‘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).


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. 

Keeping medieval Aberdeen’s streets clean and safe

by Edda Frankot

The medieval magistrates of Aberdeen, like their modern counterparts, were concerned with the accessibility and cleanliness of its roads, with building regulations and with potentially hazardous sites. Unlike the modern city council, however, the medieval government only had a small amount of staff working for it permanently or on an annual basis, such as clerks, sergeants and a bellman. For other tasks adhoc committees or officials were appointed. But there may also have been others doing duties which remain largely invisible in the sources as they have survived, because these duties were not directly relevant to the court, unlike those mentioned above. The only aspects worthy of noting were their appointment and any financial arrangements.

In 1479, for example, the alderman, council and community hired Alexander Coutts to mend the causeways and gutters of the town and to keep all the streets clean so that ‘al men may haf honest and clene passage throuch al the toune’. He would be paid by the people of Aberdeen as follows: all owners of houses with a fireplace (‘fyre house’) would pay him a penny. All other ‘outburgesses’, ‘inburgesses’ (that is to say burgesses living outwith and within the bounds of the town respectively) and ‘indwellers’ (non-burgesses) who had a chamber or a house would also pay a penny, half of them at Martinmass (11 November), the other half at Whitsunday.1



ACR, 6, pp. 599-600.

An adhoc committee of 9 or 10 ‘of the best of the town’ was to be appointed by the alderman and baillies in 1449 to go round the streets with the ‘gangand assize’2 to investigate any ‘purprisioun’ or purpresture, that is to say the ‘illegal enclosure or encroachment upon the land or property of another’, often on public or common land.3 Wherever there was any such encroachment, they were to make note of it and charge whoever was responsible to rectify the problem within forty days.4 This exercise resembles a perambulation. The fact that any failure to comply takes place under ‘pain of purprisioune of the king’ also suggests that public property is the focus of the action, which was also the case in perambulations. Different from other known perambulations is the absence of the rest of the population when doing the ambulating and the route followed. This seems to have been a check of encroachments along the streets of Aberdeen’s inner city, rather than along the inner or outer march stones, which were further out.


ACR, 5-1, p. 34.

The assize was also to check whether houses were safe. If any were found to be ‘unsufficient’, the owners would be allowed only eight days to repair them. Otherwise the baillies would come and take down the doors and windows and make the place uninhabitable.5 In the case of houses in disrepair, the town magistrates thus took a rather abrupt approach. This may have done wonders in getting those buildings repaired quickly by owners who could afford to get workmen out to do the job. But it would be a disastrous policy for landlords (and/or anyone living in their houses) who could not act so swiftly for whatever reason. There is no further evidence whether such people could receive a deferral if requested.

These three entries show that the town magistrates cared about the cleanliness and safety of Aberdeen’s streets and buildings and organised the maintenance and oversight of it, though based on these three entries it is difficult to say how regular this was. The town government was also concerned about any encroachments on public property and so they organised checks of this. This is a fact already well known from the history of the perambulations, or ‘riding of the marches’, though most of the information we have about this is post-medieval.6 As such, these entries form a useful addition to our knowledge of local government in the later Middle Ages.


  1. ACR, 6, p. 599-600 (13 Sep 1479). 
  2. It is not entirely clear what the gangand assize is. It would make sense if the nine or ten men chosen would make up this assize, but the way it is phrased these men are to go with the assize. 
  3. ‘Purprestur(e n.’, Dictionary of the Scots Language (2004) Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 2 Mar 2018 <http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/purpresture
  4. ACR, 5-1, p. 34 (c. 15 Feb 1449). 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. See for example: The Freedom Lands and Marches of Aberdeen, 1319-1929 (Aberdeen 1929). This includes a map of the inner and outer marches perambulation routes. A recent sample check of the registers from the 1630s-60s has shown that the list of ‘References in Council Registers to Perambulations of the Marches’ (Appendix V, p. 35) is not in any way complete. 

The best helmsmen stand ashore?*

(* Literal translation of the Dutch expression ‘De beste stuurlui staan aan wal’, which is used to indicate that it is easy to criticise someone doing a job when one is watching from the sidelines.)

by Edda Frankot

ACR, 5, p. 542 (1465)

5-1 p542

On the thirteenth of March 1465 three merchants appeared before one of the baillies sitting in the tolbooth. They showed an indenture made between merchants of Aberdeen and Johannes Wolffyne, the master of a bus (a type of cargo or fishing vessel) called the Johannes. This indenture, a charter written in duplicate on the same sheet which was usually separated by cutting along a jagged line, concerned a sea journey. The three men who had appeared in court asked that a specific section of the contract be recorded in the burgh’s ‘common book’ by the court clerk and notary public. This request and the entry as a whole are interesting on a number of levels.

