Bakers’ marks and bread boards: ‘Marking’ the completion of William Hepburn’s and Claire Hawes’ roles with LACR

In February 1458 the Aberdeen town clerk recorded the marks of the ‘baxstaris of bred’ who were permitted to perform their craft in the town. An Aberdeenshire woodworker has created two beautiful oak bread boards inspired by these marks. They were presented to Claire and William by the LACR team.

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Bread boards inspired by the bakers’ marks, made by Dan Stewart.

William Hepburn and Claire Hawes joined LACR in summer 2016 and this month we recognised the completion of their roles with the project. For two years they have been at the cutting edge of the largest transcription effort in medieval Scottish history perhaps since the nineteenth century – building a corpus of some 1.75 million words from the earliest eight register volumes.

Those who follow the Aberdeen City Archives on Facebook may have seen these marks on World Baking Day. In the 1450s the council was minded to record those men who had permission to bake bread. At other times in the fifteenth century measures were taken to regulate the standard of baked goods, and the use of ovens. In June 1470 an ordinance set out that the bakers as a group were to be held in the tolbooth until all of them paid fines for breaking the standard weight (‘pase’) of bread at 13 ounces. If any were to break the standard in future ‘thair craggis’ (necks) were to be put in the ‘stokis’ (stocks) ‘and sall be bannyst fra the craft for a yer and ilke baxtar that has ane howine sal ansuer to the bailyeis that na brede [be] bakin in thair howynnis bot that sall halde the samyn pase’ . (And they shall be banished from the craft for a year, and each baker with his own oven shall answer to the bailies if any bread is baked in their ovens that isn’t of the standard weight).1

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Bakers’ marks, ACR, volume 5/1, p. 337.

In 1458 eleven ‘baxstaris’ marks were recorded in the registers, denoting those men who were permitted to perform the craft of baking. Those who are listed against their marks are: Androu Baxstar, William Club, William Atkynson, Thom of Spens, William Buchane, Thom Imlach, William Catnes, Robert Ranyson, John Quhit Hud (no mark given), Will Baxstar, Thom Glede, and Androu Mair.2

Dan Stewart of Fettercairn Woodcraft was asked by Jackson Armstrong if he would make two bread boards in a creative response to the bakers’ marks.

Dan said: ‘I was really excited to take on this challenge. I thought it was a lovely way to bring these medieval bakers marks into a useful contemporary item. It felt very fitting to use pyrography (burning the marks into the wood) and the resulting effect pays respect to how the marks may have looked branded onto a loaf of bread. I thought the gift for William and Claire was a lovely idea and I couldn’t wait to get started’.

These boards were presented by the project team to William Hepburn and Claire Hawes in recognition of the completion of their roles in the LACR project.

William said ‘The board is beautifully crafted and makes a great memento of my time working with the Aberdeen Council Registers’.

Claire said ‘It’s been a real privilege to work on this material. This transcription of Aberdeen’s burgh registers is going to open up many exciting new avenues for research on Scotland’s late medieval towns, and beyond’.

William Hepburn and Claire Hawes now hold Honorary Research Fellowships in the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies.


  1. ACR, 6, p. 20 (16 June 1470). 
  2. ACR, 5/1, p. 337 (6 Feb 1457/8). 

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.

Ships, Taverns and Peacemaking: Project Symposium II meets in Aberdeen

Ships, taverns and peacemaking were among the topics discussed at the second LACR symposium on the subject of ‘Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe’.

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International legal and diplomatic disputes over ships were among the subjects discussed by participants. (Lego interpretation courtesy Findlay Armstrong.)

On 25 and 26 May LACR’s international network of scholars gathered in Aberdeen for the second time to discuss the theme of law in towns. This meeting and its precursor (in February 2017) were funded by the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (RIISS).

