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Mediaeval Scotland
Chapter VIII. Weights and Measures


The subject of the early weights and measures is one of considerable importance for historical students, and at the same time it is one of very great practical difficulty. Almost every county and district had its own customary measures, which differed from the national standards and also from one another. This confusion no doubt originally arose from historical causes; and it continued, in spite of every effort made by Parliament and by the Convention of Royal Burghs, which was really the body which dealt principally with commercial matters, down to the close of the last century.

In dealing with the subject the most convenient way will be to give in the first place a very brief view of the history of the system of weights and measures as a whole.

The first recorded Act is the Assize of Measures and Weights, which is usually attributed to David I. There can be little doubt but that this, or some similar regulation, is really due to that king, though the actual date of the earliest existing MS. of the laws belongs to the period of Robert the Bruce. In 1365 the chamberlain was ordered to see that a “tron,” or weighing machine, was erected in every port in the kingdom, and that the bailies of burghs examined regularly the weights and measures, and punished those who were guilty of offences against the regulations.

The next important Act on the subject occurs in 1425, when the Parliament of James I. issued a series of orders relating to the various measures, and requiring standards to be made and issued from Edinburgh. In 1457 the size of the pint, firlot, half firlot, and peck were fixed, and standards were to be kept in Edinburgh, Perth, and Aberdeen.

Ten years later, in 1467, another Act required all weights and measures throughout the country to be reformed, and the chamberlains and sheriffs were enjoined to see that the provisions of the Act were enforced. In 1503 weights and measures were again ordered to be of the standards to be fixed by the king and his chamberlain ; each burgh was to have a sealed measure, and any one using other than the new standards were to be indicted. No burgh was to have one set of weights for buying and another for selling.

The water measure in use and wont throughout the country was still to be preserved by Acts of 1555 and 1567 ; but the latter Act provided for a "straik” measure, without prejudice to the water mett.

An important enactment was made in 1597, which altered the old standard of the firlot as fixed in 1457, making it larger, and declaring that in future victual was to be measured by “straik” instead of heap.

The last important Act was passed in 1618, following on the appointment of a Commission of Enquiry. This Act entered very minutely into all the weights and measures, and fixed the standards which practically remained in use up to the time of the Union.

In spite, however, of all these Parliamentary regulations it is certain that great irregularity prevailed throughout the country; and the subject was very frequently brought under the notice of the Convention of Burghs. In 1552 the provosts and commissioners of burghs assembled at Edinburgh resolved that the whole burghs of the kingdom should receive their measures from the standards following, viz., the stone weight of Lanark, the pint of Stirling, the firlot of Linlithgow, and the ell of Edinburgh. In 1578 the Convention decided that the pound should contain sixteen ounces of the French weight, and that every burgh should have a stone weight, half stone weight, pound, and half pound, made of brass, marked with the stamp of the town using them ; and that the firlots should conform to the Linlithgow standard and be similarly marked. The commissioner from Glasgow wished, in 1579,. an Act of Parliament to be passed making “straik” measure legal instead of heaped. Uniformity in weights and measures was again strenuously enjoined in 1587, with special reference to the Act of Convention of 1552. Every burgh not providing weights was to be fined; and in 1594 a return was required from each, showing that they had complied with the Act. In the same year Linlithgow was ordered to furnish to each municipality requiring it a firlot measure with two bands and a cross band on the bottom, of iron, with a peck and a half peck measure—all for six pounds Scots. At the next Convention, in 1595, the commissioners of Wigton, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries, and Jedburgh declared that the ancient measures in their districts were larger than the Linlithgow standard, and great difficulty would be found in altering them. The matter came up again in the Convention next year, and it was decided that four pecks, neither more nor less, should go to the firlot of Linlithgow, and that this decision should be binding on all the country, except in Nithsdale, where the customary old measure was allowed to be used.

