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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Trade and Communications

Overseas Trade

By Irene Maver

Pre-Reformation Glasgow inevitably had European connections, given the religious bond between the diocese and the Papacy. The Scottish Crown's appeal to establish the University had been successful in 1451 partly because Pope Nicholas V acknowledged the town's position as a fruitful market centre, where "victuals are plentiful, and great store of other things pertaining to the use of man is found". Throughout the 15th century Glasgow was steadily rising as a commercial community and by the 1490s had secured the status of a free burgh, which meant that there were no longer restrictions on foreign merchants dealing with the town.

However, opportunities for promoting overseas trade initially had been slow to take off. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Scotland's eastern ports, such as Aberdeen, Berwick and Montrose, had benefited economically because of their proximity to the Continent. Although western ports consolidated trading links - notably with Ireland, England and, to a limited extent, France - because of their geographic location the scale of operations was small. Glasgow was doubly disadvantaged because of difficulties in navigating the notoriously shallow River Clyde, which often meant relying on the overland route for transporting merchandise to accessible sea-going ports, such as Irvine in the west and Bo'ness in the east. The assertively protectionist attitudes of Dumbarton merchants, who virtually monopolised the foreign trade of the Clyde, further prevented the Glaswegians from maximising their potential.

Yet the Clyde also had advantages, especially the abundant commodity of fish. William Elphinstone (d. 1486) was reputedly one of the town's first major entrepreneurial success stories in his cured salmon-exporting business to France. The arrangement was reciprocal as Elphinstone brought back salt, wine and luxury goods. The increasingly lucrative nature of overseas trade for the west of Scotland is demonstrated in the formal truce, called by Glasgow and Dumbarton merchants in 1499, to settle their long-standing squabble over overseas trading privileges. On the eve of the Scottish Reformation France was still the major European outlet for Glasgow goods, including fish, animal skins and woollen plaids. However, the Baltic ports, Flanders and Spain were also coming firmly into the town's trading orbit.

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