Whereas at the first symposium participants presented a ‘gobbet’ or source extract that illustrated the topic they wished to develop further, on this occasion draft papers were circulated ahead of the event. These papers served as the focus of the planned sessions. In each case a respondent commented on the draft paper, then the author (or co-authors) offered a reply, and then the discussion was opened out to involve the wider group.

The constructive sessions were focused on developing the papers for our intended book on cultures of law in urban northern Europe, focused on the late medieval and early modern period. We anticipate it will contain these papers in their final form and some additional invited contributions. In that work it is already clear that the experience of Scotland in its Northern European context will be prominent.

On 25 May the programme included the following sessions:

Claire Hawes (Aberdeen) responded to William Hepburn (Aberdeen) & Graeme Small (Durham), Common Books in Aberdeen, c. 1398 – c. 1511

Christian Liddy (Durham) responded to Graeme Small (Durham) & William Hepburn (Aberdeen), Reading the social history of the archive the other way round: Aberdeen’s council registers, 1591–1437–1398

Edda Frankot (Aberdeen) responded to David Ditchburn (TCD), Bells, Clocks & The Beginnings of ‘Lawyer Time’ in Late Medieval Scotland

David Ditchburn (TCD) responded to Edda Frankot (Aberdeen), Legal business outside the courts: private and public houses as spaces of law

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz (Amsterdam) responded to Jelle Haemers (KU Leuven) & Chanelle Delameillieure (KU Leuven), Recalcitrant Brides and Grooms. Jurisdiction, Marriage, and Conflicts with Parents in Fifteenth-Century Ghent

Jelle Haemers (KU Leuven) & Chanelle Delameillieure (KU Leuven) responded to Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz, Conflicts about property: ships and inheritances in Danzig and the Hanse region (15th–16th centuries)

Michael H. Brown (St Andrews) responded to Jörg Rogge (Mainz), Pax Urbana – the use of law for the achievement of political goals

Jörg Rogge (Mainz) responded to Michael H. Brown (St Andrews), The Burgh and the Forest: Burgesses and officers in fifteenth-century Scotland

Prospect of Old Aberdeen. John Slezer, Theatrum Scotiae, 1693. Aberdeen University SB f91.41. Sle 1

Participants gathered in Old Aberdeen. Image: ‘The Prospect of Old Aberdien’, from John Slezer, Theatrum Scotiae (1693). AUL: SB f91(41) Sle 1. (Courtesy University of Aberdeen.)

On 26 May the programme included the following sessions:

Andrew Simpson (Aberdeen) responded to Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen), ‘Malice’ and motivation for hostility in the burgh courts of late medieval Aberdeen

Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen) responded to Andrew Simpson (Aberdeen), Men of Law in the Aberdeen Council Register: A Preliminary Study, c.1450 – c.1460

Anna Havinga (Bristol) responded to Joanna Kopaczyk (Glasgow), Language as code: language choices and functions in a multilingual legal culture

Joanna Kopaczyk (Glasgow) responded to Anna Havinga (Bristol), Language shift in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Sessions were chaired by LACR members Claire Hawes (Aberdeen), William Hepburn (Aberdeen), Andrew Mackillop (Glasgow), Adam Wyner (Swansea). Michael P. Brown, co-director of RIISS offered a welcome, and Edda Frankot and Jackson Armstrong provided an introduction and chaired the summative discussion sessions.

The symposium was held in the Craig Suite at the Sir Duncan C. Rice Library, University of Aberdeen. While much of the country was drenched in rain, the sun was out and the weather extended a warm welcome to our visitors!

Meet our new Text Enrichment Research Fellow, Wim Peters

By Wim Peters

I joined LACR in December 2017 as Text Enrichment Research Fellow and this role means I work to provide computational support for the transcription activities.

What is my background? Coming from a linguistic background (Classics, psycholinguistics) I entered the world of computational lexicography after my linguistics study in the Netherlands. From then on my main activity was the building of multilingual lexical knowledge bases, such as computational lexicons, machine translation dictionaries, term banks and thesauri.

