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:


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!

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.


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.


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:

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

An encounter with the Dubrovnik council registers

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Council Registers are unique survivals within a Scottish context: Aberdeen is the only burgh for which a nearly complete set of such books for the fifteenth century is extant. But within a European context Aberdeen is far from unique: many town archives in Europe have collections of medieval records, some of them much larger and stretching back into the fourteenth or even the thirteenth century. They provide important potential comparative material for the Aberdeen registers. In the context of my PhD research and focussing specifically on cases of maritime law, I had already looked at very similar material from the towns of Kampen (Netherlands), Lübeck (Germany), Danzig/Gdańsk (Poland) and Reval/Tallinn (Estonia). Very recently, I had the privilege to be introduced to another set of urban registers: the Reformationes and the Acta Consiliorum of Dubrovnik in Croatia.


Some of the Reformationes and Acta Consiliorum from Dubrovnik.

I was in Dubrovnik from 20 to 22 September to attend the ‘Mapping Urban Changes’ conference in the context of a proof-of-concept project which I am co-leading with Dr Adelyn Wilson from the School of Law called ‘Spaces of Power in Interregnum Aberdeen’. This sister project of LACR is funded by RIISS under a research development grant. It seeks to visualise the use of the physical space within the burghs of Old and New Aberdeen for the exercise of political, religious, mercantile and administrative power. In addition to presenting this project, I was at the conference to learn about relevant other projects and useful techniques and methodologies. In this respect the conference was very fruitful.

Visiting Dubrovnik also provided the opportunity to learn more about the Du:cac project, which has just been completed. This project, led by Dr Ana Plosnić Ŝkarić of Zagreb University, aimed to transcribe all relevant entries or deliberations from the period 1400-1450 concerning the spaces and buildings within the walls of Dubrovnik and link these to a searchable map. The Du:cac website includes a custom-made map with clickable points, indicating actual buildings, spaces near them (in those cases where a house is said to be near a church, for example), streets and neighbourhoods. These link to relevant transcriptions. The transcriptions will also be published as an e-book.

Dubrovnik map screenshot

A screenshot from the Du:cac website, showing a map segment with clickable points.

The government of Dubrovnik was made up somewhat differently to that of Aberdeen. The city had three councils: the Major Council, the Minor and the Senate. Up until 1415 the deliberations of all three councils were kept in the same book, called Reformationes (these were begun in the late thirteenth century). From 1415, they were divided up into three registers. From the years between 1400 and 1450 there survive three volumes of Reformationes, nine volumes of Acta Consilii Maioris, twelve volumes of Acta Minoris Consilii and eleven volumes of Acta Consilii Rogatorum, comprising a total of 15,944 pages (the Aberdeen Council Registers from 1398-1511 comprise 5239 pages). The volumes are almost completely in Latin, with occasional words in Croat and some entries in Italian, which was used as a lingua franca in the Adriatic region, as Ana Plosnić explained to me. Latin was used in these registers until the end of the Dubrovnik republic in the late eighteenth century.


The Sponza Palace

Just before I had to catch a plane back to Aberdeen via Paris and had to leave the beautiful city (and weather) behind, there was an opportunity to visit the archives which are in the Sponza Palace, one of the few buildings which survived the 1667 earthquake in Dubrovnik unscathed. There, Ana Plosnić kindly showed me some of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century registers. The page layout of these look very similar to those of the Aberdeen books: with marginal headings and clearly recognizable entries. The Acta Consiliorum also include deliberations on elections, which provide interesting comparative material for the entries recently uncovered in Newburgh’s registers by LACR’s William Hepburn (see the post on his visiting scholarship at St Andrews University Library Special Collections). In Dubrovnik votes could be cast not only in favour of candidates, but also against them, and relatives were excluded from voting for a specific person (indicated as ex. or extra).


All in all, this encounter with the Dubrovnik material once again stresses the importance of considering the Aberdeen registers in a European context.

LACR – The view from the Archive

The records that are at the heart of the ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers’ (LACR) project are kept in the beautiful Charter Room on the third floor of Aberdeen’s Town House where they are cared for by the staff of Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives. Of course the Archive service, formed in 1980, is the latest in a long line of guardians who have ensured the survival of the city’s unique UNESCO-recognised Burgh Registers.

21/11/11 Aberdeen Archives

A question that is frequently asked by visitors is: why does Aberdeen have such a remarkable collection of late-medieval records whereas only fragments remain for other Scottish towns during this period? This is probably the result of three things: the geographical location of Aberdeen which meant that it, and its records, escaped the worst excesses of the Reformation, a culture of good record keeping within the burgh and a healthy dose of good luck. In particular, their survival is testament to the fact that successive town clerks, the predecessors to the current Archive team, saw the records as having important evidential value and were therefore worth preserving. That evidential value persists and is the focus of the current project.

One of the primary functions of the Archive service is to make the records in its care as widely available as possible. A major hurdle to realising this aim for the medieval Burgh Registers is that the language and handwriting of the original text makes them well-nigh impenetrable to all but the expert palaeographer. Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives sees the current LACR project as the essential foundation for making the fascinating information contained within the records available to those who are not experts. If you follow this blog regularly, you will already have read some riveting stories of life within medieval Aberdeen. Such vignettes are captivating and can help tell the story of the city to tourists, school pupils and locals with a fascination in how their town has developed.


The task of opening up the records to this wider audience is too large for the Archive service to achieve on its own and we are immensely proud to be in partnership with the University on the LACR project. The partnership is already having significant knock-on benefits with the Archive participating in many associated public engagement activities. In September Phil Astley, City Archivist, presented a paper about the project at the annual Archive and Records Association Conference in London while November will see the Archive hosting a meeting of the UK National Commission for UNESCO at the Town House. Major regional cultural events taking place in 2017 in Aberdeen and the North East of Scotland such as Spectra, Look Again and the Granite Noir writing festival will all have input from the Archives. All this follows the much higher profile that the service has achieved through the recognition of its records by UNESCO UK and the positive publicity surrounding the LACR project. We are confident there will be many more exciting opportunities to come.