Good spirits: the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland

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Entry ARO-8-0466-02 appears on the left-hand page. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 contains an entry which mentions ‘ane stellatour for aquavite and ros wattir’. This is the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland. It is in ARO-8-0466-02, from a case heard in 1505 by the bailies concerning the inheritance of goods belonging to a chaplain called Sir Andrew Gray, who died in 1504.

The find was made by Dr Claire Hawes during the transcription phase of the project  when Claire was working through register volume eight.

The reference enriches our understanding of the early development of Scotch whisky, placing the apparatus for making aquavite in the renaissance burgh, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.

We are delighted to announce a gift of £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, a company with historic connections to Aberdeen and which owns some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries including The Glenlivet and Aberlour. That gift will fund new research into the still and associated stories in the ARO.

For more information see today’s press release and videos for social media: Was Aberdeen the birthplace of Scotch Whisky?

 

 

The Still in context: a list of early references related to aquavite in Scotland

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ARO-8-0466-02 detail. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

The following is a compilation of early references related to aquavite in Scotland:

Distillation of alcohol was an ancient scientific practice which came to be established in Europe by the twelfth century (especially at Salerno and Cologne).

1494-5 (ER, x, p. 487) Account of the chamberlain of the sheriffdom of Fife: ‘Et per liberacionem factam fratri Johanni Cor per preceptum compotorum rotulatoris, ut asserit, de mandata domini regis ad faciendum aqua vite infra hoc compotum, viij bolle brasii’ [=payment made to Friar John Cor for eight bolls of malt for making ‘aqua vite’].

1497 (TA, i, p. 373) ‘Item, to the barbour that brocht aqua vite to the King in Dunde, be the Kingis command ix s’.

1501 (TA, ii, p. 115) ‘Item, for I galloun of aqua vite to the powder, xxs iiij d’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 361) ‘Item, for v ½ chopinnis of aqua vite to the curyis of quinta essencia xj s’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 363) ‘Item, to the maister cuke, that he laid doun for glasses and flacatis for stilling of wateres and othir stuf, and for fire to the stillatouris, iij li. xiiij s’.

1505 (ARO-8-0466-02) ‘The saide day [20 June 1505] It was fundin and deliuerit be ane Inquest of the court that ane stellatour’ for aquavite and ros’ wattir was ayrschipe tharfor the balyeis ordanit and chargit george barbour’ to deliuere the stellatour’ being in his handis pertening tile vmquhile sere Androw gray to mastir Androw crafurd’ procurator to dene Robert Keruour’ ayr to the saide vmquhile ser Androu’.

1505 (Edin. Recs, i, pp. 101-104) Seal of Cause to Barbers and Surgeons, by the provost, bailies & council of Edinburgh [1 July 1505], including that no man ‘within this burgh mak nor sell ony aquavite within the samyn except the saidis maisteris brether and friemen of the saidis craftis…’

1506 (TA, iii, p. 183) ‘For aqua vite to the quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, p. 187) ‘Robert Herwort for aqua vitae taken from him, 14s’; (TA, iii, p. 188) ‘for vij quartis aqua vite to quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, pp. 332, 343, 344) further payments listed, &c.

1507 (TA, iv, p. 79) ‘wyne to the abbot of Tungland [=John Damien] to mak quinta essencia’; (TA, iv, p. 92) ‘Payit to William Foular, potingair, for potingary to the king and quene, distillatioun of wateris aqua vite’;

1508 (TA, iv, p. 122) ‘j galloun small aqua vite to the abbot of Tungland’ [=John Damien]; (TA, iv, p. 137) ‘For making of ane bos hed to ane stellatour of silvir weyand x unce iij quartaris of his aun stuf deliverit to Maister Alexander Ogilvy for quinta essencia’;

1518 (Reg. Episc. Aberd., ii, p. 174) [inventory of items in the wardrobe of Bishop Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen] ‘…The pypis of ane aqua vite falt’.

Date unknown. (Kelso Liber, ii, p. 448) A treatise on plague was composed by John of Burgundy about 1390, the original referring to eaue distilacion and eaue des herbes. A copy of the treatise was held at Kelso Abbey. A short, undated, translation into Middle Scots was kept at Kelso and that refers to ‘water stillit of thir iiij herbys…’. Neither the original nor the translation mentions eau de vie / aqua vitae, or alcohol.

 

Sources (in addition to Aberdeen Registers Online):

[Edin. Recs.] Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1403-1528, ed. J. D. Marwick (Edinburgh, 1869)

[ER] The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ed. J. Stuart et al., 23 vols (Edinburgh, 1878–1908)

[Kelso Liber] Liber S. Marie de Calchou, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1846)

[Reg. Episc. Aberd.] Registrum episcopatus Aberdonensis: ecclesia cathedralis aberdonensis: regesta que extant in unum collecta, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1845)

[TA] Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1473–1498, ed. T. Dickson and J.B. Paul et al., 13 vols (Edinburgh, 1877–1978)

Celebration at the Town House

On the evening of 14 June a special event was held in the Town House to mark the completion of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers project.

