The History of Leith

November 2, 2011

The Narrow Seas and Andrew Halyburton

The Strait of Dover and the English Channel were known to the sailormen of Western Europe at this time as the Narrow Seas, and were always so named. They were a great highway of traffic not only for England but also for the ships of Genoa, Venice, and Spain, sailing to and from Bruges, Liibeck, and other ports of the Hansards.
Hostile English ships were always to be met there, and they were the haunts of the pirates of all nations, among whom were, of course, some from Leith. But however rich a cruising ground they might prove for Leith pirates, the Narrow Seas were no safe place for Leith vessels to venture in the pursuit of trade. The voyage to France by this route, therefore, involved too many risks for traders from Leith to follow generally. That was why it was necessary for Scots traders to have a port such as Bruges in a country like Flanders, more accessible than France then was, to be a general depot
or staple for their foreign trade. We have seen that this trade was so much interrupted by the wars between England, the Empire, and France, that the staple was removed to Middelburg in Holland.
The staple town according to law, though not always according to practice, was supposed to have the monopoly of Scotland’s trade with the Low Countries. In 1541 the Scottish staple was removed to the neighbouring town of Veere, and there it remained until Holland joined Napoleon at the close of the eighteenth century. Holland at this time, however, was less advanced industrially than Flanders ; but as Middelburg was equally convenient for the markets of Bruges, now declining, and those of Antwerp, now rising, as the great centres of European trade, Leith’s commerce in no way suffered, but rather gained, by the change. As time went on the Dutch granted Scotland the great privilege of having a Scots merchant resident at Middelburg, whose duty it was to protect and promote the interests of Scots traders frequenting the port, where they were given the further privilege of having a quay and warehouses for their own use.
Such an officer to-day would be called a consul. Then he had the imposing title of ” Lord Conservator of the Scottish privileges in the Low Countries.” The most noted of these conservators was Andrew Halyburton, who occupied the office from 1493 to 1503. Halyburton further acted as agent, and bought and sold goods for Scots merchants on commission. His ledger, in which he kept the accounts of his clients, is now in the Register House, and, as his trading correspondents were mostly Edinburgh merchants and leading Churchmen like our old friend the good Abbot Ballantyne, this timeworn ledger gives us an interesting and detailed summary of Leith’s trade with the Netherlands at the close of the fifteenth century.
Indeed, of no period of Leith’s overseas commerce, until that of our own day, do we know so much. Commerce being carried on
for the most part in Flemish ships. But in Halyburton’s time the cargoes set down in his ledger are imported in Leith ships, commanded and manned by Leith skippers and mariners. While the nobles were impoverishing themselves and their lands by their eternal feuds and strife, there was arising in Leith a prosperous middle class of wealthy shipowners, not merchants, because Leith was an unfree town, but bold and daring navigators, ‘whose skill and enterprise not only enriched themselves, but brought wealth and prosperity to the Port.

source-The story of Leith

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