January Lectures on ‘The Common Books of Aberdeen, 1398-1511’

This month LACR alumna Dr Claire Hawes delivered a pair of joint lectures for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Scottish History Society.

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The subject was ‘The Common Books of Aberdeen’ and the presentation gave a fascinating overview of the historical richness of the council register volumes which have been at the core of the LACR project.  Claire delivered her talk to substantial audiences in Edinburgh on 14 January at the National Museum Scotland, and on 15 January in Aberdeen for the Aberdeen & North East Section of the Antiquaries. The lecture illuminated some of the aspects of medieval life that are apparent in the volumes: the role of crafts, the presence of animals, the regulation of behaviour, and the place of the burgh in the political affairs of the Scottish kingdom, to name just a few. The Scots language was also prominent in the colourful examples explored by Claire as she set out some of the ways in which the registers will serve as a bountiful resource for future research. Well done, Claire!

 

 

 

 

 

Holy days in late medieval Aberdeen

by Edda Frankot

The late medieval calendar was filled with feast days of saints. Some of these saint’s days were celebrated throughout Europe, such as those of Mary, John the Baptist and Peter, whereas others were locally significant, such as Margaret, Ninian and Machar in Scotland. Whereas elsewhere in Europe, dates were often entered into the record in relation to a saint’s day (such as, for example, ‘the Monday before the feast day of Saint Luke’), in Aberdeen in the late fourteenth century such dating was already becoming less common. In most of the volumes feast days are only very occasionally referred to when dating an entry, for example in the head court headings after Michaelmas (29 September), and then always accompanied with a date. This makes dating the LACR entries relatively easy.

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Nativity scene (c. 1492-4) by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican (photo EF)

Important holy days were referred to when people were required to pay the magistrates. Payments were regularly divided into instalments which were paid at particular times of the year. As such, Witsunday (Pentecost), Lammas or Peter in Chains (Petrus ad Vincula: 1 August) and Martinmas (11 November), all regularly appear in the corpus. The period around Christmas, like today, appears to have been a time when little official business was carried out. Considering the evidence from volume 7 (1487-1501), it is possible to conclude that there were usually no courts between 22 or 23 December and the Monday after 6 January when the Yule head court was held, though there were exceptions. Often the period before the Yule court was even longer: in 1496 the last court was held on 19 December, in 1491 on 17 December, in 1497 on 15 December, and in 1498 on 14 December. But there were also years in which a court took place on Christmas Eve. In 1488 bailie courts were held on both the 22nd and the 24th of December. There was obviously a lot of business that needed to be settled before Christmas. In 1495 a single entry was included on 24 December: an ‘assouerance gevin to Franch men’. The skipper, mariners and merchants of the Christofer from Dieppe were given free access to the port, and, as such, were able to celebrate Christmas in Aberdeen rather than having to remain at sea.1

On the few occasions that business was conducted between Christmas and the Yule head court this was usually not restricted to just one entry. In 1494 an entry was recorded between 23 and 31 December, a statute reining in the baxtars (who, as usual, were up to no good) was issued on the 31st of December, and a full bailie court was held on 2 January with five pieces of business attended to. In 1487 there was some unusual activity too: two entries were included on the 28th of December, one on the 31st and another one on the 3rd of January. It appears, then, that the tolbooth was not closed for business altogether over the Christmas period. Rather, the courts operated when required, like at other times of the year.

Holy days themselves were, however, not considered suitable for holding courts. So when the bailies had continued a court to a Monday in the following week, and this turned out to be a holy day, a note was added to the entry that the party should come to court the day after instead (‘and because that dai is haly T Fife balye has warnit him to compere on tusday the xxvj dai of nouembre’).2

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Curia legalis on 25 December?

It might be surprising, then, to find a court dated 25 December 1453, but it is clear from the full heading of this court that it was actually held on the 24th: ‘videlicet in profesto (i.e. the day before a feast day) Nativitatis Domini nostri Jhesu Christi’.3 The fact that 24 December 1453 was a Monday, and that this was a ‘curia legalis’ which was normally held on Mondays, confirms this. This is the only time that there is a reference to ‘Jhesu Christi’ in the corpus. The nativity itself is mentioned more regularly, namely as a term of payment like the other important holy days. The celebration of the nativity was not a matter for the courts. For this the burgesses and other inhabitants of late medieval Aberdeen will have gathered in the parish church and perhaps have shared a meal with loved ones in their homes.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from the LACR team!


