The Maritime History of Dundee

The Early Days

By Iain Flett - The Former Dundee City Archivist

Iain Flett

In the Dundee of the 13th century, provisioning by sea for the Castle of Dundee (under St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral) reminds us that the burgh and the sea were closely interlinked. Shore Terrace at the back of the Caird Hall was indeed the Terrace by the Shore until the Tay Road Bridge construction of the 1960's.

Few documents survive from this era, but there are some hints about the Viking relationship with Dundee and the resulting effect on the growth of maritime trade. The excavations by the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust (SUAT) in the 1980s uncovered a tall 6 foot skeleton which had been bisected in the late 15th century by the foundations of the Tower dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Was this a Viking in an early cemetery on this ancient ecclesiastical site?

The Blessed Virgin Mary, known after the Scottish Reformation as Saint Mary, enjoys a joint patronage in Dundee with that of St Clement. St Clement was associated with mariners after allegedly being martyred into the sea with an anchor round his neck, and was a favourite with Viking mariners. "Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clements" goes the London children's rhyme, not giving us the full title of St Clement Danes in the Strand. The Orcadians have successfully scoured the Icelandic sagas for tales about their islands. It might well be worthwhile for Dundonians to also see if they can find lurid stories in those sagas of storm-bound skippers in fights and drinking competitions a thousand years ago!

Such a trading relationship would help explain the trading agreement between the merchants of the Burgh of Earl David of Huntingdon (Dundee) and King John of England in 1199. Dundee's copy was burnt or captured, with other unknown treasured archives, in the Wars of Independence, but there is a "cheque book stub" in the rolls of King John in the National Archives in Kew. Such an early agreement with an important European monarch would make any sense if Dundee already had merchants, ships and established trade routes, and that in turn could be explained by a Viking trading tradition.

However, this scrap of evidence from 1199 tells us a great deal about Dundee as a maritime centre. It granted merchants from Dundee freedom from tolls in English ports except London, and was what we would today call a bulk trading agreement. It would have cost a lot of money to persuade the ungenerous King John (remember his temper at Runnymede?) to consider such a grant, and to pay his court officials to negotiate, draft and draw up the parchment. The Dundee merchants would have had to have been wealthy enough to make this investment, and to have had enough large seagoing ships by 1199 to make this negotiation worthwhile. So although Dundee celebrated its Octocentenary in 1991 to commemorate 800 years of documented recognition of burgh status, it must in fact have had ships and a trading base for a good part of the twelfth century.

After the charter of 1199 there are other occasional pointers to Dundee's shipping and mercantile wealth. In the Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland compiled by the SRO/NAS we find, for example, "To John Baret, master of La Godve of Dundee, taking 100 quarters oats by the Prince's orders from Perth to Blackness on 15th July 1307, 33s 4d [£1.65]". Robert the Bruce might be going on in 13 years' time about laying down one's life for liberty, but in the meantime, Dundee's merchant fleet was taking the line that "business was business"!

Whether or not the town of Dundee suffered as heavily as its besieged castle in the wars of Independence, it is certain that its early records were destroyed or captured for ransom. We have to rely upon information in records in the Vatican archives in Rome, in The National Archives (formerly known as the Public Record Office or PRO at Kew) and in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh (formerly known as the Scottish Record Office). There we have not only snippets like the above reference to John Baret's mercenary instincts, but also the fact that in 1381 Dundee was the first regional port to employ a 'teller of skins' (numerator pellium) to check the quality and quantity of hide exports. What is certain is that when Robert I (The Bruce) of Scots recognised Dundee's assistance in 1327 through a charter, it was through a charter of Confirmation because no others survived. The charter recited previous rights of the town, not the least the long existence of a free harbour.

Such gaps in both national and local records would continue to be created through warfare over the centuries. The "Rough Wooing" of the 1540s, when Protector Somerset's forces occupied Broughty Castle in the attempt to wed young Queen Mary to Edward VI, was responsible for the destruction of the town's minute books before 1550. The Cromwellian siege by General Monk in 1651 was responsible for destruction of many trade and guild records, and paper salvage drives during the Second World War appear to have accomplished for many Victorian and Edwardian records what the Luftwaffe had failed to do.

From 1327, we could flag the types of records that survived to tell the story of Dundee's maritime past and for what reasons they had been created. The first and foremost was that of central government or the Crown, which wished to tax both exports and imports to raise cash for waging war externally or waging peace (which could be as bloody an affair) internally. Customs records are quite detailed from the fourteenth century, and in their accounts of salmon, wool and hides we can extract a fairly clear idea of how much trade was passing through the port of Dundee. Clashes with "a' oor auld enemeis the Inglis" brought pleas before the Stuart monarchy to intercede with the English court where piracy and privateering had landed Dundee skippers and their cargoes in unwelcome captivity. The records of central government, such as those of the Privy Councils on both side of the border, throw many fascinating snippets about the fleets that they represented.

