The common minstrels of Aberdeen

by Claire Hawes

minstrels

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.

 

Transcription:

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

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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

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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. 

Memory and proof of age (1507)

ACR, 8, p. 705-6 (21 June 1507)

by Edda Frankot

The Aberdeen Burgh Registers tend only to include brief statements concerning court cases that were dealt with by the burgh courts. From these, it is often difficult to establish the circumstances of a legal matter or of the parties involved in it or to draw any conclusions on the reasoning behind a certain verdict. With regards to cases of verbal or physical abuse, for example, there are often no details on who perpetrator or victim were, what their relationship was, where the abuse had taken place, what the character of it was and who had witnessed it. Of course, these registers were not written for entertainment or to facilitate twenty-first century research, but to keep a record of the decisions of the burgh courts. But one cannot help but be curious to know more.

The character of the Aberdeen records make it all the more interesting, then, when we do come across additional information in a court case, such as depositions of witnesses. It gets even more exciting when the majority of witness statements was made by women, a group generally underrepresented in legal sources. On the 21st of June 1507 fourteen depositions, nine of which were given by women, were recorded in the Aberdeen registers. These depositions concerned the age of a girl, Isabel Buchan, the heir of the late William Buchan, a burgess of Aberdeen.

There are eight entries in total concerning this case between 30 April and 21 June. From these it appears that the matter at hand was whether Isabel Buchan should still be under the tutory of one of the two parties in the case, David Colp. According to Scots law, orphaned minors (that is to say, minors whose fathers had died) were under tutory until they reached puberty. For girls this was at the age of twelve, for boys at fourteen. At that age minors would come into ownership of their property, though they would remain under curatory until they reached majority (for boys) or were married (for girls).

The depositions of the fourteen witnesses that appeared in court on 21 June are interesting in that they provide information on how people remembered important occurrences like births and deaths when communication was still to a large extent oral. There were no registers of births, marriages and deaths until after the Reformation, and few people beyond monasteries and burgh councils would have recorded important events.

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From the statements of the fourteen people deposing in this case it appears that especially the women linked their memories to important feast days and to other memorable life events. Two of the women described their memories of Isabel’s baptism. Bessy Sibbald, Isabel’s godmother, recalled that she ‘hewf hir one monunday before festerinevine and sche dynit that day in Alexander Chameris house’. Alexander Chalmers’ wife, Isabel of Cullen, deposed that she too ‘hwyff Isabell Buchane one monunday before festerinevine’. To ‘hwuf’ means to lift a child from the font as a sponsor during the baptismal ceremony. Based on these memories Bessy thought that Isabel Buchan was at least eleven, as both Andrew Branch, the girl’s godfather, and Alexander Chalmers were still alive when she was baptised. Isabel of Cullen confirmed that her husband died when the girl was one year old, believing she was past her eleventh birthday.

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According to Margaret McGlynn, who researched proof of age cases from sixteenth-century England, baptism was the ‘most common single memory of the birth’.1 Mc Glynn noted that the lifting of the child from the font by the godparents after the baptism, the most significant moment in the ritual, stood out in people’s memories of the event. This expression of social relationships, as McGlynn called it, between the godparents and their godchild, was no doubt further enhanced by the subsequent dinner at the house of one of the couples present at the baptism in our case.

Rogier_van_der_Weyden-_Seven_Sacraments_Altarpiece_-_Baptism_detail,_left_wing

From the depositions in the Aberdeen registers, it appears that some documents were also presented in court on the 21st of June, though any details as to what they contained are lacking. However, it appears that the memories of some of the deponents were linked to the drawing up of these documents. John Moir, for example, deposed that he was bound in an obligation with Willam Buchan for his marriage goods a year before ‘yone obligacioun bundin be the prior of Monymusk’. Presumably this meant that Isabel’s parents were married about a year before this obligation was drawn up, and that Isabel herself could not have been born more than about three months before it (though this is not explicitly stated). Two of the women linked their memories of Isabel growing up to another document presented in court, a deed dated on St Catherine’s day (25 November – the year is not mentioned). Elizabeth Mowat stated that she did not know how old Isabel was but that she was not quite four when the deed was drawn up. Andrew Cullen’s wife deposed that Isabel could ‘gang, ett and drink befor the de[e]d’.

