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James IV & The Michael


No-one knows with any certainty when the village of Newhaven was founded. Certainly, there was a small fishing community that existed for more than two thousand years, and why wouldn’t there have been? The Anker Burn provided drinking water; the sea provided fish and fowl; and the topography of the land was ideal for pasture.

In time, the town of Edinburgh grew, along with the port of Leith on its doorstep. The hustle and bustle of the seaport of Leith caused a number of fishermen to move along the coast to a little hamlet to the west on the edge of what we now know as Wardie Bay.

James IV, King of Scots, who ruled from 1488 until 1513, was a benevolent king, ambitious for his country and popular with his subjects. He wanted to build a Royal Navy to protect his merchant vessels whose cargoes were being regularly plundered by pirates and privateers. He bought a few armed merchantmen ships from his allies on the Continent, especially from France, but their armament was minimal.

James decided that he wanted to build larger purpose-built ships, one of the first being The Margaret in 1505, a vessel of around 500 tons named after his queen, whose brother would become Henry VIII. However, the warship’s deeper draft created problems launching due to the sandbanks on the Water of Leith. If King James was to build bigger and better he had to find an alternative site for the Royal Dockyard.

He and his naval architect, Frenchman Jacques Terrell, rowed the coastline to find a site with a deeper bay. Deciding the nearby beach of Novus Portus (Latin for New Haven) was the most suitable. It would be here that the “greatest scheip that ever saillit” would be built. It would be called The Michael but, when people saw how huge it was it became commonly known as The Great Michael.

To compare the Michael to modern day ships would be pointless. One of today’s cruise liners weighs in at around 150,000 tons and can be up to five times the length of this mighty warship. At 240ft long and 50ft wide, weighing 1000 tons, it may seem puny to our standards but to the mediaeval observer there had never been anything like it. It was double the length of England’s largest ship at the time The Triumph.

This large vessel had four masts as well as a long bowsprit at the front carrying a large lantern. It was, in effect, a fort on the seas with two castles. The stern called the aftercastle, the bow called the forecastle. Battles at sea in earlier times were at close quarters, the opposing ships getting close to each other with grappling irons and ropes. The castles therefore were important, from here, the soldiers would board the enemy vessel and fight hand-to-hand. Even today, this term of forecastle is used on modern ships where it used in a shortened term called a “fo’c’sle”.

The Great Michael was stunning, impressing all who saw her. Anyone visiting Edinburgh Castle’s Great Hall should look up at the beautifully carved ceiling by the same craftsmen who worked on the Michael.

The ship was crewed by 300 sailors, 120 gunners and armed with 24 large cannon and three basilisks (long-barrelled canon). According to the chronicler Lindsay of Pitscottie, who wrote at the time ‘it carried 300 other ‘shot of small artillery’, that is to say moyennes, falcons, quarter falcons, slings, pestilent serpentines, and double dags, with hacbuts, culverins, crossbows and handbows’. It could also carry 1000 soldiers.

The great ship cost James IV over £30,000 Scots (plus the cost of arming it) at a time when the king’s annual income was only equivalent that amount. This drain on the treasury pressured the king to sell the feu to the Burghers of Edinburgh who feared that the Royal Dockyard would lessen the importance of their port of Leith and the income they derived from it. As part of the contract, the town council promised to look after the village thereafter. (As we say in Scots in that unique double-positive that means a negative, “Aye, right!”… But that’s another story.)

The keel was laid in 1507 and by 1511, it was able to be launched. As today, the supply chain had been international, reflecting Scotland’s wide and diverse trading relationships. It was reputed the large ship cost the country all the oak trees in Fife plus wood from Ross-shire, Moray, and around Cambuskenneth. Imported wood came from Norway, Denmark and France as did much of the rigging and pulleys. Craftsmen were hired from France, Flanders, Denmark and Spain alongside Scottish shipwrights. A chapel was built for their spiritual needs, the Chapel of St James and the Virgin Mary, the ruins of which are still visible to this day.

And then the day came. In 1511, after long labour and much expense, the Michael was launched to fanfare and feasting. This gives us a definite date to celebrate the founding of the village. The date is October 12th and Newhaven Heritage has designated this as ‘Newhaven Day’ on our annual calendar when, each year, we have attempted to commemorate this symbolic date with an activity of some significance. ■

Gordon Young

Info: Gordon can be contacted at

Artwork by Fenice8 on Deviantart


The ship cost James IV over £30,000 at a time when the king’s annual income was only an equivalent amount


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