From 1996 I worked as a Senior Research Associate/Research Fellow at the Natural Language Processing (NLP) Group in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield, where I received my PhD in the areas of computational linguistics and AI. The group works with GATE (General Architecture for Text Engineering), which is a framework for language engineering applications and supports efficient and robust text processing (http://www.gate.ac.uk). In Sheffield I specialised further in knowledge acquisition from text and the modelling of that knowledge into formal representations such as RDF and OWL. I participated in many projects and application fields such as fisheries, digital archiving and law.

NLP for legal applications is a growing area in which I have been engaged. Given the fact that legal texts mostly consist of unstructured text, NLP allows the automatic filtering of legal text fragments, the extraction of conceptual information and automated support for text interpretation through close reading. By using a combination of NLP and Semantic Web technologies such as XML and ontologies, novel methods can be developed to analyse the law, attempt conceptual modelling of legal domains and support automated reasoning. For instance, concerning case based reasoning, Adam Wyner and I applied natural language information extraction techniques to a sample body of cases, in order to automatically identify and annotate the relevant facts (or ‘case factors’) that shape legal judgments. Annotated case factors can then be extracted for further processing and interpretation.1

Another example of my activity in conceptual extraction and modelling is the creation of a semi-automatic methodology and application for identifying the Hohfeldian relation ‘Duty’ in legal text.2 Using the GATE tool for the automated extraction of Duty instances and its associated roles such as DutyBearer, the method provides an incremental knowledge base intended to support scholars in their interpretation.3

I also work on creating or transforming text representation structures. In a recent project with the Law School at the University of Birmingham my main task was the reformatting of legal judgments from national and EU legislation in 23 languages for storage and querying purposes into both the Open Corpus Workbench format (http://cwb.sourceforge.net/index.php) and inline XML TEI compliant format.

Finally back to the present. My main interest is in using language technology to serve Digital Humanities (DH) scholarly research. Interpreting text involves the methodological application of NLP techniques and the formal modelling of the knowledge extracted within a collaborative setting involving expert scholars and language technicians.

Language technology should assist interpretative scholarly processes. Computational involvement in DH needs to ensure that humanities researchers – a considerable part of whom still remain to be convinced of the advantages of this digital revolution for their research – will embrace language technology. This will further researchers’ aims in textual interpretation, for instance in the selection of relevant text fragments, and in the creation of an integrated knowledge structure that makes semantic content explicit, and uniformly accessible.

The collaborative automatic and manual knowledge acquisition workflow is illustrated in the figure below.

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Within the DH space of LACR, I appreciate the philological building blocks that are being laid. The XML structure allows further exploration of the data though querying using Xquery. XML-based analysis tools (e.g. AntConc4 and GATE) can be used for analysis and future addition of knowledge about the content of the registers, for instance the formulaic nature of the legal language used based on ngrams, and the semantic impact of some regularly used patterns of words. For example, the Latin phrase ‘electi fuerunt’ (‘they were elected’) collocates in the text with entities such as persons, dates and offices, which fit into a conceptual framework about ‘election’.

Looking into the future, standard representations such as TEI-XML ensure that information can be added flexibly and incrementally as metadata for the purpose of scholarly corpus enrichment. Knowledge acquisition through named entity recognition, term extraction and textual pattern analysis will help build an incremental picture of the domain. This knowledge can then be formalised through knowledge representation languages such as RDF and OWL. That will serve to provide an ontological backbone to the extracted knowledge, and enable connections to Linked Data across the Web (http://linkeddata.org/).