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L-R: Vice-Principal Professor Marion Campbell, Dr Andrew Simpson, Dr Edda Frankot, Dr William Hepburn, Lord Provost Barney Crockett, Dr Jackson Armstrong, Dr Claire Hawes, City Archivist Mr Phil Astley. Photo Credit: Norman Adams / Copyright Aberdeen City Council.

The eight earliest-surviving council register volumes were on display, and music and talks highlighted vignettes from the new resource created by this project, Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398–1511. Lord Provost Barney Crockett spoke on behalf of the City of Aberdeen, and Vice-Principal Professor Marion Campbell on behalf of the University of Aberdeen.

The event opened with a performance on recorder by Ruaraidh Wishart, Ed Friday, Kate Friday, and Marie McLean of a special composition entitled Fantasia for a Doric Fishman. The piece drew inspiration from the so-called ‘Fishman’, one of the most well-known decorations in the registers (see ARO-2-0102-01). Until recently moving to Abertay University, Ruaraidh Wishart was a senior archivist with the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives.

Short talks and highlights were given by LACR members, including Jackson Armstrong, Phil Astley, Edda Frankot, Andrew Simpson, and Claire Hawes. The evening also showcased some creative follow-on projects in response to the registers.

William Hepburn introduced Playing in the Archives, his Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Creative Economies Engagement Fellowship, which investigates how Aberdeen’s registers could provide the inspiration for video game development. William explained how he is assessing the effectiveness of video games as a scholarly medium for examining the burgh records and the historical subjects they inform.

Claire Hawes and musicians Davy Cattanach and Paddy Buchanan performed four Songs from Medieval Aberdeen. Claire’s introduction to their music explained that their composition project was made possible with a 2018 Creative Funding Award from Aberdeen City Council. The trio set out to explore how songwriters can use historical material in their work. These original songs were the result, inspired by stories and themes from the records, and the Scots language of the registers.

There was also a special cake, decorated by Aberdeen cake makers O’Caykx, which displayed some of the information about the words and languages of the registers in icing.

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ARO Infographic Cake: Showing proportions of Latin and vernacular words in each register through the scrumptious medium of icing. Photo credit: Jackson Armstrong.

The cake icing depicted the proportion of words in each register in Latin (dark icing) and Scots (light icing). The small amount of orange marked in registers five and six reflects the appearance of a small amount of Dutch (or Middle Low German) in those volumes. The later registers have a greater proportion of content in Scots, and a greater number of words overall. It was a delicious way to mark the completion of the project!

Out now: Aberdeen Registers Online

We are very pleased to announce the publication of Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 (ARO), the digital transcription of the first eight volumes of the Aberdeen Council Registers.

digital transcription

From the new ARO website housed within the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, the complete resource is available for download as a set of XML files. The website also links to a prototype search platform which allows searching and browsing within the ARO, and display of corresponding images from the registers.

For more information see the following press release, out today: Opening up Aberdeen’s ‘jewel in the crown’ to the world

 

Songs from Medieval Aberdeen

Dr Claire Hawes has collaborated with musicians Davy Cattanach and Paddy Buchanan to explore how songwriters can use historical material in their work. As part of the University of Aberdeen’s May Festival the trio performed today a set of original songs composed in response to the contents of the Aberdeen council registers.

Songs2 crop

The performance included an introduction by Claire into the nature of the collaboration, its steps and dialogues, and the question of how historians can contribute to the creative process. Claire, Davy and Paddy set out to answer the question by writing songs based on Aberdeen’s medieval town records. The introduction explained how the group encountered some expected differences between historical research and song writing, but also found some similarities.

The Songs from Medieval Aberdeen experiment was a success – resulting in composition of four songs, entitled Balingar, Kervel, Candilmas Time, The Brokin Folkis, and The Fisher Folk of Futy. Each song tells its own story from the Aberdeen registers, and was performed on guitar and bodhran with vocals in Scots. Claire’s introduction examined how the lyrics were crafted neither in Middle Scots nor Modern Scots (nor Doric), but still drew from the language of the registers.

A full audience in the Linklater Rooms at King’s College was given a special treat to hear these songs performed as a set for the first time. The trio said they were keen to record the songs when time allows!

The project was made possible with a Creative Funding Award from Aberdeen City Council.

Paddy and Davy

Playing in the Archives

LACR alumnus William Hepburn has begun a Fellowship to investigate how Aberdeen’s UNESCO-recognised medieval records could provide the inspiration for video games design.

In the role he will assess the effectiveness of video games as a scholarly medium for examining the burgh records and the historical subjects they inform.

The project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Creative Economies Engagement Fellowship through the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities. It is called ‘Playing in the Archives: Game Development with Aberdeen’s Medieval Records’.

William will spend nine months investigating the potential for creative development from the Burgh Records, working alongside experts from industry. See the recent media announcements at the links below:

Press release: https://www.abdn.ac.uk/news/12911/

SGSAH: https://www.sgsah.ac.uk/about/news/headline_633508_en.html

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.

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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).