Annette Hardie – Stoffelen

The army which William the Conqueror ferried across the Channel in 1066, to wrest the English crown from King Harold, contained many men who were not Norman. William was married to Matilda the eldest daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders and William’s continental allies were Flemish. The prosperity of Flanders had caused a number of the ancient “comtés” around her perimeter to attach themselves to the new power. Among them were Hainaut, Mons, Leuven, Aalst/Gent and Guines. Boulogne, with its own subsidiary “comtés” of Lens, Hesdin and St Pol, was also allied to Flanders, as was Ponthieu, away on the Norman border. All were linked by close personal ties to the comital family of the Baldwins. All regarded themselves, and were regarded by others, as Flemish. All were ruled in 1066 by men directly descended from Charlemagne.

The Flemings had the right wing of the Norman battle formation at Hastings, under their liege lord, the man whose banner they had followed there, Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. Whereas the Normans had no arms— bearing tradition at the time, Flanders had inherited all the armorial panoplies of Charlemagne and indeed the Bayeux Tapestry shows the banners of Boulogne, Senlis, St Pol, Aalst, Hesdin, all of them heraldic devices used in 11th-century Flanders descended directly from Charlemagne.

William the Conqueror made vast rewards to his Flemish followers. They were given many manors in England and his protégés were also, most of them, his wife’s kinsmen. He had arranged a marriage between his niece Judith, daughter of his sister Adèle and Count Lambert of Lens (a “comté” lying between Bethune and Douai), and the last English nobleman, Waltheof, only surviving son and heir of the mighty Siward, Earl of Northumbria. After Waltheof’s execution, Judith’s elder daughter, Maud was made the heiress of her father’s immense Midlands possessions and these were passed to Maud’s husband, Simon de Senlis, a cadet of the great house of Vermandois (the house of Vermandois was sprung from Charlemagne’s second son Pepin). Simon de Senlis died in 1111 and Maud, his widow, took as her second husband Malcolm Canmore’s youngest son, David and when he ascended the Scottish throne in 1124 as David I, Maud went north with him as his queen,- followed, inevitably, by a large retinue of her Flemish kinsmen. They received large estates in Scotland and it was thus that a new feudal system soon took the place of the older Celtic way of life. These Flemish knights were the ancestors of many Scottish families:

Balliol, Beaton, Brodie, Bruce, Cameron, Campbell, Comyn, Crawford, Douglas, Erskine, Fleming Fraser, Graham, Hamilton, Hay, Innes, Leslie, Lindsay, Lyle, Murray, Oliphant, Seton, Stewart.

The Rebellion in Moray, during the reign of David I., was actively suppressed with  the aid of Flemings, who obtained grants of land for their services. The evidence of the influence of these powerful newcomers on the fabric of David I’s kingdom can be found on the ground, in those traces of military activity which the Flemings were so swift to provide. As early as they could be built, castles great and small were flung up at every vulnerable point. Modern research into the character of Scottish mottes began as long ago as the 1890s and in the unhappy fashion of the time, they were immediately classed as Norman, though their strategic disposition as well as their method of construction was pure Flanders. As in Flanders, the royal castles were most often to be found in towns, places which would be quickly fortified and named as burghs. This was a strategy borrowed directly from Charlemagne who had called his fortified centers “burgs”. Large numbers of Scottish mottes developed as soon as feasible into private stone castles. Some writers have commented on the peculiar height of these tower houses, considering them unnecessary and expensive in a Scotland where there were so many natural high points on which to place them. But this kind of construction was a direct descendant of the defensive needs in the landscape which had provided the model; the flat lands of so much of Flanders demanded an artificial high look-out if the defenders of the region were not to be taken by surprise  and Flemish soldiers in Scotland built what they knew.

In England, in 1154, King Henry II had expelled all aliens as encroachers on English trade and many Flemings were thus compelled to seek fortune and refuge in Scotland. King David I was then busy assisting the great southern monasteries of Jedburgb, Kelso, Dryburgh, Melrose and Newbattle. These great religious houses obtained most of their revenue from wool. The arrival of these banished Flemings was remarkably opportune, for they were favoured in the knowledge of weaving all manner of articles from wool, and thus trade became opened up, through them, with the rich wool ­merchants in Flanders. Many Flemings were acting as Baillies for the monks as far west as Turnberry and Carrick, and in Tweeddale, Annandale, and Clydesdale. The monasteries rapidly developed into powerful successful trading corporations, and with their international affiliations and agencies became keen competitors, enjoying peculiar privileges from the State.

During the excavations in 1927 of a new theatre at Hide Hill, Berwick, a quantity of human bones was discovered, recalling the dramatic circumstances of Flemish settlement there. They are believed to be the bones of heroic Flemings. On this site stood Red Hall. It was the headquarters of the wealthy Flemings, who traded in wools and hides. Under the fostering care of King David I, Berwick had risen into great importance as a place of commerce and was peopled by merchants from all over the Continent. The Flemings were, however, by far the most important section, and were the only people to form a separate and influential trade-guild. When the infuriated monarch of England captured Berwick in 1296 he instituted a wholesale sack and slaughter. In the midst of the bloodshed, 30 Flemings, under oath never to surrender to the English, put up a magnificent defense. In their last stand, Red Hall was set on fire by Edward I and, fighting to the end, the Flemings were buried in its ruins.

