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The Old Scottish Wine Trade

Scottish CultureScotland HistoryThe Old Scottish Wine Trade

This has not been edited from its original print.

In such documents as we have concerning the mediaeval trade of Scotland, wine figures at an early date and appears to have constituted one of the principal articles of importation. In the Acts of the Scots Parliament there is an “Assize of Wine according to the Constitution of King David”; and from the prices indicated by it there is reason to believe that the consumption was not inconsiderable as far back as the twelfth century. In accordance with the scale fixed by this enactment, the proportionate rates between the “lagena”, which was presumably the gallon, and the “dolium ”, were to be as one penny to ten shillings, so that when the latter cost twenty shillings the former was to be sold at twopence. That wine was not a scarce commodity may be inferred from the fact that a puncheon was to be paid to the Guild of Berwick as a fine for the violation of certain rules laid down by it. And further, testimony as to the existence of a retail trade is borne by the quaint law which provided that if the wine imported into the country were to be sold in taverns, the cask was to be the King’s. And, in the instructions drawn up for the holding of the “Chalmerlan’s Ayr ”, we find evidence that the necessity for something in the nature of a licensing court had been felt and provided for. That official was to “challenge” wine taverners as to four distinct points – selling wine without its having been tasted; selling it in measures of their own that had not been duly tested; selling it without having had the price fixed by the tasters; and mixing “corrupt wine’’with wholesome wine.

In the reign of James I, the demand for wine had reached such proportions that, in order to secure an adequate supply, an Act was passed, in 1431, by which it was required that half the price of the salmon exported should be paid in Gascon wine. That there was at this time a trade in Rhine wine also, is implied in the enactment of 1436, that “na man of Scotlande by at Flemyngs of the Dam, in Scotlande, any kynde of wyne under the payne of eschet thereof”. The reason for this prohibition was that shipment at any port but Campvere was an infringement of the privilege which it enjoyed as the Staple, but which was not always respected by Sluys and “the Dam”, from which German wines could be conveniently smuggled out and shipped to Scotland.

The special legislation called for by the wines of Bordeaux and the Charente district indicates both the wider popularity which they enjoyed and the greater importance which they consequently acquired as an article of commerce. But, if they were more within the reach of the general public, there were other growths that found favour with those whose means allowed them to indulge in choicer brands. Evidence of this is to be found, not in the Acts of Parliament or of the Privy Council, but in the Exchequer Rolls and Household Books that have come down to us. From these we learn that after Mary of Gueldres had become Queen of Scotland she continued to favour the Burgundian wines to which she had been accustomed; and that Beaune was her favourite vintage. There are also entries referring to the purchase of Malmsey, which the traders of Genoa, Venice, and Pisa brought from Candia and Cyprus, and with which they supplied the chief ports of Western Europe; of Muscadel, the name given to several kinds of sweet and strong Italian wines; of Bastard, a Corsican wine that was taken with honey; and of Spanish wines, especially those of Alicant.

In 1482, the Legislature turned its attention to the fraudulent methods by which unscrupulous merchants sought to increase their gains. It was ordained that none of the lieges should bring “corrupt or mixed wine into the realm”. If such should happen to be sent, no man was either to sell it or tap it after it had been condemned by the bailies and tasters. It was to be returned to the shipper. No less a penalty than that of death was attached to the infringement of this early law against adulteration. And the same punishment was to be inflicted on anyone who should be discovered mixing wine after importation.

That the retail trade continued to increase during the next quarter of a century seems to be indicated by the Act of 1503, by which persons not dwelling in burghs were forbidden to sell wines. Thirty two years later, under JamesV, a special measure was adopted, from which it is to be gathered that the importation of wine into Scotland did not yet meet the requirements of the population and still needed encouragement. Prior to that it had been forbidden to send staple goods out of the country between St. Simon and Jude’s Day and Candlemas, that is, between the 28th of October and the 2nd of February. This restriction, a kind of close time which the scant resources of the country had made necessary, was removed to the extent that authorization was given “ to send any kind of merchandise forth of the realm in the time foresaid in any ships that brought in salt or wine”.

