A new project to unlock the secrets of Aberdeen's Burgh Records has been awarded funding of £310,000.
The city has more surviving records for the period 1398–1511 than all other Scottish towns combined.
Researchers have previously delved into the records to uncover tales of shipwrecks, piracy and even royal demands and the new funding, from the Leverhulme Trust, will enable them to analyse legal practices in the city - how was the law applied, who used it, when, and to what ends.
Dr Jackson Armstrong, from the University of Aberdeen, will lead the project, entitled Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers 1398–1511: Concepts, Practices, Geographies. It will be based in the University’s Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies (RIISS). Dr Armstrong said: “We will be looking at how the use of the law changed over time and the basis for that change.
“The Burgh Records are an invaluable and unique source for this type of research because of their continuity.
“They are near continuous for the period 1398-1511 and such is their historical importance that in 2013 UNESCO UK inscribed the earliest eight council register volumes on the Memory of the World Register.
“Our previous research into the records uncovered letters written by King James V and showed he became directly involved following accusations that the cargo of a shipwreck off modern Cove had been plundered. We also discovered that Aberdeen frequently upset its European neighbours with a perceived leniency towards piracy.
“The Burgh records contain many more secrets and we hope that with the new Leverhulme funding we can begin to unlock them. The continuity of the council registers allows questions of legal change to be addressed meaningfully, and not just relying on ‘snapshots’ of evidence from different points in time.”
The Leverhulme award will fund research over a three year period and will bring together academics from a range of different disciplines including Dr Andrew Mackillop from History, Dr Adam Wyner from Computing, Dr Andrew Simpson from Law and Dr Edda Frankot, who will be the study’s Editorial Research Fellow.
Dr Armstrong added: “It is a great privilege to lead the team that will open up the text of Scotland’s most important local records from the later middle ages. Our academic investigation aims to set a new direction for research with urban records. We intend to enlarge and sharpen perspectives on law and legal change over time. We seek to foster European comparisons and, in a Scottish context, prompt a deep reconsideration of the geography of law and politics in the kingdom.
“This new project builds on established cooperation between town and gown. Since 2012 representatives of the City and University academics have been working together to set the stage for a study on this scale.”
To underpin this study, the project will produce a full electronically-structured transcription of the registers up to 1511, which Aberdeen City Council will ensure is made available online.
Aberdeen City Council Communities, Housing and Infrastructure convener Councillor Neil Cooney said: “It is fantastic that the Leverhulme Trust has made this funding award as it will help to shed light on a period of the city’s history that has hitherto been relatively under-investigated.
“Aberdeen is indeed fortunate to have the oldest and most complete records of any Scottish town, the significance of the archive being recognised by UNESCO in 2013 when these unique 600-year-old documents were included on the UK Register of Important Documentary Heritage.
“We are excited about opening up the amazing history of our city in this way and the potential that the funding award presents to enable people to discover more about life in the medieval burgh, and the world beyond.”
Commenting on the award, Phil Astley, Aberdeen City Council City Archivist, said “This is a tremendous opportunity for exciting new work with Aberdeen’s important collections. It will enable new forms of access to these records, and open up new scope for local, national and international collaborations. We are pleased to be involved in this project which has such long-term potential to enhance Aberdeen’s wider cultural offering”.
The Leverhulme Research Project Grants provide financial support for innovative and original research projects of high quality and potential. The grants provide support for the salaries of research staff engaged on the project, plus associated costs directly related to the research proposed. Proposals must reflect the personal vision of the applicant and demonstrate compelling competence in the research design.
The Leverhulme Trust was established by the Will of William Hesketh Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers. Since 1925 it has provided grants and scholarships for research and education and today is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing approximately £80m a year.