There is a charter in the parchment rolls of King John of England for the year 1199 in the Public Record Office at Kew. Historians had to look at the copy in London because the Dundee original, addressed to the burgesses of Earl David (of Huntingdon), had vanished, possibly as booty in the arms of the invading English forces during the Wars of Independence. Robert the Bruce eventually had to issue a Confirmation of Dundee's burgh privileges in 1327 because all official documents before that time could not be found. However, this scrap of evidence from 1199 tells us a great deal about Dundee as a maritime centre. It granted merchants from Dundee freedom from tolls in English ports except London, and was what we would today call a bulk trading agreement. It would have cost a lot of money to persuade the ungenerous King John (remember his temper at Runnymede?) to consider such a grant, and to pay his court officials to negotiate, draft and draw up the parchment. The Dundee merchants would have had to have been wealthy enough to make this investment, and to have had enough large seagoing ships by 1199 to make this negotiation worthwhile. So although Dundee celebrated its Octocentenary in 1991 to commemorate 800 years of documented recognition of burgh status, it must in fact have had ships and a trading base for a good part of the twelfth century.
The former District Council of Dundee had much satisfaction in advising Estonian local government on quality control in its developing food industry after its liberation from the Eastern bloc. Officials from both sides were delighted to be reminded that this was a relationship which was not new, but which had its roots in the middle ages and was only interrupted by The Great War. The surviving records of the burgh from this period are full of references to Dundee's trade with the Baltic and north Europe. In the Town Clerk's Notarial records for 1521, there is a rough copy of a birth brieve addressed to Cracow in the kingdom of Poland to confirm that the merchants Adam and David Mores were the sons, gotten in lawful matrimony, of the 'umqhile' or deceased Alexander Mores. The original, on parchment and written in Latin, would have acted as a letter of introduction and passport for their trading activity. Another entry in the same commonplace book for 1527 shows what rates of exchange in gold coin Nicholas Cant would pay at Leith or by his factor in Copenhagen. An interesting illumination when you consider that in 1527 payment in gold, whatever the coinage, was as universal as the impending introduction of the Euro 471 years later.
Brisk trading led to traffic jams; one entry in the burgh court books of 1560 is headed "anent lyeing at the schoir", otherwise parking your vessel tidily by the bulwarks so as to not cause obstruction to other traffic and damage to the wooden pierwork. The resulting fine, under the pain of £10 Scots, for those who disobeyed or who parked carelessly, would bum a hefty hole in any merchant's pocket.
This was the golden age of trading in Dundee, when the burgh was second only to Edinburgh in wealth and importance, and when Glasgow was a small cathedral town. The sacking by Cromwell's General Monck in 1651 changed all that forever. The men of military age in the town were literally decimated, all wealth was plundered, although it was rumoured that the Roundheads' ill gotten booty foundered at the bar of the Tay, where it may still lie like the Tobermory treasure. A view of Dundee by the Dutch engineer Slezer from the East in 1692 was considered, which showed a quiet view of the harbour, it took a long time for trade and shipping to recover, although even by the 1670ís there were indications that the traditional resilience of the burgh against adversity was shining through.
An entry in the Lockit Book for 16 March 1676 showed that John Marr, mariner, had been granted an honorary burgesship 'gratis' or free. This would be our present day equivalent of the Freedom of the City, and this was in recognition of the charting of the North Sea that Marr had carried out as a merchant skipper in his own time. His work was deeply appreciated by skippers beyond Dundee, who found his tireless attention to detail made their hazardous voyages much safer.
The prize exhibit of Dundee Museums, the brass Portuguese Astrolabe of 1555, is one of the finest examples of a navigational instrument to have survived in Europe, and has been copied by the maritime museum in Portugal. The manuscripts in the City Archives have helped to establish that it came to the town through trading links. Found by the late Jim Boyd, Curator, wrapped in paper at the bottom of a tea chest, the only clue of its provenance was the owner's stamp, "Andrew Smeaton'. Some clever detective work by Veronica Hartwich, now herself head of the Maritime Museum at Irvine, established that Andrew Smeaton had been made a burgess, or freeman, on 17th September 1670, and that he was a man in a hurry. The entry in the Town's Lockit Bulk shows that while the rest of the merchants on that day got their freedom through inheritance or marriage, Andrew Smeaton paid cash down. His entry was written hurriedly at the end of the session, as though he had just strode in through the door with his seaboots on. A later entry in the Shipping Register seven years later shows what Andrew made his money out of; "Andro Smetton, maister of the ship called the Unitie, of Dundee, loaded with salt from Rotchelie...'. This tells us that Andrew was trading in French waters, and that he bought the instrument when it was already 120 years old, when it would still have been highly regarded as a working, sturdy and reliable instrument.
Maritime trade could not have survived without the harbour, and there are many documents relating to this, ranging from the royal grants of rights, to the entries in the burgh court books in the 16th century, and to the formation of a separate administration in the form of the Dundee Harbour Commissioners in the 19th century. Slides of a legal case in 1813, when the Town Council was sued for negligence in allowing an Aberdeen galliot to run onto quay repairs, were compared to the feverish activity two years later, when the new Harbour Commissioners were pressing their engineer, one Thomas Telford Esq, then working at Inverness, to concentrate on Dundee harbour works. By 1838, Leslie, also famous for his water engineering, was building further extensions, and the audience agreed that his meticulous coloured drawings of lock gates and machinery were works of art in themselves.
Local firms, such as the Dundee, Perth & London Shipping Company, were instrumental in using the facilities of the harbour and in developing the technology of the steam engine to improve reliability and profitability. Indeed it was a tribute to that firm's tenacity and fexibility that as the DP&L it still thrives on charter travel and factoring. A painting of an elegant sailing vessel of 1826 on the London trip was compared to the chilling insurance photographs of the devastation to the DP&L Thames terminal after the blitz in WWII.
Dundee as Juteopolis was a world leader not only in processing jute but in making the machinery to process the jute, and now, alas, it is a fading memory that Dundee made the vessels and the engines that transported it. Shipyards like Gouriays, Stephens, and the Caledon turned out an impressive array of general and specialised ships that travelled all over the world. Ship plans, called general arrangements, from Gouriays and the Caledon showed river paddle steamers for South America, gunboats for Turkey and Fifies for the Tay. Photographs snowed gleaming engine rooms in publicity shots, which were probably kept as proudly gleaming in use as they were on trials.
As the final chapter in jute production was about to close, and the excellent theme park facilities in Verdant Works showed textile work as past history, there seemed a possibility that maritime activity was heading in the same direction. However, with the Frigate Unicom and Discovery Point it is hoped that the timeless nature of the Tay and the sea, which gave birth to Dundee, will continue to bring it visitors, trade and new horizons.