Aberdeen and the Fleming: Part One

This is the first post in a two-part blog on “Aberdeen and the Fleming.” The second blog post will appear next Friday (March 6th, 2015). The next post will continue to examine the relationship between the burgh of Aberdeen and Flemings in Scotland.

Located along the northeastern coast of Scotland, Aberdeen has been both an important and influential player in trade and politics throughout medieval and early modern Scottish history. While the burgh of Aberdeen itself deserves further research, this blog post is not the place for such a discussion. Instead, this post will focus specifically on the interplay between Aberdeen and the Flemish peoples from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. A brief examination of the founding of the burghs of Old and New Aberdeen and their expansion throughout this period will lead into a discussion of the activities of Flemings in Aberdeen. As many Flemings, and other continental Europeans, were attracted to Aberdeen for its role in Scotland’s export trade, Aberdeen’s position as a major international trading centre will be a prominent feature of this blog post. The presence of Flemish merchants and their trade in Aberdeen was very important for the burgh. An analysis of the influence of this trade and its merchants will conclude our discussion on “Aberdeen and the Fleming.”

The Burgh of Aberdeen

The settlement of peoples in the area, which we consider to be modern Aberdeen, is not a recent phenomenon. From at least 6,000 BC, people have founded communities within the bounds of modern Aberdeen. These early, potentially transient, communities moved around the area hunting for food on land and in, what we now refer to as, the Don and Dee Rivers.[1] The location of these early communities between the Don and Dee Rivers mirrors the later establishment of the burghs of Old and New Aberdeen, and, in turn, emphasises the early, and recurring, importance of these waterways to the development of Aberdeen. Both Old and New Aberdeen, which would later become amalgamated into our modern understanding of Aberdeen, were important burghs. While the exact date of New Aberdeen’s creation as a royal burgh is unknown, it can be placed within the reign of David I (1124-1153). The creation of New Aberdeen as a royal burgh in the middle of the twelfth century was not the beginning of its importance, rather a recognition of its import.[2] Historians E. Patricia Dennison, Anne T. Simpson and Grant G. Simpson described these twelfth-century burghs and their hinterland thusly, “Old Aberdeen was tiny, but of high status, possessor of both a cathedral and a university. New Aberdeen had the potential to become, as it did, a thriving and expanding community. The hinterland of these two important north-eastern towns may sometimes have been awkward to pass through, but it is perhaps for this very reason that the settlements scattered within it were distinctly varied in size and in origin.”[3]

The geographic location of Aberdeen also contributed to its expansion and importance in national economic and political spheres. The Don and Dee Rivers, which bordered the burgh, provided easy access to fishing and trading. The River Dee, in particular, was a principal water route in the medieval period. Ships sailed along the Dee to trade further south along the Scottish and English coast, and further afield, in Scandinavia and the Low Countries.[4] Thus, it was essential for the burgh to invest in and maintain a working harbour. The original port for Aberdeen may have been located at the sheltered mouth of the Denburn, but by the medieval period the harbour was located along the north shore of the Dee.[5] Harbour building and maintenance continued from the fourteenth century through to the sixteenth century.[6] The continuous upkeep of the harbour, throughout the late medieval and early modern period, suggests that the town recognised that having a working harbour was necessary to the success of the burgh. It was through this harbour and the burgh’s trade with the outside world that Aberdonians came into the most contact with Flemings and Flemish goods.

The population of Aberdeen grew, as did that of Scotland, throughout the medieval and early modern periods. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were most likely periods of rapid growth in the burgh’s population size. By 1326, Aberdeen paid more tax than any other burgh in Scotland, with the exception of Berwick.[7] There is no further evidence to indicate fluctuations in the population of fourteenth century Aberdeen. It is even uncertain whether the Black Death, particularly virulent during this period, hit Aberdeen and, if it did, the extent of its damage to the population.[8] Stent rolls from 1408 state that there were 3,000 inhabitants of the burgh.[9] By the later sixteenth century, some one hundred and sixty years later, the population had risen to 5,500.  From 1640-44, the population was recorded as being 8,300, potentially double the number of inhabitants of the burgh in 1500.[10] It was only at the end of the seventeenth century that there was a period of decreased population. This was not a phenomenon specific to Aberdeen, but was experienced throughout all Scottish burghs at the beginning of the 1690s. Old Aberdeen was among one of the only towns which managed to grow during this period, from a population of 831 in 1636 to 1,800 in 1695.[11] In comparison to other major Scottish burghs, Aberdeen, at a population of 8,000, was smaller than Edinburgh (26,000), Glasgow (12,000) and Dundee (10,000) in 1639.[12] This smaller population size, relative to that of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dundee, does not necessarily provide an accurate reflection of Aberdeen’s importance as a port and centre of international trading.

