New Book by William Hepburn on the Royal Court of James IV

This month, The Household and Court of James IV of Scotland, 1488-1513 is published by Boydell Press, volume 4 in the Scottish Historical Review Monograph Second Series. Jackson Armstrong asked the author, FLAG Research Fellow William Hepburn, some questions about the book.

It’s really exciting to have this new contribution to our understanding of medieval and renaissance Scotland. But let’s start with the fundamentals: what is a court and is it the same thing as household?

A lot of ink has been spilt on this at least as far back as Walter Map in the twelfth century who wrote, as a courtier of Henry II, that in a ‘spirit of perplexity I may say that in the court I exist and of the court I speak, but what the court is, God knows, I know not.’ My whole book is really about trying to find an answer to this question for the court of James IV. Broadly speaking, I argue that the court is the space around the king – wherever he may be – and the people who occupy it, while the household is an institution of paid officers which organises and serves the needs of the court.

What types of sources survive to tell us about the royal court in this period?

There are many sources which have some bearing on the history of the court, but some of the key sources for the court of James IV are two sets of financial records, the treasurer’s accounts, which record a rich variety of expenditure at court, and the exchequer rolls, which record the regular revenues and expenditures of the crown. In particular, the comptroller’s accounts included within the exchequer rolls provide vital evidence of the payment of fees to individuals for service in the household. James IV’s is the first Scottish reign from which the treasurer’s and comptroller’s accounts survive in substantial numbers. It is also the first from which a household ordinance of certain Scottish origin, the 1508 bill of household, survives. These prescriptive documents describe rules for the court, in this case largely concerned with who was entitled to be at court, and receive bed and board there, and the number of servants and subordinates they were allowed to have with them. In the process it provides a snapshot of the court and its structure at a moment in time. While the records of James IV’s court are rich compared to earlier Scottish kings, some of its European contemporaries, such as the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, are far better documented.

Was the Scottish royal court similar to other princely courts in Europe?

It was. As part of a European courtly culture and society it shared many of the same influences and actively exchanged goods, personnel and ideas with the other courts of Europe, perhaps most notably when Scottish kings married women from, for instance, France, Denmark and, in James IV’s case, England, who brought with them large entourages of their compatriots. The Scottish court was, however, much smaller than the courts in the neighbouring realms of France and England. Also, every court is unique, and heavily influenced by the personality of the ruler at its core. In James IV’s case, the king’s apparently gregarious personality seems to have made his court a playful and entertaining place, even as the games and entertainments held there were freighted with status opportunities for those involved.

How significant was the reign of James IV for developments within the royal court?

The nature of the surviving Scottish sources makes it difficult to discern long-lasting institutional changes at the Scottish court equivalent to the development of the royal chamber identified at the contemporary courts of the early Tudor monarchs of England. However, James IV’s reign was looked upon as something of a golden age in the decades that followed. The court was a key feature of this depiction, most famously in the words of the poet Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, who had been at the court of James IV and celebrated it through his poetry as a courtier of James V. The example set by James IV’s court is also found in references to it in administrative records from James V’s reign. Indeed, one of the comptroller’s accounts from James IV’s reign only survives as a copy from the reign of his son, in which it provided an example for the officers of the later king to follow.

And of course, what about burghs – how urban was the royal court and what insights do burgh records offer?

The court was wherever the king was, and the king was often in, or near, towns. One of William Dunbar’s poems is based around the apparent distaste of courtiers for Stirling, where one of the king’s chief residences was located, compared to Edinburgh, located next to another of the king’s most-used palaces at Holyrood. Even in burghs that weren’t beside a royal palace there could be much interaction between town and court. Aberdeen’s rich records provide detail about royal visits, such as the gifts offered to monarchs when they visited, and the treasurer’s accounts can round out our picture of these occasions with evidence of royal spending in Aberdeen. One royal visit to Aberdeen, by James IV’s queen Margaret Tudor, is vividly recorded in a poem written for the occasion, again by William Dunbar. It describes how the burgh and its burgesses, lavishly dressed for the occasion, honoured the queen and the monarchy more broadly using tableaux constructed along the route of the queen’s entry to the town, including scenes such as a depiction of the vaunted Scottish king of yesteryear Robert I (Robert the Bruce).

