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Digital Subscriptions > History Scotland > History Scotland Sep -Oct 2019 > Arbroath’s mariners, shipbuilders, merchants and manufacturers

Arbroath’s mariners, shipbuilders, merchants and manufacturers

Dr D.C. McWhannell explores the economic fortunes of modern Arbroath, discovering that the effects of Scotland’s mercantile and industrial expansion since the mid-18th century made themselves felt even in this small Angus town
The barque Randolph painted by Richard Ball Spencer. She was launched on 24 February 1864

A rbroath is today probably best known for its abbey, the declaration of Arbroath and the Arbroath smokie. What is perhaps less well known is that Arbroath was once an important maritime, textile and engineering centre. Mariners, shipbuilders, merchants and manufacturers in Arbroath interacted in creating wealth, employment and prosperity.

A particular illustration of such interaction can be seen in the lives of two Arbroath families linked by marriage. The founders of both families were incomers to Arbroath, the Whannel family most probably arriving from Perthshire. The Keith family came, via Dundee, from Aberdeenshire. The Whannel family produced a son, James, who became a master mariner and ship-owner and a daughter, Hannah, who married George Keith, a successful plumber, businessman and provost of Arbroath. George and Hannah in turn had a son, James, who became a famous engineer and industrialist based in London. The interactions of these families – explored in the textbox on page 38 – illustrate the wider social and economic dynamics of the Angus town in which they lived

Arbroath’s harbour and trade

Arbroath’s early prosperity was closely linked to its harbour. When Arbroath abbey was founded in 1178 by William the Lion, king of Scots, the abbey was given the freedom to found a burgh, build a harbour and hold a weekly market. According to the Statistical Account of Scotland, compiled between 1791 and 1799, the earliest known ‘harbour’ was located at the end of the east causeway and built in 1191. In effect it was just a wooden pier. The earliest true harbour, known as the ‘abbot’s harbour’, was constructed and maintained by the abbot, John Gedy, under an agreement drawn up with the burgesses in 1394. The ‘abbot’s harbour’ was constructed at Danger Point. It was destroyed by a gale in 1706. By 1725 another much improved harbour had been built a little to the west of the earlier one. This new harbour was further enlarged and improved in 1839, facilitating the importation of increasing quantities of flax. The present day harbour was begun in 1842, with the wet dock added in 1877.

During the 1745-46 Jacobite rebellion, Arbroath harbour was an important place for landing men and supplies from France

In the 17th century, vessels based at, or visiting, Arbroath are likely to have been small and probably carrying grain to Leith while bringing in coal and salt from the Forth. By 1742 Arbroath possessed twelve vessels of 50 to 120 tons burthen. In 1781 this had increased to eighteen vessels and by 1791 there were 32 Arbroath vessels employing some 160 seamen.

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Don't miss Sep/Oct History Scotland and the launch of our Insider BONUS CONTENT! Highlights of this packed issue include: · The Sobieski Stuarts – new research on the remarkable brothers who popularised tartan and fooled a generation with their book Vestiarium Scoticum · New findings relating to the Traprain Law hoard – discovered in East Lothian 100 years ago this year · The Aberdeen Doctors – six men who dared to oppose the National Covenant · Lords of the Isles: a striking reconstruction of a medieval Islay power base * HISTORY SCOTLAND INSIDER: Exclusive interview, new video on the north east slavery legacy, exclusive discounts from heritage partners.​