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.

8 p126 Buchan

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.

5-1 p342 Nicholas

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’.

New UK guide to Archive and Higher Education collaboration

New national guidance has been published by The National Archives (TNA) in partnership with History UK: the ‘Guide to Collaboration between the Archive and Higher Education Sectors’.

LACR and the wider Aberdeen Burgh Records Project feature in two case studies within the guidance, launched this summer. One is entitled ‘From cooperation to coordination – developing collaborative working’, and the other is entitled ‘Not another database: digital humanities in action’.

TNA’s Higher Education Archive Programme (HEAP) and History UK have worked together to write this new guidance in the 2018 edition. This refreshes the original guidance of 2015 which was developed with TNA and Research Libraries UK. Its aim is to improve collaboration between archives and academic institutions of all kinds.

In addition to case studies of collaboration from across the archives and higher education sectors, the refreshed guidance includes:

  • Practical ways to identify, develop and sustain cross-sector collaborations
  • Insights into the drivers, initiatives, support, and language of the archives and higher education sectors
  • Explanations on how to understand outputs and outcomes, and organisational and project priorities
  • Guidance on measuring impact in cross-sector collaborations
  • An outline of recent updates to REF, TEF and Research Councils

For a short introduction to the guidance see this link given here. The LACR team – a strong Archives-HE collaboration itself – is delighted to have the project involved in this new guide!

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.

DSC_0681

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

Bakers marks 5.1.337

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’.

DSC_0731 crop

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.

blog-wim-picture

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).

GB0230CA000100001-00004-00407-

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.