The History of Leith

October 14, 2011

The Ancient Trade of Leith

It is during the period of quiet but steady advance of the reign of David I. (1124-53) that we find Leith, chiefly owing to its proximity to the larger town of Edinburgh and its royal castle, coming into frequent notice, and steadily rising in importance as a centre of trade. The notices of this early trade are not so detailed aswe should like them to be, as the accounts of the
King’s customs from goods shipped at the various ports during the first part of this period have not come down us, and, as all imports down to 1597 came into the country duty free, no detailed reeord of Scotland’s import trade during the Middle Ages exists. It is only by a close search of the Exchequer Rolls, as the accounts of the King’s Customs are called, that a knowledge of the trade of Leith can be gained. These Rolls were begun in David’s reign, but the very earliest to be preserved, some fragments of the year 1264, give us such a glimpse of Leith’s commercial activity as plainly shows us that our town had been a busy trading port for many years before these records begin, and Scotland a commercial country from a more remote period than has generally been believed.
Under the opening year of the Rolls we have the following entries anent the trade of Leith :-—
” Item, for carriage of 548 cattle by ship from Inverness to
Leith, £7, 13s.
” Item, for 20 lasts of herrings brought to our lord the king,
20 merks.
” Item, for their carriage by ship to Leith, £5, 7s. 3d.”
These entries show that cattle and fish were features of the trade of Leith in those early days, as they are still. The Abbot of Holyrood had several ships at North Leith engaged in the fishing industry on the Firth of Forth. The stipend of the parish minister of North Leith is still in part derived from a commutation of the tithes of the fish brought into Newhaven. No doubt the
canons of Holyrood were active traders as well as keen fishers, and, like the brethren of their order at Scone and the Dominican monks of Dunfermline, had their own trading vessels; but, as their goods were specially exempted by their charter from paying custom duties into the royal Exchequer, we have only meagre and incidental notices of their oversea trade. The causeway recently laid bare immediately north of the Abbey Church might have been part of the road over which there was much coming and going between Holyrood and its ships at Leith in that golden age of peace and prosperity so ruthlessly ended by the overbearing ambition of Edward I.

Source-The Story of Leith

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