While Aberdeen was not impacted as heavily by the plague as other large towns throughout England and Scotland, it did see some visitations of the Black Death in the late medieval period. There were no major epidemics between the first outbreak in 1349 and 1499-1500. Aberdeen only saw three epidemics from 1500-1550. These outbreaks lasted for, at most, two years. There was not another major outbreak again until 1647.[13] Michael Tyson suggests that council regulations to prevent plague from entering the town and the distance from other major towns probably helped Aberdeen to avoid more frequent epidemics during this period.[14]

A Statute from the 1514 Epidemic
“Thir statutis efter following was maid and diuisit be the provest, bailzeis, counsaile, and communitie, for the reformacioun of certane necassar thingis to be had in thar modis kirk, to the honor and fre loving o God Almyghty, the blissid Virgin, and thar glorious patrone Sanct Nicholace, and for the keeping of the toune fra strang seiknes, and specialie this contageus pestilence ringand in all partis about this burghe, and for the keeping of the townn fra the ald innemeis of Ingland … it is diuisit, statut, and ordanit, that thar be takin of all schippis that passis furtht, or is fraucht out of this burgh to Flanderis or Zeland, of euery sek of woll or skinnis sek lik, and of euery last of salmond and hidis, tuelf grotis Flanderis money, to be ressauit and vptakin of the merchandis gudes that happinnis to be input and ladnyt in the samyn schippis and to deliuerit to ane collectour thoucht expedient be the towne to ressaue the samyn, and reman in his handis, quhilk salbe responsale tharfor, to be furthcumand to by  the necessary thingis, thoucht be the haile town, to decoring of haly kirk, as said is….” (24 April 1514, Extracts from the Burgh Records of Aberdeen, p. 88)

This may well have been the case, as Aberdeen’s position as one of Scotland’s major foreign trading ports would have made it particularly vulnerable to the plague. It was that very same port which made Aberdeen vulnerable to the Black Death, that made it one of the most influential burghs in Scotland during the late medieval and early modern periods.

Flemings in Aberdeen

Why would Flemings or Flemish goods have found themselves in Aberdeen? The simplest answer to this question is trade. Aberdeen’s status as a trading centre was recognised early on in the burgh’s history. Before it was granted burghal status, Aberdeen was already an established trading settlement.[15] Foreign trade was highly sought after by Scottish monarchs in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Queen Margaret (1045-1093) was believed to have encouraged foreign merchants to come to Scotland. There is also documentary evidence for Scotto-Flemish and Anglo-Scottish trade at the end of the eleventh century.[16] Similar to his mother, King David I of Scotland recognised the importance of trade to Scotland’s economy, though he took a different approach to foreign traders than Margaret. Ian Blanchard, Elizabeth Gemmill, Nicholas Mayhew, and Ian D. White have written that, “To protect and stimulate this trade, whilst maintaining a stable, ordered form of society, David actively intervened into the economy employing both traditional and contemporary means to achieve his ends. ‘Foreign’ merchants, who threatened to swamp the Scottish economy with their wares, were largely confined to those coastal settlements which were encompassed within a portus-system, where local burgesses had first option of buying wares from the ships which could land only at these places appointed by the crown.”[17] John R. Turner argues that Scotland’s earliest seaborne trade was with Flanders. “Privileges were granted to Scottish merchants trading with Flanders, and in 1293 and 1295, King Philip IV of France ordered Count Guy de Dampierre to accord the Scottish merchants freedom of trade with Flanders.”[18]

Count Guy de Dampierre and Scotland
Why would King Philip IV of France have had to order Guy, count of Flanders to extend trade privileges to Scottish merchants? Guy de Dampierre had a tumultuous past with Scotland and its government. In 1282, Margaret, daughter of Guy, married Alexander, eldest son of Alexander III. This marriage ended in 1284 with the death of Alexander and the subsequent return of Margaret to her father in Flanders. Scotto-Flemish trade broke down in the following ten years over the Scots inability, or unwillingness, to pay the widowed Margaret’s pension, with Guy going so far as to send procurators to the Scotland in an attempt to recover the money. A 1293 agreement renewed trade between the two regions, but included a caveat for the future seizure of goods for the debts of the Scottish king. Thus, it is understandable that Guy would have required some encouragement from the French king to extend mercantile rights and protections to Scottish merchants at the end of the thirteenth century. [20]

