Aberdeen has the earliest and most complete body of surviving records of any Scottish town, with a near continuous run of council registers from 1398 to the present. Such is the value and significance of these records that in July 2013 the eight volumes covering the period 1398 to 1511 were recognised by UNESCO as being of outstanding historical importance to the UK.
The Aberdeen Burgh Records Project is a collaboration between the University, the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives (ACAA) and the National Records of Scotland (NRS) that has been in place since 2012. To date, two pilot studies have been conducted (2013-14 and 2014) and a major Leverhulme-funded project is underway (2016-19).
The Leverhulme-funded Law in the Aberdeen Council Registers 1398-1511: Concepts, Practices, Geographies aims to create and disseminate a digital textual resource from the first eight volumes of the Aberdeen Council Registers in the format of a versatile and online Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) compliant transcription in order to examine legal concepts, practices and geographies in a European context. The opening up of this resource can transform the understanding of late medieval and early modern legal systems as lived experiences. Our academic and technical programmes are interlinked: we intend to unlock the textual content of these records for new investigation, through a transcription which will underpin our analysis and be available to all.
The pilot study 'Connecting and Projecting Aberdeen's Burgh Records', funded by the Research Institute for Irish and Scottish Studies, tested the practicalities of creating an online, publicly-accessible database which links a full transcription and translation of the registers’ text with corresponding images. The sample covers fifty folios (one hundred images) for the six months from October 1530 to March 1531 (Volume CA1/1/13). This is a ‘proof of concept’ exercise using a previously underexplored volume to identify technical solutions as well as the appropriate editorial procedures for the creation of comprehensive transcriptions and translations. These will then link to a related database housing the corresponding digital images.
In December 2013 a linked project, A Text Analytic Approach to Rural and Urban Legal Histories, secured funding from the dot.rural Resource Partnership. The purpose of this project was to run a six-month pilot study to apply text analytical tools to the 100-page transcription of the council registers generated through the RIISS pilot. This pilot explored a new method with which to interpret the linguistically meaningful content of the text, making it machine readable and richly annotated. To accomplish this, a text analytic tool was developed that specifically relates to the language, content, and structure of the record. The result is an accessible, flexible, and essential precursor to the development of Semantic Web and linked data applications related to this and other material. Using text analytic software, it is possible to identify, query, and extract legal entities, individuals, offices, events, roles and others as well as the relations between these elements. Such an analysis helps to address legal historical issues such as the political and legal culture and authority in the Burgh and Shire, particularly pertaining to the management and use of natural resources. An understanding of these issues, and being able to access them using Semantic Web/linked data technologies, facilitates further exploitation in applications.