Forbidden beasts and where to keep them

By William Hepburn

Forbidden Beasts ACR entry for blog post

Late medieval towns were distinct from the countryside around them because of their special legal status and their concentration of buildings. But all Scottish medieval towns were small by modern standards and late medieval records frequently remind us how blurred the boundary was between urban and rural life.

Nothing better represents this blurred boundary than the livestock kept in and around towns, which were frequently the subject of urban legislation. Aberdeen, for instance, seems to have had recurring problems with pigs roaming free around the town. These animals were referred to as ‘forboddin bestis’. In June 1465 it was ordained that the baillies would choose four men to capture any pigs causing trouble to people or running loose on the streets. These pig catchers either had to take their porcine prisoners to the master of the ‘kirk werk’ – the official in charge of building work at St Nicholas Kirk, the parish church – for a reward of 6 d. for each pig. Alternatively, they could kill the pigs where they found them and take the carcasses as rewards.

In October 1495 a similar ordinance was issued. It stated that no pigs were to be loose in the town, giving a fifteen-day deadline for pigs to be put in enclosures or removed from the town. For any pigs found loose after this point the owners would have to pay a fine of 8 shillings to the court and the pig would be confiscated from them.

Another royal burgh on the east coast of Scotland – Montrose – issued a flurry of similar legislation in 1459 and 1460.1 It was set down in April 1459 that there would be a fine of 4 d. for each time a pig was found loose and, in October of the same year, that no one was to keep pigs in the town and if they did the pigs would be confiscated. In May 1460 it was also stated that anyone who suffered damage from a loose pig was to bring it before the alderman or bailles and half of the value of it would go to them and the other half to the common use of the town. One entry also lists a fine to be paid for disobeying swine keepers – presumably officials charged with making sure that people kept their pigs under control.

Pigs were not the only livestock to be found in and around towns. A record of a court case from Aberdeen in 1499 shows that Janet Clat and Jock Lammyntone were convicted of breaking down Andrew Gall’s door and taking sheep from his house. In Newburgh, Fife, in 1463 the baillie Thom Rogerson made an accusation that sheep kept by other townspeople were eating crops.2 In Montrose in 1462 keepers of the links were appointed to keep livestock out of the area – sheeps, pigs and oxen – and fines for animals found there were listed. Another entry from 1462 shows that Montrose had a common shepherd.

Animals, then, were a recurring theme of fifteenth-century urban legislation and the damage they might cause to property – and perhaps also to public health – was clearly regarded as far from trivial. These records leave us with the impression that medieval Scottish towns were, in some ways, much like farmyards.

Transcriptions from Aberdeen Council Registers (ACR)

ACR, 5, p. 549, 24 June 1465

Item the chawmerlane has ordanyt the four bailyeis to cheis four men to tak all swyne that thai fande lows utow bande in ony mannis scathe or gangande on the gate and present thaim to the maystir of the kirk werke. And thai sal hafe for thair travaile of ilke swyne vj d’ or ellis sla thaim quhar thai finde thaim lous’ and tak the bodijs til eschete to thaim that slays thaim for thai ar forboddin bestis

ACR, 7, p. 670, 9 October 1495

The saide day it was statut ande ordanit be the consale that nay swyne salbe haldin within the burgh uteuth’ bande ande within fiftene dais to be removit the burgh or in bande. Ande the Joysaris of the saide swyne to pay viij s’ for the amerciament of the court and the saide swyne to be eschet and thaj be comprehendit uteuthe bande the saide fiftene dais beinge runnyn thaj beand fundin in ony mannis skath

ACR, 7, p. 953, 6 May 1499

The samyn day Jonet Clat was convikit be ane suorne assis Alexander Red forspekar for the wranguys away takin of certane scheip out of Androu Gallis hous and for the brekin of his dur for the quhilkis scho was in ane amerciament of the court and to amend as law wil and to forber in tyme to cum. Ande Jok Lammytone was convikit be the saide assis, the saide alexander Rede forspekar, for the wranguis takin of certan schep out of the saide hous and brekin of the sad dur as saide is et cetera

The saide day Jonet Clat and Jok Lammyntone was convikit tbe the saide assis Alexander Rede forspekar for the away takin of Certan Schep fra Androw Gall this day takin in his corne for the quhilkis thai war in ane amerciament of the court et cetera


  1. All Montrose references from Montrose Burgh Court Book 1455-1467, National Records of Scotland, B51/10/1. 
  2. Newburgh Burgh Court Book 1457-1479, University of St Andrews Special Collections, B54/7/1. 

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