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Early Shopping In Scotland
It is not often that one knows how one's ancestors shopped. There are very few records but occasionally a glimpse of social history can be found - a rare jewel, the richness of velvet or the subtle odour of spices.
The earliest glimpse that I know of is roundabout 1503 when Andrew Halyburton, a Scot trading in Holland has left the list of his Scottish customers orders. Aberdeen of course want "a kist o' buikies" and "wheelbarrows to build Kings College". As we would expect the Abbot of Holyrood calls for claret and for many years Edinburgh customers go on calling for this rich wine. The most unexpected demand is for large quantities of fruit, raisins, oranges, figs and even olives. Drugs are wanted for the hospice and from all quarters thirsty Scots clamoured for wine, Gascon, Rhenish, Malvoisie. This was of course before the days of John Knox and the Black Calvinists. Again, it seems strange but the Scots of that time like to sleep comfortably. Beds of arras, feather beds, down pillows are all asked for. Basins of brass appear several times and it is interesting to note that the old churches in the north and north east usually had a brass christening bowl and we know most of these came from Holland. 'Images' are asked for. St. Thomas A Becket for someone at school in Penicuik is one. "Vermillion and White Lead", Vermilion lips for an Edinburgh lady, a scarlet door in a dark close, or perhaps the Douglas coat of arms?
There do not appear to be many shopping records during the Reformation but by the early 17th century a merchant in Forfar's stock list was "Harrows and plews and gangard cairts, auld stotties an queys".
Also at this time Sir Peter was King James's tutor and Geordie Heriot, Prince of Edinburgh goldsmiths was the King's banker. Sir Peter's possession at that time include "ane rubie ring and agat bresslet", "saxteen pund weicht or silverwork pairtlie gilt". Did Geordie make that, and did he fashion "ane greit golg ring sett with thretten diamonds"? Was it Sir Peter or some fine lady who wore his "pair of gold bressletts"? Sir Peter had more also and this gives one a different view of life of the wild Scots. A silver cup delicately chased and a piece of gold curiously wrought. These could be found behind the grim stone walls of these tall buildings which go by the name of Scottish castles.
Ports like Dundee, which in the early 17th century was the third city in Scotland, carried on a large trade with the continent. David Wedderburn was one of the merchants whose ships sailed all over. "'The gift of God' laitlie come from Norroway with limmer": "'The Houp for Grace' from Queensbrig in Holland with lint and hemp": "'The Andrew' from Rochelle loadit with salt": "'The George' from Flanders with three score barrels wyngeons (onions)": "'The Bark Allane' from Bordeaux with wine": 'Mirrie Gallant', 'Klinebells' and 'Prettie Jhane' all coming hard on their heels. What lovely names the ships had, and what exciting cargoes! In the list of Wedderburn's house furnishing there is an astonishing number of firearm, an ancient crossbow, a slender rapier, a gun, pistolat and musket. Did he sell them? Did he need them all for defence? Maybe the times were as wild as we usually think they were even if the furnishings and jewels and wine were plentiful. Wedderburn also had "an aik craddle" for the baby. This would be very necessary. There were eleven babies in quick succession. We know that the Craddle was also "let out" to my dochter Euphamie. Andrew also owned "an aiken kist" and "an aiken press" for napery and "an aiken chair" for himself. In the dining room over the fir table hung a chandelier whose soft light picked out a "pictur in a gilt frame". How I wish he had told us the subject. The wall was hung with a wolfskin and a fox's brush, maybe hunted and killed in the high Cairngorms or Rothiemurcus. On the table were "twa Dutch siller spunes" while the "murmblade" came from Spain and the bairns' treats were "sugar candy, comfits and toffie" brought from Flanders. Would you believe that the older girls had "braw gouns dyed fine scarlet in Rouen" and used "violet powder fetched from Rochelle" - not the usual picture of 17th century Scotland.
In 1619 David, by this time wearing "ane pair of siller spectacles", writes a list of books loaned by him to his friends. This must be the earliest lending library list? Would you believe the following list of books taken from the private library of a merchant in Dundee in 1619: "Four Buikies of Iliades in the original Greek", "My Virgil", "Plutarch in Laten" (which my son James has taen to Westhall to read), "Aesop", "Erasmus in Englis", "Mair's Chronicles" acquired in payment of a debt, "Drakies Voyages" borrowed by the skippers of the "Klinkebells", the "Elspet" and the others together with Ortelius maps, a Hebrew bible, "Ovid's Metamorphis" in Laten with the Pictouris bund in aneswynis skin of verry braw binding. Young Peter Wedderburn asked for "Dr. Faustus" and the gudewyfe of Pitlately borrowed Chaucer. So it was not only the men who could read and study.
