Aberdeen City Archives

Burgh Court Roll

The 1317 Burgh Court Roll for Aberdeen predates the city’s UNESCO-recognised Burgh Registers by over 80 years. Its significance as a Scottish archival “treasure” lies in the fact that it is the nation’s oldest record of local administration.

It is known from an entry in one of the town’s late 16th century registers that there were once many more of these rolls in existence. The then Town Clerk, Thomas Mollisone, described the them as “…evil to be read”. Unfortunately, only this one example has survived and while it may have tested Mollisone’s palaeographical skills, a recent transcription and translation has revealed its contents to a modern audience.

The Burgh Court Roll is a rather unusual looking item, markedly different to the subsequent bound burgh registers that start in an unbroken run in 1398. At around 160cm long and 20cm wide, the roll comprises five panels of parchment that were stitched together when it was created, including a brieve, a letter issued in the name of Robert the Bruce, which has been attached to the document as a subsequent addition to the text, about halfway along its length.

The roll covers a number of cases that came before the burgh’s head and baillie courts between August and October of 1317. By way of an example, one of these cases relates to a seventeen-year-old Aberdonian woman named Ada. The dispute in which she was involved was heard between 1316 and 1317. While she had been brought up from infancy in Aberdeen, having been born at Martinmas in the year 1299, at some point her family had left the burgh to live in “another part of the kingdom”. But now, following the death of a close relative, Ada was returning to her native town, in order to assert her rights of inheritance in a toft (i.e. a piece of land) and a tenement in the Gallowgate. Ada’s trouble was that that land was currently held by an influential man, William of Lindsay, Rector of Ayr, who had formerly served Robert the Bruce as Chamberlain of Scotland.

Ada’s case, and the others that feature on the Burgh Court Roll, supply an unrivalled insight to the legal procedures of the medieval town, providing evidence of where these events took place and how the fall-out from the Wars of Independence had an impact on the lives of individuals living or connected with Aberdeen.