First of all it is interesting linguistically: the entry itself is in Latin, but the quoted words from the contract are in Scots. I would have expected the shipping contract, between Aberdeen merchants and what appears to be a foreign skipper on the basis of his unusual last name, also to have been in Latin. Some examples of similar documents which are recorded in the oldest Sasine Register (see the earlier post about this book) are in Latin. Of course, it is possible that the words were translated specifically for this recording, for the benefit of the merchants perhaps, but that does not make it any less interesting.

Secondly, the entry is informative from a maritime historical and legal perspective: the words specify that the skipper should employ a ‘gud sufficiande sterman’, that is to say a helmsman or pilot, to navigate the coasts of Scotland, England, Flanders, Holland and Zeeland. Apparently the skipper was known not to have these skills himself, which suggests that he was either inexperienced on the whole or on this particular route, or that he had a certain reputation for bad steermanship. The fifteenth century is a time when duties aboard ships became increasingly more specialised, with the skipper evolving into a captain, commanding officers like helmsmen below him rather than navigating the ship himself. But the fact that these words were included specifically, and repeated in the register, does indicate a situation that was not entirely normal. The two shipping contracts that are recorded in the oldest Sasine Register do not include a similar stipulation. They do, however, require sufficient sailors, cables, anchors, fire and water, among other things, to be taken on board.1

Finally, the entry is interesting within the context of the development of written records. Despite the existence of a contract in duplicate, the three men thought it necessary to show the document before the court and to have some of its words recorded separately in the burgh’s register. This was most likely done as an extra precaution, should both copies be lost and any problems occur on the journey. Again, this suggests that the merchants were not entirely confident of the shipmaster. In the later fifteenth century, this entry would most likely have ended up in the so-called Sasine Register, which appears to have been a type of protocol book, but a similar book was most likely not yet in existence in the 1460s. Notaries public at this time were often also active as burgh clerks, as evidenced by this entry. As a result, the registers often include a mix of actual court cases and matters of voluntary justice, that is to say matters for which we would today use a notary, like this one.

Unfortunately, we do not know whether any problems occurred during the journey to the Low Countries. Johannes Wolffyne does appear elsewhere in the registers, but this is just two days after this entry, when he and his sailors were charged with ‘perturbatio’ (disturbance) against William Menzies and his ‘accomplices’. It appears that the two groups of men had gotten into a fight, as Menzies and his associates were similarly charged. On the 18th of March, all the men were back in court and this time they were all listed (see images below). They were made, by the alderman and council, to ask each other for forgiveness and to take each other by the hand and forgive each other on pain of a fine.2 If Wolffyne did come back to Aberdeen after this, his following visits will have been less eventful as he leaves no further trace in the records here.

Transcription ARO-05-0542-04:

xiijo die mensis Marcij anno Domini et cetera lxiiijto coram Thoma de Camera uno ballivorum huius burgi protribunale sedente in pretorio eiusdem Dauid filius Mathei Willelmus de Kantle et Alexander de Marr’ comparuerunt et demonstraverunt quandam indenturam factam inter mercatores huius burgi et Johannem Wolffyne magistrum cuiusdam busche vulgaliter nuncupate Johannes penes naulacionem dicte navis sue et in eadem indentura fuit expressatum hec verba sequentia and that the saide maystir sal finde in his schip a gud sufficiande sterman for the costis of Scotlande Inglande Flandris Holande and Selande / et hec verba dicti Dauid Wilelmus et Alexander pecierunt scribi in libro communi per me clericum curie et notarium publicum

  1. ACAA, Sasine Register, vol. 1, p. 144 (15 Oct 1489), p. 170 (10 Feb 1489). 
  2. ACR, 5, p. 535 (15 March 1465), p. 536 (18 Mar 1465). 

Manslaughter in 1480s Aberdeen: notes from another fifteenth-century register

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Council Registers are not the only extant registers from fifteenth-century Aberdeen. Another large volume known as the Sasine Register no. 1 has survived since the late fifteenth century, covering the period from June 1484 to January 1502 and totalling just over a 1000 pages.

Its title, Sasine Register, referring to legal procedures whereby a person received formal possession of lands or property, had many years ago put me off using (or even looking at) the book for my PhD on the practice of maritime law. A recent introduction to the manuscript in the context of another project highlighted what a mistake this was: the register is much more a miscellaneous legal register. The title is a later addition. The fact that few other scholars have used the manuscript (and its companions from the early sixteenth century) suggests that I am not the only one who was put off by its title. Though perhaps the manuscript’s unappealing handwriting and the fact that it is almost wholly in Latin do not help either.

