15th Conference 1972

The 15th Conference of the Scottish Medievalists was held at the University of St Andrews, 8-9 January 1972. Minutes Secretary, Jennifer M. Brown (ie Jenny Wormald).

15th Conference, 8 January 2.30pm Discussion Session

Economic History in Medieval Scotland – why none?

Chairman: Dr. G. G. Simpson.

The chairman opened the discussion by saying that although there had been considerable development recently on Scottish economic history from the seventeenth century onwards, no-one, with the honourable exceptions of Professor Lythe and Dr. I. F. Grant, had dealt with the earlier period. He asked if mediaeval economic history existed. To the modern economic historian it did not, because of the absence of statistics and runs of consistent records. But possibly the ‘ordinary’ mediaeval historian could do something about it. He proposed three possible areas of research:

1) Charter evidence. Professor Barrow had already shown the value of this for the economy and agricultural structure. Both the semantic and the topographical approach could provide information.

2) Archaeology. Historians had hardly even begun to incorporate this in their thinking. But the pioneer work of John Dunbar and Eric Talbot on castles, and Lloyd Laing on pottery had shown what could be done. Similarly, historians should take account of the work of numismatists.

3) Trade. Not nearly enough use was made of foreign sources; much could be discovered if historians would look abroad, as Dilley had shown in his article in SHR on fourteenth century German-Scottish trade.

The second speaker, Professor Dominica Legge, described a late twelfth century romance by Chretien, Guillaume d’Angleterre. The story was mythical, but the writer described trading, and had something to say on Scottish trade. He gave place-names; Galweide, identified as Kirkcudbright, and ‘Sorlinc‘ or ‘Surclin‘ in Caithness, which was possibly Helmsdale. He also listed trading goods; dyes – cochinil, woad, madder, alum – and leathers and foxskins. He mentioned horses; the poem does not make clear whether these were packhorses or horses for sale, but Professor Legg, said that already Galloway horses were famed for sure-footedness. Luxury goods were also described; gold embroidery, gold chessboards, silver backgammon boards, counterpanes and cloaks. The author clearly knew about English and foreign ports, the fairs of the time and the wool trade. Professor Legge pointed out that there was doubt about the accuracy of his knowledge of Scottish trade; but the commodities he mentioned were included in the Laws of the Four Burghs in the list of goods on which customs dues were demanded; and the poem may therefore provide confirmation that they were actually imported.

Dr. Athol Murray then discussed the sources available for the later middle ages. Private muniments were a matter of lucky dip, though by the fifteenth century more numerous and less confined to charter material. On official sources, Dr. Murray emphasised that the norm was taken for granted; it was the unusual which was recorded. This applied particularly to parliamentary records. The Register of the Great Seal and Council records gave little help; but the Register of the Privy Seal and burgh records were useful, as were protocol books for their evidence of legal or business transactions. The Exchequer Rolls formed the largest consistent source of information, though they had to be used with care because of the manner in which they were compiled. Particulars of payments were summarised from fuller documents or vouchers which have not survived. Also it was always advisable to check forwards and backwards to see whether the transaction recurred every year, in which case the reference could not be used I. evidence for a particular event. By the end of the fifteenth century, other financial records complemented the Exchequer Rolls. The customs books (from 1499) sometimes provided details on out-going ships, their cargoes and destinations, but such references were very few; they did suggest, however, that the other end of the trade could be traced through records of foreign ports. It appears that no-one had ever tried to use the English customs books for this purpose. The crown rentals, beginning in the 1470s, were also a valuable source for the history of agriculture and social conditions, particularly in Ettrick forest, but they had not received much attention from historians.

In the discussion which followed, Dr. Rae pointed out the problem of relating literary sources to historical evidence. Mr. Scott said that there was evidence to back up the romance described by Professor Legge; luxury goods were imported, according to the Vita S. Margeretae, and charter evidence supported the account given in the poem. Professor Nicholson took issue with the gloomy picture given by Dr. Simpson and Dr. Murray. He felt that the idea of ‘insufficient records’ was a myth, and argued that in particular, RMS was by no means of marginal use; after 1469, for example, the sale of land by charter gave evidence of prices, sellers and buyers. He raised the question that the assumed decline of exports in the fifteenth century conflicted with the idea of a rising bourgeoisie; and he emphasised the value of Rotuli Scotiae as a source giving evidence of foreign trade. There was discussion about the place of the speller burghs. Dr. Murray felt that the evidence which showed the dominance of Edinburgh could be trusted, although after 1550 Edinburgh declined, for reasons not yet explained. Dr. Brown commented that English historians made the same complaint about the difficulties of the sources, but that much more had been done – which suggested that what was needed was people to do the work. Fr. Dilworth asked whether the Scots who went abroad as traders and pedlars to central Europe were relevant to the economy; Dr. Murray said that not enough was known before the seventeenth century to answer this. Professor MacQueen spoke of the importance of place-name evidence, for the later as wall as the early period; this provided, for example, evidence of transhumance and of the use of horses; thus Achness – the horse meadow. He reiterated Dr. Simpson’s point about the evidence of coins, and stressed the value of literary evidence which, while not providing statistics, did show what contemporaries thought important: to Henryson, flax-growing at Dunfermline, to Lindsay the coal pits at Tranent.

