What the 17th Century Shipping Lists Can Tell Us


By David Shapton


To put these lists into context we need to imagine ourselves back in the 17th Century. The author of The History of Dundee, printed and published at Dundee by J Chalmers in 1842, is unnamed but it bears a close resemblance to a History of Dundee by James Thomson published in 1847 in Dundee by Robert Walker at Trades Hall and printed by CS Shepherd at 6 High Street. These and other sources make it clear that the burgh was small: an area bounded by the line from the Seagate bus-station north to St Andrew's Glasite Hall, where we are meeting, west to the Steeple Church and south to the shoreline which was closer in than it is today. There, apart from the pier, small boats, such as fishing boats, would have been drawn up on the strand.

These were troubled times. A Decree Arbitral dated 31 December 1602 and confirmed by the Great Charter of 1641 had settled disputes with Perth over rights to collect dues to Dundee's advantage. The Civil War conflicts of 1644, 1645 and 1646, with the attack of Montrose on April 4th 1645, were more serious, however, and worse was to come: General Monk "sat down before Dundee at the end of July 1651 and on 1st September 1651 ended the siege by an attack at noon".

Thereafter, the Scottish Parliament passed three Acts in 1669 to assist Dundee. The first provided a tax for five years on French wine, Rhenish, brandy or tent sold within the town. The second authorised a general collection to be made throughout the Kingdom for the purpose of repairing the harbour. The third granted two additional markets or fairs each year. Unfortunately, the shipping records are missing between 1664 and 1671, patchy between 1671 and 1677, then scattered and very incomplete until 1694.

17th Century Transportation by Sea and Land

In the 17th Century land transport was not as universal as it is today. Roads, such as they were, were famously bad and much was carried on the backs of packhorses or people. Loads were restricted since a horse, which could have pulled 10 cwt [508 kg] on wheels, could carry only 240lb (about 2 cwt or 109 kg) on its back. The vile state of the roads meant that wheeled traffic remained unfamiliar in most parts of Scotland until the next century. H. Perkin in his Age of the Railway quotes an incident: "when a cartload of coal was brought in 1723 from East Kilbride to Cambuslang near Glasgow, crowds of people went out to see this wonderful machine". As a result, ships and small boats - which could go upriver or land on a beach - were widely used since they could carry larger loads and use the wind as a source of power.

Unfortunately, no direct information has survived about any Dundee vessels of this period but quite a lot is known about two relevant replicas of ocean-crossing ships:

  • The Matthew, sailed by John Cabot to Newfoundland in 1497. She is 60 feet [19.3 m] long at the waterline, 20 feet [6.1 m] breadth, 6 feet [1.8 m] draft and of 80 tons [78 tonnes]. The original ship returned from Newfoundland to Bristol at an average speed of 5 knots.
  • The Mayflower II, modelled on the 1620 Pilgrim Fathers' vessel, is 79 feet [24.1 m] long at the waterline, 25 feet [7.6 m] breadth, 12 feet 6 inches [3.8 m] draft (fully laden) and of 180 tons. The replica has sailed at 7 knots in a good wind.

We know also that Mayflower carried a small boat known as her "shallop", used to explore the coast, to carry goods between ship and shore, etc. It is therefore likely to be a typical small general-purpose vessel of her time. 33 feet [10 m] long, 9 feet [2.7 m] in breadth and 3 feet [0.9 m] draft and she had both sail and oars. Some idea of her carrying capacity is given from the record that she took 18 men on one expedition and 32 men on another, together with their equipment and food.

Whatever their size, 17th Century vessels sailed well enough down-wind but not so well into the wind. They could be held in harbour or in a bay by containing winds and there could be no tightly timed scheduled runs as there are today with container ships.

17th Century Ships and Cargoes

Ships had a "Master" or "Master under God" who was in charge of navigation. Sometimes the lists refer to a man as both Skipper and Master. The meaning of "Skipper" is not explained but he may have had a share in the vessel. In regard to this, it was quite common in the English West Country in the 19th Century for a boat to be owned in shares of 64ths of the total value and earlier Dundee vessels may have been financed in a similar way. Certainly, some entries show that the Master owned part of the cargo - also common practice in the 19th Century West Country.

In the days before telegraph, telephone or fax getting a cargo depended on personal contact and letters or packets delivered by hand. Such a network of contacts, in Scotland and abroad, would share knowledge of the available cargoes and vessels. It could be not unlike the situation of the 20th Century skippers of Medway barges who, if they were not working for cargo owners or agents, had to be on the lookout for their own cargoes.

Cargo was handled by muscle power with ropes and pulleys used to move cargo in slings, nets or on hooks, much as in ancient times. The Shipping Lists record only cargoes unloaded in the harbour of Dundee - goods landed at the Burgh pier or quay. Amounts of cargo landed had to be checked for the port authorities by tallymen because there were monies to be paid and we may be pretty certain that the merchant/owner or agent would also be represented at the unloading. Goods might be taken away directly or put into a safe transit area or store (e.g. in vaults or, in the case of timber, in a timber yard).

