We Want to Get BACK On

Today’s issue of the Hootsmon has an interesting article from a Devo-Plus advocate Malcolm Fraser who argues Scotland does not need independence to take on more responsibility for its own future. Plausible though many of his arguments are, it is when we get to Scotland’s historic role in the world that we part company. “The union has been good for us as a nation, in helping us out of a Celtic miasma and on to an international stage” he argues. Bollocks! I retort.

The Western world of today had its origins in the 15th-to-17th century expansion of European trade. The English, having fallen out with everyone, glared across the Channel through its finger-hold of Calais and built a ‘blue-water’ maritime future elsewhere on piracy and colonisation. But, in ever-egalitarian Scotland, not just the royal court and clergy, but the enterprise and labour of ordinary Scots got us into trading. For the most part those people have left little trace in the historical records but their legacy lies all around us.

Scotland lay at the edge of a developing European economy; life on the edge made many Scots enthusiastic traders and travellers in search of the opportunities for a better life. Scots merchant communities were established across Northern Europe—in Bordeaux and Dieppe in France, Bergen in Norway, Mälmo in Sweden, Elsinore and Copenhagen in Denmark, the Hanseatic Ports of Hamburg, Luebeck and Danzig and as far afield as Russia. Where ever they went the Scots stuck together and established their own trading networks, as well as their own Kirks, often with altars dedicated to St Ninian.

The main focus was a ‘staple port’ in Flanders, with permanent Scots merchant houses established in Bruges then, as that silted up, in Veere (where the town museum is the ‘Schottise Huis’). From there Scots flowed across the continent to trade goods, find  jobs or take up the opportunities of warfare and university education. The Scots exported their wool, hides, coal or timber and imported a myriad of both luxury and manufactured goods (sometimes the same thing).

The major beneficiaries in Scotland were Leith, Aberdeen and Berwick, with smaller ports in Fife’s East Neuk and the Lothian coast joining in. My own home town of North Berwick had 11 trade ships registered there in the 15th century. Lost between all the squabbles over independence in the 1200s/1300s and over religion in the 1500s/1600s, the 1400s were actually a time of growth and prosperity in Scotland. While England was engrossed in its Wars of the Roses, Scotland became relatively affluent on its trade.

It also became cosmopolitan, with Highland chieftains sending their sons to Paris for their education, those of lowland lairds to university at places like Utrecht and Liege. From Gelghornie, a small farm outside North Berwick, John Major left to be educated in Paris in 1592, becoming renowned scholar in theology and philosophy at the University. Peter the Great’s principal advisor, General Patrick Gordon of Auchleucheries hailed from Aberdeen; in fact, 15 admirals of the Imperial Navy were Scots.

In the 17th century, up to 40,000 Scots were settled in Poland mainly as merchants, peddlers and craftsmen. Scots immigrant names can still to be found in Polish phone books and Danzig (now Gdansk) has many Scottish street names. Even village names remember the Scots  who built them: Dzkocja, Skotna Góra, Szotniki or Szoty. When Gustavus Adolphus launched the Thirty Years War at Breitenfeld, an entire Brigade of Scots were the solid centre on which he pivoted his line.

But, after the Darien Disaster of 1698 drained a quarter of the country’s capital and the Treaty of Union in 1707 opened new doors, impoverished Scots turned to opportunities in the new British Empire and the once-strong links with neighbours across the North Sea faded to the point that we were seen as reluctant Europeans in the mould of our new English partners. The Napoleonic and two World Wars did not help. But all that is now as much history as the Thirty Years War; time for another re-think.

To paraphrase the redoubtable Winnie Ewing: “Stop the World: Scotland wants to get BACK on”.

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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