Many congratulations on the publication!

The book is available in all good bookshops and directly from Boydell & Brewer.

Good spirits: the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland


Entry ARO-8-0466-02 appears on the left-hand page. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511 contains an entry which mentions ‘ane stellatour for aquavite and ros wattir’. This is the earliest record of a still for aquavite in Scotland. It is in ARO-8-0466-02, from a case heard in 1505 by the bailies concerning the inheritance of goods belonging to a chaplain called Sir Andrew Gray, who died in 1504.

The find was made by Dr Claire Hawes during the transcription phase of the project  when Claire was working through register volume eight.

The reference enriches our understanding of the early development of Scotch whisky, placing the apparatus for making aquavite in the renaissance burgh, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.

We are delighted to announce a gift of £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, a company with historic connections to Aberdeen and which owns some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries including The Glenlivet and Aberlour. That gift will fund new research into the still and associated stories in the ARO.

For more information see today’s press release and videos for social media: Was Aberdeen the birthplace of Scotch Whisky?



The Still in context: a list of early references related to aquavite in Scotland


ARO-8-0466-02 detail. Photo credit: Sarah Christie/University of Aberdeen.

The following is a compilation of early references related to aquavite in Scotland:

Distillation of alcohol was an ancient scientific practice which came to be established in Europe by the twelfth century (especially at Salerno and Cologne).

1494-5 (ER, x, p. 487) Account of the chamberlain of the sheriffdom of Fife: ‘Et per liberacionem factam fratri Johanni Cor per preceptum compotorum rotulatoris, ut asserit, de mandata domini regis ad faciendum aqua vite infra hoc compotum, viij bolle brasii’ [=payment made to Friar John Cor for eight bolls of malt for making ‘aqua vite’].

1497 (TA, i, p. 373) ‘Item, to the barbour that brocht aqua vite to the King in Dunde, be the Kingis command ix s’.

1501 (TA, ii, p. 115) ‘Item, for I galloun of aqua vite to the powder, xxs iiij d’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 361) ‘Item, for v ½ chopinnis of aqua vite to the curyis of quinta essencia xj s’.

1503 (TA, ii, p. 363) ‘Item, to the maister cuke, that he laid doun for glasses and flacatis for stilling of wateres and othir stuf, and for fire to the stillatouris, iij li. xiiij s’.

1505 (ARO-8-0466-02) ‘The saide day [20 June 1505] It was fundin and deliuerit be ane Inquest of the court that ane stellatour’ for aquavite and ros’ wattir was ayrschipe tharfor the balyeis ordanit and chargit george barbour’ to deliuere the stellatour’ being in his handis pertening tile vmquhile sere Androw gray to mastir Androw crafurd’ procurator to dene Robert Keruour’ ayr to the saide vmquhile ser Androu’.

1505 (Edin. Recs, i, pp. 101-104) Seal of Cause to Barbers and Surgeons, by the provost, bailies & council of Edinburgh [1 July 1505], including that no man ‘within this burgh mak nor sell ony aquavite within the samyn except the saidis maisteris brether and friemen of the saidis craftis…’

1506 (TA, iii, p. 183) ‘For aqua vite to the quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, p. 187) ‘Robert Herwort for aqua vitae taken from him, 14s’; (TA, iii, p. 188) ‘for vij quartis aqua vite to quinta essencia’; (TA, iii, pp. 332, 343, 344) further payments listed, &c.

1507 (TA, iv, p. 79) ‘wyne to the abbot of Tungland [=John Damien] to mak quinta essencia’; (TA, iv, p. 92) ‘Payit to William Foular, potingair, for potingary to the king and quene, distillatioun of wateris aqua vite’;

1508 (TA, iv, p. 122) ‘j galloun small aqua vite to the abbot of Tungland’ [=John Damien]; (TA, iv, p. 137) ‘For making of ane bos hed to ane stellatour of silvir weyand x unce iij quartaris of his aun stuf deliverit to Maister Alexander Ogilvy for quinta essencia’;

1518 (Reg. Episc. Aberd., ii, p. 174) [inventory of items in the wardrobe of Bishop Alexander Gordon of Aberdeen] ‘…The pypis of ane aqua vite falt’.