  1. ACR, 7, p. 696 (24 Dec 1495). 
  2. ACR, 6, p. 766 (13 Nov 1482). 
  3. ACR, 5, p. 191 ([24] Dec 1453). 

Malice in Medieval Aberdeen

This month and last the language used to describe certain types of violent, but non-lethal, offences in the cases before the burgh courts of Aberdeen was the topic of two presentations by Jackson Armstrong. In Providence, Rhode Island on Friday 26 October, at the North American Conference on British Studies, Jackson spoke on ‘Malice’ and Motivation for Hostility in the Burgh Courts of Late Medieval Aberdeen. This was part of a panel of papers concerning England and Scotland, on late medieval and Tudor towns. At the Aberdeen Maritime Museum on 14 November Jackson spoke on a similar topic as a lunchtime talk.

Both events generated excellent interest and questions.

The story of Isabel Buchan (continued)

by Edda Frankot

In July 2016 I wrote a post called ‘Memory and proof of age (1507)’ about a case in which the Aberdeen court was trying to establish the age of a girl by deposing witnesses. The reason why her age needed to be established, was because the girl, Isabel Buchan, was under tutory, her father being deceased. At twelve, an orphaned girl would come into her inheritance, though she would remain under curatory until her marriage. This is why the witnesses were asked whether Isabel Buchan was either eleven or twelve.

From the entries surrounding these depositions I got the sense that there was a conflict between the tutor and what was probably a relative (though this is not clarified anywhere) about the execution of the tutory. But in order to find out more I would have had to go through the rest of the 1212 pages of volume 8, which was too time-consuming an exercise for a blog post. Now that volume 8 has been transcribed in full, though, a search through this register is quite straightforward with the search tool that will eventually become available online. As luck would have it, Isabel Buchan is a relatively uncommon name, which makes it is easy to trace her in the corpus. That is why I would briefly like to revisit this case to see what else can be found out about Isabel.

One of the most important entries in volume 8 concerning this case is the ‘inquisitio’, the retour of inquest, which established that Isabel Buchan was the heir of her father, William Buchan. This inquest was entered into the register on 17 June 1502, almost exactly five years before the depositions about Isabel’s age. It stated that the relevant property had been in the king’s keeping for the past year and half or so, while it was established who William’s heir was. This suggests that William Buchan died in late 1500 or early 1501. In 1507 the court concluded that Isabel was eleven, that is to say that she was born in 1496. Two of the witnesses at that time stated that she was baptised on the Monday before ‘fasterinevine’, Shrove Tuesday. In 1496 the Monday before Shrove Tuesday was 15 February. Taking into account that baptism took place soon after birth in the middle ages, and assuming that these witnesses remembered her birth correctly, Isabel was probably nearly five years old when her father died.

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The retour of inquest concerning Isabel Buchan’s inheritance in 1502 (ACR 8, p. 126).

It is difficult to find out much more about William Buchan, as there appear to be two men with that name in the burgh at the same time. The other William Buchan was a baker1, but is not always referred to as ‘baxtar’, which makes it difficult to establish which William Buchan is appearing in an entry. The other William Buchan died around October 1505. His brother Thomas was his heir.2 There is no mention of Isabel’s mother anywhere, and we do not know her name, which suggests that she passed away before her husband.

Isabel inherited a significant amount of property on her father’s death. The inquest names four pieces of land, in addition to three annual rents. Three of the properties were located in the Castlegate, whereas the fourth was in the Huksterrow, a street which linked the Castlegate and the Netherkirkgate. Most likely one of these was Isabel’s home. The annual rents were for two properties in Futy and one in the Upperkirkgate. The current value of the properties was stated to be 6 merks Scots.3 Compared to other inquests recorded in the registers, this was a relatively valuable portfolio. Perhaps this wealth was the reason that there were some disputes over Isabel’s tutory.

Isabel’s tutor was David Colp. It is unclear what his relation was to Isabel or her father. Soon after the inquisition John Cullen, who called Isabel his ‘tendir cosinage’, that is to say his young kinswoman, protested against the creation of Colp as Isabel’s tutor. He claimed that there were various kinsmen on her mother’s side who were ‘worthie to reule and govern hir landis and gudes’.4 This suggests that David Colp was not a kinsman on her mother’s side at least, and perhaps he was no kin at all. Cullen requested that Colp would get someone to stand caution to make sure that the properties would be given back to Isabel and her heirs once she reached the required age. William Colp, David Colp’s father, was brought forward as his caution.

