Page last modified on: 22 Jan 2013
Scotland's historical links with Veere
Throughout the coastal towns and villages of France, Belgium, Scandinavia and the Baltic States are to be found almost forgotten historical links with Scotland. One of the least known to Scots perhaps, but not to the Dutch is the link with the picturesque little town of Veere.
Veere is in Zeeland, near Middelburg on the now landlocked ‘island’ of Walcheren. It has a small picturesque harbour, which once gave direct access to the North Sea. Old fortifications have defined its layout, dominated by the huge Church of Our Lady (Grote Kerk) and by the elegant Late Gothic Town Hall. Many buildings recall a prosperous period in the town’s history when it was the centre of the wool trade with Scotland and Scottish merchants lived here.
In the 12th century, wool production in Scotland and England began to outstrip domestic demand, so the Cistercian monks of Melrose exported Scottish wool dutyfree to Flanders. This right was formalised in 1407 by a decree of the Duke of Burgundy which created the office of Conservator of Scottish Privileges in the Low Countries. Huge amounts of wool were exported for manufacture into cloth in the Low Countries, France and German towns on the North and the Baltic Seas.
Founded as a fishing port in 1296, Veere soon made contact with Scottish ports and exchanged all kinds of goods. At this time, Scottish wool was exported to Bruges, but when the River Zwin silted up the ports of entry, Damme and Sluis, could no longer be navigated. Despite all the efforts of Bruges to retain the Scottish Wool Staple the Conservator of Scottish Privileges, Sir Alexander Napier, eventually transferred his Office and Staple Court to Middelburg in 1518. Another factor in this move was the growing pressure from Spain and France to assert the Roman Catholic rite in Flanders. When this pressure began to be felt in Middelburg, the Staple was again moved in 1541 to Veere, where the local people sympathised with the Calvinist views of the Scottish trading community.
The Staple Contract granted Veere a monopoly on importing, storing and trading Scottish goods in the Netherlands.
The VeereScotland ties had been strengthened by the marriage in 1444 between Wolfert VI of Borssele, Lord of Veere, and Mary Stuart, the daughter of the Scottish king James I and Joan Beaufort. Mary died in 1465 and was buried in the Grote Kerk. The links between the Stuarts and the Netherlands continued with the marriage of Prince William of Orange (Marquis of Veere) to the daughter of James VI.
The Scottish traders (who came mainly from Edinburgh, Perth, Culross, St. Andrews, Dundee and Aberdeen) received several privileges in the town they called Campvere. The Scots’ ships were given preferential treatment and they had their own taxation and legal system. The ‘Admiral’s Court’ dealt with international maritime law, such as in 1528 when the city of Edinburgh appealed to the Lord of Veere for justice in the case of a dispossessed Scottish skipper. The ‘Court of the Lord Conservator’ dispensed justice independently in both civil and criminal cases to all who lived under the Staple Contract. In an historical account of the Staple, the Deputy Conservator, James Stuart, wrote in 1749 that ‘the Scots’ Privileges in the Netherlands are the most honourable that were ever granted to any Nation in that, or perhaps any other Country.’
|The Scots had their own ‘dutyfree’ inn and water supply, dug in 1531 to supply the wool merchants with 40,000 gallons of good water; the elegant Tudorstyle building can still be seen and continued to supply the needs of the people of Veere until 1931. Housing was also put at the Scots’ disposal. The so called ‘Scottish Houses’ are two of the buildings occupied by traders that have been preserved. One, ‘Het Lammeken’, (‘The Little Lamb’ a reference to the wool trade) was probably built in 1539 by a Scot named Joos Olivers. ‘De Struys’ dates from 1561 and was originally the mirror image of ‘Het Lammeken’, but over the years extensive alterations have been made. The Scots not only lived in these houses but also used them as business premises. Nowadays they are preserved as a museum; in the future an exhibition of the Scots story will be opened.||
In 1612 the Scottish community was given the right to establish a chapel with a graveyard and to appoint ministers and elders. This was the first Scottish Kirk established on foreign soil and linked directly with the General Assembly in Edinburgh. Its first minister was Alexander MacDuff, who took up his charge in 1614. Four engraved silver communion cups, made by a local silversmith, were in use from 1620 to 1798. In 1875 they were offered for sale as ‘old silver’ and bought by a wealthy landowner, who presented them to Manchester Cathedral in 1893, where they remain. Veere thus became in the 15th and 16th centuries the main port for Scottish commerce with Flanders, Holland and Brabant. Wool was the major import, next to coal, hides, whisky, flax, grain and fish. Exported to Scotland were cloth, tiles, leather, brassware, wines and spirits. There is a reference to a ‘very good, tame lion’, which was sent to the Scottish king as a gift from the people of Veere!
Evidence for a settled Scottish community is provided by the story of Sir Thomas Cunningham, who was born in Veere in 1604 and lived there all his life, becoming both Scottish Conservator and Mayor.
The Napoleonic period saw the end of the wool trade and the Scottish Privileges. The Scottish Staple was based on privileges which did not accord with the principles of égalité espoused by the new French influenced Batavian Republic. With the coming of free trade, Veere’s prosperity and wealth had already declined. In 1798 the Scottish community in Veere had dwindled to 15 souls; the Kirk was closed and the minister, Rev. James Likly of Aberdeen, was expelled. The elders wrote to the Presbytery in Edinburgh: ‘How much we now regret the loss of public worship in our own language, the dispersion of our congregation and the loss of our Pastor, so justly esteemed and respected by us (...)’.
The 1st of December 1799 saw the cancellation of the Scottish Staple Contract. All persons under the former jurisdiction of the Scottish Court had to leave the Republic so the Scots quit Veere and returned to their own country. The Scottish church was demolished in 1837 and remains of it could be seen until 1950. It is hoped that the foundations will be incorporated into an extension of the Dutch Reformed Church, to be built in about a year’s time.
The title of ‘Honorary Conservator of the Scottish Privileges in the Low Countries’ was revived when Veere celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1996; the title was granted to Mrs Winifred Ewing, Member of the European Parliament.
Appropriately it was the Scots of the 52nd (Lowland) Division who liberated Veere in November 1944, and this event was commemorated with the unveiling of a memorial in November 1998 attended by invited Scottish Veterans.
Dutch archaeologist, Christina Polderman and Veere town archivist Peter Blom have founded a Scotland-Veere ‘Stichting’ (organization) to foster closer links. They are also interested in exchanging records of the medieval trade with Scottish historians with a view to a future exhibition.
Text : Christina N. Polderman, Secretary Scotland - Veere Organization
David Paterson, Director of DA Study Tours in Culross which runs tours to Veere.
Published in the Scottish Local History Journal, vol. 48, Spring 2000.