The same Convention also agreed that the water measure of victual and salt imported from foreign countries should contain eighteen pecks to the boll, and be divided into boll, half boll, and quarter boll, and be used by all burghs under pecuniary penalties. All native goods were to be received, sold, and delivered according to the stone weight of Lanark and its pound and half pound, but foreign goods were to be weighed according to the Mint weight of sixteen ounces to the pound. The ell was to be in every case the ell of Edinburgh.

The western burghs, and especially Ayr, Irvine, and Dumbarton, had customary measures, which were apparently larger than those used in other parts of the country. Various complaints were made about these, and in 1602, at the Convention held at Ayr in July, the provost and bailies of that burgh were ordered to have their quart, pint, choppin, and mutchkin conform to the stoup of Stirling.

At Haddington, in 1603, the town of Wigton was ordered to choose common measurers, who were to be responsible for measuring truly all sorts of cloth; but, having failed to do this, the matter was reported to the Convention at Perth in 1604, and the burgh was fined 20 for non-compliance with the order, and again ordained to appoint measurers. This matter came up once more at Dumfries in 1605, when it was decided that buyers and sellers of cloth should be free to arrange with one another for the measuring of cloth, but in case of dispute a reference was to be made to the common measurer, and the seller was to pay him a fee of ten pennies.

The burgh of Glasgow was ordered in 1607 to conform their tron weight to the standard of Lanark, and their troy weights to those of France.

The Convention of Royal Burghs after the Act of Parliament of 1618 made frequent attempts from time to time to secure the much to be desired uniformity in the standards. Thus in 1689 among the grievances of the Burghs formally enumerated for the favourable consideration of Parliament, the twenty-third item was that “redres be craved of the great grievance of the inequality of measurs that are within royall burghs and burghs of bar-ronie and regalitie such as Dalkeith and vthers and that the Act of Parliament 1587 anent mets and measures be revived.”

At the Union the Imperial standards superseded formally the ancient system, though for long afterwards and down to the beginning of the present century custom proved stronger than law.

At a very early period, and certainly before 1552, the standards of the ell, the stone, the stoup or pint, and the firlot, were entrusted to the keeping of the burghs of Edinburgh, Lanark, Stirling, and Linlithgow respectively. It will now be convenient to consider the history of each of these.

The unit of lineal measure in mediaeval Scotland appears to have been the “eln” or ell. The “Burgh Laws” ordain that every burgess is to have in his house a “mesure to met his corne, ane elnewand, a stane and punde wecht for til wey”: and in the “Assize of Kyng Dauid of Mesuris and Wechtis” the first article treats “of the eln.”

The Scottish ell contained thirty-seven inches, each inch being equal in length to three selected barley or bere corns without their tails (sine caudis); or to the length of the thumb of a man of middle stature, measuring to the root of the nail (pollex atitem debet mensurari ad radicem unguis pollicis).

The assize of James I. in 1425 confirmed the statute of David I. “ande deliverit the elne to contene xxxvij inches.”

The Commission appointed in 1587 to consider and settle the standards for the whole country declared that the ell measure of Edinburgh containing thirty-seven inches was to be the standard of length. In 1617 the Commissioners, then appointed, confirmed and ratified the findings of their predecessors so far as the ell was concerned, and' ordered the standard of the ell measure to be kept by the burgh of Edinburgh. The foot measure came into use shortly afterwards, and is first mentioned in the parliamentary records in 1663. An Act of that year provides that for the future the foot is to consist of twelve inches, each equal to one thirty-seventh part of the standard ell measure of Edinburgh. It appears that the ell had been divided erroneously into forty-two inches, and a customary foot of twelve of these shorter inches had come into common use. The Act orders a standard foot of iron or copper to be provided by the Magistrates of Edinburgh before 1st January, 1664, and all burghs before the ist of March of the same year were ordained to have measures made from it and hung on their tolbooth doors or market crosses, by which all wrights, glaziers, masons, and other workmen were to work.