In the following years, David Colp was in court regularly, acting on Isabel’s behalf. For example, in September 1502 a case concerning a silver belt which was laid in wed in Alexander Prat’s care came before the court. William Buchan had laid the belt in wed against the payment of five French merks for wheat which William had obtained from Walter Blacklug. The case against Alexander Prat dragged on for several months, as it was continued to a next court a few times. In January 1503 the case was continued to the first court after Easter, but it then disappears from the record.5

In October 1503 Colp was in court concerning a dispute with Thomas Ridale, who had apparently taken away a ‘countour’, a counting table, from a booth which Ridale claimed he rented from Isabel as the heir of her father. The court decided that Ridale needed to prove that he was renting the booth, but he was charged with wrongfully taking away the counting table irrespective of this.6

In May 1507 Robert Guthre started the suit which eventually resulted in the depositions on Isabel’s age. Again, it is unclear what Guthre’s relation to Isabel was, but it is apparent that he was unhappy about the continuing tutory of David Colp. The court subsequently asked both parties to bring proof and witnesses as to Isabel’s age.7 On 21 June it was established that Isabel was eleven years old. This was not, however, the end of the conflict between Colp and Guthre. A year later, in August 1508, a letter from King James IV was sent, which was subsequently included in the register. This concerned claims by father and son Colp that the Aberdeen court had not done its duty in administering justice in their case of ‘spulye’ against Robert Guthre despite royal pressure. As a result, James informed the Aberdeen magistrates that the case had now been taken up by the Lords of Council and ordered them to desist from any further proceedings in the case. On 3 November 1508 the Aberdeen court decided to adher to this order.8 Unfortunately, there is nothing else in the register about these claims of spuilzie and the outcome of the case.

8 p956 Buchan

Retour of inquest confirming Isabel as heir in 1509 (ACR 8, p. 956).

 

In May 1509, finally, Isabel Buchan was confirmed as the heir of William Buchan and given sasine of her lands and annual rents.9 By that time she was thirteen years old. It is not recorded who her curator was. There is nothing more about Isabel in volume 8, but she may well reappear in the following volumes, if anyone ever gets around to transcribing those…


  1. William Buchan, baxtar, was still alive in October 1502. ACR, 8, p. 162 (14 Oct 1502). 
  2. There are two inquests: ACR, 8, p. 522 (24 Nov 1505), p. 589 (26 Jun 1506). 
  3. ACR, 8, p. 126 (17 Jun 1502). 
  4. ACR, 8, p. 129 (20 Jun 1502). 
  5. ACR, 8, p. 154 (30 Sep 1502); depositions: p. 175 (9 Dec 1502); p. 179 (9 Jan 1503). 
  6. ACR, 8, p. 280 (23 Oct 1503); p. 288 (10 Nov 1503); p. 324 (26 Feb 1504). 
  7. ACR, 8, p. 692 (12 May 1507); p. 698 (28 May 1507). 
  8. ACR, 8, p. 910-11 (12 Aug 1508); p. 911 (3 Nov 1508). 
  9. ACR, 8, p. 956 (14 May 1509). 

The Nicholas and the Wormet family

by Edda Frankot

Aberdeen in the second half of the fifteenth century was the second busiest port in Scotland. But unlike in today’s harbour, where several ships arrive and depart on a daily basis, only a few vessels were anchored there throughout the year in the middle ages. In fact, there were rarely more than ten annually. The harbour of medieval Aberdeen was frequented by ships from various ports in north-western Europe, such as Dieppe, Veere, Stralsund and Danzig (Gdańsk). But there were also ships which hailed from Aberdeen itself. One such ship was the Nicholas.

When I was checking the transcriptions of the LACR corpus, I had already noticed the Nicholas. It seemed to appear relatively regularly and had a suitable name for a ship from Aberdeen. I had also noticed that two men from the same Wormet family were engaged on the Nicholas as a shipmaster.1 Were Robert and Magnus father and son, and did the son take on the role of shipmaster when his father retired? And what type of ship was the Nicholas? Was she even one ship? These were questions I tried to answer for a public talk that I presented at the Maritime Museum last June, and which I will briefly discuss here.