Date unknown. (Kelso Liber, ii, p. 448) A treatise on plague was composed by John of Burgundy about 1390, the original referring to eaue distilacion and eaue des herbes. A copy of the treatise was held at Kelso Abbey. A short, undated, translation into Middle Scots was kept at Kelso and that refers to ‘water stillit of thir iiij herbys…’. Neither the original nor the translation mentions eau de vie / aqua vitae, or alcohol.

Link here to the main post about the aquavite still.

Sources (in addition to Aberdeen Registers Online):

[Edin. Recs.] Extracts From the Records of the Burgh of Edinburgh, 1403-1528, ed. J. D. Marwick (Edinburgh, 1869)

[ER] The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, ed. J. Stuart et al., 23 vols (Edinburgh, 1878–1908)

[Kelso Liber] Liber S. Marie de Calchou, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1846)

[Reg. Episc. Aberd.] Registrum episcopatus Aberdonensis: ecclesia cathedralis aberdonensis: regesta que extant in unum collecta, ed. C. Innes, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1845)

[TA] Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, 1473–1498, ed. T. Dickson and J.B. Paul et al., 13 vols (Edinburgh, 1877–1978)

Holy days in late medieval Aberdeen

by Edda Frankot

The late medieval calendar was filled with feast days of saints. Some of these saint’s days were celebrated throughout Europe, such as those of Mary, John the Baptist and Peter, whereas others were locally significant, such as Margaret, Ninian and Machar in Scotland. Whereas elsewhere in Europe, dates were often entered into the record in relation to a saint’s day (such as, for example, ‘the Monday before the feast day of Saint Luke’), in Aberdeen in the late fourteenth century such dating was already becoming less common. In most of the volumes feast days are only very occasionally referred to when dating an entry, for example in the head court headings after Michaelmas (29 September), and then always accompanied with a date. This makes dating the LACR entries relatively easy.

Rome 132

Nativity scene (c. 1492-4) by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican (photo EF)

Important holy days were referred to when people were required to pay the magistrates. Payments were regularly divided into instalments which were paid at particular times of the year. As such, Witsunday (Pentecost), Lammas or Peter in Chains (Petrus ad Vincula: 1 August) and Martinmas (11 November), all regularly appear in the corpus. The period around Christmas, like today, appears to have been a time when little official business was carried out. Considering the evidence from volume 7 (1487-1501), it is possible to conclude that there were usually no courts between 22 or 23 December and the Monday after 6 January when the Yule head court was held, though there were exceptions. Often the period before the Yule court was even longer: in 1496 the last court was held on 19 December, in 1491 on 17 December, in 1497 on 15 December, and in 1498 on 14 December. But there were also years in which a court took place on Christmas Eve. In 1488 bailie courts were held on both the 22nd and the 24th of December. There was obviously a lot of business that needed to be settled before Christmas. In 1495 a single entry was included on 24 December: an ‘assouerance gevin to Franch men’. The skipper, mariners and merchants of the Christofer from Dieppe were given free access to the port, and, as such, were able to celebrate Christmas in Aberdeen rather than having to remain at sea.1

On the few occasions that business was conducted between Christmas and the Yule head court this was usually not restricted to just one entry. In 1494 an entry was recorded between 23 and 31 December, a statute reining in the baxtars (who, as usual, were up to no good) was issued on the 31st of December, and a full bailie court was held on 2 January with five pieces of business attended to. In 1487 there was some unusual activity too: two entries were included on the 28th of December, one on the 31st and another one on the 3rd of January. It appears, then, that the tolbooth was not closed for business altogether over the Christmas period. Rather, the courts operated when required, like at other times of the year.

Holy days themselves were, however, not considered suitable for holding courts. So when the bailies had continued a court to a Monday in the following week, and this turned out to be a holy day, a note was added to the entry that the party should come to court the day after instead (‘and because that dai is haly T Fife balye has warnit him to compere on tusday the xxvj dai of nouembre’).2


Curia legalis on 25 December?