As one of the most accessible and safest northeastern ports, Aberdeen found itself at the centre of Scotto-Flemish trade in the twelfth century. Yet again, Aberdeen’s geographic location contributed to its success. Aberdeen dominated northern trade from the reign of Alexander I (1107-24) because it was one of the three trading centres north of the Forth.[21] The twelfth century saw a reduction in the foreign exchange price for Scottish goods in the continental market, which made Scottish goods once more highly competitive in international markets.[22] This resurgence in demand for Scottish goods attracted foreign, particularly Flemish, merchants to the ports of Scotland, creating a major export boom.[23] As Blanchard, Gemmill, Mayhew, and White have argued, the closing of the twelfth century saw the Scottish economy, and that of Aberdeen, intrinsically connected to the fluctuating international economy.[23] This would characterise the economic practices of the following centuries.

Amy Eberlin
27 February 2015

Amy Eberlin is a third year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, Institute of Scottish Historical Research and is a member of Scotland and the Flemish People Project. Her research primarily focuses upon the Scots involved in trade and diplomacy between Scotland and Flanders in the late medieval period.


[1] E. Patricia Dennison, “Introduction,’ in eds. E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn and Michael Lynch, Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History, (East Linton, 2002), pp. 1-2.
[2] Dennison, ‘Introduction,’ p. 5.
[3] E. Patricia Dennison, Anne T. Simpson and Grant G. Simpson, ‘Chapter One: The Growth of Two Towns,’ in eds. E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn and Michael Lynch, Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History, p. 17.
[4] Ibid., p. 16.
[5] David Ditchburn and Marjory Harper, ‘Chapter Seventeen: Aberdeen and the Outside World,’ in eds. E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn and Michael Lynch, Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History, p. 378.
[6] Dennison, Simpson and Simpson, ‘Chapter One,’ p. 22.
[7] Robert Tyson, ‘Chapter Five: People in the Two Towns,’ in eds. E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn and Michael Lynch, Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History, (East Linton, 2002), p. 111.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., p. 112.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., p. 113.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Dennison, ‘Introduction,’ p. 6.
[16] Ibid.; ed. A.O. Anderson, Early Sources of Scottish History, 500-1286, (Edinburgh, 1922), p. 68; Alexander Stevenson, ‘Trade with the south,’ in eds. Michael Lynch, Michael Spearman and Geoffrey Stell, The Scottish Medieval Town, (Edinburgh, 1988), p. 180; Reginald of Durham, Libellus de vita et miraculis Sancti Godrici, Heremitae de Finale, ed. Joseph Stevenson,(Edinburgh, 1847), pp. 28-30.
[17] Ian Blanchard, Elizabeth Gemmill, Nicholas Mayhew, and Ian D. White, ‘Chapter Six: The Economy: Town and Country,’ in eds. E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn and Michael Lynch, Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History, (East Linton, 2002), p. 131; eds. Cosmo Innes and Patrick Chalmers, (Edinburgh, 1848-56), i, no. 1; eds. G. Barrow et al., Regesta Regum Scotorum, (Edinburgh, 1960-), ii, nos. 166; ed. Cosmo Innes, Ancient Laws and Customs of the Burghs of Scotland, 1124-1707, (SBRS, 1868-90), i, ‘Leges Burgorum’, cc. 8, 9, 16, 25.
[18] John R. Turner, Scotland’s North Sea Gateway: Aberdeen Harbour AD 1136-1986, (Aberdeen, 1986), p. 3-4.
[19] CDS, ii, pp. 68, 73; RPS 1293/8/3, 1293/8/4; William H. Finlayson, ‘The Scottish Nation of Merchants in Bruges: A Contribution to the History of Medieval Scottish Foreign Trade,’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, 1951), p. 40; Alexander Stevenson, in ed. Grant G. Simpson, Scotland and the Low Countries, 1124-1994, (East Linton, 1996),‘The Flemish Dimension of the Auld Alliance,’ p. 32.
[20] CDS, ii, pp. 68, 73; RPS 1293/8/3, 1293/8/4; William H. Finlayson, ‘The Scottish Nation of Merchants in Bruges: A Contribution to the History of Medieval Scottish Foreign Trade,’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, 1951), p. 40; Alexander Stevenson, in ed. Grant G. Simpson, Scotland and the Low Countries, 1124-1994, (East Linton, 1996),‘The Flemish Dimension of the Auld Alliance,’ p. 32.
[21] Dennison, ‘Introduction,’ p. 6. The other two trading centres north of the Forth were Inverkeithing and Perth. The locations of both of these burghs were much more southerly than that of Aberdeen.
[22] Blanchard, Gemmill, Mayhew, and White, ‘Chapter Six,’ p. 133.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid. p. 135.

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