Heroes, hangmen, minstrels and more: the admission of burgesses in medieval Aberdeen

by Edda Frankot

In the fifteenth century, new burgesses and guild brothers were admitted to the town every year. Lists of these admissions are regularly included in the Aberdeen Council Registers. A particularly good source is the Guild Court Book (ACR, volume 5-2), but lists are also included in the other volumes. The majority of the entries on these lists are for men that were admitted as both burgesses and guild brothers, but others only became burgesses. Most of the men were sons of burgesses. Another group that gained automatic entry, on payment of a fee, were those who married the daughter of a burgess. The entries of these two groups are normally very formulaic and provide little additional information beyond names and a payment.

admission heading 1452

The heading of the list of new burgesses and guild brothers from the time of provost John of Fife (1452-53)

But the entries concerning non-standard admissions can provide a lot of interesting detail on a great variety of subjects. A significant number of people were admitted ‘at instanciam’, at the insistence, of specific individuals or groups of people. Often these are local nobles, higher clergy or royal officials. In 1446-47, for example, John Matheson was admitted at the insistence of John of Mar and the Lords Gordon and Forbes. In the same year John Bullock was made a burgess and guild brother at the request of the bishop of Ross and various burgesses. In 1452 the council decided to only allow admissions of burgesses’ sons and sons-in-law for the coming year. This was either to limit the number of burgesses and guild members, or to restrict the influence of outsiders on the town. But in the admission list that follows we nonetheless find three men that were admitted at the insistence of outsiders: one after a request by the comptroller of the king’s rolls, one by Lord Crichton, the chancellor, and one by the countess of Huntly. So it appears that it was hard for the magistrates to resist such requests.1

5-2 p717 Matheson

The admission of John Matheson

Especially fascinating are the entries that give a specific reason for the admission, or a condition. Occasionally, men were admitted as a reward for services rendered to the town, or at the request of an existing burgess who had done a good deed. In the list of 1444-45 Thomas Rutherfurd was admitted because of his role in ending the discord between Thomas and John Voket. According to the 1456-57 list Alexander Logy was admitted at the request of Patrick Piot because the latter had prevented infirm or infected outsiders from entering the town at the Green. Thomas Johnson was made a burgess and guild brother in 1498-99 because of his labours around the capturing of the killer or killers of Agnes Burges in the night. The threat of an English invasion caused the council to admit Andrew Chapman living in Loirston, in 1454-55, on the condition that he would keep a fire lit all night at the Loirston cairn and during the day would keep a watch for English enemies with two others. Men with useful professions were occasionally admitted for free: in 1451-52 a barber, a Frenchman, in 1454-55 a ‘medicus’, in 1456-57 a ‘mimus’, an actor or mime, and in 1487-88 a ‘carnifex’ were entered. The latter may have been a butcher, but because his admission specifically says ‘racione sue artis’: because of his skill or craft, perhaps we can assume he was an executioner. Apart from the doctor, these men were only admitted as burgesses, not as guild brothers.2

7 p913 Johnson

The admission of Thomas Johnson

The fees that were paid by most of the men to be admitted could also be used for specific purposes indicated in the records. The fee paid by William Maitland, a carpenter admitted as a burgess in 1455-56 was given to Patrick Wrych ‘pro elimosina’: as alms. The year before, part of the fee paid by Alexander Chalmers would go towards the repair of the ‘key’, which is not specified further. Obviously it was clear to everyone at the time which key was meant. In 1455 the council decided that Donald of Fife, who was at that time a captive in England, could put forward a suggestion for a new burgess and guild brother ‘for his relief and ransoming’. Presumably the fee paid by this person would be used towards the payment of the ransom.3

5-2 p785 Chalmers

The admission of Alexander Chalmers

Overall, the lists of admission provide a wealth of details for anyone with the patience to seek out the gems that are hidden within them.


  1. ACR, 5-2, p. 717, p. 716; p. 769; p. 773. 
  2. ACR, 5-2, p. 695; p. 798; ACR, 7, p. 913; ACR, 5-2, 785; ACR, 5-2, pp. 658, 695, 798; ACR, 7, 40. 
  3. ACR, 5-2, p. 784; p. 785; p. 782. 

One thought on “Heroes, hangmen, minstrels and more: the admission of burgesses in medieval Aberdeen

  1. Pingback: Plague and Quarantine in Aberdeen, 1499 | aberdeen registers

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