The Shipping Lists

The Lists, hand-written on paper sheets, were rebound in two volumes in the mid-19th Century. They describe only the inward movements of ships and cargoes to the port of Dundee. The first volume runs from 1612 to 1677 with a few additional entries. Records from 1612 to about the early 1660s usually give additional information about the ownership of specified items of cargo.

The title page of the first book has examples of writing practice, no doubt by later hands, but the two dated inscriptions can be read:

1612 The book of entries of ships arriving at the port and harbour of Dundee. Begun in the month of March AD 1612.

1651 Sir Alexander Wedderburne, Clerk of Dundee, His book of ships entries 1651.

The second book runs from 1694 to 1700 but it has no title page.

What follows is very much an account of "work in progress" because, so far, I have transcribed the first book from March 1612 to December 1622 and all of the second book (1694 - 1700). There is already sufficient data to show that computer databases need to be set up before the information can be made easily accessible.

The Shipping Lists show that Sir Alexander Wedderburne used a simple, effective and easy-to-check system, the essence of which was the keeping of two sets of books:

  1. Shipping Lists which were compiled by clerks, probably the tallymen who recorded the arrival of the ships and what was landed. Support for this view is the fact that although most entries are in date order, this is not always so. This information would be useful in avoiding disputes between the carrier and the owner of the cargo, as there was an independent record of the landing cargo. It could also be used to check whether dues had been paid or were still owed.
  2. A record of dues paid into a separate office and kept separate from the Shipping Lists except for auditing purposes. Evidence for this is in the 1694 - 1700 entries but it makes sense to think that it was used earlier by the family.

From the way in which the same names come up in the records it is safe to conclude that there was a community of merchants, masters and mariners who knew each other, their families and each other's business. This is typical of other seafaring communities and sons would follow their fathers in a hard, uncomfortable, dangerous, but sometimes profitable calling. We can safely imagine that the seafarers believed that the merchants on land made most of the money.

The entries in the List vary in style of handwriting and in the amount of detail given. The language is that of the Scots tongue of the time, latinised to some extent, with the spelling as pronounced. Transcriptions of the following entries provide an interesting comparison. First: -

Grace 2nd June 1612

On which day compaired [cf COMPEAR - to appear before a court in answer to a summons; entered the clerk's office and made a declaration] Robert Flescher clerk to the ship called the Grace whereof Valter Rankin (Walter Rankin) is master and entered the said ship lately come from Norroway (Norway) cotenand (containing or laden with) 600 dealls (sawn planks), 300 9 ells (timber 9 ells (1 ell = 37 inches or 0.94 m) long), 22 ells of fir timber, 3000 steyngis (the precise meaning of the word is uncertain; a sting was a forked instrument used in thatching but because of the large numbers imported this term is more likely to include material suitable for wicker-work and other small diameter timber that is not worthwhile describing in more detail), 16 masts and 16 faldom (fathoms) of burnwood (firewood) all belonging to the owners, freemen of the said burgh.

Eduard (Edward)6th July 1612

On which day compared James Moncur master of the bark called Eduard lately come from Quhidbro (Queensburgh on Isle of Sheppy in Kent) in Ingland and entered the said ship (sic) containing 5000 bark (pieces of bark to be used for tanning?), 22 pieces of timber and 20 stone of wooll (wool) all belonging to the said James and his merchants freemen of the said burgh.

Reabuck (Rebuck) 1st August 1612

On which day compared Andro Blak (Andrew Black) Master of the ship called Reabuck and entered the same ship lately come from Norroway containing 200 dealls, 300 fir timbers, 24 pieces of oak, 500 steyngis, 500 knapholt (split timber), 6 fathoms of burnwood all belonging to Mr Wm Ferguson, James Mudy (Mudie), James Findlasone (Findlayson), Jonet Blyith (Janet Blyth), And Blyithh (Andrew Blyth), Johne (John) Corbet.

The second set showed changes not just in style of handwriting but in the cargoes landed:

Dundie (Dundee)21 May 1700

This said day John Kenny master of the good bark called William of Arbroath of burthen (burden) 10 tun (tons) compaired and entered the same come from Montrose and laodned (loaded) with victwalls (victuals ie foodstuffs). In testimonie (testimony) whereof he has submitted the same on [the] day and place foresaid.

(Signed)John Keny

This entry had the addition "Pd" (paid) and an initial or notary's sign.

22 May 1700

The sd (said)day John Ffraser (Fraser) master of the good bark called William of fferipartan craig (Ferryport-on-Craig - Tayport) of burthen 16 tuns compeared and entered the same come from Norroway and loadened with dealls. In testimonie whereof he has submitted these presents (made his declaration) [on the] day and place forsaid.

(Signed)John ffraser

Dundie 24 May 1700

This said day John Cleton master of the good bark called the John of Dundie of burthen 10 ton and entered the same come from Inderheder (Inverkeithing) and launded with coalls (coal). In testimonie whereof he has submotted this same day and place forsaid.


