The History of Leith

October 25, 2010

Leith Sea Dogs-The fighting Bartons

ANOTHER noted family of Leith sailormen, who for several generations were the most renowned seafarers belonging to the Port, was that of the Bartons, one of whom, Wood’s old friend, Sir Andrew Barton as he is so often called, although there is no record of his ever having been knighted, was among the most famous and daring sea-captains of his time. If Wood was the Scottish ” Nelson” of his day, Andrew Barton was undoubtedly the Scottish ” Drake.”
The first of this family to come into prominence was John, a noted mariner of Leith, who, in the reign of James III., was skipper of the Yellow Carvel, described as one of the king’s ships. Under his command the Yellow Carvel seems to have met a good deal of ill-fortune, for she was captured by the English, although afterwards restored by Edward IV., and was then nearly wrecked among the rocks off North Berwick before she won fame under the captaincy of the brave and skilful Sir Andrew Wood.

John Barton had three sons, all of whom rose to fame—Andrew, the eldest and most renowned; Robert, familiarly known among Leith sailor folk as Robin, and by the English, who held him in wholesome dread, as Hob o’ Barton ; and John, who was only less celebrated than his two elder brothers. All of them were distinguished naval officers of James IV., and skilled and daring navigators. They fought in many a stubborn
sea fight between Norway and the Canaries. The names of all three brothers, and most frequently of all that of Andrew, occur in Andrew Halyburton’s ledger, showing that they traded more or less regularly between Leith and the Low Countries.
For nearly a hundred years the Bartons carried on a kind of family war with the Portuguese. The quarrel began in 1476. In that year John Barton, the first of that family to come into fame, was voyaging from the port of Sluis, in Flanders, homeward bound in the good ship Juliana, laden with a valuable cargo, when he was attacked by two armed Portuguese vessels. After a stout resistance the Juliana was captured, and the survivors among the crew were thrust into a boat and cut adrift. Among them was their gallant skipper, John Barton, who made his way to Lisbon to seek redress for the wrong that had been done him, but in vain ; nor were the efforts of James III. with Alfonso V., King of Portugal, any more successful.
Letters of reprisal, or warrants, were therefore granted by the Scottish king to the Barton family, authorizing them to seize Portuguese vessels and cargoes until they had made good their father’s losses, which were reckoned at 12,000 ducats, or about £6,000—a great sum for those times. Andrew Barton seems to have been the most active of the three brothers in capturing the richly laden
caravels of Portugal returning from India and Africa.
The Portuguese were not slow to retaliate, and for years a regular war on the high seas ensued between the Bartons and other bold Leith mariners on the one hand, and the Portuguese on the other. But such piratical attacks, such unauthorized and those authorized by letters of
marque or reprisal, were ordinary incidents of fifteenth-century navigation.
Among the captures of the Bartons from the Portuguese that made a great sensation in Leith and Edinburgh were two negro maids, who had no doubt been carried off from the coast of Guinea to be sold as slaves. A much more kindly destiny, however, was in store for them. The Bartons presented the ” Moorish lasses,” as they were popularly called, to King James IV., who not only accepted the gift but took the greatest interest their welfare. A devoted son of the Church, he had
them baptized as Margaret and Ellen, perhaps after youthful Queen Margaret and the wife of the Governor of Edinburgh Castle, where they were housed as maids to some of the Court ladies. Dunbar, the great
Scottish poet of that time, who knew the ” Moorish lasses ” well, reflects their happy lot in his poem entitled
•’ Ane Black-Moor ” :—
” Quhen she is claid in riche apparel
She blinks as bright as ane tar barrel,
My ladye with the mekle lippis.”
At this time a small fleet of Scottish merchantmen sailing in company, as they so often did as a precaution against pirates, was attacked by some Dutch ships. The Scottish vessels were plundered, and their crews and the merchants who sailed with them were thrown overboard, for merchants or their factors usually accompanied their wares oversea in those days when the post did not exist and orders could not be made by letter. Andrew Barton, whose daring and skill had early recommended him to the favour of King James, was
dispatched with ships to avenge this act of savagery

Source-The Story of Leith

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