There was then considerable discussion about the great problem of discovering what ‘the usual money of Scotland’ meant in terms of purchasing value. It became clear that many members of the conference had evidence of rates of exchange, or at least evidence that rates of exchange had been used, even if it was not always clear what these were. Dr. Watt then proposed that it would be of considerable value if this information could be drawn together, and it was agreed that this should be further discussed on the following day. The members of the conference expressed their thanks to the three speakers, and agreed that a ‘problematic’ subject had proved a very interesting one.

8 p.m. Slides were shown by Mr. Eric Talbot on early castle sites and on the recent excavations at Glasgow and Dumbarton.

15th Conference, 9 January 9.30pm Discussion Session

Local Records

Discussion led by Mr. D. J. Withrington .

Mr. Withrington began by describing the discussions which had taken place after the Wheatley Report had come out. The Secretary of State had invited the Scottish Records Advisory Council to make recommendations. Their report, based on opinions they had canvassed, suggested acceptance of the general principle of regional organisation, but considerable debate about its implementation; for example, whether the Scottish Record Office should institute and staff local offices, or, as seamed to be favoured by the government, the regional authorities should be virtually autonomous. He expressed concern about the safeguarding of records, both in preventing their destruction, and in the conditions in which they would be kept. Apparently state control would extend only to making the new authorities responsible for looking after the records of the old authorities whom they replaced. He emphasised that there was great need for scholars to press for the kind of service they wanted. Finally he spoke of the growing interest in local research and knowledge, as shown by the success of extra-mural departments which ran ‘local’ courses and the number of research students now drawn to local research. The Conference on Local Records which he had recently attended had resolved that there should be a Scottish Local History Council, drawing on universities, colleges of further education and local societies, and providing something like the standing conference in England.

Much of the discussion which followed was concerned with the problem of the safe-guarding of records. Dr. Murray pointed out that there would always be some degree of supervision from the Scottish Record Office, because of the Keeper’s statutory responsibility for certain records, for example sheriff court records; likewise the Church of Scotland had given him responsibility for church records. The survey of local authorities was almost complete, and there were already plans to return the Orkney and Shetland records. Professor Barrow and others raised the question of what would happen when the new re-organisation divided long-established authorities. Mr. Cant expressed concern about the burghs, which would not be controlled by the new county authorities, but whose records were sometimes the oldest and richest, and very vulnerable. It was generally felt that the new authorities should have reasonable freedom of control from the centre, but that there was a danger that there might be so little control that in some cases records would be seriously at risk, and that this should be guarded against.

The related question of the training and position of archivists was also discussed. Mr, Withiington pointed out that in Glasgow Mr. Dell had taught officials that he had a necessary place, but warned against the situation which had arisen in London, when the new G.L.C. officials had refused to recognise the relevance of the previous position, Dr. Rae said that the regional archivist’s primary function was what he could do towards modern administration, secondly the conservation of archives, and only thirdly the use of archives, which was the historian’s priority; this was why too much independence for regional archivists was dangerous. Fr. Dilworth spoke of the need for a national inventory. Dr. Murray said that this existed, and that a record would be kept of material sent to local authorities. Dr. Simpson suggested that the Record Office, while not running everything, should be responsible for setting professional standards throughout the country. It was agreed that good facilities and administration would exist only if those who wanted to use the archives provided evidence that they were necessary. Dr. Watt asked about the training of archivists. Mr. Withrington said that by 1973 the University of Aberdeen would institute a diploma in archival administration. Dr. Brown pointed out that nationally there were already too many archivists, and in England too few jobs. Dr. Simpson said that the Aberdeen diploma would have particular justification, in that as well as training archivists on the traditional lines, it would also train them in the sac of business and technological archives, an approach not made elsewhere.