Be that as it may, it turned out that the book contains many entries concerning property, but also rather a lot of other very interesting material. A more thorough analysis is still required, but it may be that in June 1484 the town clerks decided to record some of the town’s court business in a separate register. For example, the ‘sasine register’ includes certain matters which were dealt with by only one or two officials and these no longer appear in the council registers. What is most noticeable when leafing through the ‘sasine register’ is its language. Whereas increasingly more Scots was used in the council registers in the second half of the fifteenth century, very few entries in Scots can be found in this book. It is possible that we will see a sharp drop in the use of Latin in the council registers around June 1484 because some of the business recorded in Latin was transferred to this other register. So far we have completed transcription of volumes 5 and 7 (and there appears to be a marked difference in the use of Latin between the two, as concluded by the LACR project’s own Anna Havinga) but have not yet reached 1484 in volume 6. It may also be that there was an increase in business in both Latin and Scots in the mid 1480s. Though we have yet to research this in detail, it is likely that Latin was used more for cases in which formulaic language could be used, that is to say anything that followed a standard format that had been used for years. Examples of this are sasines, the recovery of burghal tenements, inheritance cases (inquisitions post mortem), admissions of burgesses, nominations of procurators etc. This is not to say that all such cases would have been moved to the ‘sasine register’, as some needed to be conducted at specific courts. The recovery of burghal tenements, for example, had to be conducted at four head courts and would be recorded in the council registers. But certain business that could be administered quickly by a smaller number of officials may well have ended up in the other book.

In addition to such cases, there are copies of shipping contracts between skippers and merchants and many other notarial acts, but also fragments of poems and a recipe for a medicine for ‘stanes’ (gall or kidney stones). There are also, quite unexpectedly, entries from the sheriff court. These sheriff court entries will be among the oldest extant in Scotland. Of course, Aberdeenshire can already boast the oldest extant sheriff court book in Scotland (1503-1511)1, but even William Croft Dickinson, possibly the most knowledgeable on Aberdeen and its courts and the editor of the Fife Sheriff Court Book appears to have been unaware of the existence of fifteenth-century sheriff court cases from Aberdeen.

SR p. 37

The interrogation of Andrew Murray senior

The oldest sheriff court entry in the ‘sasine register’ concerns the interrogation of Andrew Murray senior by John Cheyne before Alexander Irvyne, sheriff depute of Aberdeen, as part of the examination into the spoiling of grass or turf in the parish of Ellon.2 Later entries indicate that more serious crimes were also investigated and tried before the Aberdeen sheriff court, as was to be expected. On the 10th of January 1486 Alexander Irvyne was in court to prosecute the killer of Andrew Kelor, but no one compeared (appeared).3 Proceedings on 9 June 1487 were more successful when the killer was known, though the entry confuses killer and killed as both were called Robert. In this case Robert Blindsele was sitting as deputy sheriff.4 Robert Black appeared in court with a letter of remission (forgiveness of wrongdoing) from the king concerning his killing of Robert Frostar and declared himself prepared to pay Frostar’s parents or nearest heirs compensation for his death, which no one objected to.5

SR p. 79

The case of the two Roberts

Though it appears that some of the sheriff court proceedings were held in the tolbooth, like the vast majority of the burgh courts, others appear to have taken place outside, at the mercat cross (‘Ad forum crucis’ in the second line of the image above). It is unclear whether this was a regular occurrence, but at least two of the courts recorded in the sasine register were held there. It should be noted, though, that both were in June. According to Croft Dickinson the sheriff courts in the head burghs of the shire were normally held in the tolbooth. But before the sixteenth century not all courts were held in the head burghs. Elsewhere in the shire people would gather at well-known landmarks, such as churches, or standing stones.6 Croft Dickinson did note a few examples of burgh courts being held at mercat crosses, but these were quite exceptional.7

All in all, the oldest ‘sasine register’ has proven to be another important treasure held by the Aberdeen archives and in recognition of this the manuscript was recently digitally photographed by the National Records of Scotland. But for now, its investigation lies in the hands of those willing to read through its pages one by one…

  1. ‘Illustrative examples’ of this were published in Records of the Sheriff Court of Aberdeenshire, Volume I. Records prior to 1600, ed. David Littlejohn (Aberdeen 1908). 
  2. ACAA, SR, 1, p. 37, 12 Apr 1485. 
  3. ACAA, SR, 1, p. 46. 
  4. On 30 June yet another deputy presided: John Collison. Both Collison and Blindsele would have been Aberdeen burgesses, whereas Irvyne was also laird of Drum. ACAA, SA, 1, p. 81. 
  5. ACAA, SR, 1, p. 79. 
  6. Fife Sheriff Court Book, ed. William Croft Dickinson (Edinburgh 1928), xviii-xix. 
  7. He notes an example from Haddington in 1391 and from Banff in 1549 and 1551. Early Records of Aberdeen, 1317, 1398-1407, ed. William Croft Dickinson (Edinburgh 1957), cxxiv, n. 7. 

