Explorathon 16′: Pirates, plunder and shipwreck


Have you ever wondered what a medieval pirate was like? Join us at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum on Friday 30 September from 12:30-1:30 to find out!

The event is part of Explorathon 16′ (http://www.explorathon.co.uk/Aberdeen) and is described on their website:

‘Aberdeen was a European economic hub centuries before the discovery of oil but frequently upset its continental neighbours by turning a blind eye to piracy. Join members of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers project team for an exploration of the darker side of medieval overseas trade, and an overview of exciting new work that is unlocking the City’s UNESCO-recognised ancient records.’

On the day Edda Frankot will transport us back to the world of piracy and seafaring around medieval Aberdeen and ask the audience to step into the shoes of those making legal judgements about cases of shipwreck. Jackson Armstrong will highlight the international significance of the rich records of medieval Aberdeen which allow us to find out about this maritime world. William Hepburn will show what the handwriting in these records looks like and how we can decipher it. Anna Havinga will look at the language of the records and invite the audience to interpret old Scots words.

So, if you want to know more about pirates, plunder and shipwreck as well as the exciting research underway on Aberdeen’s medieval records, join us this Friday!

The event is free and suitable for ages 12 and over. Booking is required and can be done here: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/events/booking/pirates-plunder-and-shipwrecks-from-aberdeens-medieval-archives-explorathon16-127.php


LACR on tour – EAUH conference in Helsinki

by Edda Frankot

The first outing of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers (LACR) project at an academic gathering took place at the bi-annual conference of the European Association for Urban History (EAUH) which, this year, met in the beautiful capital city of Finland, Helsinki, from 24 to 27 August. The conference was held in the grand central building of the city’s university, which shares a space along Helsinki’s Senate Square with the beautiful Lutheran Cathedral. As we learned at the conference, the buildings around the square were all built as part of a great overhaul of Helsinki’s city centre in the 1820s and 1830s by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel, on orders from the Russian tsar, to a state befitting its new role as capital of the autonomous Finnish province of the Russian Empire (from 1809 to 1917). A statue of Tsar Alexander II (assassinated 1881), popular among Helsinki’s citizens, has been given pride of place at the centre of the square. At the end of August the city appeared very lively, partly due to a cultural festival in the city centre.


Lutheran Cathedral


Statue of Tsar Alexander II in front of the former Senate building

Approximately 750 attendees gathered for a wide array of papers relating to urban history from all regions of the world and from ancient times until the present. The conference started in the early evening of the 24th with a general welcome, a pair of keynote lectures, by Riita Nikula and Maarten Prak, and a lovely musical intermezzo by a small male choir. The remainder of the conference consisted mainly of various long parallel sessions which were split into two, with some shorter sessions included as well. The longer sessions allowed for a wider than usual range of aspects concerning a subject to be elaborated upon. Most of the speakers uploaded a full version of their paper before the conference, but at the conference itself only shorter versions of these, of about 10 minutes each, were presented. This generally allowed for more time for discussion, though one session I attended actually included eleven speakers (!). Because the presentations were brief, this ended up not being too much of a strain on the senses, though the discussion did have to be cut rather short. The conference also included a most welcoming reception in a beautiful room at city hall, at which we could also enjoy the hilarious Bonk exhibition.1


Conference reception at Helsinki City Hall

There were some excellent papers. I particularly enjoyed a presentation on residential segregation in nineteenth-century New York City by Gergely Baics, who is a very engaging speaker. The keynote by Maarten Prak, urging urban historians to focus their research more deliberately on a specific agenda to aid the success of funding applications and increase impact, was also enlightening. Prak suggested three main topics of research as part of this agenda: immigration, creativity and citizenship. Of these three citizenship, especially what Prak called practical citizenship, including political, economic and military participation (in, for example, city councils, guilds and civic militias), is most relevant to our project.

The paper which I presented, entitled ‘Opening the Registers: Digital Humanities and the Aberdeen Burgh Records’, focussed specifically on the Digital Humanities side of the LACR project and the question how archives and urban historians can best work together in the age of digital transformation.

