During the industrial revolution, Arbroath’s economy expanded and the population of the town expanded, with new housing having to be constructed to house the influx of workers. Arbroath became moderately well known for jute and sailcloth production, with 34 mills employing 1400 looms and producing over one million yards of osnaburg cloth and 450,000 yards of sailcloth in 1875. Arbroath is believed to be the source of the sails used on the Cutty Sark.
In 1867, the mills in Arbroath employed 4620 people. Arbroath was also prominent in the manufacture of shoes and lawnmowers; local firm Alexander Shanks supplied mowers to the Old Course at St Andrews and the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Arbroath today is mostly known for its connection with the Scottish fishing industry. After the original harbours, dating from the 14th and 18th centuries, were replaced in 1839 with a larger harbour, the local council tried to find fishermen who would be interested in migrating to Arbroath in order to take advantage of the new facilities offered. The town council contacted fishermen in nearby Auchmithie and further afield, including Shetland.
The fishing industry grew and at its peak years between 1900 and 1980, around 40 whitefish and pelagic vessels worked from Arbroath, with hundreds of men employed directly as fishermen, hundreds more employed ashore to service the fishing vessels and to process the fish. Quota cuts and decommissioning took its toll on the fishing industry throughout Scotland from the 1980s to present. Today, Arbroath remains a designated white fish landing port, and although no fish auction takes place, the fish market remains open and is used for landing shellfish.
There is now only one large fishing vessel operating regularly from Arbroath, and a further three Arbroath owned vessels operating from Aberdeen and ports further north. The fish processing sector remains one of the largest employers in the town however, but fish for processing now comes from Aberdeen, Peterhead and occasionally from Iceland, Norway and Ireland.
The first modern development in Arbroath was the Abbey, founded by King William the Lion in 1178 for monks of the Tironensian order from Kelso Abbey. It received consecration in 1197 with a dedication to Saint Thomas Becket. It was the King’s only personal foundation, and he was buried within its precincts in 1214. The Abbey was not finally completed until 1233. Arbroath was the location of the Battle of Arbroath in 1446.
A series of disagreements between the Chief Justiciary of Arbroath, Alexander Lindsay, third Earl of Crawford and Bishop James Kennedy of St Andrews resulted in Lindsay sacking the bishop’s lands and burning his properties. Lindsay was excommunicated for his troubles and it was felt that this was incompatible with his role as Chief Justiciary. The monks of Arbroath Abbey selected Alexander Ogilvy of Inverquharity as his replacement and the insult led to pitched battle in the town, leaving 500 dead, including Lindsay and Ogilvy.
Large parts of the town were destroyed in the aftermath by the Lindsay family. The Abbey relatively quickly fell into disuse and eventual disrepair after its dissolution at the Reformation, the lead from the roof rumoured to have been used in the 16th century civil wars and the stonework plundered for housebuilding throughout the town. The ruins were a popular site for travellers during the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally in 1815 the remains were taken into the care of the State for preservation. There mains are now administered by Historic Scotland. On 6 April 1320 the Scottish Parliament met at Arbroath Abbey and addressed to the Pope the Declaration of Arbroath, drafted by the Abbot of the time, Bernard. This document detailed the services which their “lord and sovereign” Robert the Bruce had rendered to Scotland, and affirmed in eloquent terms the independence of the Scots.