Plague and Quarantine in Aberdeen, 1499

By William Hepburn

Quarantine blog post image

This entry, from 21 June 1499, is one of several from the Aberdeen Council Registers concerning plague. It gives us clues about the town’s response to the disease. Part of this response was to set up two lines of quarantine around the town. The first was the physical boundary of the town. Aberdeen did not have an encircling city wall, so its physical boundary was made up by the town gates and the back walls of properties. This physical boundary on its own was apparently not enough to enforce a line of quarantine around the town, because people were able to jump or climb over the walls and gates. Further measures were put in place, including the employment of guards to watch the town at night and the offer of a reward to anyone who reported someone climbing or jumping the boundary. 1

The second line of quarantine covered the town’s hinterland. The entry states that no people or goods were allowed into the town from outside of a prescribed area surrounding it unless it could be proven that they were uninfected and came from an uninfected place. The entry appears to define that area as stretching from the river Dee on the southern edge of Aberdeen, out to St Ternan’s (modern-day Banchory) in the west, and from there up through Monymusk to Strathbogie (modern-day Huntly or, more broadly, the area around the river Strathbogie). The area was enclosed to the north by a line apparently set somewhere between there and Old Aberdeen to the north of Aberdeen.

In her 2001 thesis on plague in early modern Aberdeen, Karen Jillings argued that before 1514 the town largely escaped the plague.2 Measures such as the ones described in this entry may have helped to keep the plague out.


ACR, 7, p. 963-4, 21 June 1499

Statuta pro Custodia burgi

The saide day It was statut ordanit ande finalie concludit be the aldirman balyeis consale ande communite of this burghe opinlie warnit be the hande bell and officiaris throw the haill tone that nay manere of persone wittalis nor uthir stuf beyonde and one the southt part of the wattir of dee cum within this burghe without sufficient certificacion that thai ar clene and cumin fra clene placis. Item that nay persone off nay degre bevne Sanct Ternanys Monymusk Srabogy nor northt part wart fra ald Abirdene cum within this burghe and that the said personis cum nocht within the tone withoutin sufficient certificacion that thai ar cumin fra clen placis and that thai ar clene. Item that xxiiij personis circualy requerit and warnit personaly pas ilkan nycht to the waching of the tone and that ilke man pas for him self undir the panys of banysing. And that nane Induellar of this towne pas uteuthe to faris. Ande that nay tymmir cum within the tone. And that nane leip dikis portis nor cum in atour ony uthir place the portis vndir the pane of bannysin the tone and quhay findis ony persone lepand ony port or bak dik and schevis to the aldirman the name of the persone he sal haue v s’ to his revarde and that nay tymmir cum within this burghe.

  1. In a recent blog post Edda Frankot highlighted another reward for preventing infection from entering the town. In 1456-7  a man named Alexander Logy was made a burgess as reward a reward for preventing infected people from entering the town at the Green. 
  2. Karen Jillings, ‘For the safte and preservatioun of the toun’: Plague and the Poor in Early Modern Aberdeen (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Aberdeen, 2002). 

Heroes, hangmen, minstrels and more: the admission of burgesses in medieval Aberdeen

by Edda Frankot

In the fifteenth century, new burgesses and guild brothers were admitted to the town every year. Lists of these admissions are regularly included in the Aberdeen Council Registers. A particularly good source is the Guild Court Book (ACR, volume 5-2), but lists are also included in the other volumes. The majority of the entries on these lists are for men that were admitted as both burgesses and guild brothers, but others only became burgesses. Most of the men were sons of burgesses. Another group that gained automatic entry, on payment of a fee, were those who married the daughter of a burgess. The entries of these two groups are normally very formulaic and provide little additional information beyond names and a payment.

admission heading 1452

The heading of the list of new burgesses and guild brothers from the time of provost John of Fife (1452-53)

But the entries concerning non-standard admissions can provide a lot of interesting detail on a great variety of subjects. A significant number of people were admitted ‘at instanciam’, at the insistence, of specific individuals or groups of people. Often these are local nobles, higher clergy or royal officials. In 1446-47, for example, John Matheson was admitted at the insistence of John of Mar and the Lords Gordon and Forbes. In the same year John Bullock was made a burgess and guild brother at the request of the bishop of Ross and various burgesses. In 1452 the council decided to only allow admissions of burgesses’ sons and sons-in-law for the coming year. This was either to limit the number of burgesses and guild members, or to restrict the influence of outsiders on the town. But in the admission list that follows we nonetheless find three men that were admitted at the insistence of outsiders: one after a request by the comptroller of the king’s rolls, one by Lord Crichton, the chancellor, and one by the countess of Huntly. So it appears that it was hard for the magistrates to resist such requests.1