In 1685 the Parliament of James VII. declared that three barley corns set lengthways should make one inch; that twelve inches should make one foot; that three feet should make one yard; that three feet and one inch should make one ell; and that one thousand seven hundred and sixty yards should make one mile; and this was to be the standard in computing distances from place to place in all time coming.

The standard of the “eln” was of old committed

Standards of the Ell in the Custody of the City of Edinburgh

Fig. I.-—Imperial Yard and English EU ( =45 inches), 1707.
Fig. 2.—Ancient Scottish Ell Standard, of Iron, =37 inches.
Fig. 3.—Scottish Ell, 1663, =37 inches.

to the custody of the city of Edinburgh; and the Corporation has still an ancient iron measure, long popularly known as the elnwand or ellbed, which seems to have originally been suspended on the wall of the Council Chamber or Tolbooth. It measures 37'001 inches imperial, but the marks and stamps on it are now so much rusted they are illegible. The city has also a standard copper ell measure, made in pursuance of the Act of 1663. These standards, and the Imperial one sent in 1707, are engraved in the accompanying plate.

The unit of weight was originally the wheat corn. In the “Assisa de Mensuris et Ponderibus” it is mentioned that the sterling or silver penny in the time of King David weighed thirty-two corns of good and round wheat. The ounce at the same period was equal to twenty sterlings or 640 grains of wheat; and the pound weighed twenty-five shillings, or three hundred sterlings, or 9600 grains, and was divided into fifteen ounces. The stone for weighing wool and other gear of this period weighed fifteen pounds, but the stone of wax only eight pounds. The “waw” contained twelve stones.

The Parliament of 1425 ordained that the stone should weigh fifteen Troy pounds, and should be divided into sixteen Scots pounds. But in the Assize of Weights and Measures made at Perth in the reign of James I., the stone to weigh iron, wool, and other merchandise was ordered to contain sixteen pounds Troy, and each pound sixteen ounces Troy, and these weights remained the same till the Union.

In Hunter’s Treatise of Weights, Metts, and Measures of Scotland, printed in 1624, the system of Scottish weights in his time is thus laid down. A pickle of wheat taken out of the middle of the ear is the foundation of a grain weight. Thirty-six grains make a drop weight; sixteen drops make an ounce; eight ounces equal a mark; two marks go to a pound; and sixteen of these pounds are contained in the stone weight of Lanark.

The tron stone weight contained nineteen pounds eight ounces of the weights of the Paris standard, and was used for butter, cheese, tallow, and such like country commodities. Tron weight was abolished by the act of 1618, but continued in use for long afterwards.

The light ton which was in use at the beginning of the seventeenth century for weighing goods between Scotland and France, England and Spain, weighed six hundred pounds.

Merchandise between Scotland and the Low Countries at the same period was measured by the sack, which weighed six hundred and forty-pounds Scots.

Trade between Scotland and the Eastern Countries was measured by the serplath of 1280 pounds Scots.

The last was equal to 1920 lbs. Scots, but varied greatly, in some cases being equal to 4000 lbs. A last of wool was held equal to twelve sacks, or for ship measure ten sacks. A last of hides was twenty dakers, or 200 skins. As a liquid measure the last of beer was equal to twelve barrels. The “fiddes,” used only for lead, contained one hundred and twenty stones.

The standard stone, which was ordered in 1618 to be kept by the Burgh of Lanark, is not now there. But a stone weight with the arms of Lanark is in the custody of the City of Edinburgh, and it is probable that this is the original standard. The other weights of the series were 8 pounds, 4 pounds, 2 pounds and 1 pound respectively; and in the Edinburgh set the 1 pound is marked as equal to 7,620 grains English.

