The History of Leith

October 13, 2010


IN his endeavours to make Scotland a power on the sea James IV. was ably seconded by the sailormen of Leith. The number of noted sea-captains belonging to the Port at this time was out of all proportion to its size. This was owing to Leith being the port, not only for the larger town of Edinburgh, but also, now that Berwick had
become an English town, for the whole south-east of Scotland, and especially for the wool trade of the great Border abbeys. Then, again, commerce was the monopoly in those days of the freemen of the royal burghs only, so that in an unfree town like Leith sailoring was the occupation that offered the greatest opportunities of wealth and advancement to lads of push and enterprise. In no other port of Europe at this time of equal size could there have been found more daring captains, and few could have rivalled Leith in her number of bold
and skilful mariners, for seafaring was in their blood. It had been the occupation of the men folk of many Leith families through long generations, and even in our days of steamships, when the sailorman is degenerating into the mere deck hand, there are still a few families
in the town with whom seafaring has been a tradition for centuries. The navy of James IV. could neither have been built nor manned had he not had the sailormen of Leith behind him. Among Leith’s noted mariners at this time none had won a greater name for himself than Sir Andrew Wood of Largo, who was a Leith man born and bred. He first comes upon the stage of history in the reign of James III. as the commander of two ships of about three hundred tons each—the Flower and the Yellow Carvel. The Yellow Carvel belonged to the king, and
had formerly been commanded by the veteran John Barton. Wood hired this vessel at so much a voyage, or even at so much per annum, as was the custom of those days, but the Flower was his own vessel.
With these two ships Wood made frequent trading voyages to France, and still more to the Low Countries. In Andrew Halyburton’s ledger we get glimpses of both him and the Flower in the old Dutch town of Bergen op-Zoom, then one of the most flourishing towns in Holland,
though now unimportant. His reputation for seamanship had early recommended him to the favour of the king, who bestowed upon him the lands of Largo on the condition that he should accompany the king and Queen to the holy well and shrine of St. Adrian on the Isle of May as often as he was required to do so.

Wood had developed a great genius for naval war-fare by his frequent encounters with Dutch, English, and Portuguese pirates in defence of his ships and their cargoes. From his many victories over these enemies
lie has been called the Scottish ” Nelson ” of his time. He was the trusted servant of James III., by whom he had been employed on several warlike missions, which he carried out with fidelity to his king and honour to himself. Two of these expeditions were his successful
defence of Dumbarton Castle against the fleet of Edward IV. in 1481, and his attack on the fleet of Sir Edward Howard, which the English king had sent to do as much mischief as it could along the shores of the Firth of Forth. It was for these important services against the
English that James III. gave Wood a part of the lands of Largo, which he had previously occupied as a tenant of the king. In those days money was scarce and rents were usually paid in kind—that is, in the produce of the land. The feu-duties of much land in Leith are still
reckoned in amounts of grain and vary with its market price. The
Black Vaults of Logan of Coatfield were partly used for the storage of such rents.

And so we find Sir Andrew Wood, in the days when he was only tenant of Largo, and not laird, constantly engaged in shipping grain from Largo to Leith. Grain, then as now, bulked considerably in Leith’s imports ; but whereas most of it now comes from abroad, in the days of James III., and for several centuries after, it was all, except in times of
dearth, home grown. Scotland in those days was selfsustaining— that is, she grew all her own food. Sir Andrew Wood is no less noted for his faithful adherence to James III. when opposed by his rebellious and traitorous nobles, like old ” Bell-the-Cat,” than for his skill and courage as a naval commander. In his flight from the battlefield of Sauchieburn the ill-fated king is supposed to have been making his way to the
shores of the Forth opposite Alloa, where Sir Andrew had gone with his two ships in aid of his royal master. All that long sunny June afternoon he kept several boats close by the shore to receive the king if defeat should overtake his arms, as it did, but the tragedy at Beaton
Mill rendered the loyal sailorman’s vigil vain

To be continued

source-The Story of Leith

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