The Nicholas is by far the most prominent vessel in the council registers. It appears on various occasions in the period from 1458 to 1493. It is possible that there were a number of consecutive ships called the Nicholas. In most of the entries she is simply called ‘schip’. But in a few cases a specific ship type is mentioned. In 1458 she was called a barge, in 1463 a balinger and in 1480 and 1489 a caravel. Barges and balingers are generally considered to have been fairly similar, and relatively small ships, though the bishop of St Andrews owned a very large (500-tun) barge. A caravel, on the other hand, was considered to be a slightly different, and larger ship. But the council registers also make mention of ‘the small caravel’ at some point, so she may have been a relatively small one. It could be that between 1463 and 1480 one Nicholas was replaced with another, but the general confusion concerning ship types in the middle ages may also have resulted in the Nicholas simply being called different things throughout her career.

It appears that shipmasters changed ship on a regular basis, as no less than eight men are named as the master of the Nicholas between 1458 and 1493 and there may have been more.2 Some were only engaged for a single journey. There is also some information on who owned the ship in the sources, but this is far from complete. As was common in this period, the Nicholas was owned by a group of people. In 1458, for example, Robert Gray, who was also shipmaster of the Nicholas, sold his quarter of the ship to John Stewart.3 Magnus Wormet also owned part of the ship for a while, as will become apparent below.

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ACR 5, p. 342: David Dun questions the selling of a quarter of the Nicholas by Robert Gray to John Stewart (1458).

As said, two members of the Wormet family were involved with the ship, but it has proven difficult to establish their relationship to each other. They may have been father and son, and the latter may have taken over the role of shipmaster from the former, but this is in no way certain. Looking at Robert and Magnus in more detail does provide us with more of a glimpse of shipping in medieval Aberdeen.

Robert Wormet was admitted as a burgess and guild brother in 1440. By 1442 he was married to a woman called Marjory, whose last name is not mentioned. Robert had at least two sons, David and John, the latter of whom he bodily harmed according to a charge made against him in 1467. He was already involved in shipping in 1442, when his wife appeared in court concerning a ship’s part owned by him. Presumably he was away from Aberdeen himself at the time. In 1444 he demanded freight from a merchant in court, so he must have been acting as a shipmaster by then. Five years later he reported on a decision from a court in the Low Countries concerning the pay of his crew after his ship had driven onto the Netherlandish coast through storm while on its way to London with a cargo of salmon.4

In 1455 Robert is named as the shipmaster of another ship, the Martin. The cargo of the Martin had been taken by an English ship. Between 1463-1469 he appeared in court on a number of occasions as the master of the Nicholas. With this vessel too, he ended up in a different port than planned: in 1468 five merchants complained that the Nicholas had sailed to Zeeland instead of to Le Havre. In this case the assize (jury) decided in Wormet’s favour: he had been right to go to Zeeland, as this was where the merchants who were on board with him wanted to go.5

6 p62 Nicholas

ACR 6, p. 62: Robert Wormot defends his decision to sail to Zeeland (1468).

Robert Wormet last appears as a shipmaster in 1469. His last appearance altogether is in 1472.6 Magnus Wormet first appears as a shipmaster soon after Robert’s disappearance from the records, but this may be just a coincidence. He first appears in the council registers in 1453 in a case of disturbance. He is also named as the co-owner of a ship in 1463. Magnus lived in the ‘vico navium’, i.e. on Shiprow – a suitable place for a man involved in shipping.

It may be that Magnus was master of the Nicholas as early as 1473 (or even earlier). In that year he travelled to England on an unnamed ship carrying salmon. In 1476 he took another cargo of salmon to England. But we only know for sure that he was the shipmaster of the Nicholas’ in 1478, carrying malt from an unknown port, while at the same time owning a third of her.7 In 1484 Magnus made his wife, who remains unnamed, his procurator. His wife was to ‘do for him in his absence what he might do himself’.8 Obviously both Magnus and Robert trusted their wives to take care of business in their absence. This does not go without saying: usually other men were appointed as procurators, and only very rarely do we see women in this role in the fifteenth century.

Magnus was still the part owner of the Nicholas after he stopped being her master. It is unclear whether he continued to act as a shipmaster after that time or only as a merchant and part owner. The naming of his wife as his procurator does suggest regular time away from home. Magnus Wormet must have died between October 1491, when he last appeared in court alive, and April 1492, when his widow claimed the freight for Magnus’ part of the Nicholas.9

A final aspect that appears to have been a regular part of many a shipmaster’s life was appearing in court for disturbance. Robert and Magnus Wormet were both charged on a number of occasions for ‘perturbatio’, in Scots ‘strublance’, a term which was used for a great variety of disturbances, both verbal and physical, and against individuals, public order and the court. Other shipmasters also regularly feature in such entries, most notably David Dun and David Hervy. Often there was a charge of disturbance of one against another and then vice versa in the next entry. In 1453, for example, Robert Wormet and David Dun were both convicted of distrubling the other. In 1449 David Dun and David Hervy were in court for common brawling and disturbance and also for disobeying a baillie (who was in turn charged with distrubling David Hervy!). The year before Hervy had already been accused of disobeying a baillie and distrubling David Dun.10 And there are several more examples to be found.

