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The Story of Leith
III. Leith's Early Shipping Trade


IN the early Middle Ages Berwick became the greatest commercial town in Scotland: "A city so populous and of such trade," says an English chronicler of the time of Edward I., "that it might justly be called another Alexandria, whose riches were the sea, and the waters its walls." This great prosperity of Berwick as a centre of commerce is said to have been due mostly to the wool trade with the Netherlands of the great religious houses, such as the abbeys of Kelso and Melrose.

At this period the monks took the leading part in the making of Scotland, for there was little commercial or industrial enterprise to be found outside the monasteries. Wherever they settled the land was made "blithe with plough and harrow," and in this way the waste lands became fruitful fields. Further, they encouraged trading among others by acting the part of bankers and advancing money without interest on the security of lands and tenements.

For centuries the best wool of Scotland was exported to Flanders, France, and Italy—to the latter country through Bruges, where the merchants of Florence had large dealings in wool with the brethren of Melrose and Newbattle, whose sheep were numbered by thousands. One of the earliest records of Scottish overseas trade is the charter of 1182 (still preserved in the Register House, Edinburgh), granted by the crusading Count Philip of Flanders to the monks of Melrose, allowing them passage through his territories free of all toll or exaction—a very valuable privilege in those troubled days.

When the prosperity of Berwick was blighted through the savage massacre of its inhabitants by Edward I. in 1296, Leith began to share in the wool trade. The monks of Melrose and Newbattle from this time onward sent their wool to Edinburgh, and thence to Leith, perhaps in wagons, as they used to send it to Berwick, but more probably in long trains of shaggy pack-horses, which travelled along at a good pace with a jingle of bridle bells, each heavily loaded with packs of wool. From Leith the wool was shipped to Sluis, the port of Bruges, to be woven into cloth by the Flemish weavers, among whom the fleeces of the monks of Melrose were widely known and highly valued.

It is during the period of quiet but steady advance of the reign of David I. (1124—53) that we find Leith, chiefly owing to its proximity to the larger town of Edinburgh and its royal castle, coming into frequent notice, and steadily rising in importance as a centre of trade. The notices of this early trade are not so detailed as we should like them to be, as the accounts of the king’s customs from goods shipped at the various ports during the first part of this period have not come down to us, and, as all imports down to 1597 came into the country duty free, no detailed record of Scotland’s import trade during the Middle Ages exists. It is only by a close search of the Exchequer Rolls, as the accounts of the King’s Customs are called, that a knowledge of the trade of Leith can be gained. These Rolls were begun in David’s reign, but the very earliest to be preserved, some fragments of the year 1264, give us such a glimpse of Leith’s commercial activity as plainly shows us that our town had been a busy trading port for many years before these records begin, and Scotland a commercial country from a more remote period than has generally been believed.

Under the opening year of the Rolls we have the following entries anent the trade of Leith:-

"Item, for carriage of 548 cattle by ship from Inverness to Leith, £7, 13s.
"Item, for 20 lasts of herrings brought to our lord the king, 20 merks.
"Item, for their carriage by ship to Leith, £5, 7s. 3d."

These entries show that cattle and fish were features of the trade of Leith in those early days, as they are still. The Abbot of Holyrood had several ships at North Leith engaged in the fishing industry on the Firth of Forth. The stipend of the parish minister of North Leith is still in part derived from a commutation of the tithes of the fish brought into Newhaven. No doubt the canons of Holyrood were active traders as well as keen fishers, and, like the brethren of their order at Scone and the Dominican monks of Dunfermline, had their own trading vessels; but, as their goods were specially exempted by their charter from paying custom duties into the royal Exchequer, we have only meagre and incidental notices of their overseas trade. The causeway recently laid bare immediately north of the Abbey Church might have been part of the road over which there was much coming and going between Holyrood and its ships at Leith in that golden age of peace and prosperity so ruthlessly ended by the overbearing ambition of Edward I.