The nomenclatures of several Scottish towns are further evidence of the mediaeval migration of Flemish traders. The nationality of these fresh settlers is still enshrined in Scottish topography, for there is an estate known as Flemington, between Nairn and Inverness in the old barony Petty. We have several other ‘Flemingtons’ in Scotland:  one in Ayton Parish, Berwickshire; one in Newlands Parish, Peeblesshire; one near Cumberland, and Old Caste Flemington in Aberlemno Parish, Forfarshire. John Crab, credited as having been the military engineer to Robert Bruce, was a Fleming. He owned land around Rubislaw, from which we have Crabeston.

These Flemish immigrants could not fail to impress their character, customs, and language upon Scotland, such as we may trace in the diminutives in Broad Buchan ‘je’ or ‘tje’. The East Coast of Scotland is peculiarly rich in innumerable examples which might be cited, and in addition there are many more Scoto-Flemish terms now fast becoming extinct through lack of use. For instance, in ’kailyard literature’ we come across some young maiden that was ‘fell’ bonnie; ‘fel’ is the Flemish for ‘extremely”. Spinners speak of winding a tangled ‘hesp’ (hesp is Flemish). The Scotch word ‘kittlin’ for tickling is also derived from the Flemish kittelen’. When a petted child is crying it is said to be yammering,’ from the Flemish ‘jammeren,’ to lament. We feel a ‘snell’ wind, from the word in Flemish, ‘snel’, meaning swift. A “mutch”, from the Flemish “muts”, is a cap. A stitch is called a “steek” in both languages; and we call the small finger a “pinkie”, from the Flemish “pinkje”.

There were two more important immigration waves into Scotland of Flemish craftsmen : the first was in the latter half of the 16th century, consisting of principally Flemish refugee Protestants; the second, towards the end of the l7th century, consisted again almost entirely of Flemish Huguenots, consequent on the religious persecutions by the French King Louis XIV which followed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Every Scottish town of note seems to have encouraged Flemish immigration during some period of its history and many Flemish craftsmen and merchants had accumulated wealth and acquired position, which gave them the opportunity of introducing many luxuries from their native land such as children’s toys (dolls were then known as “Flanders Babies”), spinning-wheels, tapestries, Flemish “pendens” or curtains, lace, mirrors (called “keeking glasses”), sheet-glass for windows, “the Flanders kist” (chest), bells and carillons, cannon, gunpowder, armour.

The Flemings taught the Scots to weave the finest fabrics and to make gloves. During the 14tb century the commonest head-covering was a large Flemish beaver hat made from waste wool compressed with some adhesive. An old writer says, “The Danger of the Kingdom from foreigners is that the Flemings instructed us how to make Spanish felts, while the French taught us how to take them off’.

They also taught to make fishing lines and nets from flax thread and to grow flax. During 1587 an Act of Parliament was passed in the reign of James VI offering the most favorable terms to induce more Flemish flax growers to come over to Scotland. Again, in 1606, several Flemish families are mentioned as having been introduced to teach native weavers the latest methods and also to instruct in the best methods of flax-growing, spinning, etc. Scotland has ever since maintained her pre-eminence in spinning linen thread. About the year 1725, Lady Bargarren so improved upon the Flemish product that she put her thread up in paper packets with the crest of her family stamped thereon to prevent imposition. The linen industry thus steadily increased in importance. At the Union of the two Parliaments, linen was woven in 25 counties in Scotland. Flax was then grown in the country, and abundance of raw material was also obtained from the Baltic. Forfarshire (Angus and Mearns) and Fife produced most of the sail-cloth and canvas for the Navy in the days of sailing-ships.

The son of a Scottish weaver called Wilson enlisted for the wars in Flanders about the year 1670. During the course of the wars he procured a blue and white checked handkerchief that had been woven on a Flemish loom. Wilson (who later adopted Flakefield as his cognomen, taken from his birthplace) preserved, with great care, a remnant of the handkerchief and returning to his native land in 1700, weaved a similar article. About 24 handkerchiefs comprised the first web. The novelty pleased the local and Glasgow merchants and the bold adventurer readily sold his output of handkerchiefs in a few hours, the first of the kind ever made in Britain. The goods eventually met with universal approbation. The number of looms daily increased, so that in a few years Glasgow became famous for that branch of the linen trade.