5-1 p12 Nicholas

ACR 5, p. 12: David (and John) Hervy vs David Dun and John Voket, the baillie (1449).

It appears that occasionally these convictions took place around the time that the men appeared in court opposing the same person, so it may well be that emotions were running a bit high, which resulted in the men throwing obscenities at each other and at the court officials. Life at sea may also have made these men a little rough around the edges. Or perhaps a maritime career was considered suitable for them because of their characters. But at the same time these men often served on assizes and juries, or as arbitrators in maritime cases, as they had great practical knowledge of such matters and were well respected for their opinions. Hervy, for example, was one of the men on the assize that decided in Robert Wormet’s favour in 1468 when he had sailed to Zeeland instead of to Normandy. Most of the maritime cases were decided by assizes of men who were involved in overseas trade, be they shipowners, merchants, skippers, or even occasionally helmsmen.

As a result of their regular appearances in court, it is possible to find out relatively much about these men. As such, Robert and Magnus Wormet’s story serves as a useful example with regards to what information can be found concerning individual medieval Aberdonians once the LACR corpus will be available and searchable online.


  1. At this time there was not yet any differentiation between shipmaster and ship’s captain. The shipmaster was also in charge of navigating the ship, though he may have been assisted by a helmsman, as well as by pilots when sailing in unknown or treacherous waters. 
  2. The eight shipmasters of the Nicholas are: Robert Gray (1458); David Dun (1458); Robert Wormet (1463-69); Magnus Wormet (1478); John Fichet (1480); William Gareache (1489-92); Alexander Makeson (1489, on outward journey only); Thomas Bard (1493). 
  3. ACR, 5, p. 342 (9 May 1458). 
  4. ACR, 4, p. 191 (8 Feb 1440); p. 278 (18 Sep 1442); ACR, 5, p. 549 (9 May 1465); p. 622 (22 Dec 1467); ACR, 6, p. 190 (2 Sep 1472); ACR, 4, p. 362 (9 Oct 1444); ACR, 5, 29 (8 Feb 1449). 
  5. ACR, 5, p. 277 (10 Mar 1455); p. 481 (5 May 1463); p. 578 (24 Mar 1466); ACR, 6, 61 (16 Sep 1468), p. 62 (16 Sep 1468); p. 87 (5 Jun 1469). 
  6. ACR, 6, p. 190 (2 Sep 1472). 
  7. ACR, 5, p. 187 (28 Oct 1453); p. 481 (5 May 1463); for example ACR, 6, p. 839 (26 Apr 1484); p. 230 (16 Mar 1473); p. 422 (23 Feb 1476); p. 521 (23 Feb 1478). 
  8. ACR, 6, p. 847 (14 May 1484). 
  9. ACR, 7, p. 276 (24 Oct 1491); p. 312 (30 Apr 1492). 
  10. ACR, 5, p. 187 (28 Oct 1453); p. 36 (15 Feb 1449); p. 12 (8 Aug 1448). 

LACR activities over the summer

Members of the LACR team and LACR alumni presented a number of talks and papers over the summer, engaging the public and disseminating research.

In June Edda Frankot held a talk at the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen entitled ‘The Nicholas and other ships from medieval Aberdeen. Evidence from the Council Registers’. This offered some brand new insights into the contents of the corpus utilising the now complete transcriptions and the search tool which has been developed by third-year students from the university and which will form the basis of the tool that should ultimately become available to the public. The talk concerned the ships from Aberdeen that were active in long-distance shipping in the fifteenth century, their shipmasters and owners, and their cargo. It also asked why the skippers, shipowners and merchants ended up in court, as the council registers are, of course, mainly legal records. A separate blog post on some of the aspects of this talk will be published separately soon.

In July LACR was represented at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds with a paper entitled ‘Legal Business outside the Courts: Private and Public Houses as Spaces of Law in the fifteenth century’ presented by Edda Frankot. This paper was part of a session entitled ‘Fiat Iustitia: The Practice of Law inside and outside the Courts’. This session also included papers by Bridgette Slavin from Medaille College in New York on ‘Youthful Offenders in the Courts of 13th- and 14th-Century Ireland’ and by Joseph Figliulo-Rosswurm from the University of California in Santa Barbara on ‘Between the Tactics of the Weak and the Technology of Power: Memory in a Florentine Criminal Court, c. 1343-1363’, though the latter unfortunately had to cancel.

