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The Story of Leith
VII. The Enmity with Edinburgh: It's Development


THE mcdiaeval laws that made all overseas trade a monopoly of the merchants of royal burghs can only be understood when we remember how heavy was the price paid for those special privileges enjoyed by free burghs like Edinburgh, in which the inhabitants of all other burghs and unfree towns like Leith bore no share. The jealous way in which Edinburgh guarded its privileges against any encroachment on the part of the unfreemen of Leith shows how burdensome the royal burghs felt the cost at which these privileges were obtained. It was to meet the heavy charges laid on them by the king in return for the many rights and privileges gifted to them by royal charters that no "pakking or peiling " was permitted in Leith, and that all ships’ cargoes had to be taken to Edinburgh as soon as they were landed on the Shore, and be disposed of at the City Cross. For all goods on entering the city gates, or on being weighed at the "tron " or public weighing beam just within, had to pay toll and dues.

These were called the petty customs, and went to the common good of the burgh. From these petty customs, their chief source of revenue - for there were no taxes then as we understand them today - the city fathers paid very largely the financial burdens laid on the good town by the king. The greater the trade the greater the income from this source. To this cause, therefore, was due the jealous insistence of the burgesses of Edinburgh that all merchandise shipped to or from Leith should pass through the Edinburgh market, so that all dues on its sale and purchase might be accurately assessed.

"The indwellaris of Leyth," so runs a regulation of 1558, "may on na wyis buy wool, hydes, claith, skin, salmond, wyne, walx, victuellis, or ony maner of stapill gudis fra unfremen in the countrie, but all sic merchandice and gudis aucht and sould be brocht to the said burgh as principal stapill thereof, and there to pack and peill the samin and pay their customis and dewties thairfor." "Staple" goods were taken to be all those on which custom was payable to the Crown. They were the goods in which only the merchant burgesses of royal burghs could trade, and generally included all exports to, and imports from, foreign lands. The words, "the said burgh as principal stapill thereof" in the regulation just quoted, show that the word was also used to designate the market to which staple goods must be brought in order to be rated and charged with the dues payable to the king and the burgh.

In preventing the people of Leith from sharing in any way in their privileges, the burgesses of Edinburgh were only acting in accordance with the customs and law of mediaeval times, which allowed to vassals no more rights than their overlords chose to give them. In 1485 the Town Council of Edinburgh enacted that none of "the common rentis" (the rents of the town’s mills, ferries, common pasture lands like the Links, and the petty customs which were often farmed out to the highest bidder) be let to any Leith man, and that no rnerchant of Edinburgh was to take into Partnership any "indweller" of the town of Leith. One begins to wonder how the poor Leithers made their living at all. We are filled with indignation at what seems to us in our more enlightened age the most oppressive tyranny, and, as Leithers, we naturally picture the provost and magistrates of Edinburgh in all their dealings with Leith in those far-off days as actuated by the utmost ill-will.

Now in thinking thus we should be unjust to those Old Edinburgh city fathers, and totally misunderstand their reasons for enacting such laws, which must be interpreted, not by the conditions under which we live today, but by those Prevailing in the old unhappy, far-off days of the Leith of mediaevaI times, when they will appear in quite another light. With us today the Country is governed as one whole by king and Parliament on the principle of equal rights for all, but it was not so in mediaeval times, when every overlord ruled his own barony, and allowed his vassals just such rights as he thought fit, or as they were able to obtain from him by purchase. And Edinburgh was now overlord or feudal superior of Leith through her purchase of all the feudal rights of the Logan family.

Edinburgh’s rights and privileges as a royal burgh had been obtained at heavy cost and in return for burdensome obligations. Among these was that of "watching and warding "—that is, of taking their turn in guarding their city by night - a very burdensome duty, for there were no police in old-time Edinburgh and Leith. Then, again, as a royal burgh the city, like the great nobles, was a tenant-in-chief of the king, and had to be ready at any moment "weel bodin in fear of weir" —that is, well armed for war—to follow the king's standard whenever their services were required. Edinburgh has a noble record in loyal observance of this duty, to which she owes some of her most cherished traditions. The inhabitants of Leith, as the vassals of the lands of Restalrig, and from the days of Queen Mary of the city itself, were under no such obligation. For a Leither, then, to be taken into partnership by a merchant of Edinburgh was for him to enjoy all the privileges which had cost the city so much to acquire, without at the same time sharing any of the burdens those privileges entailed.