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In thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England, written evidence was not seen as the most reliable. According to John Bedell in his article on memory and proof of age in that period, both judges and jurors considered written documents as inferior to memories of people who had personal knowledge of a certain event, though they were regularly presented as auxiliary evidence.2 McGlynn noted that in the earlier decades of the sixteenth century very few written documents were used as evidence in proof of age cases in England. People were very aware that written sources could be lost (as well as forged) and that personal memories were more reliable in the long run. This had changed by the late sixteenth century when society as a whole had become more literate.3

That written documents in themselves were not considered sufficient proof in early sixteenth-century Scotland either, is confirmed by the deposition of John Cullen, whose only recorded statement was that he ‘trastis the writ producit under the aldermanis seill’, apparently another document that was present in court. On the whole, though, written documents do appear to have played a more significant role than was usual in England at the same time, but based on one case it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions with regards to Scottish practice in the early sixteenth century.

Relying on the evidence of witnesses and documents, the bailies concluded that Isabel Buchan was eleven years old. Though this is not stated explicitly in the verdict, this meant that she would remain under the tutory of David Colp for a further nine months or so, after which she would be able to enjoy the fruits of her inheritance (though under curatory until she married).

The observations about the functioning of memory in proof of age cases correspond to conclusions made by authors analysing similar sources. Elizabeth van Houts, for example, noted that women, especially mothers and wet nurses, were important as ‘rememberers of birth details’, as this was considered part of the female domain. In such cases women’s testimonies were vital, as is clear from our 1507 case as well.4

Of course, much more can be said about medieval memory in all its facets than it is possible to relate in a short post. Hopefully other proof of age cases like this will crop up as our transcription efforts continue and more research will become possible. But even if not, this case on its own has already provided us with some nicely detailed insights into the workings of memory in medieval society, especially those of women, and as such into the events that most likely mattered most to them.


  1. Margaret McGlynn, ‘Memory, orality and life records: proofs of age in Tudor England’, The Sixteenth Century Journal 40 (2009), 688-9. 
  2. John Bedell, ‘Memory and proof of age in England 1272-1327’, Past & Present 162 (1999), 24. 
  3. McGlynn, ‘Memory, orality and life records’, 686, 696. 
  4. Elisabeth van Houts, ‘Medieval memory in theory and practice: some exploratory thoughts in the guise of a conclusion’, Gesta 48, no. 2 Making Thoughts, Making Pictures, Making Memories: a special issue in honor of Mary J. Carruthers (2009), 188; Idem, ‘Gender and Authority of Oral Witnesses in Europe (800-1300), Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 9 (1999), 220. 

Black money in Aberdeen (1488)

ACR, 7, p. 57 (14 April 1488)

by William Hepburn

ACR 7 p. 57

1488 was an eventful year in Scotland. King James III faced the second major rebellion of his reign, led by a group of aggrieved noblemen using his teenage son Prince James as a figurehead. After a skirmish at Sauchieburn near Stirling the king was killed in unknown circumstances and his son was crowned as James IV. There is little evidence of these dramatic events in the Aberdeen burgh register entries for that year, which focus on the ongoing affairs of people in and around the town. In amongst this material, however, lies evidence for the widespread impact of one of James III’s most unpopular policies which, in combination with a range of other grievances, provoked some of the king’s subjects into rebelling against him.1

Between 1480 and 1482 James III’s government introduced a form of debased currency known as black money, which was essentially a type of coin with the same face value as existing coins but made from lower-quality metal. According to a contemporary chronicle these coins, along with the war between Scotland and England ‘causyt baitht hungar and derth and mony pure folk deit of hunger’. This crisis led to black money being ‘cryit downe’ in 1482, meaning that it effectively lost its status as legal tender. The outcry against the black money appears to have been a contributing factor to the first major rebellion against James III.2

Scottish_ecclesiastical_penny_96218

A Crux Pellit penny – part of the black money of 1480-82 (Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew discovered many entries about black money in the Aberdeen Burgh Registers from around 1482, when the issue of the currency and its swift denunciation led to a flurry of litigation in the Aberdeen courts. They noted that cases involving black money continued into 1485 but that the issue was ‘essentially short-lived’.3 One entry, however, appears to suggest that its effects were still being felt in Aberdeen as late as 1488.4 It records one of the matters dealt with in a head court held before the baillies of Aberdeen in the tolbooth on 14 April of that year:

‘The samyn day Jhone of Culane Alexander Menyeis ande Jhone Wormet oblist thaim be the fathis of thar bodiis lelely and treulie to content and pay to the men of Danskin for the want of ther silver in tyme of the blak money in lentryne wair ande futvale penny and penny worthis for siclik price as fremmit mene may by it for reddy silver in hand fra merchandis of the toune.’5

Like many of the entries about black money from closer to the time of its demonetisation in 1482, this entry concerns the settling of debts which were complicated by the use of black money in a transaction.6 In this case, ‘men of Danskin’ (Danzig, modern-day Gdansk) were reimbursed by three Scottish merchants (John of Cullen, Alexander Menzies and John Wormet) for a debt incurred ‘in tyme of the black money’. The Scots were to settle the debt by handing over sheepskins (‘lentryne wair’, ‘futvale’) equal to its value.

