Aberdeen and the Fleming: Part Two

Morvern French
Friday 6 March 2015

This week’s post is the second and final instalment of PhD student Amy Eberlin’s look at the trade relationship between Aberdeen and Flanders in the Middle Ages.

The thirteenth century was a period of economic conservatism for Aberdeen. Unlike other Scottish burghs, Aberdeen’s economy was primarily dominated by the Low Countries. While Dundee and Leith diversified their commercial contacts, Aberdeen remained reliant upon trade with the cloth-producing Low Countries, particularly Flanders and Artois, for the continued success of their export trade. David Ditchburn and Marjory Harper argue that this was due to the importance of wool to Aberdeen’s trade: “Wool remained a much more important element in Aberdeen’s trade than it did in the trade of other towns and the main market for wool remained the cloth-producing towns of the Netherlands. And it was still in the Low Countries that Aberdonians acquired most of their imports.”[1] The importance of the Low Countries to Aberdonian trade, and to that of Scotland more widely, did not diminish after the thirteenth century.

David II’s capture at the Battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 greatly impacted the ways in which Scotland dealt with both England and Flanders. Yet, it was this same situation which pushed Scotland’s merchants to the forefront of political life. Much of the revenue intended to pay off David II’s ransom came from the export duties of staple goods, such as wool, woolfells, and hides. This meant that the merchants of Scotland, the primary contacts in the exportation and importation of goods, gained an increased level of influence. “In 1357 the representatives of seventeen burghs met to choose delegates to discuss the ransom with the English. John Crabbe and William de Leith of Aberdeen were among those selected. In a parliament of 1367, when a small committee was chosen to carry on parliamentary business while the rest of the members returned home, men from Aberdeen were among those who remained.”[2] It is unsurprising that these Aberdonian merchants chose to remain, as Aberdeen had particularly strong trading links with continental Europe. Its rural hinterland produced wool, woolfells, and hides, while the burgh provided fish, particularly salmon, for export.[3] Fourteenth century burgh statutes from Aberdeen reflect this interest in maintaining a successful economy based upon trade. The majority of these statutes dealt with the strict regulation of burgh trade, in turn protecting the considerable economic interests of the burgh in their trading.[4] The restrictions governed the quantity, quality, and selling of goods in the market. Goods had to be brought to the market on the same day, the proper tolls paid, and publicly displayed to give the townspeople an equal opportunity to purchase the goods.[5] The membership of Aberdeen’s merchant guild also reflected the importance of overseas trading to the burgh. By the fourteenth century, the guild became focussed upon international trade. Its membership was restricted to those who exported the staple goods of wool, woolfells, and hides, and excluded craftsmen from its ranks.[6] Scottish overseas merchants and traders emerged as major players in local and national politics during the fourteenth century. In Aberdeen, they were loath to become any less significant over the following centuries.

The fifteenth century saw piracy greatly threaten the success of Scotland’s export trade. This was not a new threat and had impacted the exportation of Scottish goods to continental Europe for centuries. The threat of piracy was as much of a danger to trade as actual pirates. Scottish merchant vessels would take refuge in friendly ports to escape having their ships and goods seized and plundered by pirates.

An Early Example: 7 September 1326

“Commission of inquiry into the case of John de Wygemore, Archibald de Craberry, and other Scottish merchants, who, when they with some scholars and merchandise in a Flemish vessel bound to Flanders, through fear of pirates, were brought for safety into Scarborough by William Punche, an English mariner, along | with John Stuffe of Aberdeen, another Scottish merchant who had likewise taken refuge there from the pirates from another vessel, were all arrested by the sheriff of York and the guardians of Scarborough, and put in prison.” (CDS, iii, pp. 161-162)