Dundee City Archives were delighted to have come to an arrangement with the Keeper of the Records of Scotland over the records of the Scottish Customs and Excise after the Union of the Parliaments in 1707. The arrangement, to be found throughout major record offices in Scotland, is called "Charge and Superintendence" and enables records normally found in the NAS to be lodged, under licence, with a local record office or repository. The English pattern of Customs and Excise was adopted throughout Scotland after 1707, and a system of correspondence from local port Collector of dues with the central board in Edinburgh was developed. The letter books and circulars relating to Dundee date from the early 18th century and continue to World War II. The early ones up to the Napoleonic Wars were indexed by the late Mr Geoffrey Dearnley, who has published an index of skippers, vessels and commodities for these early years. They are a source of ripping yarns straight out of Walter Scott's pen about smuggling, riots, and a lot of blind eyes being turned. If you wanted cheap rum and quiet life, it was as well not to carry out the will of the Crown to the letter! (Geoff Dearnley's Custom Records)

The next stage down from central government was local government, and the local government shipping records of Dundee are the port books or "shipping lists" that date from the late 16th century to the early 18th century. Just as the archives of central customs record the dues to the crown on exports of salmon and imports of tobacco, so burgh customs lists note the tax on salt, timber and "merchant guilds" to pay for Dundee shorework and administration.

Dundee traded with foreign countries around the Baltic, North Sea and Bay of Biscay, and of course England was also a foreign, not to mention rival or hostile, trading market before the Union of The Crowns in 1603.

The Friends of Dundee City Archives were delighted and honoured to have Peter Blom, Archivist of their ancient trading partner Campvere, at the 2006 Conference and he clearly showed how records from a port in the Netherlands could throw light on the family connections and trading habits of Dundonians. Likewise Dr Thomas Riis, when he had been a Carlsberg scholar at St Andrews University, had amassed an extraordinary amount of data about the major Scottish east coast ports in Danish records in his mammoth two-volume study Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot? Just as the Friends were actively exchanging data with Veere, so they also were looking forward to exchanging data with Stavanger Maritime Museum in Norway about timber export and import, and here we find that life has not changed much over three hundred and fifty years. The port books of Dundee are quite vague about the port of origin of timber - just listed "Norraway" in many cases, because in fact the Norwegians were avoiding export restrictions and it is only the Dundee records that can give them a rough estimate of how much timber was exported!

The former District Council of Dundee had much satisfaction in advising Estonian local government on quality control in its developing food industry after its liberation from the Eastern bloc. Officials from both sides were delighted to be reminded that this was a relationship which was not new, but which had its roots in the middle ages and was only interrupted by The Great War. The surviving records of the burgh from this period are full of references to Dundee's trade with the Baltic and north Europe. In the Town Clerk's Notarial records for 1521, there is a rough copy of a birth brieve addressed to Cracow in the kingdom of Poland to confirm that the merchants Adam and David Mores were the sons, gotten in lawful matrimony, of the 'umqhile' or deceased Alexander Mores. The original, on parchment and written in Latin, would have acted as a letter of introduction and passport for their trading activity. Another entry in the same commonplace book for 1527 shows what rates of exchange in gold coin Nicholas Cant would pay at Leith or by his factor in Copenhagen. An interesting illumination when you consider that in 1527 payment in gold, whatever the coinage, was as universal as the impending introduction of the Euro 470+ years later.

Brisk trading led to traffic jams; one entry in the burgh court books of 1560 is headed "anent lyeing at the schoir", otherwise parking your vessel tidily by the bulwarks so as to not cause obstruction to other traffic and damage to the wooden pierwork. The resulting fine, under the pain of £10 Scots, for those who disobeyed or who parked carelessly, would burn a hefty hole in any merchant's pocket.

Prior to 1651 it was the golden age of trading in Dundee, when the burgh was second only to Edinburgh in wealth and importance, and when Glasgow was a small cathedral town. The sacking by Cromwell's General Monck in 1651 changed all that forever. The men of military age in the town were literally decimated, all wealth was plundered, although it was rumoured that the Roundheads' ill gotten booty foundered at the bar of the Tay, where it may still lie like the Tobermory treasure. A view of Dundee by the Dutch engineer Slezer from the East in 1692 was considered, which showed a quiet view of the harbour, tt took a long time for trade and shipping to recover, although even by the 1670-80 there were indications that the traditional resilience of the burgh against adversity was shining through. An entry in the Lockit Book for 16 March 1676 showed that John Marr, mariner, had been granted an honorary burgesship 'gratis' or free. This would be our present day equivalent of the the Freedom of the City, and this was in recognition of the charting of the North Sea that Marr had carried out as a merchant skipper in his own time. His work was deeply appreciated by skippers beyond Dundee, who found his tireless attention to detail made their hazardous voyages much safer.

