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. 

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