In 1540, under the same King, a noteworthy Act was passed by Parliament. In terms of one of its clauses, provosts and bailies, besides being appointed to fix the retail prices of wine, were constituted official merchants of it in wholesale quantities, and no one, whether freeman or unfreeman, was to buy from any but them unless it were directly from the importer. By another clause it was further ordained that no man was to buy wine until the King, through his officers, had bought up as much of it as it pleased him to take. And this privilege of pre-emption was to be shared by “ all noblemen of the realm, such as prelates, barons, and other gentlemen ”. During the next sixty years this pre-emptive provision called forth numerous enactments on the part of the Privy Council. Some of them, such as those of 1564 and 1565, were merely a repetition of it, but were couched in terms that implied considerable dissatisfaction on the part of the lesser people, as well as general laxity on the part of the municipal authorities in the enforcement of an unpopular law. But, in spite of all enactments, the royal household was so “empty and desolate of wines”, in 1566, that the Lords singled out two Edinburgh merchants, Richard Anderson and Robert Johnstone, and commanded them to deliver respectively, four tuns and seven and a half tuns to the Queen’s butler. For these they were to receive “good and thankful payment”, at the rate of “ fiftie pundis, money of this realm ”, for each tun.

In 1569, there occurred an incident which showed how jealously the burghs guarded the monopoly conferred upon them by the Act of 1503. As a free burgh of Regality, the Abbey of Holyroodhouse claimed and exercised the privilege of “ selling of wine for serving of the lieges of the realm ”. The right of the Abbey to put itself on a footing of equality with Edinburgh does not appear to have been admitted by the latter, for there was at the time, “process depending before the Lords of our Sovereign’s Session thereanent ”. But the law’s delay did not suit the magistrates of the city; and three of the bailies resolved to take the matter into their own hands. Accompanied by a number of the community of their burgh, they proceeded to the Canongate, which, together with Leith and the Barony of Broughton, constituted the Regality of Holyrood, and there, in spite of remonstrances and protests, broke and cast down the “ senyeis ” of wine. This unjustifiable aggression on the overbearing neighbours, was brought under the notice of the Regent and the Privy Council by Adam, Bishoo of Orkney, who was then Commendator of the Abbey. The course adopted by the Council suggests a desire on its part to placate the masterful municipality of the capital rather than to do justice to the lesser Regality and to its claim to be independent of “any jurisdiction inferior under the Prince”. It is recorded that my Lord Regent’s Grace and Lords of Secret Council ordained and commanded both the said parties “to desist and cease from all attempting of anything against others by violence or way of deed (assault) in time coming ”, and “ to pursue all their actions, causes, and controversies by order of law and justice”.

In 1576, the privilege of pre-emption was restricted to the King and the Regent; and, in the following year, even their right was limited to the purchase of one tun out of every ten imported. But even this concession did not bring about satisfactory results, for, though the importers might be willing to supply their royal customer, they objected to his dilatoriness in settling their accounts. Some of them went so far as to refuse to replenish his cellars, even though that was declared to be “ane matter sa necessar as that it could not be differrit or myslippinit ”, unless it were for ready money, or, if credit were to be given, at a higher rate, and “ with assurance for payment thereof”. This led to the passing of a new law which authorized the royal “simleir”, or butler, not only to visit, taste, and uptake wines to the furnishing of His Majesty’s house, upon reasonable prices, but also to break open “doors of lockfast houses and ‘lumes’ in whatsomever burghs and to search all ships in whatsomever havens and harbours, and use our Sovereign Lord’s keys to that effect”. Besides being resented by the importers and wine dealers, this arbitrary and oppressive ordinance gave offence to the town councils of the chief seaport towns, and the Privy Council had to threaten pains and penalties before they yielded an unwilling compliance. In 1586, another equally high-handed measure was passed. It was ordered that a macer or other officer of arms should arrest all wines imported, belonging to whatsoever person, the same to remain unsold in whole or in part till so much thereof was “waillit, taistit, tnarkeit, and intromettit with ” by the King’s “simleir”, as should be thought necessary for the use of the royal household, “ upoun ressonabell pryceis to be payit thairfore” As to the manner in which James fulfilled his promises of settlement, the Acts of the Privy Council also supply information. Under date of 1592, they contain an entry to the effect that Adam Anderson, burgess of Perth, should stand caution for the Provost and Bailies of the city, that they should pay to the Provost and Bailies of Edinburgh, the sum of three hundred and forty pounds, as their part of the contrlbution imposed upon the Burghs collectively for the thirty tuns of wine advanced by the said Magistrates of Edinburgh for furnishing the King’s house in January, 1589.

