‘Plantation in the Hebrides: the Dutch in Stornoway, 1628-31’

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On 2 December, the Centre was delighted to welcome Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich to discuss ‘Plantation in the Hebrides: the Dutch in Stornoway, 1628-31’, which continued the ‘Scotland and Europe’ series. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

The plantation in question was not one of foreign aggression, but instead it was a Clan Mackenzie endeavour, and the Dutch were invited to develop the Mackenzies’ holdings in Lewis and Wester Ross. In comparison to the Dutch involvement in Shetland at the beginning of the seventeenth century, their dealings in Lewis were a ‘sideshow’, yet still enlightening for the themes of Gaelic entrepreneurship and interactions with Europe.

A common perception of Scottish Gaeldom, even in modern historiography, is that of isolation and peripherality, but this lecture argued that Lewis was on the ‘motorway’ of lucrative trade in the seventeenth century. The English Channel was often closed off to Dutch traders or plagued by privateers, and so Dutch merchants had to take the ‘stormier northern road’, past Lewis, to reach the West and East Indies and the Mediterranean.

The Golden Bed of Brahan serves to emphasise the connections between the Mackenzies and the Dutch, and indeed ‘global interconnectedness’. The bed, manufactured in the Dutch East Indies, was Colin Mackenzie of Seaforth’s wedding present from Daniel Mackenzie, who had left Scotland in 1609, married a Dutch woman and later became a naturalised Dutch citizen.

The Mackenzies were desperate to turn a profit in their recently acquired lordship of Lewis, which had cost them a whopping 78,000 merks. They brought in the Dutch from Zeeland to stimulate economic activity, particularly the fishing, timber and iron-works industries, and ultimately aspired to establish a prosperous royal burgh in Stornoway.

Composite image of Blaeu's map of Scotland, 1634. (NLS, Marischal 2)
Composite image of Blaeu’s map of Scotland, 1634. (NLS, Marischal 2)

The contract between Colin Mackenzie, earl of Seaforth, and the Zeeland merchants in 1629 has at least fifteen stipulations from the latter, including the installation of their own magistrate, securing a monopoly on fishing and cattle processing, and the creation of a fort on the isle in Stornoway bay (with a cannon). Shared religious faith was an area of clear common-ground between the Mackenzies and the Dutch – both were devout Calvinists.

According to Captain John Dymes writing in 1630, the Dutch had made ‘great and extraordinary gaine’ from the fishing in Lewis. Dymes was dismissive of the fishing techniques of Gaels, stating they are ‘so farr from haveinge the true industry of killinge that fish, that one boate with our Newfoundland men will kill more in a daie than they doe with one of theire boates in a yeare’.

Ultimately the Dutch venture was short-lived due to opposition from the other royal burghs in Scotland and English competition. The English and Dutch had an antagonistic relationship, which eventually led to war in the 1650s. Alarmed at the loss of guns, timber and fishing rights to their greatest competitor, the English intervened in Lewis and Wester Ross. Nevertheless, the Dutch presence in Lewis should not be underestimated. This is shown elegantly by Blaeu’s map of Scotland in 1634 (pictured above; ship on left) which features a ship flying a Dutch flag in The Minch.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our series continues next Tuesday 9 December with the Ninth Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture, which this year will be given by Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich, of Celtic & Gaelic, in the University of Glasgow. He will be speaking on the fruits of the research project for which he has been chief researcher, “Sgeul na Gàidhlig / Gaelic at the University of Glasgow” — and on the topic of “The first 450 years (1451-1901)”. This will be held in the Lecture Room of the Sir Alexander Stone Building (16 University Gardens) at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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