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The Story of Leith
VI. The Enmity with Edinburgh: It's Origin


A GOOD deal of more or less unfriendly feeling has always existed between Edinburgh and Leith. When we begin to inquire into the matter we find that they are "auld enemies" whose unfriendliness has its roots far back in Scottish history. In Queen Mary’s time the jealousy and ill-feeling between Edinburgh and Leith were much keener than they are to-day, for the Lords of the Congregation, protesting against the French occupation of the town in 1559, wrote: "It is not unknown to the most part of this realm that there hath been an old hatred and contention betwixt Edinburgh and Leith, Edinburgh continually seeking to possess the liberty which by donation (= gift) of ancient kings they have long enjoyed, and Leith, on the contrary, aspiring to a liberty and freedom in prejudice of Edinburgh."

Now let us inquire into the cause of this unfriendly feeling that had made the two towns "auld enemies" for many centuries even before the days of Queen Mary. We saw in the last chapter that Edinburgh’s first hold on Leith began in very early times, and that, after the country had settled down from the turmoil and strife of the War of Independence, that hold, through bargains with the Logans, gradually became stronger and stronger until it embraced the whole town except St. Anthony’s. And then, an English writer tells us, the Edinburghers, in their dealings with Leith, behaved in a way that defies any kind of explanation. This is a popular and widespread belief, but that it is quite an erroneous one, this and the following three chapters will endeavour to show.

It has always been believed that the long-standing ill-feeling between the Leithers and their neighbours of Edinburgh had its origin in the fact of Leith being Edinburgh’s vassal and in the restricted freedom which vassal-age entailed. Now this is entirely to misunderstand the relationship that once existed between the two towns, for friction and ill-feeling would still have arisen between them even if Edinburgh had never had any feudal superiority or charter rights over the lands of Leith. The beginning of the unfriendly feeling was not owing to the fact of Leith being the vassal of Edinburgh, but to that system of trading in the Middle Ages under which Leith was Edinburgh’s port.

Their disagreement had to do with "this liberty, the donation of ancient kings," which Edinburgh had so long enjoyed at the expense of Leith, and from any share in which the latter was entirely shut out. Leith had on this account a decided grievance against the burgesses of old-time Edinburgh, just a bit puffed up and overbearing through the many special privileges they enjoyed, and from which they jealously excluded Leithers and all other "unfreemen." These privileges enjoyed by Edinburgh, but denied to Leith, were in accordance with the spirit of the age, when fair rivalry in trade was not only unknown, but altogether undesired, and a thing to be put down with the utmost rigour of the law.

Now what was this mediaeval system of trading under which the free or royal burghs like Edinburgh enjoyed so many trade privileges, and which placed so many restrictions on the commercial activities of " unfree" towns like Leith. But before we can answer that question we must know what is meant by a free or royal burgh like Edinburgh on the one hand, and an unfree town like Leith on the other.

In our story of how the De Lestalrics became possessed of the barony of Restalrig we found that under the feudal system there were tenants-in-chief, or great, or king’s vassals, who held their land from the king. But the king kept much land—the royal demesne or domain it was called—in different parts of the country in his own hands, and, just as the great vassals built on their estates castles or peel towers for defence, round whose sheltering walls villages and towns gradually arose, so the king had castles like that of Edinburgh, and under the shadow of their protecting walls towns also grew up. The name burgh—a word which means a castle, a walled town or stronghold—-as especially given to those towns that grew up round a castle, whether of king or noble.

In those distant days, when merchants transported goods from one part of the country to another, a tax called toll had usually to be paid to the overlords of the baronies through which the goods passed; and, in the purchase or sale of merchandise in any town or market, another tax or toll called customs had to be paid at the tolbooth of the town. A tolbooth, although it became much more in later centuries, was at first simply the building where these taxes or customs were paid, and for that reason Wycliff’s Bible tells us that Jesus called Matthew "sitting at a tolbooth," and most Scots towns have a Tolbooth Wynd, where the tolbooth once stood, as in Leith, or where it still stands, as in the Canon-gate, Edinburgh.

Tolbooth Wynd

All towns were either part of the royal domain, and were for that reason known as royal burghs, and had the right of trading anywhere throughout the land without paying toll; or were part of the barony of some noble, abbot, or bishop, in which case they were called burghs of barony, and had no such trading rights. If a burgh rose a step higher than the burghs of barony, and approached the privileges the royal burghs possessed in trading anywhere within the land exempt from toll, it was designated a burgh of regality. Edinburgh with its king’s castle was a royal burgh; the Canon-gate, which had grown up under the fostering care of the Abbot of Holyrood, was, by the charter of David I., a burgh of regality; and Dalkeith was a burgh of barony; but poor Leith seems to have been the Cinderella of Scots towns, for as a town it never was a burgh at all until it became a parliamentary burgh in 1833. Burghs of barony and burghs of regality, while enjoying much more freedom than Leith, were more or less largely under the control of their overlords, and were, therefore, called "unfree" towns. As the king could live only in one of his castles at a time, the royal burghs were, to a very large extent, left to look after themselves. They had the great privilege of self-government—that is, of choosing their own bailies and making their own laws. They were, therefore, known as "free" burghs.