5-2 p717 Matheson

The admission of John Matheson

Especially fascinating are the entries that give a specific reason for the admission, or a condition. Occasionally, men were admitted as a reward for services rendered to the town, or at the request of an existing burgess who had done a good deed. In the list of 1444-45 Thomas Rutherfurd was admitted because of his role in ending the discord between Thomas and John Voket. According to the 1456-57 list Alexander Logy was admitted at the request of Patrick Piot because the latter had prevented infirm or infected outsiders from entering the town at the Green. Thomas Johnson was made a burgess and guild brother in 1498-99 because of his labours around the capturing of the killer or killers of Agnes Burges in the night. The threat of an English invasion caused the council to admit Andrew Chapman living in Loirston, in 1454-55, on the condition that he would keep a fire lit all night at the Loirston cairn and during the day would keep a watch for English enemies with two others. Men with useful professions were occasionally admitted for free: in 1451-52 a barber, a Frenchman, in 1454-55 a ‘medicus’, in 1456-57 a ‘mimus’, an actor or mime, and in 1487-88 a ‘carnifex’ were entered. The latter may have been a butcher, but because his admission specifically says ‘racione sue artis’: because of his skill or craft, perhaps we can assume he was an executioner. Apart from the doctor, these men were only admitted as burgesses, not as guild brothers.2

7 p913 Johnson

The admission of Thomas Johnson

The fees that were paid by most of the men to be admitted could also be used for specific purposes indicated in the records. The fee paid by William Maitland, a carpenter admitted as a burgess in 1455-56 was given to Patrick Wrych ‘pro elimosina’: as alms. The year before, part of the fee paid by Alexander Chalmers would go towards the repair of the ‘key’, which is not specified further. Obviously it was clear to everyone at the time which key was meant. In 1455 the council decided that Donald of Fife, who was at that time a captive in England, could put forward a suggestion for a new burgess and guild brother ‘for his relief and ransoming’. Presumably the fee paid by this person would be used towards the payment of the ransom.3

5-2 p785 Chalmers

The admission of Alexander Chalmers

Overall, the lists of admission provide a wealth of details for anyone with the patience to seek out the gems that are hidden within them.


  1. ACR, 5-2, p. 717, p. 716; p. 769; p. 773. 
  2. ACR, 5-2, p. 695; p. 798; ACR, 7, p. 913; ACR, 5-2, 785; ACR, 5-2, pp. 658, 695, 798; ACR, 7, 40. 
  3. ACR, 5-2, p. 784; p. 785; p. 782. 

Forbidden beasts and where to keep them

By William Hepburn

Forbidden Beasts ACR entry for blog post

Late medieval towns were distinct from the countryside around them because of their special legal status and their concentration of buildings. But all Scottish medieval towns were small by modern standards and late medieval records frequently remind us how blurred the boundary was between urban and rural life.

Nothing better represents this blurred boundary than the livestock kept in and around towns, which were frequently the subject of urban legislation. Aberdeen, for instance, seems to have had recurring problems with pigs roaming free around the town. These animals were referred to as ‘forboddin bestis’. In June 1465 it was ordained that the baillies would choose four men to capture any pigs causing trouble to people or running loose on the streets. These pig catchers either had to take their porcine prisoners to the master of the ‘kirk werk’ – the official in charge of building work at St Nicholas Kirk, the parish church – for a reward of 6 d. for each pig. Alternatively, they could kill the pigs where they found them and take the carcasses as rewards.

In October 1495 a similar ordinance was issued. It stated that no pigs were to be loose in the town, giving a fifteen-day deadline for pigs to be put in enclosures or removed from the town. For any pigs found loose after this point the owners would have to pay a fine of 8 shillings to the court and the pig would be confiscated from them.

Another royal burgh on the east coast of Scotland – Montrose – issued a flurry of similar legislation in 1459 and 1460.1 It was set down in April 1459 that there would be a fine of 4 d. for each time a pig was found loose and, in October of the same year, that no one was to keep pigs in the town and if they did the pigs would be confiscated. In May 1460 it was also stated that anyone who suffered damage from a loose pig was to bring it before the alderman or bailles and half of the value of it would go to them and the other half to the common use of the town. One entry also lists a fine to be paid for disobeying swine keepers – presumably officials charged with making sure that people kept their pigs under control.