The only other known issue of black money in James III’s reign was coined in the late 1460s.7 However, it seems that the 1488 entry refers to the 1480-82 coinage rather than this earlier issue.8 The earlier coinage was far less controversial and no trace of it can be found in the historical record for the 1470s, suggesting that it may have fallen out of use by that point.9 Also, the phrase ‘in tyme of the black money’ appears to refer to a well-known episode such as the notorious second issue of the coinage. 10

If the entry does refer to the infamous black money of 1480-82, what is its significance? It would be the latest-known contemporary reference to a legal case concerned with the repercussions of the 1480-82 black money issue in Scotland’s public records, showing that while this issue was largely dealt with in swift fashion, some of the problems it caused were still being resolved as late as six years after the event. Perhaps ‘the men of Danskin’ had returned to Aberdeen for the first time since they were paid in black money and took the opportunity to pursue the issue in the burgh court. Further work on the Aberdeen burgh registers may reveal more echoes of the black money crisis of 1482. It could even uncover evidence which sheds more light on this specific case.

More broadly, it links local, national and international history. Here is a case of a local court dealing with the effects of a reckless royal policy on international merchants. It demonstrates the capacity of these records to reveal detailed evidence about the affairs of Aberdeen as well providing a unique perspective on the impact of royal government and the links between Scotland and the wider world.

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Seventeenth-century portrait of James III (Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, there is a kind of poetic symmetry to this case taking place in 1488. Two months later, James III died at the battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June. After the battle, hoards of treasure belonging to the king were found in Edinburgh and in chests abandoned on the field – treasure which may have been amassed, at least in part, as a result of stowing away coins made of precious metals which he swapped out for the debased black money.11 If the fatal skirmish at Sauchieburn was a lightning strike at the heart of the storm created by James III’s reckless approach to kingship, the case of the black money cleared up by the magistrates of Aberdeen was a raindrop at its outer edge.


  1. Norman Macdougall, James III (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2009), pp.346-51, 359-68. 
  2. Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew, Changing Values in Medieval Scotland: A Study of Prices, Money, and Weights and Measures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 126; Macdougall, James III, pp. 183, 185. 
  3. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  4. It was also still affecting the Scottish crown’s financial administration, when a case involving payment of black money to the Comptroller was addressed in 1487 – Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  5. Minor changes have been made to the text to aid readability 
  6. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  7. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 125. 
  8. Other debased coins, known as billon placks, were used in James III’s reign but Joan Murray insisted that there are ‘strong reasons against identifying the billon placks as part of the black money’ – Joan E. L. Murray, ‘The Black Money of James III’ in British Archaeological Reports, 45 (1977), pp. 115-130 (p. 119). 
  9. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 125. 
  10. The same phrase was used in a passage identified by Joan Murray as referring to the 1480-82 black money from a record of a case heard before the lords of council in 1482 – Murray, ‘Black Money’, p. 117. 
  11. Norman Macdougall, James IV (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989), p. 51; Macdougall, James III, p. 186. 

A Case of Goods Lost at Sea (1485)

ACR, 6, p. 904 (11 February 1485)

by Edda Frankot

vol 6 p. 904 (jettison 1485)The port of Aberdeen in the later fifteenth century was not nearly as busy as it is today. Exactly how many ships docked at the medieval quays in an average year is unknown, but in the first half of the fifteenth century less than ten ships sailed abroad in most years.1 How many more would have had other Scottish ports as their destination is impossible to say, as a thorough port administration is simply not available. Thankfully, the Aberdeen Council Registers do offer a lot of qualitative information on shipping to and from Aberdeen and on the administration of legal cases between the various parties involved in this business. Such cases could be dealt with by different courts: there are instances of legal matters being administered in bailie courts, guild courts and by admirals depute in an admiralty court.2

On 11 February 1485, in a court held by the bailies in the tolbooth, an assize (a jury) of twelve sworn men passed judgement in a case concerning the casting of goods from a buss (‘busch’, from the Dutch ‘buis’, originally a herring fishing vessel). The entry in the Aberdeen records is quite short, but offers a few interesting insights into the administration of law in the burgh and into maritime legal practice.