It might be surprising, then, to find a court dated 25 December 1453, but it is clear from the full heading of this court that it was actually held on the 24th: ‘videlicet in profesto (i.e. the day before a feast day) Nativitatis Domini nostri Jhesu Christi’.3 The fact that 24 December 1453 was a Monday, and that this was a ‘curia legalis’ which was normally held on Mondays, confirms this. This is the only time that there is a reference to ‘Jhesu Christi’ in the corpus. The nativity itself is mentioned more regularly, namely as a term of payment like the other important holy days. The celebration of the nativity was not a matter for the courts. For this the burgesses and other inhabitants of late medieval Aberdeen will have gathered in the parish church and perhaps have shared a meal with loved ones in their homes.

Merry Christmas and a happy New Year from the LACR team!

  1. ACR, 7, p. 696 (24 Dec 1495). 
  2. ACR, 6, p. 766 (13 Nov 1482). 
  3. ACR, 5, p. 191 ([24] Dec 1453). 

The story of Isabel Buchan (continued)

by Edda Frankot

In July 2016 I wrote a post called ‘Memory and proof of age (1507)’ about a case in which the Aberdeen court was trying to establish the age of a girl by deposing witnesses. The reason why her age needed to be established, was because the girl, Isabel Buchan, was under tutory, her father being deceased. At twelve, an orphaned girl would come into her inheritance, though she would remain under curatory until her marriage. This is why the witnesses were asked whether Isabel Buchan was either eleven or twelve.

From the entries surrounding these depositions I got the sense that there was a conflict between the tutor and what was probably a relative (though this is not clarified anywhere) about the execution of the tutory. But in order to find out more I would have had to go through the rest of the 1212 pages of volume 8, which was too time-consuming an exercise for a blog post. Now that volume 8 has been transcribed in full, though, a search through this register is quite straightforward with the search tool that will eventually become available online. As luck would have it, Isabel Buchan is a relatively uncommon name, which makes it is easy to trace her in the corpus. That is why I would briefly like to revisit this case to see what else can be found out about Isabel.

One of the most important entries in volume 8 concerning this case is the ‘inquisitio’, the retour of inquest, which established that Isabel Buchan was the heir of her father, William Buchan. This inquest was entered into the register on 17 June 1502, almost exactly five years before the depositions about Isabel’s age. It stated that the relevant property had been in the king’s keeping for the past year and half or so, while it was established who William’s heir was. This suggests that William Buchan died in late 1500 or early 1501. In 1507 the court concluded that Isabel was eleven, that is to say that she was born in 1496. Two of the witnesses at that time stated that she was baptised on the Monday before ‘fasterinevine’, Shrove Tuesday. In 1496 the Monday before Shrove Tuesday was 15 February. Taking into account that baptism took place soon after birth in the middle ages, and assuming that these witnesses remembered her birth correctly, Isabel was probably nearly five years old when her father died.

8 p126 Buchan

The retour of inquest concerning Isabel Buchan’s inheritance in 1502 (ACR 8, p. 126).

It is difficult to find out much more about William Buchan, as there appear to be two men with that name in the burgh at the same time. The other William Buchan was a baker1, but is not always referred to as ‘baxtar’, which makes it difficult to establish which William Buchan is appearing in an entry. The other William Buchan died around October 1505. His brother Thomas was his heir.2 There is no mention of Isabel’s mother anywhere, and we do not know her name, which suggests that she passed away before her husband.

Isabel inherited a significant amount of property on her father’s death. The inquest names four pieces of land, in addition to three annual rents. Three of the properties were located in the Castlegate, whereas the fourth was in the Huksterrow, a street which linked the Castlegate and the Netherkirkgate. Most likely one of these was Isabel’s home. The annual rents were for two properties in Futy and one in the Upperkirkgate. The current value of the properties was stated to be 6 merks Scots.3 Compared to other inquests recorded in the registers, this was a relatively valuable portfolio. Perhaps this wealth was the reason that there were some disputes over Isabel’s tutory.

Isabel’s tutor was David Colp. It is unclear what his relation was to Isabel or her father. Soon after the inquisition John Cullen, who called Isabel his ‘tendir cosinage’, that is to say his young kinswoman, protested against the creation of Colp as Isabel’s tutor. He claimed that there were various kinsmen on her mother’s side who were ‘worthie to reule and govern hir landis and gudes’.4 This suggests that David Colp was not a kinsman on her mother’s side at least, and perhaps he was no kin at all. Cullen requested that Colp would get someone to stand caution to make sure that the properties would be given back to Isabel and her heirs once she reached the required age. William Colp, David Colp’s father, was brought forward as his caution.