Flemings introduced furniture carving which may be studied in the choir stalls of many Scottish churches. Flemish craftsmen plastered the walls and ceilings of the royal castles. Another Flemish innovation was polished wood floors, which excited peculiar displeasure among the rougher and elder type of noble warrior, for many a grave courtier at first, accustomed to the old-fashioned floors strewn with evil-smelling rushes, cut a most undignified figure falling and sprawling on the polished surface. The Flemings were experts in masonry (the “Flemish Bond” in brick structures). Glass manufacture was started in the Wemyss Glassworks, Fife, by Lord George Hay (the Hay family was of Flemish origin) with Flemish and Venetian glassblowers during the reign of James VI of Scotland. The De Colnet family were perhaps the greatest of Flemish glassmakers; they were associated with the Ferrors of Venice and worked at making mirrors in the Venetian manner. They introduced the art to Britain.

Many of the early mining schemes in Scotland owe not a little to skilled Flemish mining engineers. Crawfordjohn, founded by a Fleming, was the center in Scotland of the lead-mining district. The Flemish Huguenots were expert salt-makers. There is little doubt but that the establishing of saltpans in Scotland was greatly encouraged by naturalized Flemings.

The Scots owe the introduction of their hawthorn hedges to Flemish refugee husbandmen who came to Scotland in the l7th century and commenced cultivating the soil and fencing the farms that had previously given up wool as their staple product. The wood, from its tough quality made ideal cogs for their looms and for supplying many other parts of their spinning wheels, as well as many vital portions of their machinery. Moreover, it ranked among the best fuel, burning as well when green as when dry. The systematic growth and regular scientific rotation of crops were known and understood by the Flemings 200 years before Scottish farmers attempted such progressive farming. Their introduction of the humble turnip brought a great revolution in Scottish life. It led to the enclosing of fields with stone dykes, built to keep the cattle off the delicious root. The introduction and cultivation of this root was of great importance in providing winter feeding and gave a great impetus to the Scottish cattle trade, which had a very beneficial effect, especially on Scotland’s finances, and greatly raised the standard of living.

Before the arrival of the Flemings, Scottish butchers sold their bullock hides to the fell-mongers, always with the tails on. The tails were thrown away and wasted. Who ever dreamt of eating an ox-tail, or thought of its nutriment? The Flemings kept a clean hearthstone and knew the economy of a “pot-au-feu”; hence they got the tails in a gift and reveled in the now recognized delicacy of ox-tail soup!

In the early days of the 16th century the Bible possessed the allurements which come from prohibition and danger. It was smuggled into Scotland by Flemish traders carefully concealed in bales of linen or in rolls of woolen cloth. The Scots especially, for a considerable time had to depend upon Flanders for the printed word. It was not till 1579 that the first complete Bible was printed in Scotland. King James I was successful in introducing Flemish paper-makers, for they had brought the art of manufacturing linen paper, now an important industry following upon the invention of printing, to a high state of perfection. But the efforts of the Flemings to introduce playing cards was entirely unsuccessful owing to Puritan and « unco-guid” Presbyterian feelings and opposition!

The history of wool may be admitted to be the story of the Flemings. It was due to their exertions that Scotland was first enabled to compete with other nations in the production of cloth from wool. The Flemings brought over a complete knowledge of the textile industry, which had been, long before the 10th century, a prominent feature in Flanders. Scotland was then far behind in the race for commercial supremacy, and it was only when the impulse was given to her native efforts by the introduction of Flemish craftsmen who taught the natives bow to improve their coarse wool that Scotland’s great woollen industry may be said to have been established.

The early hardy and resourceful Flemish colonists, bringing a new social order with political and military power in place of tribal authority, had to bear the brunt of fierce Celtic resentment. We must keep in mind the natives’ point of view; they were neither a barbarous people, nor a clog upon the wheels of progress. It is rash to presume barbarism prevailed in every part of Scotland and at all periods; Celtic traditions point to a very remarkable early development of native crafts. Noble Flemings married Celtic heiresses and Flemish traders and craftsmen congregated in towns. One of the striking peculiarities of the Flemish settlements is that there is no record of extensive emigration of the dispossessed original owners in consequence of the frequent grants of Kings David and William to their Flemish supporters.

The Flemings were firm believers in the free intercourse of trade and seemed to find it easy to adapt themselves to the conditions and customs of other peoples, and to enter readily into the interests and activities of the country where their lot was cast :  they possessed, indeed, what might be termed the international sense. The Gael was not a trader. These alien Flemings were not any the more loved because they brought business methods in their wake. How could such people ever commingle? Yet they did, and produced excellent citizens. The infiltration of this new and energetic people possessing land and erecting towns was the source of a fresh national prosperity Whether we regard their introduction as military invaders or as commercial adventurers, Flemish enterprise deserves consideration, for it had a broadening and deepening effect on the life and character of the people they settled amongst and the only evidence of alien strain that remains is in the perpetuation of the surname Fleming

Annette Hardie –  Stoffelen


–          Beryl PLATTS, “Origins of Heraldry”, 1980; “Scottish Hazard” Vol. I, 1985 & Vol.II, 1990, Procter Press, London.

–     J. Arnold FLEMING, “Flemish Influence in Britain” Vol. I & Il, 1930, Jackson, Wylie & Co., Glasgow.

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