Thursday, July 30, 2009

Aberdeen and Scottish Independence

W. Stanford Reid, opens his 1954 paper “Trade, Traders and Scottish Independence”, with the comment that since the time of Barbour the war had been viewed in terms of the battles, sieges and the leaders, and that the economic elements had been largely ignored.
However; no matter how good the leaders, and their soldiers, they can never succeed, unless they can get the materials of war, and disrupt the enemy’s ability to do the same. So unless you have the ability to get “stuff” the war is lost.
In the previous post I discussed the granting of the freedom lands to the City, and the fact that this was for some great service to the cause, but not for fighting at Barra or storming the castle.
In this post I would like to look at how the good citizens of Aberdeen (and their allies) helped Robert get the stuff he needed, often by taking it from Edward.
Aberdeen was one of the major Scottish trading ports, and the first to be liberated by Robert; in fact it would be several years before any of the others fell. (Dundee 1312; Perth 1312; Leith 1314; Berwick 1318).
So the capture of Aberdeen sometime in the summer of 1308, gave Robert a control of a major port, with established European trade connections. Aberdeen had a large Flemish trading population and also had good relations with the German cities of the Hanseatic League.

England had maintained a navel blockage throughout the war, but much of the time it was redundant, because English land forces controlled Scotland and garrisoned its major castles and ports. The capture of Aberdeen would radically change this situation, with its large Flemish population and northerly location, it would prove difficult to blockade.
The Flemings generally had little love for the English, and were willing allies of Scotland. That they would defend their rights and freedoms was demonstrated early in the war when they fought to the last man defending the Red Hall, during Edward I’s sack of Berwick in 1296. It was said that they offered the fiercest resistance of all the defenders.
Aberdeen quickly established itself as the main trading an supply base for the Scottish cause, and the “legitimate trade”, quickly broadened into privateering, if not outright piracy. With Aberdeen as a Scottish base, Scottish, Flemish and Hanseatic vessels preyed on English commerce. They would bring the captured vessels to Aberdeen where there was a lucrative trade in “laundering” wool. (This involved the removing of the English customs seals, or cockets, and replacing them with Scottish ones.) Presumably, with the willing assistance of the Scottish customs officials. The wool was then taken to Europe and sold as legitimate Scottish produce. The captured vessels were generally sold on the continent, but I am sure some were sold or retained in Aberdeen and put into Scottish service.
Scottish and European traders also traded with England, and although Edward made efforts to limit this trade, it would appear that for many English merchants “business was business”. Goods were purchase in England under various subterfuges and then shipped to Scotland.

Throughout the war Edward II would attempt to limit the effectiveness of Aberdeen’s merchant/priveteers, through blockade, naval activity, and diplomacy, none of which were particularly successful. English diplomatic efforts did finally separate the Scots and Flemings in the 1320s, but by then it was too little too late, because Scottish forces, already controlled much of northern England as well as Scotland.
Had Edward immediately made a concerted effort to re-take and garrison Aberdeen, he may have been able to limit the effectiveness of Robert’s campaigns. But; not only did he fail to act effectively in this matter, he also left his remaining Scottish allies to the mercies (or otherwise) of Robert.

So with Buchan ravished, Comyn power smashed, and the lifeline to the continent in place Robert turned his attentions to his other Scottish enemies. More in a later post.

700 years ago the NE and Aberdeen in particular occupied a pivotal role in Scottish and European events, a position unsurpassed until the advent of the North Sea oil industry, which saw Aberdeen again step fully onto the European stage, as the oil capital. Last year it was decide to suitably commemorate Aberdeen’s crucial relationship with Robert and the Scottish cause, and Aberdeen City Council instigated a competition to design a statue of Robert I. Alan Herriot was the winner with an equestrian statue of Robert holding the charter to Aberdeen. My latest understanding is that the site for the statue will be outside Marischal College. 

This subject is vast and for those interested in more details, the article mentioned in the introduction is excellent. Also Colm McNamee dedicates a whole chapter in his book the “Wars of the Bruces”, to “The North Sea Theatre of the War and the Towns”, his book is on this blog's recommended list.

For those interested in Aberdeen’s long maritime history a visit to Aberdeen Maritime Museum, where Oldmeldrum resident, John Edwards is Keeper of Science and Maritime History, is a must. 
Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Shiprow. AB11 5BY. Telephone: 01224 337712

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