The first liquid measure noted in the Scots Acts is the gallon, which is mentioned in the “Assisa Regis David.” It was ordained to be 6*/ inches deep, Sj4 inches in diameter, 27 inches in circumference at the top, and 23 inches in circumference at the bottom, and to contain 4 pounds weight each of standing, running, and salt water, or 12 pounds weight in all. Another gallon in use, in the time of David I., contained only 10 pounds 4 ounces of water, but the distinction in their use is not given. The pint is mentioned in the Act of 1425, and is required to contain 41 ounces of clear water of Tay, equal to 2 pounds 9 ounces Troy weight. In 1457, the pint of Stirling is mentioned as having been given into the custody of that burgh, by order of the three estates, at the time that Sir John Forester was Chamberlain (1425-1448); and it is ordained to be the universal standard throughout all the country. By this Act, the gallon was to weigh 20 pounds 8 ounces. The Commissioners appointed to regulate measures and weights in 1617 found that the Stirling pint contained 3 pounds 7 ounces Troy of clear running water, of the water of Leith. The Stirling Pint Jug is still preserved, and the engraving (Frontispiece Fig. 1) is a correct representation of it.

From a report made in 1827 the following particulars are taken.

The jug is described as being in the form of the frustum of a cone, the diameter of the bottom being 5rS inches, that of the mouth 4^5 inches, and the depth 6 inches. It is composed of a kind of brass, and from its rude construction has evidently been fabricated at a period when the arts had made little progress in Scotland. It bears upon its side in bold relief the figure of a lion rampant; and another object which has been variously described as a child in a recumbent position, and also the wolf in the arms of Stirling, though it is more likely to be meant for the latter, from the fact that a standard pint in the custody of the City of Edinburgh bears the Stirling arms in the same place. When the jug was filled with distilled water at a temperature of 62 of Fahrenheit, the contents weighed 26,286‘41 grains imperial, the barometer being at 30 inches.

Eight pints of the Stirling standard made one gallon Scots measure, which, according to the above report, should contain 210,291.28 imperial grains; and bear to the imperial gallon the proportion of 3'004161 to unity.

Each pint was divided into two choppins, and each choppin into two mutchkins. In the valuable collection of ancient standards, preserved by the corporation of Edinburgh, there is a choppin measure with the date .1555 between the arms of Scotland, and those of the City of Edinburgh. (See Frontispiece Fig. 2.)

The old Scottish dry measures are noticed first in the “ Assisa de Ponderibus,” where the boll is to be 9 inches deep and 24 inches in diameter, and to contain 12 gallons of ale. The Parliament of 1425 ordered standard measures of the boll, firlot, half firlot, peck and gallon to be issued at Edinburgh, which were to come into use on the ist of September following. From the “Assize of Weights and Measures” of the same year, it would appear that a completely new system was then introduced. The boll is ordained to contain 4 firlots, and these firlots seem to be of a different size from those then in use or from those of an earlier date. Each firlot was to contain 41 pounds weight of clear water of Tay and each boll 164 pounds. This was 41 pounds heavier than the earlier boll of King David, which contained 123 pounds weight of various kinds of water.

In 1457 the firlot was ordered to contain 18 pints of the Stirling stoup, and three new standards of the pint and firlot were to be made and one sent to Aberdeen, one to Perth, and one to Edinburgh. These measures remained in force till the Commission of 1587, when the Commissioners discovered that an error had been made in 1457 with regard to the contents of the firlot, which should contain 19 pints and a “jow-cat” or gill. The error is said to have arisen “be errour of the prentair.” In future “victual” measure is to be “straik,” not “heaped.” But because it was in use to estimate malt, bear, and oats by heaped measure, or one third more than the straik, the Commissioners remitted to the Privy Council to consider whether a new measure should not be adopted for these articles, or whether the same standard should be in use for them as for wheat, rye, beans, peas, meal and white salt, which were sold by straik, only giving three for two or six for four. Accordingly, the Lords of the Privy Council decided that the firlot should be 18% inches wide and 7^ inches deep, and should contain 19 pints and 2 “jowcats,” and be used for all articles sold by “straik” measure, and that one third more be given for those sold by heaped measure. Minute directions were also laid down for the manufacture of the standards, of which a double set were to be made, and one kept in the Register in Edinburgh and the other committed to the custody of the burghs to which they had been committed of old.

