It is not an accident of history that Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, through its port of Leith and Glasgow are the principal Cities of Scotland. They owe much of their importance to their mercantile and seaborne connections bringing with them huge economic benefits.
Even prior to Roman times Scotland has a very rich history of maritime activity. Cramond was a harbour on the Firth of Forth where supplies were landed for the Roman garrisons on the Antonine Wall. It also served as a base for the advance of the Roman Legions into the rest of Scotland. Aberdeen may also have been used for similar purposes.
Little is recorded of other mercantile activity until the 12th and 13th Centuries. In 1136 King David 1st granted the Bishops of Aberdeen the rights to levy a tithe on all ships trading at the port. William Wallace wrote to the Hanseatic towns of Lübeck and Hamburg claiming that the trading links with Scotland should be restored. Until 1296 Berwick was the leading Scottish port when it was then taken by Edward I. By the late 1300s there were in excess of 70 ports, harbours and havens in Scotland and its principal islands. Leith, the seaport for Edinburgh, had the greatest trade of any Scottish port, followed by Aberdeen, Dundee and its rival Perth and the many harbours on the Firth of Forth and its estuary which extend from the tidal limit at Stirling to a line drawn from Fifeness to Dunbar, a length of 96 km.
Overseas trade was controlled by the Convention of Royal Burghs and in 1347 a Scottish base, or Staple, was set up in Bruges, but it was transferred to Veere near Middleburg in the Low Countries in the early 16th Century where it was controlled by the Conservator. By 1520 trade by Scottish ports with Hanseatic ports had virtually ceased.
The long east coastline of Scotland gave Scottish merchants a much shorter sea crossing to Scandinavia and the Baltic ports which were seen as of great importance and followed the virtually terminal decline of the Hanseatic League in the late 15th century. The League had originally comprised over 100 towns, many of which were seaports. The East of Scotland trade with the Low Countries, France, Spain and Portugal also increased, unlike that of the various Burghs on the Clyde and the Border towns. Scots were well entrenched within all the principal foreign ports of more than 30 in number and with which trade had been established. Remnants of these relationships exist to this day.
In the late 1700s there were well over 100 ports in England, Wales and Scotland engaged in foreign trade. Of the Scottish ports, Leith had been established for over five hundred years.
The seaborne trade to and from Scotland expanded right up to the late 19th Century.
Aberdeen is the chief town and seaport in the North of Scotland. In 1153 it was raided by Prince Eysteinn, of Norway.
By the 14th Century the harbour, which was then a mere expanse of open water with dangerous sandbanks, was protected by a bulwark. Shipbuilding was established as early as the 15th Century.
During the depressed trading of the Middle Ages little was done to improve the harbour either in size or facilities.
In the 18th and 19th Centuries there was significant development of the port, much of it seen as it is today.
The trades were largely imports and mainly coastal but also from near Continental Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltic ports.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries Aberdeen was a principal port for whaling vessels venturing north to the Arctic and Greenlands waters. In the late 19th Century there was traffic in Canadian cattle shipped to Aberdeen from Montreal. During that period the herring and whitefish industry had almost reached its peak and was a principal trade in the harbour and very much an integral part of the commercial and social life of Aberdeen. The advent of the steam trawler had brought immense benefits to the industry and all who derived a living from it. As with Dundee, the City enjoyed a manufacturing base in sailcloth. In the days of wooden hulled ships the invention by Alexander Hall and Company of Aberdeen of the Aberdeen "Clipper bow" gave it an international reputation in shipbuilding which had lasted from the 15th Century down to the latter part of the 20th Century, over which period more than 3,000 ships were built in the City of which one of the most famous is the "Thermopylae" a great rival to the "Cutty Sark".
In World War II the harbour was an important naval base. During the late 1960's right down to the present day the off-shore oil and gas industry has resulted in Aberdeen harbour being one of the most modern ports in Europe, the benefits to the community echoing that of the almost bygone fishing era.
Dundee (now the City of "Discovery") was a significant seaport with Hanseatic connections long before 1500. By the late 18th and early 19th Centuries it was one of the finest, safest and most convenient harbours in Great Britain. It enjoyed immense international trade in many commodities such as flax and jute from which was manufactured the greater part of ships’ canvas for the Royal Navy a nd British merchant vessels.
Although not quite of such antiquity as The Trinity House of Leith (1380), Dundee still enjoys the presence of the Fraternity of Masters and Seamen of Dundee which was first recognised in 1556 and King George III granted its Royal Charter on 17th September 1774. Many of its regulations and provisions are in force to this day.
Whaling and shipbuilding were very important maritime trades identified with Dundee but it suffered the same decline as a port, similar to the fortunes of its competitors.
The entire maritime activities were strongly interwoven with the social and commercial life of the City as can be seen from the records of its housing and community buildings which were and, in some instances are, of considerable importance and great antiquity.
Glasgow emerged in the 19th Century as a significant centre of seaborne activity, particularly for the tobacco trade. Port Glasgow and also Greenock were of great importance as safe harbours for the fast growing transatlantic trade and the vessels plying it.
Much activity was required to deepen and widen the river Clyde to meet the demands of merchants to bring their vessels upstream right into the heart of Glasgow, a distance of 35 km from the Tail of the Bank to Glasgow Bridge. Although some form of landing stage for ships seems to have existed at the foundation of Glasgow it was not until 1660 that the first substantial structure was built on the narrow river. The role of the Forth and Clyde canal (1790) cannot be overlooked in its linking of the East and West coast ports. Port Dundas on the canal was once a more important harbour to Glasgow than the Broomielaw.
The story of shipbuilding on the Clyde is a treatise in itself. It is worthy of record that by 1900 its shipyards built a quarter of the World’s ships. During World War II the 37 shipyards carried out more than 27,000 main contracts within a six year period.
The Clyde reached the zenith of its seaborne trade between 1900 and the onset of World War I. The decline then set in and was to go on until the 1970’s when many of the docks, riverside quays and shipyards were redundant and infilled for development. Apart from the Scottish Maritime Museum little has been kept alive to remind future generations of the greatness of the Clyde and its City and towns. In time the river could probably revert to its natural regime.
As of March 2010 there are 84 recognised ports in Scotland. However there are many other havens around this entire coastline still active in fishing.
The fishing industry, which played such a very great role on both the East and West coasts of Scotland, is but a very pale shadow of its former self. Aberdeen, Peterhead and Fraserburgh continue to be the largest of all British fishing ports.
This brief narrative cannot end without reference to the huge contribution of generations of Scots people and particularly those dedicated seafarers of the Highlands and the Northern and Western Isles to all aspects of international mercantile trade and the sacrifices made in war and peace.