‘Who Killed David Dun?’ was an event held at the Aberdeen Town House on 26 February 2017 as part of the Granite Noir festival. Granite Noir was Aberdeen’s first book festival dedicated to crime fiction. When the Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers (LACR) project was asked to take part and create an event for the festival, the first problem that sprang to mind was that the chief subject of crime fiction – murder – was barely evident in the Aberdeen Council Registers which sit at the heart of the project. Murder did not lie within the jurisdiction of the burgh courts recorded in the registers.
What the registers do contain, however, is abundant evidence of disagreements and conflict – often violent – between inhabitants of the medieval town. As we transcribed volume 5 of the Aberdeen Burgh Registers one name seemed to come up with unusual frequency in relation to disturbances of the peace – David Dun. In the office we imagined why David Dun might have fought with other townspeople so often. Though there is nothing to suggest David Dun was murdered, with so many potential enemies he seems like someone who plausibly could have been murdered. I decided to build the LACR contribution to Granite Noir around the fictional murder of David Dun.
As well as placing the LACR event firmly within the theme of the festival, this fictional murder offered a hook on which to hang many insights gleaned from real historical sources. It also provided the driving force for an interactive narrative which would allow the audience to engage directly with the historical sources which form the basis of our work as a research project. The event was designed to function much like interactive books such as the Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy series. The audience was presented with choices and had to decide by majority vote which path the narrative took. Along the way they encountered people, locations and events which were all based on evidence from the Aberdeen Council Registers. They had to look out for clues to help them work out who had killed David Dun. This interactive narrative was built using the open source interactive fiction tool Twine.
One challenge in creating the game was to find a way of directly engaging audiences with the historical records. To do so I decided that the character that the audience collectively played would be the town clerk. During the game, the town clerk consulted the Aberdeen Council Registers to cross reference evidence from them with evidence gathered from events and conversations in the narrative. Using the conceit that the town clerk was new and struggled with the writing of previous town clerks, the game included transcription challenges that needed to be passed to ‘unlock’ the relevant evidence from the register. These challenges involved showing actual passages from the registers and asking audiences to try to identify certain words in the fifteenth-century script. Once they had done so they could read translated passages from the registers which offered clues about the identity of the murderer.
In this way, the structure of the game allowed the audience to get a taste of the palaeography and source analysis work carried out by the LACR project – experiences which can normally only be accessed through specialist knowledge and training. It also underlined to the audience that most historical records were not just repositories of information made to be accessed by future generations. Rather, they were actively used in the period in which they were created. For example, records were brought forward as evidence to help resolve medieval court cases. The use of records as evidence to help solve the murder in the game was intended to reflect the active role of written records in medieval Aberdeen.
The event was well-attended and the audience successfully identified the killer of David Dun! Attendees also had the opportunity to inspect one of the original UNESCO-recognised Aberdeen Burgh Registers, which was kindly put on display by Phil Astley (partner of the LACR project and City Archivist for Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives). In a question session at the end the audience asked insightful questions about the Aberdeen Council Registers and the medieval town. The event was a rewarding experience for me. It made me think about medieval Aberdeen in new ways and revealed some interesting connections between different pieces of evidence from the registers. I would like to thank Lee Randall of Granite Noir and Phil Astley for the opportunity to take part in the festival.