Pigs were not the only livestock to be found in and around towns. A record of a court case from Aberdeen in 1499 shows that Janet Clat and Jock Lammyntone were convicted of breaking down Andrew Gall’s door and taking sheep from his house. In Newburgh, Fife, in 1463 the baillie Thom Rogerson made an accusation that sheep kept by other townspeople were eating crops.2 In Montrose in 1462 keepers of the links were appointed to keep livestock out of the area – sheeps, pigs and oxen – and fines for animals found there were listed. Another entry from 1462 shows that Montrose had a common shepherd.

Animals, then, were a recurring theme of fifteenth-century urban legislation and the damage they might cause to property – and perhaps also to public health – was clearly regarded as far from trivial. These records leave us with the impression that medieval Scottish towns were, in some ways, much like farmyards.

Transcriptions from Aberdeen Council Registers (ACR)

ACR, 5, p. 549, 24 June 1465

Item the chawmerlane has ordanyt the four bailyeis to cheis four men to tak all swyne that thai fande lows utow bande in ony mannis scathe or gangande on the gate and present thaim to the maystir of the kirk werke. And thai sal hafe for thair travaile of ilke swyne vj d’ or ellis sla thaim quhar thai finde thaim lous’ and tak the bodijs til eschete to thaim that slays thaim for thai ar forboddin bestis

ACR, 7, p. 670, 9 October 1495

The saide day it was statut ande ordanit be the consale that nay swyne salbe haldin within the burgh uteuth’ bande ande within fiftene dais to be removit the burgh or in bande. Ande the Joysaris of the saide swyne to pay viij s’ for the amerciament of the court and the saide swyne to be eschet and thaj be comprehendit uteuthe bande the saide fiftene dais beinge runnyn thaj beand fundin in ony mannis skath

ACR, 7, p. 953, 6 May 1499

The samyn day Jonet Clat was convikit be ane suorne assis Alexander Red forspekar for the wranguys away takin of certane scheip out of Androu Gallis hous and for the brekin of his dur for the quhilkis scho was in ane amerciament of the court and to amend as law wil and to forber in tyme to cum. Ande Jok Lammytone was convikit be the saide assis, the saide alexander Rede forspekar, for the wranguis takin of certan schep out of the saide hous and brekin of the sad dur as saide is et cetera

The saide day Jonet Clat and Jok Lammyntone was convikit tbe the saide assis Alexander Rede forspekar for the away takin of Certan Schep fra Androw Gall this day takin in his corne for the quhilkis thai war in ane amerciament of the court et cetera

  1. All Montrose references from Montrose Burgh Court Book 1455-1467, National Records of Scotland, B51/10/1. 
  2. Newburgh Burgh Court Book 1457-1479, University of St Andrews Special Collections, B54/7/1. 

The common minstrels of Aberdeen

by Claire Hawes


This entry, from volume 7 of the Aberdeen Council Registers, gives a rare insight into the cultural life of the burgh. It is a statute, from 18 January 1493,  which orders that all the burgesses of the town should take turns in hosting John and Robert, the burgh’s minstrels. Any burgess who refused to host would have to pay the minstrels 12 pence, for food, drink and wages. This allowed the cost of the minstrels’ board and lodging to be distributed amongst the burgesses.

The fact that John and Robert were ‘common minstrels’ suggests that they were employed by the town as a whole – the burgh corporation – rather than by individuals, hence the reason that all the burgesses had to contribute to their upkeep. It is likely that their services were required on important occasions such as feast days, meetings of the guild, and perhaps the annual head court, as well as for visits from royal officials, and even the king himself.

In 1507 James IV’s new bride, Margaret Tudor, undertook a ceremonial entry into the city. The event was recorded in verse by William Dunbar, a famous Scottish Renaissance poet. The minstrels are mentioned in the third verse – could it be John and Robert?

Ane fair processioun mett hir at the port,

In a cap of gold and silk full pleasantlie,

Syne at hir entrie with many fair disport

Ressaveit hir on streittis lustilie;

Quhair first the salutatioun honorabilly

Of the sweitt Virgin guidlie mycht be seine,

The sound of menstraillis blawing to the sky:

Be blyth and blisfull, burgh of Aberdein.



The saide day it was statutit, ordanit and grantit be the aldirman, balyeis ande divers of the consal and communite present for the tyme, that Jonhe and Robert – thar commone menstralis – sal have resonabile dietis circualie throw the nichtbouris of the towne. Ande if ony persone or personis refus to resave thame to thar dietis, it sal be lesum to thame to gif to the said menstralis xij d. on the day, batht for mett, drink, and wagis for simpile folkis.

Violence against women in medieval Aberdeen

by Edda Frankot

ACR, 5, p. 296, 25 February 1457


Item Thomas Raa in amerciamento pro iniusta perturbacione vxoris Johannis Dis’ et emendabit parti lese.

