The Flemish in Dundee and Surrounding Areas

Amy Eberlin
Friday 21 February 2014

This is the second of a series of blog postings that are focused on evidence of Flemish involvement in specific areas of Scotland.  In this posting John Irvine examines the Flemish influence,  from the 12th century onwards, on Dundee and its surrounding areas.

The research on the influence of the Flemish on Dundee and the surrounding area has drawn upon a wide range of primary and secondary sources (see the list of references at the end). Up to now the work has concentrated primarily, but not totally, on people with the name Fleming and its variants, although there is a number of other Flemish rooted names that are common in the area – Bell, Erskine, Lindsay, Murray, Spalding, and Sutherland, to name a few.

The Earliest Flemings

The Flemish people may have settled in the area around Dundee as long ago as the 12th and 13th centuries.

In the time of King Alexander II (1198 – 1249) a knight called Bartholomew of Flanders, or the Fleming, can be found in Angus.[[1&2]] Where he settled initially is not known with certainty, but probably the lands of Flemington, near Forfar, had belonged to him, and received their name from his nationality (see box below).  Bartholomew later settled with his followers in the district of the Garioch, Aberdeenshire.  By one account his son, Malcolm de Leslie, was the progenitor of the Leslie family, although this is disputed in some quarters.

Flemington: Flemington is situated in Aberlemno, Angus. “Fleming Toun” literally means “settlement associated with Flemings”. Flemington comprises a farm and Flemington Castle (or tower house) that is of late sixteenth or early seventeenth century build. The castle was therefore not built by the original Flemish owner of the land, Bartholomew, but by a later resident of the area. It is about three storeys in height and stands on the left bank of the rivulet called Henwellburn, which flows through the Parish and passes Melgund castle. One author described Flemington as “a nice compact little property, the land being of good quality and the situation pleasant”. The name itself likely goes back to at least 1331 when the area was known as “Flemyngtoune”. However the name has been recorded in many different forms since that time, for instance Flemyingtoun and Flemyngtoun, until by 1861 it had been transformed into the present Flemington.

Another local Fleming of note is Michael De Fleming.  He was one of six barons of the name, who — following the English invasion of Scotland in 1296 — “submitted” to King Edward I at Berwick in 1296; and the remaining five, with two others who took the oaths at Aberdeen, were all from counties in the south and west of Scotland, and among them was the ancestor of the Earls of Wigton. Ironically it was Scotland’s close links with Flanders, including its trading relationship, which was one of the factors leading to the invasion of Scotland.[[3]]

Trade with Flanders

For much of the period from the 12th century through to the late 15th century the wool trade with Flanders – with good quality Scottish wools being sent primarily to Bruges – was effectively the engine of growth for the Scottish economy.  During that period it was often the Abbeys that farmed the sheep and took the initiative to ship the wool to Flanders. Coupar Angus Abbey, it is thought, produced wool that was shipped through Perth or Dundee.

AC Lamb in his Dundee book[[4]] examines the nature of the trade with Flanders. He consulted customs records dating back to the 14th century. Entries include payments made to Faskyn, Merchant of Bruges, for importation of materials for the King. The principle exports at the time were wool, sheepskins and hides, up to the middle of the 15th century.

The shipping records from the Dundee City Archives and work on shipping lists undertaken by Dr. David Dobson — for 1580-1589 and 1612-1618 — confirm that relatively strong trading links between Dundee and Flanders were maintained through to the late medieval/early modern periods.

Immigrants from Flanders

As noted above, some of the earliest Flemish arrived in Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries. Later with the significant growth in trade there may have been Flemish seamen and merchants living in Dundee to facilitate the trade between Scotland and Flanders.  Some of these may have stayed in Scotland.  Others will have returned to Flanders in due course.

The Scots decided that there was value to be had from not just farming sheep but also by weaving the wool.  Accordingly, AC Lamb[[4]] tells us that in 1601, it was arranged that twelve Flemings should be sent from Leiden to Scotland, and distributed to various parts of Scotland so that they might teach the natives the art of weaving. Three were named as being sent to Dundee: Claus Lossier, Cornelius Dermis, and Henry De Turk.

A slightly different version of events is given by Warden.[[3]] His interpretation was that a number of “strangers” were brought in 1609 headed by a John Sutherland and a Fleming named John Van Headen, and in 1601 seven Flemings were introduced to improve cloth manufacture in Scotland.

