The History of Leith

August 7, 2007

Sir Andrew Wood

The Nelson of Scotland…find out about some of his greatest sea battles and his connections with the port of Leith

The story of Sir Andrew Wood begins in Leith, not much is known about him in his early years but he must have come from a wealthy family as he shown to be in possession of two ships “The Yellow Caravel ” and “The Flower”. It is said he was part of the Bonnington family of Angus and was born in the middle years of the 15th century at Largo. When he came to Leith is not known but it was at Leith that he made his name during the reigns of James III and James IV, and became in his time the “Nelson” of the Scottish nation. He was held in awe and fear by the English, Dutch and Flemish and in two great sea battles defeated the superior sea power of England.

According to a foot note in a record “he had first been a skipper at the North side of the Brig o’Leith….” Which means he lived North of Robert Ballantynes Bridge (see Figure 1 below) which was demolished in 1788 when the bridge at Tolbooth Wynd was built, and so Sir Andrew must have lived within the shadow of St Ninians (which is currently being restored by the Cockburn Association). He is also described as being a wealthy merchant dealing in trade with the low countries according to the Scottish consul in the low countries, Andrew Halyburton who kept a ledger of Scottish ships.

Figure 1: Robert Ballantynes Bridge (1788)

He was recommended to James III and in return for taking the King and Queen to the holy well and shrine on the Isle of May he was granted land in Largo. His first battle was the defense of Dumbarton Castle against the English in which he was Victorious. Henry the VII then sent a fleet to burn and pillage the towns along the Forth and again Sir Andrew went into action and destroyed the English fleet the prizes coming into Leith.

The saddest part of Sir Andrew’s life was the death of his friend and King, James III , and it came about in this way. James was criticised of failing to take a serious interest in the administration of Justice, he lacked the personality or charisma of a Scottish King, he was pious and liked art and so the Scottish Lords taking advantage of a English threat of invasion told James that if he wanted a Scottish army in the field to meet the expected invasion he would have to hand over the Court favorites who where duly hanged at Lauder Bridge. The King was held at Edinburgh but within a year regained the upper hand and he decided to take the Lords on in battle at Sauchieburn. The king was thrown from his horse in the early stages of the battle but somehow he made it to a Mill close by where he was stabbed to death by a passing priest. In the meantime a rumour was spread that James was on board one of Sir Andrew’s ships cruising in the Forth and so a message was sent to Sir Andrew who declared that the King was not on board any of his ships and refused to come on shore until hostages for his safety was given. This duly done Sir Andrew landed at Leith and confronted the Lords and the young James IV. When the King saw Sir Andrew he asked “Sir, are you my father” Sir Andrew almost in tears said “I am not your father but his faithful servant “and looking at the Lords “and the enemy of all on occasioned his downfall” From that moment the titled nobility treated him with open hostility and hatred. He returned to his ships just in time to save the hostages who where about to be hanged. The great lords tried to find captains to take Sir Andrew on but they were refused. It was just as well as the English sent a fleet Northwards under Sir Stephen Bull and the Privy Council called on Sir Andrew to meet the threat. Which he did off the Isle of May to great effect. The English Fleet was completely destroyed.

For this victory Sir Andrew was given the town of Largo and according to legend he was in retirement rowed to the Parish Church of Largo by his now aged crew and when he died he was buried at Largo.

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