The Flemish on the Firth of Forth – Part 1

Morvern French
Friday 26 September 2014

This is the first of two postings that examines evidence of a Flemish presence in the vicinity of the Forth estuary. In this posting David Dobson explores the issue in relation to areas bordering the south of the Firth of Forth (the Lothians). Next week’s posting will focus on the area north of the Forth, that is, the coast of the Kingdom of Fife.


The Firth of Forth has had links with Flanders since the medieval period. Through the various ports along the Fife and Lothian coast raw materials, especially wool, wool-fells (fleeces), hides, coal, and fish were shipped to markets in Flanders, while manufactured commodities were imported from the more technically advanced industries in cities such as Ghent and Bruges.

Emigration, both short-term and permanent, occurred between the two countries. There seems to have been substantial immigration of Flemish people in the medieval period. However in the early modern period, say between 1500 and 1700, Flemish immigration was of smaller scale. Often skilled workers were brought in to expand and improve the indigenous industries, some directly from the continent, while others were two stage migrants arriving from centres such as London and Norwich. Latterly they tended to be religious or political refugees escaping persecution in the Low Countries. A significant number of immigrants brought skills important to the development of the textile industry in Scotland. Others brought advanced techniques relevant to the construction industry or were craftsmen. Flanders was then one of the most economically advanced regions of Western Europe and itself attracted migrants from neighbouring countries such as Scotland.

Bruges was for a time the Staple Port through which imports and exports to or from Scotland were required to pass. This resulted in Scots merchants and their servants settling in Bruges. In 1578 Veere (or Campvere) became the Staple Port of the Scots. However the port books reveal that although Scots vessels did use the Staple Port, they increasingly sailed to or from other ports in the region such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Middelburg, Nieuwpoort, Ostend, and Dunkirk. From time to time trade was disrupted by wars between England, France, and the Low Countries, and also by attacks by pirates and privateers.

Originally Berwick-on-Tweed was the main Scottish port exporting wool and wool-fells to Flanders but after the town was absorbed into England such exports were generally shipped through ports on the Forth, especially Leith. While trade with Flanders occurred from ports along the east coast as far north as Aberdeen, this blog posting concentrates on the ports in the Lothians (see map below).


The best source of information on trade with Flanders comes from the port books, mainly located in the National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh. Unfortunately there is no complete run of them for the seventeenth century. More comprehensive records only commence in 1742. The port books for Leith and Bo’ness have been sampled for the second half of the seventeenth century and reveal that Flanders was like an emporium supplying a wide range of manufactured goods and food stuffs including iron, pots, thimbles, brass, silk, rope, thread, mirrors, apothecary ware, tobacco, sugar, fruit, confectionery, wine, dyes, paper and whale bones. There was no evidence of Flemish factors (import agents) being based in Scots ports and it appears that the trade was conducted between local burgesses and the supercargo (on-board cargo or trading agent) or skippers.

Looking at a much earlier period, in 1436 the royal household imported various luxury goods from Flanders, including jewellery, velvet, tapestry, armour, spices, silk girdles, signets and seals. King James V purchased a mare that was shipped back to Scotland from Flanders in 1541. In 1577 the Conservator of the Scots Nation in Flanders purchased books there on behalf of King James VI. During England’s wars against the Dutch, Flemish ports such as Bruges, Ostend and Nieuwpoort supplied goods to Scottish markets formerly obtained in Holland.

Scottish exports to Flanders through ports on the Firth of Forth comprised a limited range of raw materials and semi-processed goods including coal, wool, fleeces, hides, salt, herring and salmon.

The Low Countries were a major market for Scottish coal, until the mines at Liège were developed and undercut the Scots in price (around the sixteenth century). Also, duty on Scots coal was higher than on English coal in the Netherlands and that had an impact on Scots exports. Much of the Scots coal was destined for the breweries of Rotterdam. This city acted as an entrepôt and supplied Scots coal to the Flemish market. Coal wasn’t the only mineral sought by continental workshops – lead was eventually exported. Continental prospectors were authorised by King James V to prospect and extract minerals in Scotland in 1527. Judging by their surnames, some may have been Flemings, such as Gerard Sterek, or Erasmus Schetz. Another such was Aert Bronkhorst, who arrived in Scotland around 1579 to prospect for gold but later became a court painter until his death in 1610.

Settlement along the South of the Forth

Evidence of Flemish settlement along the south of the Forth in the Early Modern Period (late 1500s and early 1600s) is generally difficult to establish. It is possible, however, to identify people with special skills that the local and central government of the day attempted to attract in order to promote industrial development. The most important industry to benefit from Flemish skills was textiles. Religious persecution in the Low Countries resulted in refugees, including some craftsmen from Flanders, settling in Britain.