AC Lamb also tells us that Flemings, who had been settled in small colonies around Scotland, were weaving cloth to be exported.  Interestingly, in an Act of Parliament in 1587, aimed at the Flemish weavers in Scotland, all cloth manufactured by them had the same duty levied on it as cloth made and imported from Flanders, Holland and England.

Immigration of Flemish tradesmen was not confined to the weaving trade but also, during late 1500s, the malting trade. This led to Flemings being involved in the setting up of the Maltman Incorporation in Dundee in 1623, Thomas Fleming and David Fleming swearing to uphold various acts of trade at that time.[[5]] The list of masters, apprentices, and excise men shows they continued in the trade for at least another 200 years.

The Burgess Rolls[[6]] for Dundee show that a number of Flemings are recorded, having gained the rights to become a burgess in the early 1600s. These included Merchants, Maltmen, a Brassworker and other occupations.

Migration from Surrounding Areas

By the 18th century the number of families with the name Fleming in Dundee had reached more than a hundred.

Where did they come from? It is unlikely that they were direct immigrants from Flanders by that stage. Some of the increase in the number of families reflects the organic growth of existing families. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the number of surviving children in families began to rise in the late 1600s and more so in the 1700s and 1800s. This of course would have spawned a general growth in the population and in family numbers.

Some of the Fleming family growth is likely to reflect movement to Dundee from rural areas. The industrialisation of Scotland began in late 18th century and early 19th century and this would have created an incentive for people to move from the rural areas of Angus, Perthshire, and Forfarshire. It is likely that many of those migrants with the name Fleming would have come from the “Flemings of Moness” lineage that was dominant in Northern Perthshire, while those coming from Central Angus may have been descendants of Flemings from the Flemington area.

Some of the migrants will have been poorer Flemings seeking work and better pay in some of the evolving industries of the time. Meanwhile, family history resources shed light on the movement of some notable and ultimately very successful Fleming families into Dundee. John Fleming of Kirkmichael in Perthshire, for instance, was one such migrant.  His two surviving sons Robert and John became well known, John as head of one of the most prominent timber importers and suppliers in Scotland, and, Robert as one of the founders of the financial trusts in Dundee, later founder of Flemings Bank (as well as being grandfather to Ian Fleming of James Bond fame). Both sons were to become philanthropists in Dundee and one of the first modern housing developments was sponsored by The Fleming Trust and is still occupied to this day.

Another major family moved to Dundee from Inverarity, Angus. It was the family of David Hood Fleming, a manufacturer who was head of the firm DH Fleming Sons & Co., spinners and manufacturers Gray Street, Lochee. It is believed this branch is also connected with the Orkneys and Fife.


To conclude, there had been people with Flemish ancestry in Dundee and surrounding areas from the earliest recorded times in the town’s history. The area was likely the beneficiary of all of the phases of Flemish immigration: the original settlers in the 12th century as well as the weavers and religiously persecuted in the late middle ages and early modern period. The name Fleming remains a common one in Dundee and the surrounding areas to this day and some of the families of that name — while likely no longer feeling any identity with their distant Flemish roots — have had a noteworthy impact on the city.


John Irvine is a member of the project team for the “Scotland and the Flemish People Project”.  He is a genealogist and local historian and is currently Chairman of the Local History Forum. He has written articles for local history journals on a wide range of topics. He has also published widely in the genealogy field and has researched the genealogy of both illustrious Dundee locals and the common man.



[1] A.J. Warden, Angus or Forfarshire the Land and People (Charles Alexander, Dundee 1881), vol. 2, p. 315

[2] D.M. Peter, Baronage of Angus & Mearns (Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh 1861), p. 61

[3] A.J. Warden, Angus or Forfarshire the Land and People (Charles Alexander, Dundee 1881), vol. 2, p. 349

[4] A.C. Lamb, Dundee, Its Quaint and Historic Buildings (George Petrie, Dundee 1895)

[5] A. Pellow, The Maltmen, Customs & Excise men of Dunee 1700-1850 (Tay Valley Family History Society, 1991)

[6] Burgess Rolls, Friends of Dundee City Archives Records. Examples from Burgess Roll of Dundee are:

  1. Thomas Fleming entered 18th April 1615 – son of Thomas Fleming
  2. George Fleming, 23rd September 1609 – son of Thomas Fleming
  3. John Fleming entered 24th November 1561
  4. Alexander Fleming, Maltman, entered 1695 – his grandfather
  5. James Fleming – 20th June 1531 – simple burgess

Research for this blog post also drew on a range of other books and documents. A list of these additional references are available on request.

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