Many cases that were dealt with by the Aberdeen courts were decided by assizes. Sometimes the members are mentioned by name, but often also they are not. In this case twelve names are listed, but assizes in other examples range from between nine and fifteen, and usually an uneven number appears to have been preferred.3 In most cases there are no further indications as to who the members of the assize were and why they were chosen (though it will surely be possible to find out more about individuals when this project is finished and the corpus can be searched for names). An interesting exception is a case from 1449 in which seven members of the assize are identified as ‘mercatorum’, merchants, and the other eight as ‘nautarum’, skippers.4 In the case discussed here, too, three men are identified as members of the maritime community: Peter Andreis is the skipper of the buss in question, Copryng is his ‘stereman’, helmsman, and Michael is the helmsman of a ‘kervel’, a carvel that was most likely anchored in port at the time. As in many other examples, the ships are only identified as ‘the busch’ and ‘the kervel’, suggesting that only a small amount of vessels were docked at the quay at any one time. Sometimes names are mentioned, such as the James of Veere and the shipwreck of the Mary Grace, both with Dutch skippers, in an entry of 6 February 1482 and the Maryknight from Aberdeen in 1461.5

It is likely that the men elected onto the assize were in some way knowledgeable in sea law because they themselves were part of the maritime community. Normally one would only expect men of some authority and standing to be involved, as assizes were often specified to consist of ‘worthy men’ or ‘proborum virorum’, which in maritime cases would mean merchants, shipowners and skippers. But in this case two helmsmen were elected too. What is even more remarkable, though, is that two of the men specified were actually on the ship that was the subject of the lawsuit. What is more, Peter Andreis even passed judgement at his own expense (or rather that of the shipowners which he represented). One would think that this was highly unusual (and irregular), but in another case, between the earl of Orkney and merchants from Aberdeen, the matter was referred to the meeting of the commissioners of all the burghs in Edinburgh. The reason given was ‘… sen the mater langis thaim, thai arre lath to be jugis in their awne cause’.6 In that case too, it appears, the merchants involved would have been asked to judge their own case.

Picture1The assize decided that Walter, a merchant whose goods had been cast overboard, presumably in order to save the ship in an emergency situation, though this is not specifically stated, would be compensated for his losses. The other merchants would ‘lott’ with him. In addition, the skipper would ‘lott’ with the merchants whose goods had been cast with either his ship or his freight. To lot means to contribute a proportionate share to a common payment. This was the usual way in which the sacrifice made at sea to save the whole vessel, its goods and its passengers (in legal terminology: general average) was compensated in most of northern Europe in this period (with some variation). It is also in accordance with the Rôles d’Oléron. These medieval sea laws which originated in France appear to have been valid in Scotland, as several copies of a translation into Scots have survived as part of collections of the main Scottish laws.7

So, this short entry from volume 6 of the Aberdeen Council Registers already provides us with a wealth of information on maritime and legal life in the late medieval burgh: on types of ships frequenting its harbour, on who administered justice in its courts and on how its maritime practice fitted in with that elsewhere in northern Europe. There is so much more yet to explore, not only concerning Aberdeen’s harbour and its maritime community, but also with regard to many other aspects of medieval life, such as the market, the guild, and citizens breaking the law, but also concerning relations with other towns and with local lords such as the earls of Huntly and Mar. Stay tuned for more highlights from the collection!


  1. David Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe. The Medieval Kingdom and its Contacts with Christendom, c. 1214-1560 (East Linton 2000), p. 11, fig. 1.1; David Ditchburn and Marjory Harper, ‘Aberdeen and the outside world’, in: E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn and Michael Lynch, eds, Aberdeen before 1800. A New History (East Linton 2002), p. 379. 
  2. Edda Frankot, ‘Of Laws of Ships and Shipmen’: Medieval Maritime Law and its Practice in Urban Northern Europe (Edinburgh 2012), pp. 56-7. 
  3. Frankot, Medieval Maritime Law, p. 155, notes 51 and 52. 
  4. ACR, 5/1, p. 68 (28 November 1449). 
  5. ACR, 6, p. 720 (6 February 1482); ACR, 5/1, p. 416 (11 April 1461). 
  6. For a more extensive discussion, see Frankot, Medieval Maritime Law, pp. 167-8; ACR, 5/2, p. 692 (16 December 1454). 
  7. Frankot, Medieval Maritime Law, pp. 110-120. The actual articles concerning jettison were, however, corrupted in the known versions of this translation: Ibid., p. 182.