In the following years, David Colp was in court regularly, acting on Isabel’s behalf. For example, in September 1502 a case concerning a silver belt which was laid in wed in Alexander Prat’s care came before the court. William Buchan had laid the belt in wed against the payment of five French merks for wheat which William had obtained from Walter Blacklug. The case against Alexander Prat dragged on for several months, as it was continued to a next court a few times. In January 1503 the case was continued to the first court after Easter, but it then disappears from the record.5

In October 1503 Colp was in court concerning a dispute with Thomas Ridale, who had apparently taken away a ‘countour’, a counting table, from a booth which Ridale claimed he rented from Isabel as the heir of her father. The court decided that Ridale needed to prove that he was renting the booth, but he was charged with wrongfully taking away the counting table irrespective of this.6

In May 1507 Robert Guthre started the suit which eventually resulted in the depositions on Isabel’s age. Again, it is unclear what Guthre’s relation to Isabel was, but it is apparent that he was unhappy about the continuing tutory of David Colp. The court subsequently asked both parties to bring proof and witnesses as to Isabel’s age.7 On 21 June it was established that Isabel was eleven years old. This was not, however, the end of the conflict between Colp and Guthre. A year later, in August 1508, a letter from King James IV was sent, which was subsequently included in the register. This concerned claims by father and son Colp that the Aberdeen court had not done its duty in administering justice in their case of ‘spulye’ against Robert Guthre despite royal pressure. As a result, James informed the Aberdeen magistrates that the case had now been taken up by the Lords of Council and ordered them to desist from any further proceedings in the case. On 3 November 1508 the Aberdeen court decided to adher to this order.8 Unfortunately, there is nothing else in the register about these claims of spuilzie and the outcome of the case.

8 p956 Buchan

Retour of inquest confirming Isabel as heir in 1509 (ACR 8, p. 956).


In May 1509, finally, Isabel Buchan was confirmed as the heir of William Buchan and given sasine of her lands and annual rents.9 By that time she was thirteen years old. It is not recorded who her curator was. There is nothing more about Isabel in volume 8, but she may well reappear in the following volumes, if anyone ever gets around to transcribing those…

  1. William Buchan, baxtar, was still alive in October 1502. ACR, 8, p. 162 (14 Oct 1502). 
  2. There are two inquests: ACR, 8, p. 522 (24 Nov 1505), p. 589 (26 Jun 1506). 
  3. ACR, 8, p. 126 (17 Jun 1502). 
  4. ACR, 8, p. 129 (20 Jun 1502). 
  5. ACR, 8, p. 154 (30 Sep 1502); depositions: p. 175 (9 Dec 1502); p. 179 (9 Jan 1503). 
  6. ACR, 8, p. 280 (23 Oct 1503); p. 288 (10 Nov 1503); p. 324 (26 Feb 1504). 
  7. ACR, 8, p. 692 (12 May 1507); p. 698 (28 May 1507). 
  8. ACR, 8, p. 910-11 (12 Aug 1508); p. 911 (3 Nov 1508). 
  9. ACR, 8, p. 956 (14 May 1509). 

The Nicholas and the Wormet family

by Edda Frankot

Aberdeen in the second half of the fifteenth century was the second busiest port in Scotland. But unlike in today’s harbour, where several ships arrive and depart on a daily basis, only a few vessels were anchored there throughout the year in the middle ages. In fact, there were rarely more than ten annually. The harbour of medieval Aberdeen was frequented by ships from various ports in north-western Europe, such as Dieppe, Veere, Stralsund and Danzig (Gdańsk). But there were also ships which hailed from Aberdeen itself. One such ship was the Nicholas.

When I was checking the transcriptions of the LACR corpus, I had already noticed the Nicholas. It seemed to appear relatively regularly and had a suitable name for a ship from Aberdeen. I had also noticed that two men from the same Wormet family were engaged on the Nicholas as a shipmaster.1 Were Robert and Magnus father and son, and did the son take on the role of shipmaster when his father retired? And what type of ship was the Nicholas? Was she even one ship? These were questions I tried to answer for a public talk that I presented at the Maritime Museum last June, and which I will briefly discuss here.

