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Trade at Leith Harbour

From around the 13th century, Leith was growing to be an important trading port, and developed into Scotland’s premier port by 1300.

The earliest trade from Leith Harbour dealt with wool which came from the abbeys at Melrose and Newbattle and was shipped to Bruges (Flanders) to the Flemish weavers, but also onwards to France and Italy (especially Florence).

Bruges was then Europe’s chief commercial city. Many Scots lived there in the Scottendye or Scottish quarter while Flemish merchants settled in Edinburgh. 

While there was some trade with England, it was often impeded by war and hostilities. Also, the markets were too similar: both England and Scotland were exporting raw materials and importing manufactured goods. 

It was more profitable for Scotland to trade with other countries, such as France where the Auld Alliance (1295) brought many trading advantages, Norway or the Hanseatic League.

Exports from Leith included cured fish, cheese (to France!), coarse cloth, wool, horses, and hide.

From France, silks, cloth, dried fruits, and wine were imported. Leith became the 2nd biggest port for wine imports in Britain (after London): through the Auld Alliance, Scotland had privileged access for centuries to many of France’s finest wines, and Claret soon became one of Scotland’s more cherished drinks of choice. The Vaults in Leith were used for wine storage from the 15th century. Wine was shipped in wooden barrels and then had to be clarified and bottled. Sand and seaweed for glass production were readily available in Leith, and a booming glass manufacturing industry evolved in Leith (from 1682), ultimately specialising in wine and whisky bottles (Leith Glassworks in Salamander Street). This helped Leith secure an important role within the international wine trade throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Over 1 million bottles per week were produced in the 1770s.

Port and sherry arrived from Spain and Portugal. Timber was imported from Norway which was easier than bringing it down over land from the north of Scotland. From the Hanseatic League countries Leith imported wheat, flour, rye, and malt as well as wine, liquors and German beer, later also iron and wood for military engines and castle repairs.