In the case of LACR the objectives of the City Archives and urban historians, as well as scholars from law, computing and socio-linguistics, at the University of Aberdeen come together naturally. Our focus upon the UNESCO-recognised Aberdeen Council Registers, the only source of its kind from urban Scotland which covers (almost) the whole of the fifteenth century, is very straightforward and logical. But in other cases the choice of which archival sources to digitise may not be so clear-cut. There is, therefore, a real danger that certain sources will be quietly forgotten when they remain available only in an analogue form while others, which are considered more important for various reasons, are made widely accessible through digitisation. Resources for digitisation are limited, and choices need to be made, but archivists and historians need to cooperate to ensure best practice.2

Other papers in the session also focussed on digital archives relevant for urban history, both medieval and modern. Of particular relevance to LACR was the paper on the Du:cac (Dubrovnik: Civitas et Acta Consiliorum) project.3 This is producing transcriptions of a similar source to ours from medieval Dubrovnik, Croatia. That project is concerned with geographical locations, which are then linked to the relevant spot on a map of the city which was produced specifically for this project (see screenshot below). The result will be a useful resource for the study of historical urban development. From the perspective of our project, it is an inspiring example of what can in principle be done with material like that for Aberdeen. Once we have produced the digital transcription, the possibilities of what might be done next are wide-ranging indeed!


Screenshot from the du:cac website, showing a segment of the town plan with dots which link to relevant transcriptions of each location (http://ducac.ipu.hr/project/mapping/e6-segment)

Another paper in the session was presented by two archivists from the Copenhagen archives who spoke about their efforts to digitise some important (modern) resources for social history by making use of crowdsourcing, whereby volunteers transcribe or index documents. Crowdsourcing presents a specific set of challenges, but has been used successfully in a number of projects.4 Very interesting was also the presentation on the iron and steel archives of Middlesbrough. As the steelworks there have recently closed, the remaining archives and sites related to the works have become an important focal point of public engagement with the city’s heritage. This is a nice example of how history, archives and heritage can inspire civic public engagement. We hope that our project can set the foundations for similar opportunities for Aberdeen, while at the same time providing abundant material for historians, lawyers and linguists to study.

  1. https://en-gb.facebook.com/BonkExpo2012/ 
  2. With regards to this see also Gerben Zaagsma, ‘On Digital History’, BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 128 Digital History (2013), 3-29; Charles Jeurgens, ‘The Scent of the Digital Archive: Dilemmas with Archive Digitisation’, BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 128 Digital History (2013), 30-54. 
  3. Available at http://ducac.ipu.hr/project/. Accessed 16 September 2016. 
  4. For example: the Suda On Line project, available at: http://www.stoa.org/sol/history.shtml; and Itinera Nova for which 29,500 acts of the Louvain aldermen’s bench have so far been transcribed by over 50 volunteers: ‘ State of affairs’, available at: http://www.itineranova.be/in/state-of-affairs. Both accessed 16 September 2016. 

Urban Freedom in Medieval Aberdeen

by Claire Hawes

When most people think of freedom in late medieval Scotland they picture Mel Gibson with a blue face and a large sword. This, unsurprisingly, was not the whole story, and the Aberdeen registers provide us with a very rich source of information about what freedom meant in Scotland’s towns.

Pont freedom

Map of Lower Deeside by Timothy Pont, c. 1590, showing the freedom of Aberdeen. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. http://maps.nls.uk/index.html

In our own political culture freedom is associated with democracy and civil liberties. Within agreed limits we have freedom of speech, freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. We are free to take a great variety of decisions about how we want to live, and we are free to campaign, protest and lobby our representatives if we want to make changes to the way we are governed. In other words, many of our freedoms are positive – they involve the right to do certain things.


In order to understand urban freedom in the Middle Ages we need to think about it rather differently. In the first place not everyone in the town was considered to be free. Only the burgesses – the elite group who ran the town – were ‘freemen’, and they were so called because they took a solemn oath, paid a fee, and were then entered into ‘the freedom of the burgh’.1 So this freedom was closer to a privilege, granted to a select few, than a right held by everyone. A man had to meet certain conditions in order to be admitted to burgess-ship. He had to have property in the town, pay suit at the three annual head courts, and agree to undertake the duties of watch and ward.2 Holding property in this way was known as ‘free burgage’, which meant that the burgess could dispose of the land as he saw fit, rather than being obliged to let his heirs inherit it.3 Those who had not been entered into the freedom were known as ‘unfreemen’, and although they were not obliged to perform the same duties as the burgesses they were also not entitled to any of the same privileges.

except lordis

ACR 5/2, p. 723, 24 October 1452. Entry excluding lords from the fishing (second last line).

What were the burgesses free to do that others could not? In some ways it is easier to think in terms of what they were free from. In the medieval period society was steeply hierarchical. Most common people were obliged to turn over a proportion of their produce to their lord, to sustain his lifestyle and to provide for any payments he owed to the king. Royal burghs, such as Aberdeen, were different. The burgesses were not noblemen, but nevertheless the revenues raised within town – known as the burgh customs – were collected by the Chamberlain and paid directly to the crown.4 While the king could take as close an interest as he wished in the affairs of the town in practice this was not necessarily a frequent occurrence, meaning that the burgh inhabitants were, in a very real sense, free from the exactions that overlords often imposed on other common people. Each burgh also held its own courts, so that a burgess could demand to be tried by his peers, rather than in the court of a lord or even a sheriff or justiciar.5 The burgh administration – the alderman, bailies and council – therefore had authority over almost everything that happened in the town, and this authority was closely guarded.