That would plainly have been a very one-sided bargain. Leithers, who were men of substance, would no doubt gladly have shared in the responsibilities as well as the benefits enjoyed by Edinburgh; but then they would have been no longer Leithers, for, as we have seen before, a burgess could not fulfil the obligations burgess-ship imposed unless he resided within the burgh itself. To live anywhere else outside was to lose one’s rights, and become "unfree."

Edinburgh merchants might, and did, have their booths and offices in Leith, as an old door lintel in Burgess Street, now so wantonly destroyed, once reminded us. They, however, were not allowed to dwell there, as they could not then discharge their duties as burgesses, but had to "remane and mak residence in the burgh, and walk with the utheris nychtbouris burgessis and gyf thay fail heirintill thay in all tymes efter sail be repute and haidin as unfreemen." In 1580 the city officer was sent by the magistrates of Edinburgh to warn John Williamson, living in Leith, that "he forfeited his burgess-ship, liberty, and freedome of the burgh for nocht remaining nor making his residence within."

In the chapter dealing with Leith’s early commerce we read that the voyage of a merchant ship across the North Sea was indeed, as it was customary to name it, a "wyld aventour," for in addition to the dangers from stormy seas, so much greater in days when there were neither charts, buoys, nor friendly lighthouses to guide the mariner on his course, there were the pirates of all nations ever on the watch for ships freighted with rich cargoes. In engaging in foreign trade, therefore, a merchant was in great peril of losing both life and goods, and he naturally wished in such circumstances that his profits should be such as would compensate him for his many risks.

Now his profits at the best, when all these risks are taken into account, were by no means large, and if all and sundry had been allowed to engage in the pursuit of foreign commerce these profits might have vanished altogether, and overseas trade by Scotsmen might have ceased entirely, as it did in the time of Alexander III., or the quality of the goods exported (a genuine concern to the free burghs) might, for the sake of extra gain, have become so inferior as to destroy their reputation for honest dealing, and so endanger their overseas trade. The trade monopoly of Edinburgh, therefore, and of the other favoured burghs seemed to our ancestors of mediaeval Scotland, and indeed of Western Europe for that matter, the only means by which foreign trade and commerce could be built up and maintained under the conditions of their time, and in this we must allow them to be better judges than we today.

But, like all other privileges, it was clung to long after it had outrun its usefulness, and in later centuries became a hindrance rather than a help to our growing trade. It had undergone modification before our Scots Parliament was merged into the larger Parliament of Great Britain, and when that event opened the commerce of England and her colonies to Leith shipping, the exclusive trading rights of Edinburgh could no longer be continued, although one of the provisions of the Treaty of Union guaranteed to the royal burghs all their former privileges. They still endeavoured to regulate foreign trade by the laws of more primitive days but opposing forces became too strong for them, although they struggled hard and long to uphold what they considered their rights in this matter. In 1755 the Court of Session decided that a free burgh like Edinburgh might seize and confiscate any "unfree" goods brought into its trade area by Leithers and others, but could not otherwise hinder their importation. Not even Edinburgh had a sufficient staff of watchers to carry out this duty, and so the long and bitter struggle between her and Leith over her exclusive rights of foreign trade, which had gone on from time immemorial, gradually came to an end.

From 1755 Leithers, in the matter of shipping, became free to trade with all the world. Old-time notions, however, die hard, and, until the harbour and docks passed from the controlling hands of Edinburgh into those of the Dock Commission in 1826, Leith merchants and shipowners, in all manner of harbour and other dues, had to pay at a much higher rate than those of Edinburgh. The removal of this unjust differentiation against all traders save those of Edinburgh and the new and progressive spirit of the administration of the Dock Commission, has, with other causes, led to such a rapid increase in the shipping trade of the Port that there has been a continuous dock development from that date till now to meet the larger needs of Leith’s ever-growing trade.


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