The Flemish on the Firth of Forth – Part 2

Morvern French
Friday 3 October 2014

This is the second of two postings that examines the evidence of a Flemish presence in the vicinity of the Forth estuary. In this posting David Dobson and Alex Fleming examine the issue in relation to the north of the Firth of Forth, specifically the coast of the Kingdom of Fife around to the Tay Estuary.

During the medieval and early modern periods there was a strong presence of people of Flemish origin in the area immediately to the north of the Firth of Forth, the present day Kingdom of Fife. The connections with Flanders have taken a number of forms. Flemish herring fishermen have long fished in the waters off the Firth of Forth and used Fife (and Lothian) ports. Fife ports were also much used in Scoto-Flemish trade. Then, in the early modern period, Flemish weavers were brought to Fife and many made their homes in the area. The Flemish footprint can be seen to this day in the architecture and medieval structures in Fife.


Fishing and the Fife Ports

The Fife linkage with the Low Countries in general and Flanders in particular may go back to the 9th century, but in the 11th and 12th centuries there was a marked increase in commerce. During the reign of David I (1124-1153) the Firth of Forth was frequented by fishermen from a range of countries. The harbours of the Isle of May were often used but they were small and could not accommodate many boats, and so the fishermen took shelter in harbours on the mainland in Fife (and the Lothians). These harbours included Crail which reportedly was where the Dutch, and possibly the Flemish also, learned the mode of curing herring.

By 1375 a herring industry had been established in Flanders,[1] taking advantage of the development of preservation techniques, notably pickling. Except for a short period (1395-98, when it was discouraged) the industry grew well and was positively encouraged by the Flemish authorities around 1419. Thereafter it thrived and herring was sold on to third countries. However by the middle of the 16th century the Flemish scarcely caught enough to provide for their own consumption. Nonetheless in the 17th century Flemish boats were still fishing for herring in Scottish waters, as evidenced by the strange event described in Box 1 below.

Box 1: An Odd Incident

“In August 1627, some Spanish ships, laden with money for the use of the troops in Germany, having taken the route by the Orkneys, encountered some hundred Flemish busses [a type of fishing vessel] engaged in fishing, which fled from them, and a portion of them took refuge in the Firth of Forth, in which on a summer evening, they appeared to the number of threescore, advancing in the form of a half n-moon. Great was the alarm along the coasts. In Edinburgh proclamation was made that all the inhabitants should take arms, and muster on the shore to resist the threatened invasion. Cannon were trailed down to the Castle, and every preparation made to give them a warm reception, until, at ten P.M. word came that they were only herring busses.”

Extracted from Rev. Walter Wood.[2]


For a period in the middle ages the export of wool to Flanders provided an important stimulus to the Scottish economy. Cloth manufacturing in Flanders (and Artois) began in the 12th century and demand for Scottish wool was significant until the late 14th century.

Much of the wool exports would have gone through the ports of Berwick, Leith, Dundee, Perth and Aberdeen. However trade with Flanders through the Fife ports would have been quite extensive.

In the 14th and 15th centuries Cupar exported more wool than any other town in Fife. Initially the exports went out of “port of Eden” on the Eden Estuary. Indeed some Cupar merchants owned ships and Paula Martin tells us that “In the early 15th century, for example, goods belonging to the King were transported from Flanders in a Cupar-owned ship, and in 1465 Cupar merchants were sending money home from Bruges”.[3] Cupar and nearby Dairsie (until World War 1 named Osnaburgh after a type of coarse linen or cotton originally imported from Osnabrück in Germany) were both centres of weaving.

Within the Forth itself ports such as Kirkcaldy, Burntisland and Dysart became more important during the 17th century as the size of trading vessels grew. Imports from Flanders would have included iron and cloth of various types, while exports to Flanders may have included coal (for brewing and smelting) and salt (for curing).