Occasionally David went abroad to buy goods himself. Once he travelled on "The Houp for Grace" and took with him "Portugase mitreis of gold, rose nobles and crowns of the sun, Spanish royals, pistolatts and saffron and sejeants of Scotland. Quite a collection,
Before the forty-five Baillie Stewart was the best known merchant in Inverness and luckily he has left us his letter books for over 30 years. He had a wide trade in the Highlands and has his troubles no less than we have. In 1721 he writes to Rotterdam when ordering 13 ankers of brandy. "I dare not commission more because money is so scarce that we cannot depend on a farthing when due to us". Then the really important instruction "stow that sort of goods under all the rest and by all means endeavour to keep clear of the ports of Britain until ye cone here. Fil her up with 4000 barrel hoopis". Selling the brandy in Scotland was just as tricky. Up and around to the west of Lochinver and back with a cargo of Assynt herring. Qr Kylescu might do - "let all you are to unload be put to shore together so as your lying make no great noise", Or again to Orkney, where they generously gave you cash down if the storms in the Pentland Firth did not sink your 40 ton smack first. Running into Appin was too near the dangerous Campbell country, ruin alike to both Stewart and smuggler, so it was "change the bark's name and your own that none know where you belong to". Not many of the decent citizens of Inverness would have credited the very respected merchant with that statement.
Fish were easier. The continent was providentially Catholic and ate nothing but fish during Lent so the canny Stewart had to warn his Scottish customers, "you are to expect no salmon at all just now, it is all going to the continent, to the Mediterranean". Herring and cod too were sent. In 1788 the "Jean" of Dunbar left Thurso for Venice with 230 barrels of salt cod for Venice along with 6964 Haberdeens (dried ling), while in June 1750 the "Jean Francis" of Wick arrived in Thurso from Bergen with among other things Spanish salt from Bergen and left on 21st July with a cargo of salt, and 1250 lemons! If by any chance the supply of fish for export ran short Stewart just pulled one or two from last year's pickle. A dab of colour, and what foreigner knew the difference?
All this trade ensured that Mrs. Stewart when to church in "the best black silk from Leghorn" and her presses were full of the best Florence eating oil: her table boasted the finest Chianti and in the evening an Edinburgh newspaper was delivered to the Baillie himself, an almost unheard of luxury in these parts. Stewart had a fine collection of "friends",' The notorious Simon Lord Lovat (later beheaded in the Tower for high treason) is called "my best friend and cousin", but so amazingly enough is General Wade who came to the rescue when Stewart was hauled up before the customs. Seaforth out in the '15 and Cromartie out in the '45 leave politics behind when they haggle with Stewart over salmon, herring and meal. The redoubtable Alexander Pope of Reay, cousin of the poet and apostle of the north, vouches for Stewart in Caithness and helps him to buy bere. Duncan Forbes of Culloden, the Lord President who broke the back of the '45, orders punchern after punchern of the Jacobite Baillie's wine. He must have known how it was obtained.
So every secret sooner or later came to be whispered in that counting house in Inverness and there's many a fine gentleman, perhaps even now, who might cut quite a different figure could the Baillie's walls speak. But business is business and though the inner history of both the '15 and the '45 must have been known by him, Stewart had the Highlander's gift of holding his tongue. All we read is "yours to hand....". From names like the rattle of drums even now and we realise that shopping in Scotland long ago is not very different from that today. Aberdeen still wants books, most cities want wine.
The accounts of the Earls of Caithness in the 18th century show that Thomas Backie in Thurso supplied the Castle of Mey with nearly 1000 bottles of claret and an anker of rum in 1756. No wonder when the Earl's drinking glasses for claret held a bottle each! John Dunnet another Thurso merchant supplied during 1739 27 bottles of claret, 14 bottles of lisbon wine (probably port), 12 bottles of white wine and 5 bottles of canary, and at the same time John Milliken of Wick sent 240 bottles of wine. Also in 1735 when Sir James Sinclair of Mey married Margaret Sinclair of Barrock, Patrick Doull a merchant in Thurso sent 12 claret, 6 white wine and an anker [anker - 39 Danish quarts] of brandy. Again in 1756 Thomas Backie sent to the castle oranges, apples, lemons, raisins along with hops for brewing ale, the finest of teas and sometimes coffee beans. George Dunnet merchant in Thurso provided the Lady of Mey with striped silks and white flowered satin. The astonishing thing is that there were so many different merchants to supply such orders and while admittedly this does not mean that all the inhabitants lived on this scale one would think there must have been some spin off with such a large foreign trade. We have no notes of the lifestyle of the merchants in Thurso as we have with Baillie Stewart but it seems fair to assume that they also lived very well. Craven's Diocese In Caithness gives the following quotation about a journey he made with Mr. Innes (possibly of Sandside, Reay). "In 1772 the travellers came to Ousdale an inn and the first house you come to. They asked for breakfast and for tea. Certainly she had tea - would they like green tea or Bohea - or maybe fresh coffee. As they had been told that Caithness was very poor and they would get nothing they could eat they were agreeably surprised. And indeed they state that they had a very good breakfast indeed. And the people more than hospitable."
From notes given to me by the late Miss Christina Keith.
Baillie Stewart's letter book.
Donaldson's Caithness in the 18th Century.