44. Transcribing Scots Documents


A small advert in the Berwickshire News caught my eye. It offered training in the transcription of early modern documents from the secretary hand in which they are written into the writing with which we are familiar today.

And all it asked in exchange was help in transcribing documents related to the Battle of Flodden. It seemed to me that both sides of the bargain would be a pleasure, so I soon found myself in a band of volunteers learning the intricacies of the alphabet used by the scribes of the sixteenth century. Our trainer and mentor was Linda Bankier of the Woodhorn Charitable Trust, the body that manages the Berwick Record Office.

Now those of you who, like me, were novices in the field, will remember your first attempt at reading a page of secretary hand. It looks utterly indecipherable. How can this mean anything, let alone be written in English? However, under Linda’s patient guidance, we started to see the letters and words behind the ‘hieroglyphs’ and soon whole sentences and pages were beginning to be legible. But there were always snags. Spelling wasn’t standardised at that time and one document could contain several versions of a word. Early scribes were masters of the contraction, but not all of them used the same contractions. A good discussion with Linda or with a fellow transcriber could often throw light on a previously impenetrable phrase.

Soon Linda had us working on relevant documents, sending good electronic reproductions to us at home for us to wrack our brains over in private, before sending our attempts at transcription back to her. As I am a Scot, based north of the border, Linda asked me to focus on the few Scottish documents of known relevance to Flodden. This added a new dimension to the task: that of understanding the special words and phrases used in Scots documents which were not in use in England and which have, for the most part, now slipped out of usage in Scotland as well.

The first Scots series Linda sent me was 11 pages from the Alloway Court Book of 1516/17. These were fascinating records of disputes in a small rural community in Ayrshire, typically involving allegations of crop damage by livestock, or wrongful usage of the corn mill of the barony. Many Scots words, like ‘knaifschip’ (knaveship - the office of under-miller and the perquisites thereof ), or ‘quhilk’ (which), gave good mental exercise to the transcriber.
Some entries were dramatic, like this one for 17 July 1516
[abbreviations are shown in brackets]:

Quo die the Juges accusit in Jugisment thome fare in the rottonraw And Elin neill ilk ane sev[er]alie be thai[m] self for the wra[n]guss filin of the barony be violent effusio[u]n of blud of the uth[er]is and thai ilk ane sev[er]alie denyit the wrang Raf[e]rit to the Inquest The Inquest find[es] Elin neill in the bludwert

This day the Judges accused in judgment Thome Fare in the Rottonrow and Elin Neill: each one severally by themself for the wrongful fouling of the barony by violent effusion of the blood of the other and they each one severally denied the wrong. Referred to the Inquest: the Inquest finds Elin Neill guilty of bloodshed.

A few months later, on 18 November, we find Thomas Fare in court again:

Quo die Thome fare in the uner end of the towne of Allowaye to the soit of neill in cortoun for the wranguss w[i]t[h]halding fra him of ane quhit hat th[a]t he t[uk] him to the feild of floudoun And the said thomas gra[n]tit he borowit fra him the said quhitt hatt & allegit th[a]t it was tynt in the said feild & th[er]for p[er]off[er]it him to do th[er]untill at the consid[er]acio[u]n of nichtbo[u]r[es] Raf[e]rit to the Inquest

This day Thome Fare in the lower end of the town of Alloway to the suit of Neill in Cortoun for the wrongful withholding from him of one white hat that he took with him to the Field of Floudoun. And the said Thomas granted that he borrowed from him the said white hat & alleged that it was lost in the said field & therefore proffered to him to do thereunto at the consideration of neightbours. Referred to the Inquest.

So it seems that Thomas, some months after being attacked by Elin Neill was accused by another Neill (Elin’s husband perhaps?) of losing Neill’s white hat on the Field of Flodden, for which he offered to make such restitution as might be determined by his neighbours. But it wasn’t just this reference to Flodden that made these court records interesting. They provided a wonderful window on a way of life long gone, yet strangely familiar to us in the daily goings on of everyday existence.