The rise of these free burghs under the protection of the royal castles, where merchants could buy and sell and craftsmen follow their calling under the protection of their own burgh Laws, was really the beginning of progress and civilization in Scotland as in every other country. To carry on trade and manufacture goods requires capital; and no man can gather capital or goods and hand these on to his children if they are to be carried off by his overlord at his death. No trading class could arise at all until this privilege of inheriting property was secured, and this right was only completely enjoyed in the king’s free burghs. When David I., therefore, conferred upon Edinburgh the great privileges of a royal burgh he began commerce in our district, and started Leith on its career as a seaport.

To-day any one may trade freely, both at home and abroad; but in the far-off days of David I., and for many long centuries after, this privilege belonged to the merchants of free burghs only, and the country was divided into areas, in each of which a royal burgh had the monopoly of trade. Indeed, these early Scottish burghs seem to have been the only places in which trade could be lawfully carried on, and from the inhabitants of "unfree" towns like Leith, to whom they conceded any trading rights, they exacted toll, as the trade guilds of Edinburgh did from those of Leith, for in early mediaeval times no person could even follow a craft or trade outside a free burgh. This was also the early law of England, and indeed of all Western Europe. But as wealth grew and trade increased, these trade monopolies and trade restrictions became very vexatious, and the Leithers, therefore, under certain conditions, had to be allowed to open shops and sell goods with the least possible interference with the trading rights of the royal and free burgh of Edinburgh.

The district over which Edinburgh had this monopoly of trade was the Sheriffdom of Edinburgh, which stretched from the river Almond on the west to just beyond Levenhall on the east. Beyond Levenhall was the trade district of the royal burgh of Haddington, while on the west, across the Almond, was the trade precinct of the equally free burgh of Linlithgow.

But this complete control over the home trade was not the only privilege of royal burghs. They had one more at least equally great—the sole monopoly of carrying on foreign trade. None but the merchants of free burghs could engage in oversea trade. The trading powers of other burghs extended only to the right of providing themselves in the markets of the free burghs with the foreign and other produce which these favoured towns had imported, and of retailing this in their own districts, and to holding a weekly market and a yearly fair.

Of course Edinburgh had (as it still has) its weekly corn market and its Hallow Fair, held at the season of Hallow E’en. On these market days in Edinburgh the country people from the surrounding district, including Leith, brought for sale the produce of their farms, their poultry, butter, eggs, and cheese, but had to set up their stalls on the opposite side of the street from those of the citizens. There is still a lingering remnant of this ancient weekly produce market to be seen every Saturday morning in the High Street, just below the Tron Church, where toll is still charged for the stance as was the custom in the Edinburgh of long past days.

Here, again, Leith appears as the Cinderella of Scots towns, for she had no regular weekly market, and certainly never had a fair, and, although she was for centuries the most important seaport in Scotland, no Leither was allowed any share in the overseas trade of his own town. He could neither export any goods to, nor import them from, foreign countries. Such trade in our district was the monopoly of the merchant burgesses of Edinburgh only.

Nor was any foreign produce allowed to be sold in Leith. An old Scots Act of Parliament declared "that no man pak nor peill "in Leith—that is, trade nor traffic in Leith. If Leithers wished to purchase any foreign produce they could only do so from Edinburgh merchants at the Cross of Edinburgh. Leithers might own or man the ships as mariners ; they could be "pynouris" (the old Scots name for a dock labourer), but they could not otherwise share in the foreign trade of their own town. Such was the law of the land as enacted by the old Scots Parliament. Such a law could only be passed in a Parliament where the burgesses of royal burghs had representation and the inhabitants of unfree burghs had not. It was unjust, although few, if any, saw it exactly in that light in those times, for it supported the utterly selfish policy of giving commercial privileges to the inhabitants of royal burghs from which the rest of the nation were shut out. Such a commercial policy ruled the trade relations between Edinburgh and Leith in some respects down to 1833, when Parliament made Leith a separate burgh.

