The Scottish Early Modern Burgh

The urban history of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Scotland is in a sense a tale of two cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow. The merchant princes of Edinburgh – like William Birnie who died in the Netherlands' staple port of Veere in 1569 leaving over £29,000 Scots (about 66,500 sterling) or William MacMoran, the richest merchant of his generation, with shares in nine ships and a fortune of over 637,000 Scots (by then worth £3,000 sterling) when he was shot dead by an Edinburgh schoolboy in 1596 – have been described as the success story of sixteenth-century Scotland. Theirs was the platform for the more spectacular fortunes of Edinburgh merchants early in the following century – like the monopolist and manufacturer Patrick Wood, whose testament inventory of 1638 revealed investments worth £100,000 Scots in shipping, salt-panning, manufactories like rope works and trading ventures stretching from the Baltic to the Canaries but also debts to match; or like the doyen of the mercantile establishment, William Dick of Braid, who lent and lost over £130,000 Scots to the cause of the Covenant.

Glasgow has been called by T.C. Smout the boom-town of seventeenth-century Scotland. In 1556 it was early eleventh in the ranking list of burghs paying national taxation. By 1594 it was fifth, by 1649 fourth and by 1660 second only to Edinburgh. By the Union of 1707 Glasgow had consolidated this position, paying four times as much tax as its nearest rival, Aberdeen. The rise of Glasgow in the seventeenth century was all the more spectacular because many of its rivals, like Dundee and Perth, went into relative if not absolute decline after the Restoration as they began to lose out to new patterns of trade – with Spain and the Americas – as well as the concentration of the old east-coast trading routes – to the Baltic, Netherlands and France – on Edinburgh's port of Leith.

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