As noted in last week’s blog posting Flemish weavers, following an Act of Parliament in 1587, were brought to Scotland to provide what in modern parlance would be called “technical assistance” to the local population. Fife was the beneficiary of such assistance and there are a number of references in the literature to weaving in the Kingdom. The weavers had, according to Rev. Walter Wood, “come to exercise their craft in making serges, growgrains, fustians, bombesies, stemmingis, berjes, covertors of beds etc”. Furthermore “they are allowed to remain five years; to bring over at least thirty websters, walkers, and litstairs, and to take Scots boys and maidens as apprentices”.[2]

In the mid to late 17th century Campbell identifies some eight apprentice weavers in Crail with names that appear to be Flemish. See Box 2. He also finds weavers in Burntisland and Dunfermline.[4] Another author noted the location of a former workshop of a Flemish weaver in Anstruther.[5] Flemish weavers would also have lived in other Fife towns.

Box 2: Crail

The small fishing village of Crail features quite significantly in Fife’s association with Flanders. Its strategic position where the Forth Estuary spills into the North Sea is doubtless part of the reason. As noted above, its harbour would have played host to Flemish fishing and trading vessels from the 12th century onwards.

J. Arnold Fleming highlights further Crail connections with the Flemings. Robert III, in the 14th century, grants a William Fleming land in the vicinity of Crail.[6]

Fleming also points to the bells in Crail Parish Church (1520) and the Town Hall (1614) being of Flemish origin. Some would dispute this, however. It is also noteworthy that the Parish Church in Crail had a priest called Fleming officiating there in 1361.

In the 17th century Campbell identifies some 18 families, with possible Flemish names, engaged in a range of trades in the village: bakers, hammermen, shoemakers, tailors, weavers, and wrights.[4]

There is evidence of other areas of Flemish expertise being deployed in Fife. For instance, there was a Peter Flemishman, a stone carver from the Low Countries, who was employed in the construction of Falkland Palace during the 1530s.

In the East Neuk of Fife in the 17th century, Dobson finds a number of possible Flemish men who were skippers or seamen in the coastal ports of Cellardyke, Pittenweem and Anstruther.[7] Flemings also appear to have been involved in a range of other trades across Fife.[4]

During the reign of Phillip II – the late 16th century – a Flemish vessel (from Brabant) was wrecked off the coast of Fife and the sailors reportedly settled in Buckhaven.

Architecture and Structures

The settlement of Flemish people in Fife is reflected in local architecture, early town planning, and some important medieval constructs.

Many of the old houses found in harbour towns, with crow step gables facing on to the street and pantiled roofs, are modelled on houses in the Low Countries. The blog postings entitled Crowsteps in Fife – The Flemish Connection (6th and 13th of December 2013) discuss the Flemish influence on local architecture in the East Neuk of Fife. A similar influence can be discerned in the architecture of the village of Culross, which is further upstream on the Forth. Furthermore, Dunbar would also have exhibited a Flemish architectural influence. The Scottish Burgh Survey noted that in Dunbar by 1830 there were “very few remaining of that Flemish description which stood with their dove-tailed gables to the street”.[8]

There was an even earlier impact of the Flemish on St. Andrews, specifically in the 12th century. Mainard the Fleming was brought north from Berwick-on-Tweed by King David I to supervise the layout of the city. This can be seen in the street plan of the old burgh, and possibly some of the houses with their ‘lang rigs’. See the blog posting in this series entitled The Influence of Mainard the Fleming on the character of St. Andrews (18th of October 2013). St. Andrews gradually became a busy ecclesiastical and commercial center (see Box 3 below) with linkages to Flanders.

Box 3: St. Andrews

There were a number of factors underlying the commercial development of the town. As noted by Lyon, “The reputed sanctity of the spot, the progress of the religious buildings, the increasing number of monks, and, above all, the multitude of pilgrims who resorted hither from all parts to adore the relics of the patron Apostle, must have greatly contributed to the increase of its trade”.[9]

Most of the merchants were reportedly foreign. The foreigners included the English and French as well as the Flemish. They lived both inside and outside the town.