Before a foreign-bound ship could leave the harbour of Leith its cargo had to be shipped in the presence of Edinburgh officials, who were usually members of the Town Council, including the Town Clerk, the Water Bailie, and the Dean or head of the Merchant Guild, who closely inspected each bale of goods taken on board. Only the goods of the merchant burgesses of Edinburgh were allowed to be shipped, and the owners, the skippers, and even the passengers had to receive a certificate (" the baillie’s tikket ") before they were permitted to set forth on their voyage. The regulations regarding incoming vessels from abroad were equally strict. On the arrival of a vessel in Leith its cargo had to be landed on the Shore, and nowhere else. Here it was carefully examined by the same city officials, who put a value upon it, for in those days the price of goods was settled by the Town Council along with the merchants at the Tolbooth, to which the merchants had to bring their cargoes, and not by competition in the open market— that is, by the law of supply and demand. This control of prices was very necessary in those days, when all trade was the monopoly of the guilds.

The cargo was then transported to the Market Cross of Edinburgh, for the purchase and sale in Leith of any imported goods was, as we have already seen, contrary to law. At the Cross they were sold to the merchants of Edinburgh, who, in turn, sold them to the people of Leith as they had need, for "all sic merchandice sould first cum and be presented to the burgh of Edinburgh, and thairefter sould be bocht fra the fremen thairof." Such was the law of the land as enacted by the old Scots Parliament, which was no doubt largely influenced by the advice of its burgess members, who from the later years of Bruce’s reign had been sent there as representatives of the interests of the royal burghs. The other burghs, including unfree towns like Leith, had no parliamentary representation.

The royal burghs thus kept the control of all trade in their own hands as far as they possibly could, and, of course, for their own benefit alone. It was a highly selfish policy, and was carried out with the most jealous and vexatious interference with all who dared to trespass upon their privileges. But that it was not so regarded in mediaeval times is shown by the fact that this same commercial policy prevailed in a more or less narrow manner among all the nations of Western Europe for centuries. It must therefore have seemed to them the one best suited to the conditions under which they lived, and indeed, when we have learned something of these social conditions, we shall, perhaps, come to the conclusion that the privileged royal burghs were not quite so selfish in their trade policy as at first sight appears.

The Leithers, although not free from the same narrow notions where their own interests were concerned, not unnaturally looked on Edinburgh’s regulations restricting their trading activities as unjust, and did not hesitate to evade them when opportunity offered. The merchant burgesses of Edinburgh, on the other hand, who never looked at trade questions from any but their own class point of view, held fast by the privileges the law and their own charters conferred upon them, and were jealously watchful for any breach of them by the unfreemen of Leith. There was therefore constant bickering between the two towns; indeed, it would have been strange had it been otherwise. It is to the narrow and selfish trade policy of medieval times, therefore, that we must look for the beginnings of that jealous feeling so long existing between Edinburgh and Leith, which left a legacy of suspicion that has not yet quite died out.

Down to 1597, when James VI. brought Scotland into line with other countries in the matter of trade policy, no duties, except, of course, local harbour dues, were charged on imports. Scotland’s import trade was therefore conducted on a free trade policy. But in old-time Scotland they believed in making "the foreigner pay" by charging him duties on what was taken out of the country, that is, on exports. These duties were known as the "great Customs." From the customs duties on exports was derived the greater part of the royal revenue, and for this reason, if for no other, foreign trade had to be so regulated that the king should not in any way be defrauded of his Customs duties.

It was for this reason that foreign trade was restricted to the royal burghs and their seaports under the king’s own immediate rule. In all such towns officials known as "custumars" were appointed, whose duty it was to collect the king’s customs the persons chosen being usually two of the leading merchant burgesses of the burgh. It was the duty of these custumars to see that no goods were shipped to foreign countries without the payment of the fixed duties, and only when these were paid did the owner receive the "baillie’s tikket," which allowed him to proceed on his voyage. Had foreign trade in that age been open to all and sundry who wished to engage in it, it would have been impossible with the limited means of those days to control the collection of the export duties for the king’s revenue.

Even restricted as the foreign trade of the country was in the interest of the king and the free burghs, we find James IV. declaring in 1506, "We are greittumlie defraudit in our customes through pakking and peiling (that is, buying and selling) of strangearis (that is, foreigners) guidis in Leyth unenterit to our burgh of Edinburgh." You remember that all foreign imports immediately they were landed on the Shore were transported to Edinburgh, and there only could Leithers purchase them, not from the "strangearis" who brought them, but only from the merchants of the city who bought them. Now, judged by the conditions under which we live today, such a law seems harsh and tyrannical; but it was not really so except in the high-handed way in which it was sometimes enforced, as the Leithers knew very well, although they might do their best to evade it.


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