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Scottish Trade By Sea

For most of the 18th century Scottish shipbuilding was located mainly on the east coast, supplying the needs of a flourishing trade with Scandinavia, the Baltic and the German states. Wooden ships were built at many locations, in small harbours and even on the shore.

In 1794 there were two shipbuilders at work in the small West Harbour at Dysart in Fife, one established in 1764 and the second in 1778. They were employing 45 men and had built 74 ships with a total displacement weight of 8634 tons. Timber for building was imported, the crooked timbers for the ships' ribs from Hamburg and Bremen, and the oak planking from Danzig, (now Gdansk). In Dysart's own 25 ships and in foreign-owned vessels coal was exported to Copenhagen, Gothenburg and Scottish coastal towns, and linen cloth to Leith. Timber was imported from the Baltic, oatmeal and flour from Leith, and bricks, tiles, cheese and butter from Aberdeen.

Only royal burghs were allowed to conduct foreign trade in medieval times. Many of the burghs were founded as ports on the east coast, the Clyde and the Solway Firth, where they were supported by inland agricultural areas and had ready access to the markets of Europe.

Much of the sea traffic was coastal. Ships often had to negotiate treacherous straits such as the Pentland Firth, especially when the trade with America opened up. Before 1780 there were about 50 coal-fired lighthouses round the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Six were in Scotland, including the well known one on the Isle of May at the entrance to the Firth of Forth. Most of the lighthouses were privately owned and supported by taxes paid by shipping which used local harbours.

Scottish engineers were making a name for themselves in the canal, bridge, road and railway construction that was revolutionizing land transport. They also rose to the technical challenges of creating a lighthouse service and providing secure harbours of refuge.

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