In Scotland a number of craftsmen set up business in the Canongate, a burgh adjacent to Edinburgh. Canongate was where the aristocracy and major landowners had their town houses near to the Holyroodhouse and the royal court, so providing an affluent market. Flemish craftsmen were also employed in the maintenance or construction of royal buildings such as Edinburgh Castle, but whether they remained there is not clear. By way of example Bartholomew Fleming was a mason employed in Edinburgh Castle in 1639. In 1599 Edinburgh Town Council, faced with a major repair to the roof of St Giles Cathedral, sent to Flanders for skilled workmen and material, the implication being that the necessary skills were not available locally.

In order to operate a business in a Scottish burgh it was necessary to become a burgess. Some Flemish immigrants can be identified through burgess rolls, for example Abraham van Soun, a goldsmith from Flanders, was admitted as a burgess of Edinburgh in 1587 by right of his wife Janet, daughter of Edinburgh burgess Alexander Gilbert, also a goldsmith. Another was Philipe van der Straeten, a merchant from Bruges, who was admitted as a burgess and guild brother of Edinburgh in 1684.

In order to expand and improve on the skills of local textile workers the Convention of Royal Burghs decided to recruit people from Flanders and from the Flemish communities in England. In 1601 Edinburgh Town Council despatched Alexander Hunter, an Edinburgh merchant, to persuade Flemish ‘clothmakers’ to settle in Scotland. and the later In June he returned with seven Flemings, mainly from Maesen in Flanders, six to make ‘seyis’ (a type of worsted) and the seventh to make broadcloth. One immediately decided to return to Flanders; others were to be allocated to work in Dundee, Perth, Ayr and Edinburgh. A further twelve Flemings from Norwich arrived in Edinburgh in July. These were led by a Gabriel Bischop, a manufacturer of broad-cloth and stuff, and brought ‘their wyffis, bayrnis, geir, and warklomes’ (wives, children, gear, and work looms). Those based in Edinburgh were allocated premises by the Nor’ Loch, but later the House of Correction was used. The poor people living there were taught textile manufacturing skills. As part of the contract the Flemings requested to have their own church and also asked that a Flemish brewer be brought over to establish a brewery. Whether these conditions were fulfilled is not clear.

Surname Analysis

A method that can be used to identify immigrants to the area around the Firth of Forth is analysis of surnames found there. When dealing with Flemish immigration one must keep in mind that many surnames used in Flanders are identical to those found in the Netherlands, and also among the Huguenot refugees, who were mainly French Protestants bearing French surnames. There were possibly also some Flemings with French surnames. However, as relatively few Dutch immigrants settled in Scotland it can be assumed that the vast majority bearing Dutch surnames were in fact Flemish.

Edinburgh and Leith were the most likely burghs to have attracted Flemish people, such as David Jonking, a merchant, 1610; Jacob Jamart, a merchant, 1674; Andrew Grosser, a burgess, 1599; and William Yungar, a cordiner, 1573. Clement Toures was a glass-wright in Edinburgh in 1616 Peter Frank, a smith in Edinburgh Castle, 1625, and Francis van Gent a burgess of the Canongate in 1702.

In 1681 Peter Bruce, a German engineer resident in Scotland, established a playing card and carver making business in Leith. He went to Holland and Flanders to recruit skilled workmen then petitioned the Privy Council to prohibit the import of playing cards, which was granted.

Thomas McGowran claimed in his book Newhaven on Forth that in Newhaven when the shipyard there declined following the the death of King James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, many foreign wrights remained in the town and intermarried with the local fisher folk and ‘imparted a strange style of dress, custom and architecture’. The Newhaven fishwives continued thereafter to wear traditional dress reminiscent of that of the Low Countries.

Mrs George Cupples in her book Newhaven – its Origins and History claimed that the village had first been colonised in the fifteenth century from a Flemish fishing settlement on the Isle of May, later supplemented by refugees from the Netherlands. She emphasised how much the fisher folk of Newhaven resembled their Flemish and Dutch equivalents in respect to the women’s dress, complexion, and physique.

J. Arnold Fleming in his book Flemish Influence in Britain indicates that there were Flemings in the Dunbar area from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. A good number of them were priests or schoolmasters in the parish of Pinkerton. Other pieces of evidence of a Flemish presence there are set out in the book, including the intriguing lawsuit of John Fleming, Prebendary of Pincartoun, versus William Fleming of Bord, for a certain sum claimed as owing to him by the said William Fleming on 20th March 1478.

