Skottehandelen – the Scottish timber trade with Norway

Peter and Maria Dundass (Petter Dass’ father and aunt) are traditionally thought to have sailed from Dundee for Norway in 1630. But what prompted them to leave Scotland? Did they flee Scotland for religious reasons, as Norwegian sources suggest, or was it simply the handshake of trade that enticed them to the Hanseatic port of Bergen? Or - with typical Scots pragmatism - might they have left for a mixture of the two reasons? Without reliable documentary evidence it is only possible to speculate.

Skottetiden – Norway’s ‘Scottish period’

Norway’s ‘Scottish period’ was a period of close sea trade links, migration and intermarriage which lasted many centuries and was at its height in the C15 and C16. Typically, Scots came in search Norwegian timber, which they exchanged for grain and other Scottish commodities.

Dundee shipping lists

Between April and October 1630, for instance, over 30 landings of Norwegian timber are recorded in shipping lists for the port of Dundee. With a ship arriving from Norway on average once every week in the summer months, there was no shortage of transport for those like Peter and Maria Dundass wishing make the voyage to Norway.

At Dundee, on 8th June 1630, for instance, the ship Elspet arrived from Norroway and landed for James Prestone a typical Norwegian timber cargo of:

Steingis 2000, Deals 160, Nine ells 100, Knapholt 100, (Burne)wood 2 fathoms.

Vessels recorded at Dundee, such as Thomas Disheingtone’s Jonas, James Lychtone’s Moira, Patrick Hay’s Swift, George Knight’s Post, James Urquhart’s David, and Robert Forrester and his son’s Nightingell had plied this North Sea trade for many years. These ships too brought aik (oak) and firwood deals for building, stengs for barrel making, cart wheels and general use, and burnewood for fuel, and were regular visitors to Norwegian shores.

Some vessels, like the James, the Jonas, the Gift of God and the Nightingell made the sailing between Dundee and Norway several times in 1630 alone, thus taking advantage of the summer months for landings in the fjiords.

Dundee in 1630 was a cosmopolitan port. In that year ships and barks also arrived from Flanders with onions, from Zeland or Sjaelland with salt, from Stockholm with Osimund iron and lint, and from Bordeaux with wine (and an occasional ‘tun’ or ton of prunes!).

Emergency export ban on Scottish grain

In 1630 Scotland experienced a late and poor yielding harvest. The effects were devastating and caused the Scottish Privy Council to enact emergency powers:

Forasmekle as it hes pleased God to visite this kingdome with a most unseasonable, untymous and lait harvest so that the cornes hes beene universallie evill win and in manie parts of the countrie they ar not yet win, quhilks threatens not onlie ane extreme skarsetie of all kynde of grayne and corne bot ane extraordinarie dearth of the same, to the appearand wracke and undoing of manie poore families and hurt of all persons of whatsomever ranke and qualitie…

The Lords of Secreit Counsell… have tharefoir resolved… that there shall be ane strait restraint of exportatioun of all sort of cornes be sea or land for the yeere to come furth of this kingdom…

This strait restraint or export ban may have hurt the Norwegian timber trade since merchants wishing to buy wood in Norway were only allowed to exchange grain or victualls in payment of the price. Whether or not Peter Dundass (Petter Dass’ father) was directly involved in the timber trade, the downturn in Scottish burgh trade which the poor harvest and export ban brought with it must have made an impact on his merchanting activities.

Impact on Bergen or Birren grain trade

Bergen, known to Scots as Birren would certainly have felt immediately the impact of this emergency export ban – causing a temporary disequilibrium in the supply and demand for grain.

Petter Dass writing his Nordlands trompet some 40-50 years later alluded to the importance of Bergen as a source of victuals for his north Norwegian parishioners. Here they could buy Scottish grain - from the fertile lowlands of East Lothian, Angus and the Mearns, and Aberdeenshire - in exchange for cod:

For should the cod fail us, then what would we do?
We’d starve, and fail to fill our sailing ships too
go to Bergen with nothing to sell.
Oh cod-fish, you feed and help us every day.
In Bergen for grain you enable us to pay.
You are the poor Nordman's wealth.