The harbour was a hive of activity. Goods such as wool, skins, salted fish, horses, sheep, and oxen were exported. Imports included fine linen and silks, gold, silver, carpets and tapestry, wine, olive oil, drugs, arms, armour and cutlery. Some of this trade was with Flanders.

Nearby at Leuchars is the site of the 12th century Leuchars Castle of which only the motte has survived. In the medieval period Leuchars was owned by the De Quincy family, which Dr George F. Black claims has its origin in Quinci, Maine, France.[10] However Professor Geoffrey Barrow believes that the de Quincis came from Cuinchy near Béthune in the Pas-de-Calais and that they were tenants of the de Chokes in Northamptonshire before settling in Scotland.[11] The de Chokes originated in Chocques near Bethune and were one of a group of Flemish families settled in Northamptonshire. It appears that a family of Flemish origin were settled in Leuchars. The de Quincis were there from the 12th century.

J. Arnold Fleming identifies a number of other important Flemish families in Fife.[6] There was Robert Burgon, a Flemish leader, who obtained grants of land from David I. There was also a William Flandrenses who witnessed a charter by William III to the monks on the Isle of May. Simon Flandrensis, or Simon the “Flemen” was a witness to the foundation grants to the Abbey at Lindores (near Newburgh). At the same time Walter Flameng appears as the agent of the monks, while another Fleming, Everardus Flandrensis, seems to have been closely associated with the erection of the Abbey. Malcolm Fleming, son of Bartholomew Fleming, is also mentioned in charters pertaining to the Abbey.


A Flemish influence in Fife can be discerned as far back as the 12th century, and an inflow of immigrants would likely have taken place gradually from that time onwards. It would appear that immigration from Flanders also occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries but it was small scale and much less than occurred in the earlier, medieval period.

Sources for the later period point to a good number of people with Flemish origins residing in Fife. Some would have been new immigrants and others would have arrived in earlier periods. Some carry the name Fleming but there is a range of other names that appear to be of a Flemish origin.

It is appropriate perhaps to end with this quote from Wilkie:

“The phlegmatic Flemings were more concerned with commerce than with war; and the combination of shrewdness with imagination, or a power of concentration on the work in hand (however prosaic) with a love of beauty and of life in the open which is a characteristic of the folk of Fife, is largely due to the infusion of Flemish blood into the Celtic”.[12]

David Dobson and Alex Fleming
October 2014


[1] Charles Cutting, Fish Saving – A History of Fish processing From Ancient to Modern Times (London 1955).
[2] Rev. Walter Wood, East Neuk of Fife: its History and Antiquities, Geology, Botany and Natural History in General (Edinburgh 1862), p. 129.
[3] Paula Martin, Cupar – the History of a Small Scottish Town.
[4] A. J. Campbell, Some Fife Apprentices and Freemen, 1524-1899.
[5] George Gourlay, Anstruther, or Illustrations of Scottish Burgh Life (Cupar, 1888).
[6] J. Arnold Fleming, Flemish Influence in Britain, Vol. 1, (Glasgow, 1930).
[7] David Dobson, Directory of Seafarers of the East Neuk, 1580-1800 (St. Andrews, 2008).
[8] Scottish Burgh Surveys.
[9] Rev. C. J. Lyon, History of St. Andrews, episcopal, monastic, academic and civil (Edinburgh, 1843).
[10] George Black, The Surnames of Scotland: their Origin, Meaning and History (New York, 1946).
[11] Geoffrey Barrow, The Kingdom of the Scots (London, 1973).
[12] James Wilkie, The History of Fife from the Earliest Times to the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh and London, 1924).
[13] A. J. Mackay, History of Fife and Kinross (Edinburgh, 1896).
[14] W. Stephen, History of Inverkeithing and Rosyth (Aberdeen, 1921).
[15] Burntisland: Early History and People (Edinburgh, 1948).
[16] Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1350-1379, 1502-1507.