Who Killed David Dun?

Who killed David Dun event

‘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.

David Dun game Shiprow screenshot

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.

Transcription challenge

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.

Project Symposium I: Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe

By Jackson Armstrong

On Friday 24th and Saturday 25th February 2017 our project hosted its first symposium, on the subject of ‘Cultures of Law in Urban Northern Europe’. This was funded by the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (RIISS) and was held in the Craig Suite at the Sir Duncan C. Rice Library, University of Aberdeen.

symposium-2017-021

After a welcome from Michael P. Brown on behalf of RIISS, and an introduction offered by Jackson Armstrong, the sessions, chaired by Anna Havinga, Adam Wyner, Andrew Mackillop and William Hepburn included the following presentations:

Graeme Small (Durham) and William Hepburn (Aberdeen) – Typology of the written record: materiality and process in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Christian Liddy (Durham) – The publication of law

David Ditchburn (TCD) – Time: Extracts from the Aberdeen Council Registers

Edda Frankot (Aberdeen) – Legal business outside the courts: private and public houses as spaces of law

John Ford (Aberdeen) – The Voyage of the James of Veere: Maritime Law in Aberdeen in the Early Sixteenth Century

Claire Hawes (Aberdeen) – Debt, Morality and the Law in fifteenth-century Aberdeen

Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz (Amsterdam) – Conflicts about property and inheritances in sixteenth century Danzig

Jelle Haemers (& Chanelle Delameillieure) (Leuven) – Jurisdiction and Marriage in the Fifteenth-Century ‘Registers of the Aldermen’ of Ghent and Leuven

Michael H. Brown (St Andrews) – Burghs and Regalities: Conflicts of Jurisdiction

Jörg Rogge (Mainz) – Pax Urbana – the use of law for the achievement of political goals

Andrew Simpson (Aberdeen) – Texts of the Medieval Scottish Common Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Jackson Armstrong (Aberdeen) – ‘Malice’ and motivation for hostility and non-lethal wounding

Joanna Kopaczyk (Edinburgh) – Language as code: language choices and functions in a multilingual legal culture

Anna Havinga (Aberdeen) – Language shift in the Aberdeen Council Registers

Adelyn Wilson (Aberdeen) – Legal education in Aberdeen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

Proceedings on Friday 24th also included a visit to Old Aberdeen House (Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives) with Phil Astley, and to St Machar Cathedral.

The objective of this first gathering was to present ‘gobbet’ style extracts from primary sources, and to raise questions for development illustrated by those extracts. We look forward to reconvening in 2018 to share draft papers developed from these initial questions and discussions, in collaboration for an edited collection of essays on the subject.

Explorathon ’16: Piracy in Medieval Aberdeen?

explorathon-everyone

On Friday 30 September the ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers’ (LACR) project team was joined by members of the public at the Maritime Museum in Aberdeen for an interactive presentation on ‘Piracy, plunder and shipwreck’ and aspects of the LACR project. The presentation was part of Explorathon ‘16 or European Researchers’ Night, an event staged on the same day in university cities throughout Europe.

The audience was welcomed by Chris Croly, Public Engagement Officer at the University of Aberdeen and one of the organisers of the Aberdeen Explorathon. Jackson Armstrong then introduced the Aberdeen registers, highlighting their importance as a source for the history of Aberdeen and its hinterland, and for its relations with the rest of Scotland and trading partners abroad. In the first section of the presentation Edda Frankot focussed in more detail on Aberdeen in its European context. Using a number of examples from the records themselves, Aberdeen’s role in late medieval piracy, plunder and shipwreck was illustrated. It appeared that the city did not prosecute any of its citizens that were active in capturing ships from other regions in northwestern Europe. One reason may have been that the men involved were the shipmasters and merchants (and at least one provost, Robert Davidson, and one admiral, the earl of Mar) who were also in charge of the city’s government and courts. But more important was perhaps the fact that the capture of the ships was most likely not considered to be piracy, but justified acts as part of maritime warfare, or as part of attempts to regain compensation for losses sustained abroad.1 During the presentation the members of the public present were quizzed on aspects of the subject of piracy, plunder and shipwreck and asked to vote on one of two answers. As the photo shows, the audience soon caught on to the line of questioning…

explorathon-audience

The second part of the presentation focussed on aspects of the LACR project. William Hepburn explained how the transcription process works and what difficulties can be encountered when transcribing fifteenth-century urban registers. The audience was also asked to try to read some words from the records, which proved quite difficult. Anna Havinga then turned the audience’s attention to linguistic aspects of the Aberdeen records, especially the bilingualism of the clerks who wrote the entries in the manuscripts. She then challenged the audience to link up words in old Scots with their modern English counterparts.

This short quiz ended with a plea for help to identify the meaning of a word that the project team had been unable to find. People were asked to send us their solutions via twitter, facebook or email. The word in question appears in a number of entries on the payment for a large number of barrels of this item of merchandise imported from Zeeland in the Netherlands: ‘iggownis’.2 Eventually, the best suggestion was given by Lucy Dean, who responded to a second appeal for help on facebook on 3 October: onions. This word is usually spelled with ‘ing-’ in Middle Scots, which is why we had been unable to locate it in the Dictionary of the Scottish Language (http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/ing3oun ). This exercise just shows how useful crowdsourcing can be: there is a great community of people out there with a very large combined knowledge. Thank you to everyone who contributed with suggestions!


  1. With regards to medieval Scottish piracy, see David Ditchburn, ‘Piracy and war at sea in late medieval Scotland’, in: T.C. Smout (ed.), Scotland and the Sea (Edinburgh 1992),  35-58 and ‘The pirate, the policeman and the pantomime star: Aberdeen’s alternative economy in the early fifteenth century’, Northern Scotland 12 (1992),  19-34. For the early modern period, see Steve Murdoch, The Terror of the Seas? Scottish Maritime Warfare, 1513-1713 (Leiden and Boston 2010). 
  2. ACR, vol. 5, pp. 358, 359, 361 (12, 14, 16 March and 2 April 1459). 

Official launch

Project and website launched at Aberdeen Town House

The ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers’ project and the ‘aberdeenregisters.org’ website were launched officially at a civic reception in the magnificent Town and County Hall at Aberdeen Town House on Wednesday, 8 June 2016.

civic launch

Aberdeen’s Lord Provost, George Adam, spoke on behalf of the City, while University Librarian, Diane Bruxvoort, represented the University of Aberdeen. Moderating proceedings was project partner and City Archivist Phil Astley, who also spoke briefly, as did project director Jackson Armstrong. All expressed their delight that the eight UNESCO-recognized volumes of the Aberdeen Council Registers would be made available to a wider audience as part of this collaborative effort. Formal proceedings ended with a brief presentation of a collection highlight by Edda Frankot. A written version of this presentation, which focussed on the use of memory in the establishing of the age of a girl as part of a court case in 1507, will appear on this blog in due course.

The event received some press coverage on Wednesday and Thursday. STV News reported on the event in their local news bulletin which included a brief interview with Phil Astley:

STV1

The Press and Journal also covered the story, both in their North East and Aberdeen editions and online:

P&J 9 June

In light of the press coverage we wish to be clear that the two partner institutions involved in the present project are the University of Aberdeen (Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies) and the Aberdeen City Council (Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives). We also wish to note that the present project seeks to produce an accurate and full transcription of the register volumes. The translation of that corpus into modern English is not intended; that is a separate opportunity for the future which will require its own specific funding. Our objective is to provide the transcribed text for a wide range of potential applications and analyses.