Notwithstanding these regulations great complaints still continued about the diversity of weights and measures, and the Commission of 1618 summoned the Provost and Bailies of Linlithgow to appear before them and produce the standard firlot. On their appearance the Commissioners tested the firlot and found that it contained 21 pints and a “mutchkin” (equal to about an English pint). The Provost and Bailies were solemnly sworn and deponed that the said measure was the one which had been in use for the last fifty or sixty years; and that “the most ancient and aged persons in their burgh” had never known or heard of any other. The standard was then measured and found to be igVe inches in width and j}i inches in depth, showing a very considerable difference from the standard of 1587, which is never alluded to in the proceedings and seems to have been quite ignored both by the corporation and “the most-ancient and aged persons” of the burgh.

After full consideration the Commissioners decided that this was to be the standard in all time coming; and to be marked with four crowns on the bottom and five impressions of the letter L on the lip. They also found that the difference between the “ straik ” and heaped measure of this firlot was not a third part, and that great injustice was done by the custom of giving three for two, which had been in common use. Accordingly, they ordered a new standard firlot to be made for malt, bear, and oats, to contain 31 pints of the Stirling jug, and to be ig} inches in width and io}4 inches in depth. These standards were to have one more iron band round them and to be marked with the letter H on the outside. Four of either of these firlots were to make a just boll.

In 1624 the dry measures were four lippies or forpits to the peck, four pecks to the firlot, four firlots to the boll or bow, and sixteen bowes to the chalder. The firlot of the straik measure was equal to '99825 of an imperial bushel; and the heaped corn firlot, to 1-45627 imperial bushel. The standard firlot committed of old to the custody of the Burgh of Linlithgow is not now extant. It unfortunately perished in a fire in the Town House in 1847.

The following table shows the imperial equivalents of the old customary measure of the boll which was in use in Scotland up to the year 1827^ and which is not altogether even now extinct.

 

Heaped.

Straik.

 

B.

Pk.

Galls.

B.

Pk.

Galls.

Aberdeen, -

6

I

1'544

4

3

1-416

Argyll, Inveraray, -

6

X

0-411

 

 

 

„ Achnabreck,

6

2

0-426

 

 

 

„ Cantire,

7

3

1'0x4

 

 

 

Ayr,

7

3

0-045

3

3

I'022

Banff, - -

6

1

0-256

4

1

’55i

Berwick, -

5

3

0-667

3

3

i'iii

Bute, - -

7

3

'759

3

3

i-379

Caithness,

6

1

0-566

 

 

 

Clackmannan,

6

0

1-418

 

 

 

Dumbarton, -

6

1

1 -019

3

3

1'943

Elgin and Moray,

6

0

i-oo6

4

0

1-691

Fife, -

5

3

‘9S7

4

0

0-188

 

Heaped.

Straik.

 

B.

Pk.

Galls.

B.

Pk.

Galls.

Forfar, Dundee,

5

3

i'3S3

4

0

0-320

„ other places, -

6

o

0*104

4

0

1-072

Inverness,

6

o

0-917

4

0

0*484

Kincardine, N. part,

6

i

I'S44

3

3

1'944

„ S. part,

6

o

0*104

4

0

1*072

Kinross,

5

3

o,s6s

3

3

I'9I9

Kircudbright—

 

 

 

 

 

 

„ bet. Orr & Fleet,

IO

2

1-311

 

 

 

„ West of Fleet,

ii

2

1-067

 

 

 

,, East of Orr,

9

2

1'556

 

 

 

*Linlithgow, (Stand.)

