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19 September 2014
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Scotland in Europe
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Belgian TapestryThe world we live in today: of finance, capital flows, international trade, economic unpredictability and scientific advance, was created in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries with the expansion of European trade. In Scotland, it wasn't facilitated simply through the efforts of royal courts or clergy, but largely through the enterprise and labour of ordinary Scots. For the most part those people have left little trace in the historical records but their legacy lies all around us.

Over 600 years ago, Scotland lay at the edge of a developing European economy, and life on the edge made many Scots enthusiastic traders and travellers in search of the opportunities for a better life. The entry port to Europe for many of them was Bruges in Flanders, now in modern Belgium. From there they flowed onto the continent to trade goods, find a job or take up the opportunities of warfare and university education.

To buy expensive luxuries the Scots exported a commodity they had in abundance: wool. The centre of the medieval wool trade was Bruges, where raw wool was woven into fine cloth and luxurious tapestries. From across Europe merchants came to buy Flemish cloth and knew to ask for Melrose wool by name.

Scottish Staple
In the 15th century, Bruges was the Scottish staple port. Staple status gave Bruges a monopoly in the Scots trade of certain products in return for privileges being extended to Scottish merchants.
This connection was of tremendous importance. Initially wool was the Scots’ primary export, with the livelihoods of thousands of shepherds, lairds and landowners dependent on the market in Bruges. Later in the 16th century the wool trade declined and the Scots exported other raw materials such as coal, salt, malt, hides, skins, tallow and salmon. Then, as the harbour at Bruges silted up, the focus of Scots trade moved north to the Dutch ports of Middleburg and Veere, with Veere gaining staple status in 1541.

The Scots Trading Diaspora
This European lifeline wasn’t restricted to the staple ports of the Low Countries. Scots merchant communities were established across Northern Europe in Bordeaux and Dieppe in France, Bergen in Norway, Mälmo in Sweden, Elsinore and Copenhagen in Denmark, into the Baltic Sea at Danzig, and even as far afield as Russia.
Where ever they went the Scots stuck together and established their own trading networks, as well as their own Kirks, often with altars dedicated to St Ninian (the first Scottish Saint).

In the 17th century, Poland was described as ‘Scotland’s America’. Contemporaries estimated that 15,000-40,000 Scots were settled in Poland mainly as merchants, peddlers and craftsmen. This mass migration is largely forgotten in modern Scotland, though is remembered still in Poland. The names of the descendants of Scots immigrants are still to be found in Polish phone books, such as Ramzy from Ramsay, or Czarmas from Chalmers. Danzig still has many Scottish street names and villages in the hinterland are named after the Scots - Dzkocja, Skotna Góra, Szotniki or Szoty.

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