The Nicholas is by far the most prominent vessel in the council registers. It appears on various occasions in the period from 1458 to 1493. It is possible that there were a number of consecutive ships called the Nicholas. In most of the entries she is simply called ‘schip’. But in a few cases a specific ship type is mentioned. In 1458 she was called a barge, in 1463 a balinger and in 1480 and 1489 a caravel. Barges and balingers are generally considered to have been fairly similar, and relatively small ships, though the bishop of St Andrews owned a very large (500-tun) barge. A caravel, on the other hand, was considered to be a slightly different, and larger ship. But the council registers also make mention of ‘the small caravel’ at some point, so she may have been a relatively small one. It could be that between 1463 and 1480 one Nicholas was replaced with another, but the general confusion concerning ship types in the middle ages may also have resulted in the Nicholas simply being called different things throughout her career.

It appears that shipmasters changed ship on a regular basis, as no less than eight men are named as the master of the Nicholas between 1458 and 1493 and there may have been more.2 Some were only engaged for a single journey. There is also some information on who owned the ship in the sources, but this is far from complete. As was common in this period, the Nicholas was owned by a group of people. In 1458, for example, Robert Gray, who was also shipmaster of the Nicholas, sold his quarter of the ship to John Stewart.3 Magnus Wormet also owned part of the ship for a while, as will become apparent below.

5-1 p342 Nicholas

ACR 5, p. 342: David Dun questions the selling of a quarter of the Nicholas by Robert Gray to John Stewart (1458).

As said, two members of the Wormet family were involved with the ship, but it has proven difficult to establish their relationship to each other. They may have been father and son, and the latter may have taken over the role of shipmaster from the former, but this is in no way certain. Looking at Robert and Magnus in more detail does provide us with more of a glimpse of shipping in medieval Aberdeen.

Robert Wormet was admitted as a burgess and guild brother in 1440. By 1442 he was married to a woman called Marjory, whose last name is not mentioned. Robert had at least two sons, David and John, the latter of whom he bodily harmed according to a charge made against him in 1467. He was already involved in shipping in 1442, when his wife appeared in court concerning a ship’s part owned by him. Presumably he was away from Aberdeen himself at the time. In 1444 he demanded freight from a merchant in court, so he must have been acting as a shipmaster by then. Five years later he reported on a decision from a court in the Low Countries concerning the pay of his crew after his ship had driven onto the Netherlandish coast through storm while on its way to London with a cargo of salmon.4

In 1455 Robert is named as the shipmaster of another ship, the Martin. The cargo of the Martin had been taken by an English ship. Between 1463-1469 he appeared in court on a number of occasions as the master of the Nicholas. With this vessel too, he ended up in a different port than planned: in 1468 five merchants complained that the Nicholas had sailed to Zeeland instead of to Le Havre. In this case the assize (jury) decided in Wormet’s favour: he had been right to go to Zeeland, as this was where the merchants who were on board with him wanted to go.5

6 p62 Nicholas

ACR 6, p. 62: Robert Wormot defends his decision to sail to Zeeland (1468).

Robert Wormet last appears as a shipmaster in 1469. His last appearance altogether is in 1472.6 Magnus Wormet first appears as a shipmaster soon after Robert’s disappearance from the records, but this may be just a coincidence. He first appears in the council registers in 1453 in a case of disturbance. He is also named as the co-owner of a ship in 1463. Magnus lived in the ‘vico navium’, i.e. on Shiprow – a suitable place for a man involved in shipping.

It may be that Magnus was master of the Nicholas as early as 1473 (or even earlier). In that year he travelled to England on an unnamed ship carrying salmon. In 1476 he took another cargo of salmon to England. But we only know for sure that he was the shipmaster of the Nicholas’ in 1478, carrying malt from an unknown port, while at the same time owning a third of her.7 In 1484 Magnus made his wife, who remains unnamed, his procurator. His wife was to ‘do for him in his absence what he might do himself’.8 Obviously both Magnus and Robert trusted their wives to take care of business in their absence. This does not go without saying: usually other men were appointed as procurators, and only very rarely do we see women in this role in the fifteenth century.

