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Tom Barclay and Eric J. Graham, The Early Transatlantic Trade of Ayr

Reviewed by David Ransome

Ayr to the Atlantic

THE EARLY TRANSATLANTIC TRADE OF AYR 1640-1730 by Tom Barclay and Eric J. Graham (Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society: Ayrshire Monograph 30, 2005 104pp ISBN 0 9542253 3) 4.50

There is an old saying that 'Good Things are wrapped up in Little Parcels', and that is undoubtedly true of this work. Based securely on primary sources, it begins with the Rebecca of Dublin about to leave Ayr for the West Indies in 1642, records voyages later in the century to Barbados, St Kitts and Montserrat, notes trade with the Chesapeake at the end of the century, and in effect concludes with Ayr's participation in the disastrous Darien scheme of the Company of Scotland. An epilogue takes the story to 1730, forming a link to two earlier monographs in the same series by Dr Graham. The authors offer helpful maps, illustrations and genealogical trees. The latter would have been even more useful had they included dates (however approximate) of death and been combined into a single table, which would vividly have conveyed how important the extended family was to early modern commerce. Equally the decision to have endnotes rather than footnotes may have facilitated the printing, but made reading that much more difficult, especially as many of the notes contain supplementary information, essential to those who are not well informed about matters local to Ayr, rather than mere archival references.

Nevertheless the book has much to offer the reader. It is made clear that in the mid-seventeenth century the dislocation of customary trading routes nudged Ayr's merchants into the opening of trade with the New World. They were ahead of Glasgow in this respect, and had Ayr's river port been larger and escaped silting up, it might well have retained its head start and become in the eighteenth century the emporium for sugar and tobacco that Glasgow became. Because this study is based primarily on information derived from the central government's port books, housed in the National Archives of Scotland, and from documents preserved in the Ayrshire Archives, it happens to play down Ayr's commerce with New England. There are interesting details drawn from the records of the Scots Charitable Society of Boston, founded in 1657, but little more.

My own researches in the pre-1640 port books showed that even when a vessel could be traced out from London to Massachusetts and Virginia, I might find it reported as coming in from a harbour in France, even though it had a lading of Virginia tobacco. The convention was to enter a vessel as entering from its last port of call, and although there may be significant differences between England and Scotland I wonder if some of the voyages as reported as being to the Low Countries were in fact merely calling in at a Dutch port on their way home from a transatlantic voyage. Certainly the authors reveal how difficult, in the seventeenth century, trade was for the Scots and Irish, directed as it was politically from London. This not only encouraged smuggling, but also demonstrated how incomplete was the union of the three kingdoms. In short, this very detailed and local study will be of considerable value to many historians of the Atlantic world.



This review was first published in The Local Historian, vol. 36.1, February 2006, 56 and is reproduced here by permission of the editor.


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