Item dicta vxor in amerciamento pro iniusta perturbacione ipsius Johannis [sic; recte: Thome?] et cetera.

Item Thomas Raa in amerciament1 for unjust disturbance of the wife of John Dis’ and will pay amends to the injured party.

Item the said wife in amerciament for unjust disturbance of the same John et cetera.

ACR, 5, p. 304, 15 Jul 1457


Eodem die Johannes Glenny adiudicatur in amerciamento pro iniusta perturbacione vxoris Johannis Spront et emendabit parti lese ad visum proborum.

Item Johannes Spront adiudicabatur in amerciamento pro iniusta perturbacione dicti Johannis Glenny et emendabit et cetera.

The same day John Glenny is judged in amerciament for unjust disturbance of the wife of John Spront and will pay amends to the injured party in accordance with the vision of honest [men].

Item John Spront is judged in amerciament for unjust disturbance of the said John Glenny and will pay amends et cetera.

The Council Registers include many reference to perturbatio/perturbio and, in its Scots form, strub(u)lance. This appears to have been used for a broad range of disturbances which only occasionally are narrowed down further to ‘perturbatio burgi’ (disturbance of the burgh), or ‘strublance by word’, but which stops short of including violence which resulted in the drawing of blood. Regularly, two people are convicted, one after the other, for perturbatio against the other. Generally the entries are very short, like the examples above, and include no further details on the context of the disturbance: the time, the place and the reason for the dispute. Nor do we get any sense of the seriousness of the conflict. A nice exception to this is the case of ‘strubulance and skathtinge [harming]’ from 1491 which consisted of ‘castyne of wattir and filtht in his house’.2

Usually the convicted and the victims are men, but not always. In the first example above the wife of John Dis’ is both victim and disturber. I think we can assume that the second entry is supposed to say that she was convicted of perturbatio against Thomas, not against her own husband. There is no indication from the sources which of the two may have initiated the dispute. In the second example, the wife of John Spront is the victim of John Glenny, but John Glenny himself was also convicted for perturbatio against Spront, suggesting he defended his wife against unwanted attention. A point to note is the fact that neither of the women is named. Though some women do appear under their own name in the Aberdeen records, they very regularly just appear as the wife of their husbands. In this case it is unclear whether John Dis or his wife was considered responsible for paying the amends to Thomas Raa, as the entry does not extend that far.

It is likely that many of the cases of perturbatio and strublance took place within the context of public houses, which would mainly have been frequented by men, though as said there is very little specific evidence with regards to this in the Aberdeen sources. My main point of reference are the sources from the Dutch town of Kampen from around the same period, which include a lot more detail in cases of violence. In Kampen, too, the groups of perpetrator and victims were mainly made up of men, and the majority of the violence took place in public houses. A drinking jug was a popular choice for a weapon. Unfortunately, similar details are usually lacking in Aberdeen, but these four short entries perhaps leave more to the imagination…

  1. Amerciament: The condition of being subject to a pecuniary penalty at the discretion of the court or judge. http://www.dsl.ac.uk/entry/dost/amerciament 
  2. ACR, 7, p. 273 (14 Oct 1491). 

A Genoese merchant in medieval Aberdeen – a case from the lost ‘volume three’

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Council Registers form an almost complete set of records: the only extensive period which is not covered by the registers runs from the middle of the year 1414 to the end of 1433. Even although there is only one volume missing in the sequence of volumes that is currently extant, namely volume three, former Aberdeen City Archivist, Judith Cripps, in a 1981 report on the matter argued that there may well have been three books that covered the period from 1414-33.1 By the early nineteenth century only the middle part, dating to 1426-29, had survived. At that time, William Kennedy, author of the Annals of Aberdeen, reported that he had seen this part some years before, but that it had ‘lately been mislaid’.2 A recent discovery by LACR’s own project director, Jackson Armstrong, suggests that fifty years earlier this part had also been the only remaining evidence from the period 1426-29. This discovery was the presence of a manuscript with extracts of the burgh records, including ones from 1426-29, in the Aberdeen University Library. For more on this discovery, see this week’s press release.

The extracts were made by James Man, who intended to write a history of Aberdeen. Most of his notes are short summaries of the contents of the burgh records, with occasional short quotes from the original in Latin. Seeing that volume two of the registers is almost entirely in Latin, whereas only 5-10% of volume four is in Scots, the vast majority of volume three would be expected to have been in Latin too. But it appears that Man also came across at least one entry in Scots. This is the only entry from 1426-29 that he transcribed in full, and its language is clearly different from that of the rest of Man’s notes: it is in Middle Scots and reads much like other entries in Scots from the fifteenth century elsewhere in the registers.

