Explorathon ’16: Piracy in Medieval Aberdeen?


On Friday 30 September the ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers’ (LACR) project team was joined by members of the public at the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen for an interactive presentation on ‘Piracy, plunder and shipwreck’ and aspects of the LACR project. The presentation was part of Explorathon ‘16 or European Researchers’ Night, an event staged on the same day in university cities throughout Europe.

The audience was welcomed by Chris Croly, Public Engagement Officer at the University of Aberdeen and one of the organisers of the Aberdeen Explorathon. Jackson Armstrong then introduced the Aberdeen registers, highlighting their importance as a source for the history of Aberdeen and its hinterland, and for its relations with the rest of Scotland and trading partners abroad. In the first section of the presentation Edda Frankot focussed in more detail on Aberdeen in its European context. Using a number of examples from the records themselves, Aberdeen’s role in late medieval piracy, plunder and shipwreck was illustrated. It appeared that the city did not prosecute any of its citizens that were active in capturing ships from other regions in northwestern Europe. One reason may have been that the men involved were the shipmasters and merchants (and at least one provost, Robert Davidson, and one admiral, the earl of Mar) who were also in charge of the city’s government and courts. But more important was perhaps the fact that the capture of the ships was most likely not considered to be piracy, but justified acts as part of maritime warfare, or as part of attempts to regain compensation for losses sustained abroad.1 During the presentation the members of the public present were quizzed on aspects of the subject of piracy, plunder and shipwreck and asked to vote on one of two answers. As the photo shows, the audience soon caught on to the line of questioning…


The second part of the presentation focussed on aspects of the LACR project. William Hepburn explained how the transcription process works and what difficulties can be encountered when transcribing fifteenth-century urban registers. The audience was also asked to try to read some words from the records, which proved quite difficult. Anna Havinga then turned the audience’s attention to linguistic aspects of the Aberdeen records, especially the bilingualism of the clerks who wrote the entries in the manuscripts. She then challenged the audience to link up words in old Scots with their modern English counterparts.

This short quiz ended with a plea for help to identify the meaning of a word that the project team had been unable to find. People were asked to send us their solutions via twitter, facebook or email. The word in question appears in a number of entries on the payment for a large number of barrels of this item of merchandise imported from Zeeland in the Netherlands: ‘iggownis’.2 Eventually, the best suggestion was given by Lucy Dean, who responded to a second appeal for help on facebook on 3 October: onions. This word is usually spelled with ‘ing-’ in Middle Scots, which is why we had been unable to locate it in the Dictionary of the Scottish Language (http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/ing3oun ). This exercise just shows how useful crowdsourcing can be: there is a great community of people out there with a very large combined knowledge. Thank you to everyone who contributed with suggestions!

  1. With regards to medieval Scottish piracy, see David Ditchburn, ‘Piracy and war at sea in late medieval Scotland’, in: T.C. Smout (ed.), Scotland and the Sea (Edinburgh 1992),  35-58 and ‘The pirate, the policeman and the pantomime star: Aberdeen’s alternative economy in the early fifteenth century’, Northern Scotland 12 (1992),  19-34. For the early modern period, see Steve Murdoch, The Terror of the Seas? Scottish Maritime Warfare, 1513-1713 (Leiden and Boston 2010). 
  2. ACR, vol. 5, pp. 358, 359, 361 (12, 14, 16 March and 2 April 1459). 

LACR – The view from the Archive

The records that are at the heart of the ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers’ (LACR) project are kept in the beautiful Charter Room on the third floor of Aberdeen’s Town House where they are cared for by the staff of Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives. Of course the Archive service, formed in 1980, is the latest in a long line of guardians who have ensured the survival of the city’s unique UNESCO-recognised Burgh Registers.

21/11/11 Aberdeen Archives

A question that is frequently asked by visitors is: why does Aberdeen have such a remarkable collection of late-medieval records whereas only fragments remain for other Scottish towns during this period? This is probably the result of three things: the geographical location of Aberdeen which meant that it, and its records, escaped the worst excesses of the Reformation, a culture of good record keeping within the burgh and a healthy dose of good luck. In particular, their survival is testament to the fact that successive town clerks, the predecessors to the current Archive team, saw the records as having important evidential value and were therefore worth preserving. That evidential value persists and is the focus of the current project.

One of the primary functions of the Archive service is to make the records in its care as widely available as possible. A major hurdle to realising this aim for the medieval Burgh Registers is that the language and handwriting of the original text makes them well-nigh impenetrable to all but the expert palaeographer. Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives sees the current LACR project as the essential foundation for making the fascinating information contained within the records available to those who are not experts. If you follow this blog regularly, you will already have read some riveting stories of life within medieval Aberdeen. Such vignettes are captivating and can help tell the story of the city to tourists, school pupils and locals with a fascination in how their town has developed.


The task of opening up the records to this wider audience is too large for the Archive service to achieve on its own and we are immensely proud to be in partnership with the University on the LACR project. The partnership is already having significant knock-on benefits with the Archive participating in many associated public engagement activities. In September Phil Astley, City Archivist, presented a paper about the project at the annual Archive and Records Association Conference in London while November will see the Archive hosting a meeting of the UK National Commission for UNESCO at the Town House. Major regional cultural events taking place in 2017 in Aberdeen and the North East of Scotland such as Spectra, Look Again and the Granite Noir writing festival will all have input from the Archives. All this follows the much higher profile that the service has achieved through the recognition of its records by UNESCO UK and the positive publicity surrounding the LACR project. We are confident there will be many more exciting opportunities to come.