The best helmsmen stand ashore?*

(* Literal translation of the Dutch expression ‘De beste stuurlui staan aan wal’, which is used to indicate that it is easy to criticise someone doing a job when one is watching from the sidelines.)

by Edda Frankot

ACR, 5, p. 542 (1465)

5-1 p542

On the thirteenth of March 1465 three merchants appeared before one of the baillies sitting in the tolbooth. They showed an indenture made between merchants of Aberdeen and Johannes Wolffyne, the master of a bus (a type of cargo or fishing vessel) called the Johannes. This indenture, a charter written in duplicate on the same sheet which was usually separated by cutting along a jagged line, concerned a sea journey. The three men who had appeared in court asked that a specific section of the contract be recorded in the burgh’s ‘common book’ by the court clerk and notary public. This request and the entry as a whole are interesting on a number of levels.

First of all it is interesting linguistically: the entry itself is in Latin, but the quoted words from the contract are in Scots. I would have expected the shipping contract, between Aberdeen merchants and what appears to be a foreign skipper on the basis of his unusual last name, also to have been in Latin. Some examples of similar documents which are recorded in the oldest Sasine Register (see the earlier post about this book) are in Latin. Of course, it is possible that the words were translated specifically for this recording, for the benefit of the merchants perhaps, but that does not make it any less interesting.

Secondly, the entry is informative from a maritime historical and legal perspective: the words specify that the skipper should employ a ‘gud sufficiande sterman’, that is to say a helmsman or pilot, to navigate the coasts of Scotland, England, Flanders, Holland and Zeeland. Apparently the skipper was known not to have these skills himself, which suggests that he was either inexperienced on the whole or on this particular route, or that he had a certain reputation for bad steermanship. The fifteenth century is a time when duties aboard ships became increasingly more specialised, with the skipper evolving into a captain, commanding officers like helmsmen below him rather than navigating the ship himself. But the fact that these words were included specifically, and repeated in the register, does indicate a situation that was not entirely normal. The two shipping contracts that are recorded in the oldest Sasine Register do not include a similar stipulation. They do, however, require sufficient sailors, cables, anchors, fire and water, among other things, to be taken on board.1

Finally, the entry is interesting within the context of the development of written records. Despite the existence of a contract in duplicate, the three men thought it necessary to show the document before the court and to have some of its words recorded separately in the burgh’s register. This was most likely done as an extra precaution, should both copies be lost and any problems occur on the journey. Again, this suggests that the merchants were not entirely confident of the shipmaster. In the later fifteenth century, this entry would most likely have ended up in the so-called Sasine Register, which appears to have been a type of protocol book, but a similar book was most likely not yet in existence in the 1460s. Notaries public at this time were often also active as burgh clerks, as evidenced by this entry. As a result, the registers often include a mix of actual court cases and matters of voluntary justice, that is to say matters for which we would today use a notary, like this one.

Unfortunately, we do not know whether any problems occurred during the journey to the Low Countries. Johannes Wolffyne does appear elsewhere in the registers, but this is just two days after this entry, when he and his sailors were charged with ‘perturbatio’ (disturbance) against William Menzies and his ‘accomplices’. It appears that the two groups of men had gotten into a fight, as Menzies and his associates were similarly charged. On the 18th of March, all the men were back in court and this time they were all listed (see images below). They were made, by the alderman and council, to ask each other for forgiveness and to take each other by the hand and forgive each other on pain of a fine.2 If Wolffyne did come back to Aberdeen after this, his following visits will have been less eventful as he leaves no further trace in the records here.

Transcription ARO-05-0542-04:

xiijo die mensis Marcij anno Domini et cetera lxiiijto coram Thoma de Camera uno ballivorum huius burgi protribunale sedente in pretorio eiusdem Dauid filius Mathei Willelmus de Kantle et Alexander de Marr’ comparuerunt et demonstraverunt quandam indenturam factam inter mercatores huius burgi et Johannem Wolffyne magistrum cuiusdam busche vulgaliter nuncupate Johannes penes naulacionem dicte navis sue et in eadem indentura fuit expressatum hec verba sequentia and that the saide maystir sal finde in his schip a gud sufficiande sterman for the costis of Scotlande Inglande Flandris Holande and Selande / et hec verba dicti Dauid Wilelmus et Alexander pecierunt scribi in libro communi per me clericum curie et notarium publicum


  1. ACAA, Sasine Register, vol. 1, p. 144 (15 Oct 1489), p. 170 (10 Feb 1489). 
  2. ACR, 5, p. 535 (15 March 1465), p. 536 (18 Mar 1465). 

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