In August, LACR alumna Anna Havinga (Bristol University) presented two papers at conferences in Scotland: ‘Dutch elements in the Aberdeen Council Registers (1398-1511)’, at the 12th Forum for Research on Languages of Scotland and Ulster Triennial Conference in Glasgow, and ‘The emergence of the vernacular in 15th-century Scottish legal texts’, at the 20th International Conference on English Historical Linguistics in Edinburgh.

For the EAUH conference (European Association for Urban History) at the end of August in Rome, Andrew Simpson co-organised a session with Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz from the University of Amsterdam on ‘Cultures of Law in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Town’. This included a paper co-written by Jackson Armstrong and Edda Frankot on ‘Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe’, as well as papers by Frans Camphuijsen from the University of Amsterdam (‘Law courts and contested legal culture in the towns of late medieval Europe’), Griet Vermeesch and Ans Vervaeke from the Free University of Brussels (‘The gatekeepers of urban justice. The pivotal role of lower legal professionals in legal culture in the eighteenth-century Habsburg Low Countries’), and Miriam Tveit from Nord University in Bodø (Urban law in market towns. Legal cultural encounters in 14th and 15th century Scandinavia).

EAUHsession2018

Finally, the September edition of ARC Magazine (the monthly magazine of the Archives and Records Association), which this month is devoted to the topic of Archives and Technology, contains a short illustrated article by City Archivist and LACR project partner Phil Astley entitled ‘Transcription and Technology: Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers, 1398-1511’.

Lunchtime Talk: The Nicholas and other ships from medieval Aberdeen

Please join us on Wednesday 6 June at the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen where Edda Frankot will be presenting brand-new findings about the ships that hailed from medieval Aberdeen, based on the transcriptons from the LACR project. Who sailed these ships, who owned them, were did they go and what did they carry? Most of the information that has survived is included in records of legal cases, so another important question is: why did the skippers, shipowners and merchants of Aberdeen end up in court? Find out on 6 June at 12.30 at the Maritime Museum. Admission free.

‘In bargia Comitis orcadie’. A brief glimpse into Scottish-Scandinavian trade

In our first guest blog post Ian Peter Grohse shares his insights on an entry from the Aberdeen registers which feature the Norwegian king and a barge belonging to the earl of Orkney.  Ian is Associate Professor in History at the University of Tromsø and the author of Frontiers for Peace in the Medieval North. The Norwegian-Scottish Frontier c. 1260-1470 (Leiden 2017).

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ACR, 4, p. 407 (17 July 1445)

Historians have long appreciated Orkney’s role as a political intermediary between the royal orbits of Norway and Scotland throughout the Middle Ages. The isles’ commercial relations to these mainland kingdoms and other North Sea and North Atlantic communities have received comparatively little attention. While I have previously theorized that Norwegian-Scottish agreements concerning Orkney, including the monumental Treaty of Perth from 1266, were designed to facilitate mobility and trade between Scotland and Scandinavia, the relative lack of written evidence has largely obscured our image of commercial interactions in practice.1 Newly uncovered documents, brought to light through the transcriptions of the LACR project, provide fresh insight into the nature of commerce in and beyond the Pentland Firth.

The most illuminating stems from July 1445. It recounts the sworn testimony of one John Michaelson before the provost and baillies in the burgh of Aberdeen. Michaelson related that certain merchants travelling to Scawe gave one John Adamson full authority to procure dyestuff (woad) from a barge belonging to the earl of Orkney.2 Although the scribe fails to specify Scawe’s exact location, he was likely referring to Skagen on the spearpoint of the Danish peninsula. Elevated as a market town by King Eric III of Denmark and Norway only decades prior, in 1413, Skagen provided an expedient gateway for western merchants seeking access to commercial activities in the Baltic. Although there are other locations bearing the same name, for instance Skaw on the northern tip of Unst, in Shetland, the wares in transit suggest that they originated in a larger market, such as those in Denmark or Northern Germany.