It is of interest that the next entry for the Gift of God has the comment "unpayed". Entries such as this and the one for 21 May 1700 are evidence for the use of the Shipping List in checking whether proper dues had been paid.

Another entry of considerable interest shows that a group of people had got together to bring a cargo from Roane in France. Roan, near Bordeaux, was a fishing village favoured by some Scottish Colorists at the turn of the 20th Century. Seeing that Bordeaux (spelt Burdeaux in the 17th Century as in a present day Spanish map) was well known to Dundee mariners it is possible that the cargo in the Grace was indeed shipped from Roan. The following was transcribed by AH Millar and published one hundred years ago, in 1898: -

Vigesmo quinto die mensis Aprilis 1615

Quhilk day coperit Alexr blair Mr vnder god of ane bark callit the grace of dundie And entered the said bark laitlie arryved frome Roane in france Contenand the goods and geir vnderwrittin, pteining to the psones following viz Twelff.dussone poittis 3 doz. bas cards 20 doz. cardis 10 gross cannis 4 gros Cartis 8 pocks waid 10 rym palpire 500 wecht sma waid Twa pwnscoines wynagre 20 lib gallenttis 2 lib blak silk 2 /do/ silk gartenis 20 grosssilk buttounis 60 gross threid buttounis sevin peis of Inglis stringis thrie doz of hatts 4 doz hat stringis 100 pasmentrie 2 gross silk poyntes ane gross pennaris & inkhorns 2 gross neidles cussew 20 doz abeill pasmentrie halff gross menis beltis halff gross bairnis beltis 2 doz spongis 40 lib of quhailbone 4 lib ben Cannes ane gross elsonheftis ane gross cokis for barells and foure gross quhissillis all apperteining to Thomas Crommy elder. Item 24 doz poitts & Twa pocks pteining to Robert Carmichaell Item 22 doz poitts 4 pocks waid 10 rym palpire 10 gross cannes 1 gross cartis 6 doz cardines and ane gross Inkhorns pteining to walter scrymgeour Item 20 rym palpire 4 gross cannis & 4 doz cardines apperteining to David sibbald in perth. Item thrie doz poitts and foure rym palpire pteining to Donald thornetoun Item thrie doz poitts and 3 gross cartis pteining to Alexr ross. Item foure pund gallenttis pteining to Alexr Symer. Item 2 doz poitts 2 gross cartis 6 gross Cannes 2 doz spongis ane gross pennaris and Inkhornes pteining to Patrik Carmichaell. Item 16 doz poitts 2000 girds 3 gross Cartis 1 doz sponges pteining to Alext blair and Jon traill. And sex pocks waid and tua dussone poitts pteining to Andrew Cowye.

The cargo is a mixture of "ordinary" goods such as waid (woad - used as a dyestuff) and "luxury" items such as black silk or rich embroidery materials.

One of the potentially interesting uses of the information from the original entries is to list cargoes belonging to one individual over a period of time, giving an idea of his or her commercial activities. However, the card index system, modelled on that used in the Dundee Archives for shipping lists of a later period, was intended primarily to track the movements of masters and vessels into the port of Dundee.

Entries, such as that for 25th April 1615 for the Grace whose master was Alex Blair, can be transcribed into a tabular form. This is facilitated by showing sum totals for each of the different kind of cargo in the cargo column for each single entry. More complex analysis, say of the large number of different kinds of cargo that the Grace once carried, will require data to be held electronically. It would then be possible to review, both speedily and accurately, quantities of a specific cargo type over a period of one or more years and to follow the activities of masters or vessels over a period of years.

As an example, although incomplete, the following transcript of extracts illustrates the activities of a single master: -

14 Oct 1698 John Mouse in name of David Mouse his father master of the good bark called the Elizabeth of Dundee of burden 18 tunns compeired and entered the same in the name forsaid come from Elphingstone and loaded with coalls (coal).

17 Nov 1698 John Mouse in name of David Mouse his father master of Elizabeth of Dundee … of burden 12 tunns compeired … from Clackmannan … loaded with coalls

19 June 1699 David Mouse master of Elizabeth of Ferriee and port on Craig (Tayport) … of burden 15 tunns … from Limekilns … loaded with coalls.

29 July 1699 David Mouse master of Elizabeth of … (Tayport) … of burden 15 tunns … from Limekilns … loaded with coalls.

19 Aug 1699 David Mouse master of Elizabeth of … (Tayport) … of burden 15 tunns … from Inverkeithing … loaded with coalls.

1 Feb 1700 David Mouse master of Elizabeth of … (Tayport) … of burden 10 tunns … from Shetland … loaded with fish.

24 June 1700 John Mouse in name of David Mouse … master of the Elizabeth of … (Tayport)… from Airth … loaded with smiddy coalls.

10 July 1700 Mr James Hodge merchant in Dundee in name of John master the Elizabeth of … (Tayport) … entered the same come from Carronwater and loaded with coalls her burden being 15 tun.12 Aug 1700 John Mouse in name of David Mouse his father master the Elizabeth of … (Tayport) come from The Weims (Wemyss) and loaded with salt her burden being 15 tun.