In November 1446, for example, it was decided that no burgess was allowed to request or purchase any leases for lords within the town, and that anyone who did so would lose his freedom.6 The following month the council granted the freedom to fish in the river to John Vaus, stating that he could give the license ‘to what frende of his that be thocht speidful [suitable] to him, except lordis’.7 Such acts were not indicative of a general animosity between lords and towns in Scotland – indeed lords could establish burghs of their own.8 Instead, the burgesses of Aberdeen were simply keen to ensure that the privileges of the community were not eroded by outside interference from powerful neighbours. Men such as the earl of Huntly or the earl of Mar could play a prominent role in the politics of the town, but they did not hold the same rights over the burgesses as they did over their own tenants, and this distinction was important.

within the fredom

ACR 5/2, p. 702, 13 May 1445. Entry forbidding two men to buy goods within the freedom.

The ‘freedom of the burgh’ was not only a legal concept, it also described a geographical area surrounding the town, in which the burgesses could exercise their trading privileges. Only burgesses were allowed to engage in trade – the freedom was essentially a monopoly of such rights – and burgesses paid an annual rent to their overlord for this privilege. Everyone who lived within the freedom was obliged to bring their wares to the weekly market for the burgesses to buy. The freedom to buy and sell was often accompanied by freedom from the toll levied by the overlord upon people trading there.9 Burgesses did not have to pay this toll, but the unfree did. Prices at the market were set by the council, and trade was strictly regulated. Forestalling (buying goods before the market opened), regrating (selling above the set price) and ‘tapping again’ (re-selling) were all prohibited, and punishable by a hefty fine.10 The frequency with which such charges appear in the records suggests that they were a recurring problem which was difficult to manage successfully. Again we see that urban freedoms took the form of privileges granted over others, which the burgesses were keen to defend.


Fifteenth-century seal matrix of the burgh of Aberdeen. Held in Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City Archives. Photo by Vicky Gray.

This was not always the case. In 1452 the whole town was in debt to Thomas Barnwell, a merchant fishmonger of London.11 The amount must have been significant, because the council nominated three prominent men of the town – John of Fife, John Vaus, Gilbert Menzies – to pay off a quarter of the debt each, with John Blyndseil, Thom Blyndseil and Adam Hill paying the last quarter. They were charged to return the value of the goods paid by the burgesses and ‘freith and bryng hame the commoune seel’.12 It is not clear if Barnwell had actually removed the seal to London as collateral for his debt. If so, this would have been both very unusual and highly significant. The common seal of the town was a physical representation of the community’s authority, and was used to ratify important decisions and legal processes.13 Its removal would imply a debt of great size, although unfortunately the amount is not recorded. In July of the following year the council stated that because it was ‘clerly knawin’ that Andrew Benyng took some of Barnwell’s silver from Adam Benyng, Andrew would need to ‘freith the toune’ of the two barrels of salmon and 12s 6d of silver that remained unpaid, from his own lands and goods.14 This suggests that the council was still collecting money for the repayment of the debt to Barnwell, and that the less scrupulous were taking advantage of the accumulation of silver.

Even this brief glimpse into the Aberdeen Council Registers shows how complex and multifaceted urban freedom was in the fifteenth century. It touched on property ownership, trading rights, legal privileges and the management of debts and other obligations. This makes it one of the most important concepts in medieval Scotland. Even without Mel Gibson.


  1. For example ACR 5/2, p. 773. 
  2.  Elizabeth Ewan, Townlife in Fourteenth-Century Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1990) pp. 92; 55; 103. 
  3. Ibid, p. 105. 
  4.  Ibid, p. 41. The Chamberlain was a royal officer and travelled around the kingdom on ‘ayres’ acting as judge and revenue collector for the towns. 
  5.  Hector MacQueen and William Windram, ‘Laws and Courts in the Burghs’, in Lynch, Spearman and Stell (eds) The Scottish Medieval Town (Edinburgh, 1988), pp. 214-15. 
  6.  ACR 5/2, p. 724. 
  7.  ACR 5/2, p. 727. 
  8.  MacQueen and Windram, ‘Laws and Courts’, p. 212. 
  9.  Ibid, p. 212. 
  10. For example ACR 5/2, p. 750. 
  11. www.nationalarchives.gov.uk, C 241/249/50. 
  12.  ACR 5/2, p. 723. 
  13.  Ewan, Townlife, pp. 51-52. 
  14.  ACR 5/2, p. 731.