The earl in question was William I Sinclair, the second (or third – it is unclear whether William’s father, Henry II, was ever formally invested) of his line to hold the earldom on behalf of the Norwegian crown. Invested in 1434, William I’s political standing with his Scandinavian lords was somewhat precarious. Following a long and turbulent campaign for succession, William proved to be an unreliable vassal and was eventually deposed of his office by King Christian I in 1461. The document in question is remarkable as it sheds a small flood of light on the earl’s relations with his Scandinavian monarch prior to his estrangement in the 1450s and 1460s. It suggests that, at this stage, William I’s relations with the Norwegian crown were functional and pragmatic from a commercial standpoint: according to the report, the dyestuff onboard the earl’s vessel belonged to the king of Norway – Christopher I – and should be recompensed to that monarch and his intromitters.

The account provides a unique insight into the commercial orbit emanating from the earldom of Orkney. To the south, the isles were linked to Aberdeen, the largest burgh in northern Scotland and a natural platform for commercial interaction with the Northern Isles. That town’s association with the isles dates to at least the late thirteenth century, when royal officials in Aberdeen began making annual donations of wine and bread for mass at St Magnus Cathedral. More interesting (and perhaps unexpected) is the earldom’s apparent integration in the Scandinavian trading sphere. I have previously, and perhaps too hastily, proposed that trade between the isles and Scandinavia had all but dried up by the fifteenth century.3 While Scandinavian markets may not have been as central to Orkney’s commercial outlooks as they had in the early and central Middle Ages, the evidence here suggests that the Orkney earldom continued to foster commercial interaction across the North Sea, providing an expedient logistical intermediary between Scotland and Scandinavia.

It is unclear whether the well-documented political discord between the Norwegian king and his Orcadian vassal affected or disrupted that arrangement in later decades. Perhaps new finds from the Aberdeen registers will shed light on these and other mysteries.


  1. Ian Peter Grohse, Frontiers for Peace in the Medieval North. The Norwegian-Scottish Frontier c. 1260-1470 (Leiden 2017), 47-82. 
  2. ACR, 4, p. 407 (17 July 1445). 
  3. Ian Peter Grohse. ‘Orknøyene og Norgesveldet: Økonomisk eller politisk avhengighet?’, Heimen 51 (2014), 307-18, here 313. 

Keeping medieval Aberdeen’s streets clean and safe

by Edda Frankot

The medieval magistrates of Aberdeen, like their modern counterparts, were concerned with the accessibility and cleanliness of its roads, with building regulations and with potentially hazardous sites. Unlike the modern city council, however, the medieval government only had a small amount of staff working for it permanently or on an annual basis, such as clerks, sergeants and a bellman. For other tasks adhoc committees or officials were appointed. But there may also have been others doing duties which remain largely invisible in the sources as they have survived, because these duties were not directly relevant to the court, unlike those mentioned above. The only aspects worthy of noting were their appointment and any financial arrangements.

In 1479, for example, the alderman, council and community hired Alexander Coutts to mend the causeways and gutters of the town and to keep all the streets clean so that ‘al men may haf honest and clene passage throuch al the toune’. He would be paid by the people of Aberdeen as follows: all owners of houses with a fireplace (‘fyre house’) would pay him a penny. All other ‘outburgesses’, ‘inburgesses’ (that is to say burgesses living outwith and within the bounds of the town respectively) and ‘indwellers’ (non-burgesses) who had a chamber or a house would also pay a penny, half of them at Martinmass (11 November), the other half at Whitsunday.1

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ACR, 6, pp. 599-600.

An adhoc committee of 9 or 10 ‘of the best of the town’ was to be appointed by the alderman and baillies in 1449 to go round the streets with the ‘gangand assize’2 to investigate any ‘purprisioun’ or purpresture, that is to say the ‘illegal enclosure or encroachment upon the land or property of another’, often on public or common land.3 Wherever there was any such encroachment, they were to make note of it and charge whoever was responsible to rectify the problem within forty days.4 This exercise resembles a perambulation. The fact that any failure to comply takes place under ‘pain of purprisioune of the king’ also suggests that public property is the focus of the action, which was also the case in perambulations. Different from other known perambulations is the absence of the rest of the population when doing the ambulating and the route followed. This seems to have been a check of encroachments along the streets of Aberdeen’s inner city, rather than along the inner or outer march stones, which were further out.

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ACR, 5-1, p. 34.

The assize was also to check whether houses were safe. If any were found to be ‘unsufficient’, the owners would be allowed only eight days to repair them. Otherwise the baillies would come and take down the doors and windows and make the place uninhabitable.5 In the case of houses in disrepair, the town magistrates thus took a rather abrupt approach. This may have done wonders in getting those buildings repaired quickly by owners who could afford to get workmen out to do the job. But it would be a disastrous policy for landlords (and/or anyone living in their houses) who could not act so swiftly for whatever reason. There is no further evidence whether such people could receive a deferral if requested.

