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Archive for the ‘court records’ Category

I’ve been spending much time in the last week in the 17th century, transcribing a lengthy poem about a corrupt court judge at Melrose in the 1680s. Doing that reminded me of the talk I gave in September 2013, at the conference of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland, held in Inverness. I thought it would be nice if I put the PowerPoint slides from that online, so have done that – link here. It was a 20-minute talk, as is usual for academic conferences, so I was limited in how much I could say. But I covered a lot in the time allowed.

My talk was titled “Glimpses into a time of turmoil: examining the regality court records of Melrose, Roxburghshire, 1657-1706”, and was based on the dissertation for my taught MPhil degree at Dundee. I studied the voluminous local court records for Melrose regality, and had a fantastic time. I have ancestral connections in Melrose, going back to this period, and lived there myself for part of my childhood. And as a disabled student it was a perfect project: the records are largely transcribed already, so I could work on them at home, as able to.

In the process of the research I built up a gigantic database of court cases, pursuers and defenders. The index of people’s names recorded is online already, as part of my Melrose one-place study. There were probably only about 2500 people living within the court’s jurisdiction at this time, making the vast numbers of people recorded as using the court quite astonishing.

The slides don’t record everything I said in the Inverness talk though. For example there’s a detailed slide of the many debts murder accused John Halliwall weaver in Gattonside left in 1673 after escaping prison before his trial. I explained more about Halliwall’s story verbally on the day, not on the slides. He escaped on horseback, after a court officer let him out of jail to help him sell ale!

I’ve also spoken about the 17th century court records to the local historical society in Melrose, many years ago, in a well attended talk in the town.

There are so many other stories I want to share about the Melrose community from these records. For example a g… uncle of mine was judge of the court from 1657 to 1665. Well he was, until he was charged with “striking and hurteing of Robert Mott, servitor to John Bowar, portioner of Eildoune”. His own court fined him £10, and he lost his job. But that, and more, is for another day!

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Before I discovered the joys of book history and researching historic reading habits, which I studied for a PhD, I did a part-time taught postgraduate Masters (an MPhil) in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This was taught at Dundee University, mainly by Professor Charles McKean, ably supported by other members of staff, and was superb. The closing part of the Masters saw students do a dissertation on a topic of their choice. And I chose to study the local court records of Melrose in Roxburghshire between 1657 and 1706. These had been transcribed and published, and so were easy to work with. I built up a very large database of cases, pursuers and defenders. There were thousands of cases heard at the Melrose court in the period, and huge numbers of the (small) local population involved with the court. It was a very unusual type of local court, dating from the pre-Reformation Abbey control of the area, and provided low-cost convenient access to legal solutions to problems.

The Melrose court went through a lot of upheaval in the 1680s, after the Earl of Haddington who controlled it refused to agree to the Test Act, a measure by King Charles II to try to reassert royal authority, which was resisted by many peers in Scotland. As a result the control of this court passed to the Earl of Roxburgh, who appointed as his bailie-depute, in other words the sitting judge, local man George Pringle of Blindlee. Pringle would become one of the starring characters of my dissertation, as I showed how he changed the purpose of the Melrose court to now be primarily to root out conventicles, secret meetings for worship by people opposed to the imposed Episcopalian religion. And significantly Pringle also used the court to line his own pockets, as he fined the local population heavily, and seems to have taken deliberate steps to – wrongly – keep the money for himself.

So it was a delight to discover a contemporary poem written about Blindlee’s appointment to the Melrose post. It’s held in the National Records of Scotland, and as the catalogue says it’s called ‘A strange truth, a recommendation of Blindlie by the laird of Meldrum to the earl of Roxburgh, to be his depute in Melroseland’. The poem is undated, but looking through it looks to be pretty authentic to events of the changeover of 1682 as I know them already, and presumably was written by someone who knew the facts well.

I’ve started to transcribe the poem. It’s lengthy, not great poetry, almost McGonagall-like in places. But the rhyming helps as I battle to read the faint handwriting. I’m hoping to publish it in the form of a journal paper in future. I already have a paper with reviewers based on my Melrose court research in general, and hope to get that published in a good journal.

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