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.

Distinguished visitor and research seminars

This week (3-7 April 2017), the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (RIISS) was pleased to host Professor Jan Dumolyn (University of Ghent) as a visitor. Professor Dumolyn’s research is concerned with medieval Flanders, and he is the leading historian of medieval Bruges. His time in Aberdeen included meetings with various colleagues on campus, and visits to the University Library’s Special Collections Centre, the Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives, and the Maritime Museum.

Two seminars were held during the week. On 4 April Dr Claire Hawes of the LACR project presented a paper on ‘Politics and the Public Domain in Fifteenth-Century Scotland’, which led to a discussion of approaches to the study of political culture. Dr Hawes offered a fascinating new perspective on the political history of late medieval and early modern Scotland, suggesting a way forward that moves beyond the well-worn framework of crown-magnate relations. On 6 April Professor Jan Dumolyn spoke on ‘Commercial Connections between Flanders, Scotland and the Hanseatic world: An Interdisciplinary Approach’. Both these seminars prompted comment on a number of points of comparison between Scotland and other European territories in the later middle ages. The latter paper offered a view on the potential for collaboration between historians and archaeologists in the study of trade in bulk commodities, and in particular on how ballast stones can be a means to investigate commercial networks across the North Sea and Baltic Sea. The scope for tracing Scottish migrants in the rich records of Bruges was also touched upon, for example noting the Scottish shore porters of late medieval Bruges, and recalling the fact that the dialect word in that city for fish imported from Scotland was ‘aberdaan’.

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.

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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.