As David Ditchburn has argued, the “condemnatory thrust of historical argument” about Scottish piracy overlooks the vulnerability of Scotland’s export trade, as most of it was imported or exported by sea.[7] This made Aberdeen and its trade particularly vulnerable to the dangers of piracy. References to Aberdonian merchants seeking restitution from the English crown for the illegal seizure of goods bound for Flanders can be found throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[8] The Scots were, by no means, innocent of their own acts of piracy. “… Scottish piracy led not only to the long-running dispute with the Hansa, but also to protracted, though never simultaneous, interruptions in Scottish trade with the three Netherlandish counties of Holland, Zeeland and Flanders between 1409 and 1427.”[9] The fifteenth century, and its first decade in particular, was characterised as a period of acute insecurity in the North Sea. Merchants who traded in the North Sea region, irrespective of their nationality, had all suffered considerable losses during this period. The Scots, and their acts of piracy, contributed to this “atmosphere of insecurity.”[10] For Aberdeen, the fifteenth century saw Edinburgh and its port in Leith dominate overseas exports. This was a stark contrast with Aberdeen’s former contribution to Scotland’s wider export trade. “In the 1390s, in terms of the total customs dues accounted for at the exchequer, Aberdeen handled the third largest volume of trade, but by the 1400s Aberdeen’s receipts were outstripped by those collected at Edinburgh, Perth, Dundee, Linlithgow, and frequently Haddington too.”[11] Facing the continuing threat of piracy and a diminishment in its contribution to Scotland’s export trade, Aberdeen was no longer at the forefront of Scotland’s trade with Flanders.[12]

From its very start, Aberdeen has been intimately connected, through its river and seaside location, to Scotland’s export trade with continental Europe. Flemings, like John Crabbe (as discussed in the 15 November 2013 blog post), were attracted to Aberdeen for its central role in Scotland’s economy and its production of staple goods, particularly wool. While Edinburgh eventually surpassed Aberdeen in the 1500s as the dominant trading burgh of Scotland, the importance of Aberdeen’s harbour in the present day speaks to the burgh’s continued influence in the Scottish economy. The economic import of medieval Aberdeen was based upon its function as an international trading centre, which dealt with the goods and merchants of the Low Countries, particularly Flanders. It was in this, at time tumultuous, trade relationship where we observe the many connections between the Fleming and Aberdeen.

Amy Eberlin
March 2015


[1] 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, (East Linton, 2002), pp. 386-387.
[2] Elizabeth Ewan, ‘The Age of Bon-Accord: Aberdeen in the Fourteenth Century,’ in ed. J.S. Smith, New Light on Medieval Aberdeen, (Aberdeen, 1985), p. 34.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p. 38.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., p. 40; ed. P.J. Anderson, Charters and other Writs illustrating the History of the Royal Burgh of Aberdeen, (Aberdeen, 1980), no. 3; ed. W.C. Dickinson, Early Records of the Burgh of Aberdeen, 1317, 1398-1407, (1957), p.104); Elizabeth Ewan, ‘The Burgesses of Fourteenth Century Scotland: A Social History,’ (Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1984), pp. 128-130.
[7] David Ditchburn, ‘Piracy and War at Sea in Late Medieval Scotland,’ in ed. T.C. Smout, Scotland and the Sea, (Edinburgh, 1992), p. 35.
[8] Two examples can be found in CDS, iv, pp. 33 and 229.
[9] David Ditchburn, ‘Bremen Piracy and Scottish Periphery: The North Sea World in the 1440s,’ in eds. Allan I. Macinnes, Thomas Riis, and Frederik Pederson, Ships, Guns and Bibles in the North Sea and Baltic, c. 1350-1700, (East Linton, 2000), p. 3.
[10] David Ditchburn, ‘The pirate, the policeman and the pantomime star: Aberdeen’s alternative economy in the early fifteenth century,’ Northern Scotland, 12 (1992), pp. 19-34.
[11] Ibid., p. 25.
[12] This does not mean that interactions between Flemings and Aberdonians, either in Scotland or Flanders, stopped in the fifteenth century. Indeed, the relationship between the two regions continued into the many following centuries with Flemings appearing in the Extracts from the Council Register of the Burgh of Aberdeen, 1570-1625, Aberdeen Shore Work Accounts, 1596-1670, and in the Aberdeen Burgess Lists.

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