even then she gave her commander, Sir Andrew Wood, and Jacques Terrell, the master wright, no end of trouble, for owing to her huge size and cumbersome build she was somewhat difficult to navigate. For this reason she had the misfortune to run aground in one of her early trips in the Firth, which had not then its shoals and shallows indicated by buoys as it has to-day. The result was that there were added to her crew three pilots, who, strangely enough, were all Frenchmen, and whose duty it was to mark out the deeper channels.

Now that the Great Michael was making such an imposing show as she lay at anchor in the Roads, and had no further need of his services aboard her in the meantime, Jacques Terrell sailed for France in February 1513 with the French ambassador, De la Motte. The master wright went to France to enlist fourscore French mariners, perhaps to act as gunners, for the Great Michael. He sailed from Newhaven in De la Motte’s little bark called the Gabriel. As Will Brownhill, with three ships under his command, left Leith at the same time, ostensibly for Flanders to deceive the English spies, but really for France, he almost certainly joined De in Motte as convoy to his ship, the little Gabriel, which was freighted with wool fleeces and salted hides, two of Leith’s staple articles of export.

Ambassadors in those days seemingly joined trade with diplomacy, and did not disdain to combine a little piracy with both when a successful opportunity came along. Like her more famous namesake in the old English ballad, the Gabriel sailed away adventurously to meet whatever fortune, chance, or Providence might send. Off Flamborough Head she fell in with an English ship making for Newcastle with a cargo of wine, which was promptly captured and sent on to Leith with a prize crew.

Now such an exploit was not the unaided work of the little Gabriel, and, as the prize was sent to Leith, we may conclude that Will Brownhill and his three ships had not been far off. To be sure Scotland and England chanced to be at peace at that particular time, but that counted for little on the high seas, where a state of war between the mariners of the two countries was the normal condition of affairs.

At this time, according to the letters of the English spies, James visited his ships at Newhaven daily, going early in the morning and remaining until the dinner-hour, which was then at twelve o’clock. How many ships had been built at Newhaven it is now impossible to say. In the letters of the spies of Henry VIII. we read of ships in course of building, but we have no clue to their names.

Just at this very time we have an account from the English ambassador himself of his visit to Leith and Newhaven. He was as much spy as envoy, which James, who perhaps suggested the visit, seemed to guess. James had boasted that the Great Michael carried more guns than the French king ever brought to the siege of a town. The English ambassador wrote to King Henry that this was "a great crack," or lie, but was too polite to say so to James. He, however, went down to Leith to see the ships for himself, and then went on to Newhaven, but as some of the largest of the king’s ships, unknown to this rather sell-satisfied Englishman, were safely out of sight far beyond Queensferry, he sent a rather disparaging report of the size of James’s navy to his lord and master in the belief that he had seen the whole of it.

Jealous for their port of Leith, the burgesses of Edinburgh, we are told, looked with no friendly eye upon the growing importance of Newhaven, for much injury was done to the royal burghs and their monopoly of the overseas trade by vessels sailing from such ports as Newhaven, over which they had no jurisdiction. In 1510, therefore, they purchased Newhaven from James, whose many expensive enterprises left him in constant need of money.

The charter granted to the city by the king describes Newhaven as "the new port called Newhaven, lately constructed by the king on the seashore between the Chapel of St. Nicholas in the north part of the town of Leith and the lands of Wardie." From this charter we further learn that Newhaven had at this time at least one street, the South Raw. While the burgesses of Edinburgh thus obtained complete control of Newhaven, they were at the same time bound to uphold the pier and bulwarks for receiving and protecting the ships and vessels sailing thereto.

This grant of Newhaven to the city of Edinburgh in no way interfered with its use as a place for the construction of the king’s ships, but with the departure of James’s fleet for France in 1513, the larger portion of which never returned, the great days of Newhaven as a shipbuilding port came to an end. The death of James at Flodden, the misrule and lawlessness which followed, and the failure of Edinburgh to uphold the pier and bulwarks gradually led to its decline. No vestige of the pier and once busy dockyards erected by James IV. survives in Newhaven to-day.


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