Linda then sent me an email under the title ‘A challenge for you!’ As if the Alloway Court Books hadn’t been enough of one. This time it was one of the earliest extant wills in the Scottish Archives, that of Adam Hepburne of Craggis, a knight in the Scottish army who died at Flodden. He was well connected: two other members of the Hepburn family, the Earl of Bothwell and the Bishop of the Isles, also died on Flodden Field. So it would be an interesting read, if read it I could, for this time the text was in Latin with a lot of Scots words thrown in: a challenge indeed!

Luckily for me, another Scot, Tom Carslaw, a resident of Norfolk, had been in touch with Linda to say he was working on the same document. As soon as Tom and I established contact, I knew that his input would be extremely helpful. And so it proved as, bouncing drafts and queries off each other, we tried to get to the bottom of some of the more difficult passages.

Typical of the challenge was this short part of page 2 (lines 7 - 9), dealing with the livestock on his farm of Barfoot.

In transcription, the text looks like this:

Barfut vij wedderis lxviij oves matrices
preciu[m] pecie utruisq[ue] iij sh j d lxxj bidentes preciu[m] pecie ij sh xij
boves arantes preciu[m] pecie xx sh unu[m] equu[m] captum p[er] ingrud de halish

Here you have roman lowercase numerals preceding a mixture of Scots and latin words and rounded off with a horse now in the hands of Ingrud de Halish, presumably taken at the Battle of Flodden.

Barfoot: 7 wethers and 68 mother ewes
valued at 3s 1d each; 71 two-tooth sheep valued at 2s; 12
ploughing oxen valued at 20s each; one horse captured by Ingrud de Halish

And this is where the document becomes confusing. It was drawn up on 7 September, two days before the battle, when Adam Hepburn was already in Northumberland with his king, but the inventory of his goods reflects the situation after the battle. Here are the first few lines of the document.

Testamentum q[uondam] Ad[am]e hepburne
Inventarium omniu[m] bonoru[m] quondam nobilis viri ade[m] hepburne de
craggis militis factu[m] apud floudoun in nort thrumber infra angliam
in guerra per Jacobum quartum Scotorum regem suu[m] principem super
angles septimo die mensis septembris a[n]no d[o]m[ini] j m v c xiij per dictu[m]
Adame militem tunc superste[s] imprimis fatetur se habere in boltoun
infra constabularu[m] de hadingtoun et vicecomitatu[m] de Ed[inbu]r[gh]

Testament of the late Adam Hepburn
Inventory of all the goods of the late nobleman Adam Hepburn of
Craggis, knight, who was at Flodden in Northumberland, England,
in the war by James IV, King of Scots, his prince, against the English,
on the 7th day of the month of September in the year of Our Lord 1513, by the said
Adam, knight, at that time a survivor, who lived in Bolton,
within the Constabulary of Haddington and Viscountcy of Edinburgh.

At the end of the inventory comes the preamble to his actual bequests, written, remember, at Flodden on 7th September [I have made an attempt to interpolate likely text obliterated by lacunae in the vellum]:

With nothing more certain than death but the hour of my death unknown, I, Adam Hepburn of
Craggis, alive and well in both mind and body [at this time facing] the English in war with James
IV, King of Scots, my prince [having thought] with quiet reflection about the start and end of this
dubious war, [I hereby make] my [testament] in the form that follows: In the first place, I give and
bequeath . . . then follow his individual bequests.

His death came all too soon. It is probable that two days after writing this he was killed, bringing to an end, for him and for the whole Scots nation, “this dubious war”. But, from my work on his testament, I remain unsure of whether he died on the battlefield, or later, back home in Bolton. From other sources, I know that his brother George, Bishop of the Isles, and his nephew Adam, Earl of Bothwell, fell alongside their king - like so many of all ranks on that fateful day.

What a web of fathers, sons, cousins, uncles and nephews met their end at the hands of the English army on the 9th of September 1513! There cannot have been a household in the borders that was not affected, both immediately after the battle and for many years afterwards.

Documents such as Adam Hepburn’s will, drawn up two days before the battle, and the Alloway barony court’s record three years later of Neil’s white hat lost by his neighbour Tom on the battlefield, although not written specifically about the Battle of Flodden, provide us with invaluable information about Scottish people of all social classes who were there and an insight into their life at the time.