Besides her trade with home ports, Leith then, as to-day, had much commercial intercourse with England, sending cattle, and salmon and other fish—salted, of course—to Yarmouth, London, Rye, and other east and south coast ports, receiving in exchange mostly wheat and other cereals. But at this time England was not the market best suited for Scottish exports, for both countries exported raw materials and imported manufactured articles, and, besides, all commercial dealing between them from after the days of Edward I. was constantly being interrupted by war and all the unfriendly feeling which precedes and follows it.

Mutual hostility towards England—the legacy of the aggressive policy of Edward I. and Edward III. in both countries—brought France more or less into close alliance with Scotland from the days of Wallace and Bruce down to the time of Louis XIV., when British foreign policy made such an alliance no longer possible. This alliance conferred many trading advantages on the merchants of both countries in days when the privileges of traders in foreign lands were few and hedged about with many restrictions. Besides, Scotland and France were mutual markets for each other’s products, each supplying what the other required. From her earliest years, therefore, as a port Leith carried on an active trade with France, especially with the towns of Bordeaux and Rochelle, Rouen and Dieppe. To these ports Leith sent cured fish (for which the many fast days imposed by the Church on the faithful in pre Reformation times created a constant demand), wool, horses, and hides, receiving in return cloth, silks, dried fruits, and wines, for Leith, next to London, has always been the greatest wine port in the kingdom.

Another region with which Leith has always carried on a brisk trade from the earliest times, more especially after the decline of the Hanseatic League as a trading power, was that of the "Eastland Seas," not, of course, the seas of the Indies and the East, for Vasco da Gama had not yet discovered the sea route to those regions, but the countries around the Baltic Sea—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, and Poland. The great Baltic ports were well known to the trading communities along the east coast of Scotland, and with these in general, and those of Danzig and Königsberg, Stralsund and Lübeck in particular, Leith carried on an important and ever-growing trade, about which our information, mostly to be found in old German account books, becomes more and more abundant with the passing centuries.

On the death of the dreaded King Haco on his way home to Norway after the Battle of Largs, Alexander III. concluded a friendly treaty with his successor Magnus, to whose son Eric he gave in marriage his only daughter Margaret, the mother of the ill-fated Maid of Norway. This marriage led to much going and coming between Scotland and Norway, and at this time was begun that trade in timber which has made Leith, after Glasgow, the greatest timber port in Scotland; for although a large part of Scotland, especially in the north, was at this time covered with forests, the difficulties of land transport were so great that it was easier and cheaper to bring it from oversea. To the ports on the "Eastland Sea," then, Leith sent her usual exports of wool and skins, and received in return timber, wheat, flour, rye, and malt, all, of course, for the merchant burgesses of Edinburgh; and from the Exchequer Rolls we have a curious notice of Prussian sailors "in their ignorance" carrying away skins from Leith without paying the necessary duty.

Later still, we find iron and wood being imported at Leith for the construction of military engines, and for the repair and rebuilding of the castles of Edinburgh and Stirling. In those days, too, when tea, coffee, and cocoa were unknown, and the beverages consumed at meals were wines and other alcoholic liquors, German "beer," much used by the rich, was largely imported, and was so called to distinguish it from the home-brewed "ale," more generally used by the great mass of the people.

The oldest document still preserved in connection with the Scots-German trade is the well-known letter of Sir William Wallace and his brave companion-in-arms, Sir Andrew Murray, sent after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, and most likely from Leith, to their well-beloved friends, the mayors and commons of Lübeck and Hamburg, inviting their merchants to come to Scotland, and asking them to forward the business of two Scots merchants, Burnet and Frere, whose names are otherwise unknown.

The chief market for whatever Scotland had to export—mostly wool, cheese, coarse cloth, skins, furs, and cured salmon—was the Netherlands, and especially the province of Flanders ; and the history of the commerce of Scotland with the Netherlands is really the history of Scottish trade. The chief centre of Scotland’s—and, therefore, of Leith’s—trade with the Netherlands in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was Bruges, then the chief commercial city of Western Europe and the greatest trading centre of the Hanseatic League. Our early commercial intercourse with Bruges is commemorated in the Scottendye, or Scottish quarter, known in that city from time immemorial as the district where the Scottish traders dwelt. The merchants of Bruges were venturesome navigators, and frequented all the leading fairs and markets of the world. To their city overland routes led from France, Germany, Italy, and Central Europe, and in its warehouses were to he found the products not only of Europe, but also of Northern Africa and Central Asia, as well as those of Arabia, India, and China.