Magnus was still the part owner of the Nicholas after he stopped being her master. It is unclear whether he continued to act as a shipmaster after that time or only as a merchant and part owner. The naming of his wife as his procurator does suggest regular time away from home. Magnus Wormet must have died between October 1491, when he last appeared in court alive, and April 1492, when his widow claimed the freight for Magnus’ part of the Nicholas.9

A final aspect that appears to have been a regular part of many a shipmaster’s life was appearing in court for disturbance. Robert and Magnus Wormet were both charged on a number of occasions for ‘perturbatio’, in Scots ‘strublance’, a term which was used for a great variety of disturbances, both verbal and physical, and against individuals, public order and the court. Other shipmasters also regularly feature in such entries, most notably David Dun and David Hervy. Often there was a charge of disturbance of one against another and then vice versa in the next entry. In 1453, for example, Robert Wormet and David Dun were both convicted of distrubling the other. In 1449 David Dun and David Hervy were in court for common brawling and disturbance and also for disobeying a baillie (who was in turn charged with distrubling David Hervy!). The year before Hervy had already been accused of disobeying a baillie and distrubling David Dun.10 And there are several more examples to be found.

5-1 p12 Nicholas

ACR 5, p. 12: David (and John) Hervy vs David Dun and John Voket, the baillie (1449).

It appears that occasionally these convictions took place around the time that the men appeared in court opposing the same person, so it may well be that emotions were running a bit high, which resulted in the men throwing obscenities at each other and at the court officials. Life at sea may also have made these men a little rough around the edges. Or perhaps a maritime career was considered suitable for them because of their characters. But at the same time these men often served on assizes and juries, or as arbitrators in maritime cases, as they had great practical knowledge of such matters and were well respected for their opinions. Hervy, for example, was one of the men on the assize that decided in Robert Wormet’s favour in 1468 when he had sailed to Zeeland instead of to Normandy. Most of the maritime cases were decided by assizes of men who were involved in overseas trade, be they shipowners, merchants, skippers, or even occasionally helmsmen.

As a result of their regular appearances in court, it is possible to find out relatively much about these men. As such, Robert and Magnus Wormet’s story serves as a useful example with regards to what information can be found concerning individual medieval Aberdonians once the LACR corpus will be available and searchable online.

  1. At this time there was not yet any differentiation between shipmaster and ship’s captain. The shipmaster was also in charge of navigating the ship, though he may have been assisted by a helmsman, as well as by pilots when sailing in unknown or treacherous waters. 
  2. The eight shipmasters of the Nicholas are: Robert Gray (1458); David Dun (1458); Robert Wormet (1463-69); Magnus Wormet (1478); John Fichet (1480); William Gareache (1489-92); Alexander Makeson (1489, on outward journey only); Thomas Bard (1493). 
  3. ACR, 5, p. 342 (9 May 1458). 
  4. ACR, 4, p. 191 (8 Feb 1440); p. 278 (18 Sep 1442); ACR, 5, p. 549 (9 May 1465); p. 622 (22 Dec 1467); ACR, 6, p. 190 (2 Sep 1472); ACR, 4, p. 362 (9 Oct 1444); ACR, 5, 29 (8 Feb 1449). 
  5. ACR, 5, p. 277 (10 Mar 1455); p. 481 (5 May 1463); p. 578 (24 Mar 1466); ACR, 6, 61 (16 Sep 1468), p. 62 (16 Sep 1468); p. 87 (5 Jun 1469). 
  6. ACR, 6, p. 190 (2 Sep 1472). 
  7. ACR, 5, p. 187 (28 Oct 1453); p. 481 (5 May 1463); for example ACR, 6, p. 839 (26 Apr 1484); p. 230 (16 Mar 1473); p. 422 (23 Feb 1476); p. 521 (23 Feb 1478). 
  8. ACR, 6, p. 847 (14 May 1484). 
  9. ACR, 7, p. 276 (24 Oct 1491); p. 312 (30 Apr 1492). 
  10. ACR, 5, p. 187 (28 Oct 1453); p. 36 (15 Feb 1449); p. 12 (8 Aug 1448). 

‘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 <
  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.