5

3

o-6oi

3

3

1*944

 

6

7

0

2

1.097

I'37I

}<

2

0*823

Renfrew, -

6

1

'445

3

3

1*944

Ross and Cromarty,

5

3

1 ’73 5

3

3

1*699

Roxburgh,

6

0

0-442

6

0

0*442

„ Teviotdale, -

7

2

’S52

S

0

1*508

Selkirk,

7

I

1-274

4

3

0*765

Stirling,

6

0

1-181

3

3

I'9I9

Sutherland,

6

o

0*102

3

3

1*944

The ancient land measures of Scotland are exceedingly complicated, and different systems prevailed for long in various parts of the country. The earliest legislative enactment which has been preserved is contained in the collected “Fragments,” printed in the first volume of the Record Edition of the Scots Acts. It provides that the rood of land in baronies is to contain six ells or eighteen feet of a medium-sized man ; and that the rood of land in burghs is to contain twenty feet. The fall is to contain six ells ; the rood, forty falls; the acre, four roods; the oxgang, thirteen acres, and the plough-land, eight oxgangs.

These measures continued without any practical alteration to the Union ; and are thus explained in the Treatise on the Weights and Measures of Scotland, printed in 1624. Six ells of the standard of Edinburgh make a lineal fall; six ells long by six broad make a square fall; forty square falls make a rood, whether ten by four or eight by five. The acre is equal to 160 falls or 960 ells. Four acres are counted for a minister’s glebe, and four oxgangs equal a pound land of old extent. The rood of land contains 240 ells; but the rood of mason’s work contains only 36 ells. .

In those parts of Scotland which were latest in forming part of the ancient kingdom various systems of land measurement, more or less exact, long continued customary. In the north-eastern part of the country the “davach” was a common measure, and extended to four plough-lands, or as much ground as four ploughs could till in a season. In Orkney the lands were estimated by ounce lands, each made up of eighteen penny lands. A mark-land in Orkney was about 1% acre. The penny lands varied in extent very considerably. Capt. Thomas, in an interesting article in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, estimates the average size of the penny-land as being about eight or nine acres; but all these were rather measures of produce than of surface. The “plank” of land, however, was generally the same in extent throughout Orkney, and contained ill9 acre Scots or i'32 acre English.

The important fishing industry had a special series of measures which underwent the usual changes. Aberdeen is the earliest place which is mentioned as having a standard for fish. In 1478 it was ordered that salmon be packed in barrels of the measure of Hamburgh and the Assize of Aberdeen, and in 1487 the barrel is defined as containing 14 gallons. In 1540 the system of branding the barrels was ordained to be in force. Every cooper was to have a branding iron with a distinguishing mark, and each burgh was also to put a mark on the barrels, guaranteeing the amount. Failure to comply with these provisions was followed by forfeiture, one half to the crown and the other to the town. The standard for salmon was to be kept at Aberdeen; and that for herrings and white fish at Edinburgh, and each of the burghs was to have duplicates. In 1570 the salmon barrel was said to contain 12 gallons, and that for white fish and herrings 10 gallons, but the Act of 1581 orders the herring barrel to contain 9 gallons. Different measures seem to have been in use in the west country. For in 1595 the burghs assembled at Glasgow, and reduced the hogshead of fish from 18 gallons to 14^, and the barrel to one half the hogshead.

In 1641 complaints were made abroad about both the quantity and the quality of the salmon exported, to the discredit of the native merchants and the dishonour of the nation ; wherefore Parliament enacted that all and sundry acts, laws and constitutions of the country made anent the salmon trade should be ratified and approved, with this addition, that all the coopers in the kingdom were to make the barrels of good and sufficient Baltic oak, without worm holes or white wood, and of sufficient strength and tightness to bear handling and retain the pickle. The barrels were to contain ten gallons of the Stirling pint, conform to an Act of Privy Council in 1619, and to be branded as formerly.

The barrel of green fish was to contain 12 gallons. In the Forth, herrings were measured by a standard called the “two hundred herring mett,” which contained 42 Stirling pints.


Stirling Standard Jug preserved by the City of Edinburgh.


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