This specific entry is also interesting in that it features one of the only known instances of a southern European merchant active in Aberdeen. Pelegrino Grellus was a merchant from Genoa who, with his brother Lazarino, appears regularly in the royal Exchequer Rolls in the late 1420s and early 1430s, at about the same time as the two brothers appear in the Aberdeen records.3 The entry, dated 1426, concerns a dispute between ‘Pylgrime mirchand of Gene (=Genoa)’ and Jelm (or John?) van Wrey, whose place of origin remains to be identified, and his shipmen. Man may have had some trouble reading the place names in the original, as the first few letters of the word in his copy are difficult to identify. It looks something like ‘Mineth’ and is likely to be a place in the Low Countries. The alderman (provost), bailies and community of Aberdeen determined that Van Wrey, who was shipmaster of a ‘bus’, and his shipmen should calculate their fees (‘and se qwhat is acht thaim of thair fees’), which Pelegrino should then pay to the sailors. In addition, it was determined that the shipmaster should sail to Lazarino in Edinburgh. It appears that another decision had to be made there as to who should pay the shipmen’s fees for that part of the journey: the shipmaster or Lazarino, but it is not entirely clear from the notes whose decision this was to make.4

It may be that Pelegrino was in Aberdeen in relation with the transactions detailed in the Exchequer Roll, that is to say collecting salmon as part of his payment by the king for supplying the court, though there is no mention of a payment to the brothers in the Exchequer Roll for 1426-7.5 A year later, Pelegrino did receive thirty lasts and two barrels of salmon, in addition to another eleven lasts and eleven small barrels. For 1428-9 the two brothers are named together.6. It may also be that Pelegrino and Lazarino were already active in Scottish trade before they started supplying the king.

It is rare to come across southern European merchants active in Scottish trade. Taken as a whole, there were few foreign merchants who resided in Scotland in the later middle ages. There were no communities of merchants residing in any of the Scottish burghs in this period as there were in other towns throughout Europe (such as, for example, the Scots in Bruges and later in Veere), not even in Edinburgh.7 In addition, the majority of merchants who did come to Scotland were either English, Dutch, Flemish or Hanseatic (especially from Stralsund and Danzig). The most notable Aberdeen resident with a presumed southern European connection was William of Spaigne/Spanye, who appears in volumes four and five and may well have appeared in volume three, as his first appearance is on page six of volume four. William of Spaigne was a councillor in the late 1430s and early 1440s and appears finally in 1450. In that same year a Jonet Spaigne is listed in an account. She was perhaps a relation, either a daughter or a sister. Judging by the fact that William was a councillor, he must have been fairly well established in Aberdeen by the late 1430s. Despite his suggestive surname, we do not know whether he came from Spain himself, or descended from a Spaniard. We do know that he owned some property on the Gallowgate in the late 1440s.8

There is also no evidence as to where the Genoese Pelegrino resided, but his brother owned a house in Kirkcudbright in the mid-fifteenth century and served as custumar of that town in 1455 and 1460, so many years after the entry from 1426.9 In 1426 Lazarino appears to have been in Edinburgh, though it is not clear whether he was a permanent resident. Unfortunately, any other potential appearances in volume three are lost forever, like most other Scottish burgh records from that period. But thanks to the efforts of James Man in the 1700s we have at least gained a glimpse into Aberdeen in the 1420s and its links with the outside world.

  1. Report to City of Aberdeen District Council on Missing Register of Council 1414-1434, Judith A. Cripps, City of Aberdeen Archivist, 29 June 1981. 
  2. Letter from the Scottish Record Office (John Imrie) to John Wilson, Town Clerk of Aberdeen, 2 February 1981. 
  3. ER IV, 443, 444, 445, 472, 507, 531, 542, 621. 
  4. AUL, MS 532, p. 13. 
  5. With regards to supplying the court, see ER IV, cxlv 
  6. ER IV, 443; 472, 507. 
  7. David Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe: the Medieval Kingdom and its Contacts with Christendom, c. 1215-1545, volume 1: Religion, Culture and Commerce (East Linton 2000), 204; Edda Frankot, ‘Aberdeen and the east coast of Scotland. Autonomy on the periphery’, in: Wim Blockmans, Mikhail Krom and Justyna Wubs-Mrozewicz, eds, Routledge Handbook of Maritime Trade around Europe, 1300-1600. Commercial Networks and Urban Autonomy (Woodbridge: Routledge, forthcoming 2017), 409-25, at 415. 
  8. ACR 4, pp. 6, 103, 139; ACR 5(1), pp. 25, 26, 116; ACR 5(2), pp. 647, 659, 662, 663, 667, 674, 682, 691, 692. 
  9. Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe, 204.