These three entries show that the town magistrates cared about the cleanliness and safety of Aberdeen’s streets and buildings and organised the maintenance and oversight of it, though based on these three entries it is difficult to say how regular this was. The town government was also concerned about any encroachments on public property and so they organised checks of this. This is a fact already well known from the history of the perambulations, or ‘riding of the marches’, though most of the information we have about this is post-medieval.6 As such, these entries form a useful addition to our knowledge of local government in the later Middle Ages.

 


  1. ACR, 6, p. 599-600 (13 Sep 1479). 
  2. It is not entirely clear what the gangand assize is. It would make sense if the nine or ten men chosen would make up this assize, but the way it is phrased these men are to go with the assize. 
  3. ‘Purprestur(e n.’, Dictionary of the Scots Language (2004) Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 2 Mar 2018 <http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/purpresture
  4. ACR, 5-1, p. 34 (c. 15 Feb 1449). 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. See for example: The Freedom Lands and Marches of Aberdeen, 1319-1929 (Aberdeen 1929). This includes a map of the inner and outer marches perambulation routes. A recent sample check of the registers from the 1630s-60s has shown that the list of ‘References in Council Registers to Perambulations of the Marches’ (Appendix V, p. 35) is not in any way complete. 

Transcription volumes 1-7 completed!

by Edda Frankot

An important project milestone was reached last month when the last words of volumes 1-7 were transcribed on the afternoon of 18 January. The transcription of the first seven volumes, up to the year 1501, is now complete. Over the past eighteen months or so, the project’s two research assistants, Claire Hawes and William Hepburn, with a small amount of assistance of yours truly, have transcribed 4027 pages – no mean feat!

This does not mean, of course, that the project as a whole is now finished. The checking of the transcription and annotations is still in full flow. Once that is completed a final phase of getting the corpus ready to go online will commence. In the meantime, thanks to generous additional support from Aberdeen City Council to enhance the project, Claire and William have begun the transcription of volume 8. This volume will at least partly be transcribed traditionally, but there are also ongoing investigations into the possibility of having this book machine-transcribed for us by a project called READ. Watch this space for updates on that! Overall our final corpus will in part contain a level of annotation enhanced beyond our original specification.

Now that the transcription of volumes 1-7 is complete, it has been possible to do a word count. This count confirms our suspicions that volume 6 includes a relatively large amount of material, but also brings up some other fascinating facts. The total count as it stands now (this number will most likely change slightly during the final stages of the checking process) is 1,391,217 words. To put this in perspective: Shakespeare’s complete works total 884,421 words. A significant chunk of our nearly 1.4 million corpus (so far) is taken up by volume 6: 539,254 words (39%). By contrast, volume 7, which has 137 pages more than volume 6, contains ‘only’ 332,392 words (24%). On average, then, there are about 547 words on every page of volume 6, but only 296 on those of volume 7. The average across all volumes is about 300 words per page. The scribe of a large part of volume 6 used more of the pages (he only left one of the margins blank, rather than both), he placed his text lines closer together and appears to have written in a smaller hand. The volume with the lowest amount of words per page is volume 2, at only 189. This results from many blank spaces left between court entries, and blank pages.

Above: An illustration of different page word densities and lay-outs: ACR, 6, p. 752 (left) and ACR, 7, p. 508 (right).

LACR Corpus Word Count

It has also been possible to differentiate between words in Latin and in Scots (and those from entries in ‘multiple languages’, that is to say entries with a lot of switches between Latin and Scots, which typically occurs in lists of names). Overall 58% of the corpus is in Latin, 41.1% is in Scots and 0.9% in multiple languages. Two entries are in Dutch. In volumes 1 and 2 (1398-1414) only slightly more than 1% of the words are in Scots. In volume 4 (1433-1447) this rises to nearly 9%. By volume 6 (1468-1486) the division between the two languages is almost exactly 50-50, whereas in volume 7 (1487-1501) more than 68% is in Scots. Much more detailed research into this phenomenon is of course undertaken by our former text enrichment research fellow, Anna Havinga. Anna not only distinguishes between words and entries in Scots and Latin, but she also analyses the development of the language shift by year. But even the very coarse overview given here already throws up some fascinating first indications which future research will hopefully be able to elaborate upon.