There is evidence of a Flemish presence in a number of church records, such as the baptismal records of the Church of Scotland. There was a suggestion of a Flemish church being established in Edinburgh around 1601 but if it existed no trace has been found of it or its records. The Church of Scotland was Calvinist like the Flemish Reformed Church, and this facilitated the integration of the Flemish immigrants into the local church. The baptismal register of Edinburgh that covers the period 1595–1607 contains a number of entries that may pertain to Flemish, or possibly Dutch, immigrants.

A number of men from Forth burghs, who had gone to the Low Countries to work, were married to Flemish women and some of them may have returned to Scotland. Among them were Jonas Mabon from Edinburgh, who married Maycken van Haelemis from Tielt, Flanders, in Leiden in 1604; Henry Drommel, a smith from Kinkell, Fife, who married Elizabeth Dobble from Bruges in Leiden, 1604; and Alexander Simmons, a soldier from Anstruther, who married Marieken Jansen from Brussels in Dordrecht, 1588.

Flemish mercenary soldiers are known to have served in Scotland – James IV’s ship ‘The Great Michael’ had both French and Flemish gunners aboard in 1513. Flanders had a good reputation for manufacturing guns, for example Mons Meg in Edinburgh Castle was built in 1449 on the orders of Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and sent by him to King James II of Scotland from Flanders. Robert Hector, a gun-maker in Edinburgh, sent his son to Flanders in 1541 to serve an apprenticeship as a gun-maker. Other possible Flemings in the same calling were Josias Rikker, a gunner in Edinburgh Castle in 1540, and Peter Sochan, a gunsmith in Edinburgh around 1680.

Cases brought before the Scottish courts provide an insight into economic links between Flanders and Scotland. In 1686 the High Court of the Admiralty of Scotland deliberated on the complaint between George Clark, a merchant in Edinburgh, and Francis de Mallendar, a merchant in Bruges, concerning an unpaid debt. In August 1649 a ship, loaded with Spanish wine and salt, was captured by three privateers while sailing from Rotterdam to Leith. It was owned by Thomas Fleming, an Edinburgh merchant.

Town council records sometimes provide evidence of links between Scotland and Flanders. For example on 31 August 1666 Edinburgh Town council received a petition from George Monteith, merchant, to the town council for a testimonial to be sent to the burgomaster of Bruges that George was brother to John Monteith, who died in Bruges. Both were sons of Robert Monteith, merchant, and his wife Marion Sydserf. The Leith port books record George Monteith, a merchant, importing goods from Flanders in the 1660s.

The Firth of Forth was an avenue for trade between Flanders and Scotland in the medieval and early modern periods. This commercial interchange has, in turn, led to some settlement in the towns and villages bordering the estuary. The evidence presented here focuses on the south side of the Forth but additional evidence pertaining to the north side (Fife) will be presented next week.

David Dobson
September 2014

Dr. Dobson is currently a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Research Fellow with the Institute of Scottish Historical Research at the University of St Andrews. His research interests are focused mainly on the Scottish Diaspora as well as Scottish history in the Early Modern Period. His publications include Scottish Emigration to Colonial America, 1683-1783 (Georgia, 1994, 2004); Scottish Trade with Colonial Charleston, 1683-1783 (Glasgow, 2009), and over 115 historical and genealogical source books (Baltimore, 1983-2013).

Research Resources

– Michael Fry, Edinburgh: a History of the City (London, 2009)
– C. E. Green, East Lothian (Edinburgh, 1907)
Edinburgh, 1329-1929 (Edinburgh, 1929])
– J. Harrison, History of the Monastery of Holy Rood and the Palace of Holyroodhouse (Edinburgh, 1919)
– J.C. Irons, Leith and its Antiquities (Edinburgh, 1897)
South Leith Records, 1588-1700, 1700-1850 (Edinburgh, 1911, 1925)
– Thomas McGowran, Newhaven on Forth (Edinburgh, 1985)
– J. Ferguson, Linlithgow Palace (Edinburgh, 1910)
– David Dobson, Mariners of the Lothians (St Andrews, 1993)
– B. Webster, Acts of David II – King of Scots (Edinburgh, 1982)
Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1538-1541 (Edinburgh, 1907)
New Mills Cloth Manufactury, 1681-1793
Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1350-1379, 1502-1507
– Scottish Burgh Surveys
– Fleming, J. Arnold, Flemish Influence in Britain, vol. 1 (Glasgow, 1930)

Share this story