The Aberdeen Registers: A Student Perspective

By Finn O’Neill, final year LLB student at the University of Aberdeen

Over the past academic year, I have had the good fortune to volunteer with the project ‘Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers: Concepts, Practices, Geographies, 1398-1511’ (LACR), under the supervision of Dr Claire Hawes. As a Law student at Aberdeen with a keen interest in both private law and legal history, the chance to utilise some of the earliest court records in Scotland was an opportunity not to be missed. The LACR project is transcribing the medieval registers in full, and has created a prototype web tool which makes them searchable. This is an excellent tool for the curious, as the scope of material contained in the records is vast and the time period is reasonably extensive.

My engagement with the registers started because the project asked me to help to test the web tool, by formulating queries based on my own research. As much of a degree in Scots law involves tracing the origins of legal principles through history in an attempt to understand their modern developments, I was more than happy to help. I used the web tool to search for things I had been studying relating to succession, leases and Scottish legal history. For example, a search for the word “tak”, the Middle Scots word for lease, brings up over 300 results which include cases of disputes over leases and show the vibrant development of a fundamental part of Scots law.

One of my research points had been to try to find the earliest usage of the Leases Act of 1449 in Aberdeen. The scope of the act would technically have excluded burghs but at some point this must have fallen away as the act is applied across Scotland to this day. However, the registers are neither as specific nor as detailed as modern case reports and as such I did not have sufficient time to find this. Even so, the process of searching through these extraordinary records gave me a significantly better understanding of the topic, because I could see how these legal mechanisms were being used in practice in Aberdeen between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Using the registers allowed me to access materials that few others have used, and find a perspective which had not otherwise been explored. For example I had a better understanding of the customary usage of leases in Scotland outwith the scope of the Leases Act 1449.

Another area of research that I engaged with using the records was the use of brieves in Aberdeen. Brieves are early court writs, forms of actions which provide a mechanism for dispute resolution and their usage in Scotland. This is a particular passion of mine and was highly relevant to my coursework in Scottish Legal History and European Legal History as both courses have considered the use of brieves in Scotland. As part of the project I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Aberdeen archives in the Town House. This was a fantastic experience as we were able to see many charters relating to the burgh of Aberdeen first hand. My own favourite part of the trip was the opportunity to see a brieve of right which was sewn onto the 1317 Court Roll, and in doing so experience a piece of legal history that I had been reading about for more than half of my university career.

It should be noted that my use of the web tool was greatly enhanced by the fantastic team working on the project. Although I relished the challenge to read Middle Scots, having expert knowledge at hand made the whole process of searching and using the web tool much easier. In turn, I was able to provide the team with details of some of the legal processes that we encountered.

I would encourage anyone interested in the history of Scotland to make the LACR project a top priority in their research. The scope of the registers covers many fields of interest and I can say with confidence that you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

My thanks go to the LACR team for the opportunity to work with these most important and truly wonderful records.