  1. Wyner, A., and Peters, W. (2010), Lexical semantics and expert legal knowledge towards the identification of legal case factors, JURIX 2010. 
  2. For a description of Hohfeld’s legal relations see e.g. http://www.kentlaw.edu/perritt/blog/2007/12/hohfeldian-primer.html). 
  3. Peters, W. and Wyner, A. (2015), Extracting Hohfeldian Relations from Text, JURIX 2015. 
  4. http://www.laurenceanthony.net/software/antconc/ 

The Aberdeen Registers: A Student Perspective

By Finn O’Neill, final year LLB student at the University of Aberdeen

Over the past academic year, I have had the good fortune to volunteer with the project ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers: Concepts, Practices, Geographies, 1398-1511’ (LACR), under the supervision of Dr Claire Hawes. As a Law student at Aberdeen with a keen interest in both private law and legal history, the chance to utilise some of the earliest court records in Scotland was an opportunity not to be missed. The LACR project is transcribing the medieval registers in full, and has created a prototype web tool which makes them searchable. This is an excellent tool for the curious, as the scope of material contained in the records is vast and the time period is reasonably extensive.

My engagement with the registers started because the project asked me to help to test the web tool, by formulating queries based on my own research. As much of a degree in Scots law involves tracing the origins of legal principles through history in an attempt to understand their modern developments, I was more than happy to help. I used the web tool to search for things I had been studying relating to succession, leases and Scottish legal history. For example, a search for the word “tak”, the Middle Scots word for lease, brings up over 300 results which include cases of disputes over leases and show the vibrant development of a fundamental part of Scots law.

One of my research points had been to try to find the earliest usage of the Leases Act of 1449 in Aberdeen. The scope of the act would technically have excluded burghs but at some point this must have fallen away as the act is applied across Scotland to this day. However, the registers are neither as specific nor as detailed as modern case reports and as such I did not have sufficient time to find this. Even so, the process of searching through these extraordinary records gave me a significantly better understanding of the topic, because I could see how these legal mechanisms were being used in practice in Aberdeen between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Using the registers allowed me to access materials that few others have used, and find a perspective which had not otherwise been explored. For example I had a better understanding of the customary usage of leases in Scotland outwith the scope of the Leases Act 1449.

Another area of research that I engaged with using the records was the use of brieves in Aberdeen. Brieves are early court writs, forms of actions which provide a mechanism for dispute resolution and their usage in Scotland. This is a particular passion of mine and was highly relevant to my coursework in Scottish Legal History and European Legal History as both courses have considered the use of brieves in Scotland. As part of the project I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Aberdeen archives in the Town House. This was a fantastic experience as we were able to see many charters relating to the burgh of Aberdeen first hand. My own favourite part of the trip was the opportunity to see a brieve of right which was sewn onto the 1317 Court Roll, and in doing so experience a piece of legal history that I had been reading about for more than half of my university career.

It should be noted that my use of the web tool was greatly enhanced by the fantastic team working on the project. Although I relished the challenge to read Middle Scots, having expert knowledge at hand made the whole process of searching and using the web tool much easier. In turn, I was able to provide the team with details of some of the legal processes that we encountered.

I would encourage anyone interested in the history of Scotland to make the LACR project a top priority in their research. The scope of the registers covers many fields of interest and I can say with confidence that you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

My thanks go to the LACR team for the opportunity to work with these most important and truly wonderful records.

 

‘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.

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). 

Aberdeen Burgh Court Roll – Happy 700th ‘Birthday’

Regular readers of this blog will know that the focus of the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers project are the eight registers that span the period 1398-1511. Yet the earliest record of council business anywhere in Scotland also resides at the Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives and is known as the Burgh Court Roll. Predating the first surviving Register by some 81 years, it dates from 1317.

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17/11/17 City Archivist , Phil Astley (blue shirt) with Lord Provost Barney Crockett and Dr Jackson Armstrong. Courtesy of Aberdeen City Council.

Being great lovers of birthday cake, the project team couldn’t let the roll’s 700th anniversary go by without a suitable celebration for this nationally important document, so on Monday 20th November a public talk was held in the Town and County Hall at the Town House in Aberdeen, with City Archivist, Phil Astley introducing fellow project members Dr Jackson Armstrong who provided an overview of the project and Dr Andrew Simpson who spoke about the context and content of the roll itself.