Bruges all through the Middle Ages, therefore, was just such a universal emporium as suited the needs of Scottish merchants, to and from which their ships could carry mixed cargoes of supplies for merchants trading in small quantities. From Bruges, then, the traders of Edinburgh and Leith imported whatever articles of luxury they could afford to buy—dried fruits, spices, nutmegs, pepper, ginger, figs, and similar articles from the East, dye-stuffs and the finer cloths and embroidery, gold and silver work for the services of the Church, the different varieties of wines, with sugar and aromatic spices to sweeten their harsh and acid taste. Indeed, wine was in such general demand in the prosperous days of Alexander III. that whole cargoes of the various French kinds were imported direct from Rochelle and Bordeaux—those of the king being sometimes stored in the abbot’s vaults at Holyrood, which would seem to imply that, even at this early date, the monastery was a favourite dwelling-place of royalty.

Leith shipping has suffered much in recent years from disasters at sea, as in 1883, when three steamers were lost with all hands, for the dangers of the North Sea in the winter months are notorious; but in the distant days of Alexander III., some seven hundred years ago, Leith mariners voyaging to foreign shores had to run so many risks besides storms at sea, that one wonders how they were able to pursue their calling with any degree of profit.

The Edinburgh burgh records, and other old documents from which we gather what little there is to be known about Leith’s earliest shipping trade, always speak of the overseas trade with foreign countries, because of its many risks, as the "wyld aventonris." This fact will help you to understand why merchants engaged in foreign trade in later centuries, as in the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth, were known as "Merchant Adventurers" a name that suited them well, for though eager to make money, they were ever ready to venture it again in new undertakings, in the pursuit of which they incurred many risks and met with many stirring adventures. The greatest risks and dangers incurred by merchants engaged in foreign trade in those early days and all through the Middle Ages arose from piracy. Pirates nowadays are only to be found in story books like Treasure Island, but all through mediaeval and much later times pirates were rife in all our seas.

All through her history as a port, well down into the eighteenth century, Leith shipping suffered from winter storms, the depredations of pirates, and the risks and losses incidental to less civilized times. No port ever sent out more daring and skilful seamen, and just as the dread of the submarine did not deter those of our own day from putting to sea during the Great War, so in the same bold spirit did Leith mariners brave the many perils of the sea in days of old. But although the many risks to which merchants and sailors were exposed in past ages did not deter them from pursuing their calling, they influenced the policy of rulers, and Alexander III. decreed that "merchants should not cross over the sea to any place beyond the kingdom, for so many ships were lost and others taken by enemies and pirates that the kingdom was thereby much impoverished." This was no doubt very short-sighted policy on the part of the king, and had it been followed by his successors must have been fatal to the prosperity of Leith as a port; but that there was much excuse for such a law as this, the story of our local shipping amply bears out.

It is noticeable in the records of these times that many ships which met evil fortune in crossing the North Sea were not Scottish but Flemish. That was the natural result of King Alexander’s edict forbidding Scottish ships to engage in oversea trade. Foreign merchants seemed to find this trade quite profitable in spite of its many risks, and now, as an old Scots chronicler tells us, "many ships laden with all manner of merchandise would come to the country in those days, and barter all their merchandise, goods for goods." These merchants were mostly Flemings—that is, men of Flanders, of whom many had in previous years settled on our coasts. Many Flemings also settled in Edinburgh, where a protest was made against their having the same privileges of trade as the native burgesses. Here, as elsewhere, they kept in close touch with their kinsmen in Flanders, and thus gave a great impetus to our local trade with the Low Countries, ship after ship sailing from Leith to Binges and other ports with large exports of wool and hides for the cloth and leather manufacturers, to return laden with a varied assortment of goods for the stocking of the merchants’ booths of those early days of Leith’s commerce.


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