The first north-western European sea law, the Rôles d’Oléron, compiled in French in the thirteenth century, regulated the relations between the various parties involved in the transportation of wine from the Atlantic coast of France to England, Flanders and Scotland.1 In the fourteenth century this law was translated into Scots (as well as into Flemish/Dutch) and would remain the only compilation of maritime customs available in late medieval Scotland. This translation, generally simply entitled ‘ship lawis’ (or ‘of lawis of shippis and shipmen’), thus takes a special place among the medieval Scottish laws as being the only ‘European’ set of rules, both with regard to its subject matter, international shipping, as to its providence.
Scottish maritime law, then, cannot be studied in isolation, but must be analysed within a European context. This is further supported by the fact that maritime law was mainly relevant within the urban environment of Scottish coastal burghs where merchants and skippers came to seek justice when problems arose between them regarding the transportation of goods by sea. The Scottish ports, like those elsewhere, were inherently focused outwards and from their earliest times were exposed to external influences, for example those from Flemish merchants invited by King Malcolm III and Queen Margaret in the twelfth century or, indeed, from wine merchants from Bordeaux or La Rochelle.2
In this study the European context is provided by comparing Scotland (represented here by Aberdeen) not with France, England and Flanders, but with towns in the Netherlands, northern Germany, Poland and Estonia. The reasons for this are twofold. First, when I started my research in Aberdeen in 1999, the idea that that city was northern European, being geographically closer to Norway than to London, was popular both at the university and at the city council and archives. One of the objectives of my study therefore became to challenge whether Aberdeen was indeed northern European when studied in the context of maritime law. As a result, this book seeks to determine which aspects of Scottish maritime law and its practice were unique in northern Europe and which developments were
1 Article 13 of this text specifically names Scotland as one of the destinations when regulating that local pilotage charges are to be paid by the merchants: ‘Et ceux d’Escoce puis qe lem passe Gernemue [And those of Scotland after passing Yarmouth]’ (Oléron, art. 13).
2 Evidence of direct commercial contacts between Scotland and Gascony in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is meagre (Ditchburn, Scotland and Europe, 154), but the sea laws suggest that direct contacts must already have existed in the thirteenth century.