Manslaughter in 1480s Aberdeen: notes from another fifteenth-century register

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Council Registers are not the only extant registers from fifteenth-century Aberdeen. Another large volume known as the Sasine Register no. 1 has survived since the late fifteenth century, covering the period from June 1484 to January 1502 and totalling just over a 1000 pages.

Its title, Sasine Register, referring to legal procedures whereby a person received formal possession of lands or property, had many years ago put me off using (or even looking at) the book for my PhD on the practice of maritime law. A recent introduction to the manuscript in the context of another project highlighted what a mistake this was: the register is much more a miscellaneous legal register. The title is a later addition. The fact that few other scholars have used the manuscript (and its companions from the early sixteenth century) suggests that I am not the only one who was put off by its title. Though perhaps the manuscript’s unappealing handwriting and the fact that it is almost wholly in Latin do not help either.

Be that as it may, it turned out that the book contains many entries concerning property, but also rather a lot of other very interesting material. A more thorough analysis is still required, but it may be that in June 1484 the town clerks decided to record some of the town’s court business in a separate register. For example, the ‘sasine register’ includes certain matters which were dealt with by only one or two officials and these no longer appear in the council registers. What is most noticeable when leafing through the ‘sasine register’ is its language. Whereas increasingly more Scots was used in the council registers in the second half of the fifteenth century, very few entries in Scots can be found in this book. It is possible that we will see a sharp drop in the use of Latin in the council registers around June 1484 because some of the business recorded in Latin was transferred to this other register. So far we have completed transcription of volumes 5 and 7 (and there appears to be a marked difference in the use of Latin between the two, as concluded by the LACR project’s own Anna Havinga) but have not yet reached 1484 in volume 6. It may also be that there was an increase in business in both Latin and Scots in the mid 1480s. Though we have yet to research this in detail, it is likely that Latin was used more for cases in which formulaic language could be used, that is to say anything that followed a standard format that had been used for years. Examples of this are sasines, the recovery of burghal tenements, inheritance cases (inquisitions post mortem), admissions of burgesses, nominations of procurators etc. This is not to say that all such cases would have been moved to the ‘sasine register’, as some needed to be conducted at specific courts. The recovery of burghal tenements, for example, had to be conducted at four head courts and would be recorded in the council registers. But certain business that could be administered quickly by a smaller number of officials may well have ended up in the other book.

In addition to such cases, there are copies of shipping contracts between skippers and merchants and many other notarial acts, but also fragments of poems and a recipe for a medicine for ‘stanes’ (gall or kidney stones). There are also, quite unexpectedly, entries from the sheriff court. These sheriff court entries will be among the oldest extant in Scotland. Of course, Aberdeenshire can already boast the oldest extant sheriff court book in Scotland (1503-1511)1, but even William Croft Dickinson, possibly the most knowledgeable on Aberdeen and its courts and the editor of the Fife Sheriff Court Book appears to have been unaware of the existence of fifteenth-century sheriff court cases from Aberdeen.

SR p. 37

The interrogation of Andrew Murray senior

The oldest sheriff court entry in the ‘sasine register’ concerns the interrogation of Andrew Murray senior by John Cheyne before Alexander Irvyne, sheriff depute of Aberdeen, as part of the examination into the spoiling of grass or turf in the parish of Ellon.2 Later entries indicate that more serious crimes were also investigated and tried before the Aberdeen sheriff court, as was to be expected. On the 10th of January 1486 Alexander Irvyne was in court to prosecute the killer of Andrew Kelor, but no one compeared (appeared).3 Proceedings on 9 June 1487 were more successful when the killer was known, though the entry confuses killer and killed as both were called Robert. In this case Robert Blindsele was sitting as deputy sheriff.4 Robert Black appeared in court with a letter of remission (forgiveness of wrongdoing) from the king concerning his killing of Robert Frostar and declared himself prepared to pay Frostar’s parents or nearest heirs compensation for his death, which no one objected to.5

SR p. 79

The case of the two Roberts

Though it appears that some of the sheriff court proceedings were held in the tolbooth, like the vast majority of the burgh courts, others appear to have taken place outside, at the mercat cross (‘Ad forum crucis’ in the second line of the image above). It is unclear whether this was a regular occurrence, but at least two of the courts recorded in the sasine register were held there. It should be noted, though, that both were in June. According to Croft Dickinson the sheriff courts in the head burghs of the shire were normally held in the tolbooth. But before the sixteenth century not all courts were held in the head burghs. Elsewhere in the shire people would gather at well-known landmarks, such as churches, or standing stones.6 Croft Dickinson did note a few examples of burgh courts being held at mercat crosses, but these were quite exceptional.7

All in all, the oldest ‘sasine register’ has proven to be another important treasure held by the Aberdeen archives and in recognition of this the manuscript was recently digitally photographed by the National Records of Scotland. But for now, its investigation lies in the hands of those willing to read through its pages one by one…

  1. ‘Illustrative examples’ of this were published in Records of the Sheriff Court of Aberdeenshire, Volume I. Records prior to 1600, ed. David Littlejohn (Aberdeen 1908). 
  2. ACAA, SR, 1, p. 37, 12 Apr 1485. 
  3. ACAA, SR, 1, p. 46. 
  4. On 30 June yet another deputy presided: John Collison. Both Collison and Blindsele would have been Aberdeen burgesses, whereas Irvyne was also laird of Drum. ACAA, SA, 1, p. 81. 
  5. ACAA, SR, 1, p. 79. 
  6. Fife Sheriff Court Book, ed. William Croft Dickinson (Edinburgh 1928), xviii-xix. 
  7. He notes an example from Haddington in 1391 and from Banff in 1549 and 1551. Early Records of Aberdeen, 1317, 1398-1407, ed. William Croft Dickinson (Edinburgh 1957), cxxiv, n. 7. 

One thought on “Manslaughter in 1480s Aberdeen: notes from another fifteenth-century register

  1. Pingback: The best helmsmen stand ashore?* | aberdeen registers

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