Early city charters are almost exclusively concerned with trade, the lifeblood of the Burgh. However in 1319 the Great Charter of Robert the Bruce transformed Aberdeen into a property owning and financially independent community. Bruce leased the Royal Stocket Forest, for an annual payment of £213/6s/8d sterling. The Forest (at the time the term Forest indicated a royal hunting ground) formed a major part of the territory that became known as the Freedom Lands.
Aberdeen‘s Council augmented this with the purchase of several other pieces of land in the following centuries. Revenue derived from re-leasing these lands formed the basis of a fund which we know today as the Common Good Fund.
In the 14th century only Burgesses were allowed a voice in public affairs and the basic qualification for admission as a Burgess was the holding in fee of at least one toft of land within the Burgh. On admission the ordinary Burgess had to pay a fee of 13s/4d Scots and provide a banquet. Three Head Courts of the Burgesses were held each year at Michaelmas, Yule and Easter. At the Michaelmas Court Burgesses chose from their number an Alderman and four Baillies who had to be ‘lele and of good fame’ (upstanding citizens).
Magistrates duties were wide covering every aspect of the working, spiritual and recreational life of citizens. They were also concerned with trade and the operation of Aberdeen's market - severe penalties were imposed on traders who displayed shoddy goods or gave short measure. Every Burgess was allowed to have in his house a measure to ‘met’ his corn, an ell-wand and a stone and pound weight, all sealed with the Burgh Seal.
One of the most important town officials of this time was the ‘Lineator’ and in 1399 there were no fewer than 11 such officials. Their duty was to measure the boundaries of each property and make sure buildings on the outer boundary formed an adequate system of defence. Today we can see some of the results of their landscaping in the gardens, orchards and copses of the 1661 map by Parson Gordon.
The defence of the Burgh was of prime importance and every Burgess was responsible for ‘watch and ward’ on pain of banishment and ‘tyttin down of his hous’. Every citizen had to keep two weapons in readiness for the alarm rung on the Tollbooth bell and defence the town was divided into quarters, known as Even, Crooked, Green, and Futty, each under the charge of a Baillie.
In the Burgh Records of 1398 we find an account of the first recorded municipal election in Scotland. At this time the whole body of Burgesses chose the Alderman, Baillies and 20 Councillors. An act of 1469 decreed that the old Council should choose the new and that old and new should combine in the election of officials. This resulted in rule by an oligarchy, and for the next 300 years members of such eminent families as Menzies, Chalmers, Kintore, Cullen or Rutherford controlled the affairs of the Burgh.
A bitter struggle between Merchant Guild and Crafts brought the latter some voting rights in 1596, but various Acts of the 16th and 17th centuries made it impossible for any other than Guild Merchants to become councillors or office-bearers.
In the early days of the Burgh the Chief Magistrate was known as the Alderman, the term ‘Prepositi’ being applied to the Burgh Baillies. About 1460 however, Latin documents refer to Chief Magistrate as ‘Prepositus’ and the term ‘Provost’ came into use shortly after. The ‘Provosts’ Board’ at the Town House shows the name of every Provost or Alderman from Richard Cementarius of 1272 (although there is no evidence Cementarius was a Alderman) to the current Lord Provost Peter Stephen.
One of the Provost’s duties was to lead citizens into battle, and this had sad consequences in 1411 when a citizen army, led by Provost Davidson, joined the Lairds of the Garioch at Harlaw to repulse a Highland army under Donald, Lord of the Isles. The slaughter was great and many prominent people fell including the Provost himself - his body was borne sadly home and buried within the Church of St Nicholas.
The historical evidence for the development of Aberdeen after 1398 is very complete and this can be augmented by the rich and abundant archaeological evidence. Excavations over 25 years in the heart of the medieval burgh have demonstrated the outstanding quality of Aberdeen’s buried remains, including evidence of wooden buildings, property boundaries, churches, streets, industries, artefacts in daily use and the environment of medieval Aberdeen, from rubbish disposal to diet.