The prize exhibit of Dundee Museums, the brass Portuguese Astrolabe of 1555, is one of the finest examples of a navigational instrument to have survived in Europe, and has been copied by the maritime museum in Portugal. The manuscripts in the City Archives have helped to establish that it came to the town through trading links. Found by the late Jim Boyd, Curator, wrapped in paper at the bottom of a tea chest, the only clue of its provenance was the owner's stamp, "Andrew Smeaton'. Some clever detective work by Veronica Hartwich, now herself head of the Maritime Museum at Irvine, established that Andrew Smeaton had been made a burgess, or freeman, on 17th September 1670, and that he was a man in a hurry. The entry in the Town's Lockit Bulk shows that while the rest of the merchants on that day got their freedom through inheritance or marriage, Andrew Smeaton paid cash down. His entry was written hurriedly at the end of the session, as though he had just strode in through the door with his seaboots on. A later entry in the Shipping Register seven years later shows what Andrew made his money out of; "Andro Smetton, maister of the ship called the Unitie, of Dundee, loaded with salt from Rotchelie...'. This tells us that Andrew was trading in French waters, and that he bought the instrument when it was already 120 years old, when it would still have been highly regarded as a working, sturdy and reliable instrument.

Maritime trade could not have survived without the harbour, and there are many documents relating to this, ranging from the royal grants of rights, to the entries in the burgh court books in the 16th century, and to the formation of a separate administration in the form of the Dundee Harbour Commissioners in the 19th century. Slides of a legal case in 1813, when the Town Council was sued for negligence in allowing an Aberdeen galliot to run onto quay repairs, were compared to the feverish activity two years later, when the new Harbour Commissioners were pressing their engineer, one Thomas Telford Esq, then working at Inverness, to concentrate on Dundee harbour works. By 1838, Leslie, also famous for his water engineering, was building further extensions, and his meticulous coloured drawings of lock gates and machinery were works of art in themselves.

After the records of national and local government came the records of other local organisations, and in Dundee's case those were principally the records of the Guildry Incorporation of Dundee and those of the Fraternity of Masters and Seamen of Dundee. Until the schism in Dundee between Provost and Dean of Guild in the early 19th century the early records of burgh and craft were intertwined. Those which had been separated out and withdrawn by The Guildry were now on deposit in the City Archives, and told of 16th century quality controls over goods being exported through the port. The stamp of each of their unique merchants' marks stood for quality control as well as providing an audit trail for any complaint. Although the records of the Fraternity mainly dated from the 19th century, they did possess one unique Boxmaster's (Treasurer's) account book covering the late 17th century. This vellum-covered volume detailed a separate rate of taxation over imports to cover pilotage and payments to shipwrecked, stranded or injured mariners, whether former friend or former foe. The Fraternity financed a coal-fired lighthouse in the 1680's at Buddon.

The next form of records of use in maritime history was that compiled by an individual in the course of their business or employment. The most famous example in Dundee was that of the "Compt Buik" of David Wedderburn, which was preserved in Dundee Central Library and which had been published by the Scottish History Society. Covering the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it was much more than a simple account book. Full of notes about contacts, lawsuits, rates of exchange and much more, it told of the importance of family connections, and how important business, goods or cash would not be left to strangers. A typical entry in 1595 listed that Wedderburn had sent with Thomas Nichol in the ship "Closfre" to Bordeaux sixty planks of sawn timber, marked with Nichol's merchant's mark, to be sold to Wedderburn's profit and that profit to purchase wine or cloth for import to Dundee. The timber would have had to been previously imported from Norway. Many of these transactions could also be tracked in the notarial protocol books of the lawyers or "writers" of the time. These registers for Dundee, some of which survived "The Rough Wooing" of the 1540's, record incidentally a wide range of mercantile information. These could include deals and agreements by Dundee merchants and skippers about exchange rates, "factories" (appointment of factors to act on their behalf when abroad), "birth brieves" (letters of identity) for trading with the Baltic and Poland, as well as declarations of delay by weather or interfering officers of government customs that were not their fault.

A splendid example of this legal tradition, being John Ogilvie's Protest Book 1798-1801, had been purchased by the Friends of Dundee City Archives from a private collection. And has been indexed by the members of the F.D.C.A., as a snapshot of trading activity by Dundee at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries and it is invaluable. There is entry after entry for flax from St Petersburg and Riga, whale oil from Greenland and "merchant goods" from London and the Netherlands.

The maritime collections of the Dundee Harbour Trustees and of the Gourlay and Caledon shipyards meant that the recording of maritime activity in Dundee continued through the 19th and mid 20th centuries. What of the future? The port of Dundee had been privatised and now was effectively run from Leith. The pressures of modern commerce meant that much business is now carried out electronically. This in turn meant both that those records could be easily deleted when business had been transacted and that any records, which were retained, would be problematical to produce and to consult in the future. The comparative luxury of preserving written records on paper which had survived by chance or selection would no longer exist; it would be essential for archivists and for Friends of archivists to actively and aggressively collect contemporary information about overseas trade and commerce before it vanishes forever.

Iain Flett
Former City Archivist