The Burgh Court Roll is a rather unusual looking item, markedly different to the volumes that we are working on. At around 160cm long and 20cm wide, it comprises five panels of parchment that were stitched together when it was created, including a brieve, a letter issued in the name of Robert the Bruce, which has been sewn to the main roll about half way along its length.

At some point in the nineteenth century, a small tube had been fashioned to accommodate the roll and, apart from those occasions when it was removed from the tube to be consulted, it was kept within the tube until 2006. At that time it underwent significant conservation work to repair a number of holes that had appeared over time and to “relax” and flatten it. We know that in the later sixteenth century there were more of these rolls in existence….”evil to be read”. Why has this particular one survived? The town clerk in 1591, one Mr Thomas Molisone, undertook an inventory of the burgh records and found various old books, leaves, and scrolls in a poor state of decay. He appears to have preserved only the surviving Burgh Court Roll as an exemplar from before the time of the first ‘buik’ dating from 1398.

The 1317 Burgh Court Roll covers a number of cases that came before the burgh’s head and bailie courts between August and October of that year. It has recently been translated from Latin to modern English by Andrew Simpson and Jackson Armstrong.

At the November 20th event, Andrew Simpson concentrated on one of these cases, presenting the narrative through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old Aberdonian woman who features in the first case. The dispute was heard between 1316 and 1317, and the young woman’s name was Ada.

While Ada had been brought up from infancy in Aberdeen, having been born at Martinmas in the year 1299, at some point her family had left the burgh to live in “another part of the kingdom”. But now, following the death of a close relative, Ada returned to her native town, in order to assert her rights of inheritance in a toft (i.e. a piece of land) and a tenement (i.e. a building) in the Gallowgate.

The trouble was that that land was currently held by an influential man, William of Lindsay, Rector of Ayr who had formerly served Robert the Bruce as Chamberlain of Scotland. The Chamberlain was responsible for overseeing the administration of law and order in the burghs, and the collection of customs and taxes due from the burghs to the king. So Ada’s adversary was not only powerful, but also, presumably, well-versed in the laws of the burghs. The case is a complex and fascinating one, shedding light not only on the legal procedures of the time and where these took place, but on how the fall-out from the Wars of Independence had an impact on the lives of individuals living or connected with Aberdeen. William of Lindsay had a claim to the property because he had been granted it by King Robert. But Ada’s claim was through an ancestor who had taken a loan from one Roginald of Buchan, for which they property had been given in security. Roginald had been forfeited by King Robert for his support for the Comyns against the king. King Robert had then granted the property to William of Lindsay. Later, following the victory at Bannockburn, Roginald had sought to return to the king’s peace. A problem thus arose when the king restored to Roginald all his former lands and possessions, including the property in the Gallowgate.

As Dr Simpson showed, ultimately, Ada secured a payment from William of Lindsay in return for transferring the lands to him. Ada declared her wish to do so at three head courts of the burgh. This procedure publicised her intentions, giving her kin ample opportunity to come forward to redeem the lands.

The court held by the bailies then convened in the open air at the site of the property and there Ada gave sasine (formal conveyance of the land) to William by the symbolic measure of presenting him with “hasp and staple” – a “staple” being a metal loop that held in place a “hasp” or catch on which, for example, a door might hang. The bailie received a denarius de uttoll from Ada, and from William a denarius de intoll. The denarius – penny – of intoll was a payment given to the bailie when someone was put into burgh land. Likewise, the penny of uttoll was paid on quitting burgh land.

The story of the seventeen-year-old Ada and her successful attempt to assert her hereditary rights in the Gallowgate somehow captures the imagination. That the Burgh Court Roll can reveal such fascinating glimpses into life in Scotland’s deep past is reason alone to celebrate its 700th year.

See also: https://news.aberdeencity.gov.uk/free-talk-to-mark-700th-birthday-of-nationally-significant-burgh-court-roll/

Written by Phil Astley, with Jackson Armstrong and Andrew Simpson.