If it was found difficult to supply the wants of the Sovereign, the lieges themselves were naturally even worse off than he. From the middle of the sixteenth century onwards, there were published at comparatively frequent intervals a number of enactments which all had for their main object the “suppressing of dearth of wines”. With this in view, on February 1, 1551, Parliament fixed the prices of Bordeaux and Rochelle wines, They were not to exceed fifteen pounds to twenty pounds per tun, or eightpence to tenpence per pint, for the former; and twelve to sixteen pounds per tun, or sixpence to eightpence per pint, for the latter. The Act likewise forbade the mixing of old and new wine, as well as the addition of water. Nor might the newly-imported wine he hoarded or concealed. The law required it to be put up in taverns and vaults and sold at the prices fixed by the authorities. Perth was permitted to raise these by twopence per quart.

In spite of all this legislation, and in spite, too, of the “ daily ” importation at both the east and the west seas, it was found that, owing to the action of forestalled, prices continued to increase and that the dearth remained. To remedy this abuse the Privy Council, in 1552, caused proclamation to be made in all burghs that no wines arriving in the havens or ports of the east and northland seas should be bought at any dearer price than seventeen pounds the tun of Bordeaux wine and thirteen pounds the tun of Rochelle wine; or should be sold at any higher rate than eightpence the pint of Bordeaux and sixpence the pint of Rochelle wine. In the west sea ports the highest price at which Bordeaux wine might be bought was two pounds less per tun, but no reduction was made in respect of Rochelle wine. Confiscation not only of all the wine which had been the subject of an illegal bargain, but of all their movable goods also, was the penalty to be inflicted on both buyers and sellers who disregarded the Act.

An explanation of the differential tariff, by which most of the enactments give the west country consumers so marked an advantage over those on the east coast, is suggested by the editor of the eleventh volume of the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer. “Perhaps”, he says, “one reason why the price of wine was thus regulated, was that English pirates were in the habit of frequenting the West Coast and selling wine there at an absurdly small figure. Randolph, the English Ambassador, writes to Cecil in October, 1564, that an English pirate called White was selling wine ‘ better cheape ’ than his correspondent could drink London beer in his own house. was probably with the view of preventing such practices that the proclamation was now made, so as to give the public no inducement to buy from the pirate rather than from the ordinary trader.” But, apart from any such cause, the shorter voyage from either the Gironde or the Charente ports to the west coast of Scotland, as compared with that to the harbours on the Forth, seems sufficient to account for the difference in prices and to justify it.

An ordinance published by the Privy Council in 1562 indicates an important modification in the Lords’ views concerning the wine trade. The first cause of it was their “understanding” that the fine coined money of the realm in both gold and silver was being carried out of the country by traders generally, but more especially by those who brought home wine from Bordeaux, the Charente district, and other parts beyond the seas; and that in consequence of this exportation good money was growing scant, and the price of all kinds of victuals daily increasing by reason of this scarcity; They argued that, if the trade were restricted wines would fall in price, and the money obtained for them be bestowed upon wares within the realm, with the desirable result that the good money would remain amongst the lieges, and the cost of all kinds of commodities decrease daily. To further these objects they again fixed a tariff of charges. The fact of their bringing them down to very nearly what they had been in 1552 shows that there must have been a very considerable rise during the decade to justify complaints and to call for official interference. A drastic remedy for the dearth of money was provided by a further clause of the same Act. It obliged foreign importers of wine to spend what they had obtained for it on other merchandise within the realm, and it forbade their carrying away “any kind of money, gold or silver, coined or uncoined ”, under pain of confiscation. In order to secure the obviously difficult execution of this new law, searchers were appointed and instructed to “search diligently at every port and haven within the kingdom.

By1566 there had been an advance to thirty-six and thirty-two pounds per tun, and to sixteenpence and fourteenpence per pint, of Bordeaux and Charente wines respectively. In subsequent years, however, the rise was far more considerable as well as less gradual. Thus, in 1578 Bordeaux wine cost fifty pounds per tun and two shillings per pint;but the retail price had leapt to three shillings and fourpence in 1585, to double that amount ten years later, and to eight shillings per pint in 1598. In the last year of the century, however, there was a slight diminution, for at that date Sir John Carmichael obtained a commission from His Majesty against such inhabitants of the Burgh of Dumfries as sold wine at higher prices than five shillings a pint. But when almost immediately after this a tax of twenty-one pounds per tun was imposed “ for the help and supply of His Highness’s honourable necessities”, an increase of twelve pence per pint was sanctioned. In consequence of this the price of wine at the beginning of the seventeenth century was almost exactly twelve times as much as it had been fifty years earlier.

(LA Barbe 1919)