Skip to content

News

17th century Fife & Europe – trade links revealed

Historians at St Andrews have unearthed the ancient sea journals of a 17th century Fife sea captain, and have discovered startling evidence of Fifers being at the forefront of Scottish trade in Europe.

Dr Paula Martin, a researcher attached to the University of St Andrew’s School of History, has just completed the lengthy task of transcribing a previously unknown 350-year old manuscript belonging to Alexander Gillespie, an enterprising seaman from Elie, Fife.

The journal and other historical maritime documents have recently been acquired by the University Archives.

Gillespie’s journal has given Dr Martin unique glimpses into the pioneering world of Scottish merchants, who built up complex trading networks throughout Europe more than three centuries ago.

Not only has Dr Martin uncovered fascinating details of Captain Gillespie’s time as a European trader in the 17th century, she has also found evidence of the importance of Fife women (including Gillespie’s wife, Christian) in international business at this time, who were more than able to run the ‘head office’ while their husbands were at sea.

“Scottish merchants knew all about the Common Market and interchangable currencies more than three centuries ago when they built up complex trading networks throughout the length and breadth of Europe, said Dr Martin.

“Alexander Gillespie’s Journal is a very exciting find. This 76- page hand-written account records a Fife sea captain’s merchant voyages between 1662 and 1685, and is quite unique. We’ve never had so detailed and complete a picture of a single skipper’s career for this period before,” she said.

In his 65 voyages (or legs of voyages) over a 24 year period, Gillespie never failed to reach his destination – a remarkable achievement in the age when sailing ships were at the mercy of wind and weather. The journals contain remarkable stories involving cargoes, war, piracy and the hazards of sailing into unknown waters.

From his home in the Fife burgh of Elie, Alexander Gillespie and his wife and business-partner Christian Small, planned their trading ventures. Until 1676, Gillespie voyaged throughout Europe in his ship the Anna – to Norway for timber; into the Baltic for iron, flax, hemp, and oaken boards; London and Rotterdam for manufactured goods and luxury items such as furniture, tobacco, garden seeds, and hoods and bells for hawks. The most profitable cargo for Gillespie – but one which involved the greatest risk and outlay – was wine from Bordeaux, which fetched the best price if it could be unloaded at Leith in time for Hogmany.

Gillespie’s outward cargoes were mainly coal and salt from the Firth of Forth, though occasionally he carried human cargoes too, such as a contingent of ‘sogers’ (soldiers), which he delivered to Dieppe in 1671. Dr Martin believes they were probably about to participate in the projected Anglo-French invasion of Holland.

“There were dangers which could not always be predicted. When the many wars raging in Europe at the time spilled over into the waters in which Gillespie sailed, he avoided them by going elsewhere, even if it meant trading with places where little profit could be made, such as the west of Scotland, said Dr Martin.

“Even if Scotland was not at war, there was the risk of privateers. If they caught a ship from a neutral country, they did not harm it, but after demanding proof of nationality would go off with modest booty such as money or a barrel of beer, a form of protection racket. On one occasion he was stopped twice in one voyage,” she said.

Interspersed with the record of his voyages, Gillespie made detailed notes about navigation – information about hazards and havens, landmarks and reefs, depths of water and even the character of the seabed, which he sampled from the tallow-filled hollow at the head of a sounding lead. Such knowledge was a skipper’s stock-in-trade, and Gillespie would have added his observations to a much wider body of information passed down to him through the generations. For coasting seafarers such knowledge was more reliable – and much cheaper – than a chart. Skippers often drew little pictures of what particular pieces of coast looked like from the sea, marking landmarks such as church towers or windmills. One surviving sketch of Gillespie’s portrays windmills along the skyline of Brill in the Netherlands.

In 1676 Gillespie went to Rotterdam for six months to supervise the building of a new ship, the James. The James was a larger ship than the Anna, carrying up to 120 tons of cargo, and through her Gillespie amassed the fortune which allowed him, in his final years, to become a country gentleman. None of his descendants followed him into sea- faring careers. One striking piece of evidence of his time in Elie is the remains of the elaborate doorway of his 17th century townhouse, a structure which is known locally as the ‘Muckle Yett’ (great gate), which was retained when the house was rebuilt to form ‘Gillespie House’ in 1870.

Meanwhile, Dr Martin has also been transcribing maritime documents belonging to contemporaries of Gillespie – Alexander and Andrew Watson, merchants from Kirkcaldy. Dating from the 1660s to the 1690s, the letters and personal accounts include correspondence from agents and business contacts in ports across Europe. As with the Gillespie’s operation, complex interpersonal networking both in Scotland and on a Europe-wide scale seems to have been the driving force.

“An unexpected finding has been the strong role played by women in these enterprises. It has long been known that skippers’ wives ran the businesses while their husbands were at sea, and often inherited them, but the Watson papers show several examples of females working as independent entrepreneurs, said Dr Martin.

“Beatrix Carstairs, for instance, was sister and wife to two Kirkcaldy skippers, yet she operated as an independent businesswoman, engaging in dealings and decision-making with merchants in London. And a Kirkcaldy provost’s wife who had set up her own, highly successful, bootlegging liquor business could not be called to account on her husband’s authority alone, but only by that of the full town council,” she said.

In transcribing and analysing the Fife maritime documents, Dr Martin has completed the first stage of her research, which is funded by the University’s Development Fund. Dr Martin is now planning to undertake further study of Scottish trade in Europe during the 17th century, drawing on a wide range of other sources in Scotland and beyond.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS:

Dr Paula Martin is available for interview today – please call her direct on 01334 840241, or 07796 888778.

PICTURES: Images relating to the research are available on request. Please contact Gayle Cook (numbers below) for details.

Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email gec3@st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: Fife Maritime pr 190802 View the latest University news at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk

Research

Related topics

Share this story

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *