Document 837

Interpreting Scots measurement terms: a cautionary tale

Author(s): A D C Simpson

Copyright holder(s): A D C Simpson: Reproduced with the kind permission of Edinburgh University Press



Weights and measures are as much a part of the social fabric in medieval times as they are today. Then as now, measurement units were used in the trade of foodstuffs, raw materials and many finished goods. In addition, Scottish units have also been used for centuries in land contracts, as the basis for taxation, and in rental and tenancy agreements, and notably in circumstances where payments of all sorts were made in kind. To understand these activities we require a knowledge of the sizes of these units and an appreciation of the way in which they were used. Taking the broad perspective, Professor Christopher Smout has recently posed the question: 'If we do not know the true volumes of trade, the movement of prices or the worth of goods, how can the history of a nation be properly known? Whole areas of economic experience will be a closed book'.(1)

In common with other mercantile nations, Scotland had its own well-defined systems of weights and measures for external and internal trade, and the legal and administrative structures for enforcing their use. The sizes of certain measurement units, and the relationships between them, were principally controlled through periodic acts of the Scottish Parliament known as assizes of weights and measures. The Scottish units almost certainly had their origins in the early English system in the twelfth century, imported into Scotland by David I and his largely Anglo-Norman followers. However, the Scottish system evolved along a separate path, and so the units came to be of different sizes. Subsequently, Scottish units were more strongly influenced by trading contacts with the Low Countries (particularly Flanders) and France. A number of Scottish units have familiar names (for example, pound, stone, pint and gallon) which are also found in England, but others are distinctly or predominantly Scottish, such as the grain firlot and boll. Some betray Continental origins, such as the chopin or half-pint (French) and the mutchkin or quarter-pint (low German).

The administration also held physical standards, which were accurately made and adjusted vessels and weights, designed to be the principal authorised reference standards for the kingdom. At times of major assizes, the principal burghs were required to purchase authenticated copies of these weights and measures, and they could then issue verified duplicates to neighbouring burghs. In due course, four particular burghs were identified as holding one each of the four key standards, and they were authorised to make more accessible copies for all the other burghs. Thus, Stirling held the commercial pint standard (the Stirling Jug or Stoup), Linlithgow held the firlot (for dry measure), Edinburgh had the ell (linear measure) and Lanark had the stone (of weight).

A typical weights and measures assize would provide a series of definitions of key measurement terms. These definitions name the units and explain numerical relationships to one another. They also describe how one type of unit is defined in terms of another. Thus, the pint is defined as a vessel which contains a particular number of ounces of water, and the dry measures contain a set number of pints and may have particular dimensions in inches. These helpful and descriptive assize definitions should form a natural source for the dictionary definitions in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue.

The problem is that assize texts turn out to be quite complex, and whereas they are strictly correct when understood in context, they often cannot now be interpreted at face value. It has long been appreciated that these assizes show internal inconsistencies and contradictions, and that they appear to describe runaway growth in the size of the dry measures. It has only recently become clear that the surviving texts incorporate early revisions, and that assizes are in their nature very selective in their scope. We now know, for example, how to relate the pounds of the assizes to the various other types of pound, which are not distinguished from them but are used for different purposes. We also now understand that the volumes of the capacity measures described in the assizes were not generally used: the trading measures were larger and incorporated a series of fixed customary allowances on the basic or legal sizes.

All this formed part of the 'tacit knowledge' of the market-place, known to everyone at the time, but almost never recorded. The effect of taking aspects like this into consideration is to allow a self-consistent interpretation to emerge, but it also emphasises the difference between these less familiar medieval customary practices and modern concepts of fairness and equality.

Measurement terms in DOST

Since the late 1980s, Robin Connor and I have been working on a history of Scottish weights and measures, with the support of the National Museums of Scotland. As part of this we have been trying to locate and catalogue as many of the surviving early burgh standards as possible, and this information has been crucial to resolving some of the central problems of Scottish metrology and the testing of our conclusions.

During this time, I was fortunate to be able to spend part of 1991-92 as a visiting fellow at the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, and I was able to establish links with the staff of DOST and work with some of their source material. It was at about this time that we were completing and publishing our explanation for the progressive enlargement of the dry measures (Simpson 1992), and we were also pleased to have the chance to discuss our emerging conclusions with two groups of economic historians who had been considering the evolution of Scots weights and measures in the course of preparing histories of prices and wages in Scotland. Both studies, by Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew for the period to about 1540, and by Alex Gibson and Christopher Smout for the subsequent period, were published in 1995.

The editing of DOST had reached the point when the Editorial Director, Marace Dareau, was tackling the entry for 'Stane' and we had the opportunity to incorporate some idea of the historical development of the stone of weight.(2) It was hoped that this would make the entry more useful and informative, and would reflect an understanding of the weight series that had improved significantly since the entries for 'Ounce' and 'Pound', published in 1983 and 1986 respectively, which had contained no early quantitative detail.

In a recent discussion of the development of editorial policy and methodology for DOST, Marace Dareau has examined the changing perceptions of successive editors from DOST's inception in the 1920s to the completion in 2002 (see also Chapter 3). She has stressed the progressive shift from a more limiting linguistic analysis in the early years towards a broader view of the cultural and social context of language; and she describes the settled view of the editors of the past 20 years that 'the job of historical lexicography is to provide the most useful tool possible for all those likely to be users of the Dictionary, historians as much as linguists' (Dareau 2002a: 83).

This approach, in which there is a greater emphasis in defining the things and concepts denoted by words, can be described as 'encyclopaedic'. William Craigie, who edited the first two volumes, covering the letters A-C (1937) and D-G (1951), is characterised by Dareau as a 'closet encyclopaedist' who had restricted his work in the volumes very largely to linguistic analysis (Dareau 2002a: 81). Jack Aitken, his colleague and successor (in 1955), broke with Craigie's conservative approach and broadened the scope of entries to provide more emphasis on usage, but also the definition of technical terms. Aitken's co-editor and (briefly) successor, James Stevenson, extended this approach, describing DOST as 'an attempt to provide a key to the whole range of Scottish culture' (Dareau 2002a: 80). The need to retain this valued encyclopaedic aspect of DOST was recognised at reviews in 1981 and 1994 which were prompted by funding crises: at both it was agreed that the quality of subsequently published parts of DOST should not be compromised. Pressure from users of the dictionary was effective in 1981, and meeting the expectations of the user community has remained a major consideration.

The experience of involvement in the entry for 'Stane' has led me to look more closely at the other entries for measurement terms. It is perhaps unfortunate that the initial letters of so many of the key terms of Scots metrology occur in the early part of the alphabet, and therefore appear in Craigie's initial two volumes. These include not only the firlot, boll and chalder of the dry measures, and the gallon of the liquid series, but also the principal linear units of the ell and fall. Here, by intention or mischance, there is little to suggest that Craigie felt impelled to provide more than linguistic definitions.

The great majority of entries for measurement terms, particularly in Craigie's volumes, merely record the use of these terms by quoting phrases from lists of merchandise or produce (so many ells of cloth, or bolls and firlots of barley). From these we can certainly extract linguistic information about variant spellings or plural forms. It is more difficult to find sources that can illuminate the practical contexts in which measurements were made or which reveal useful quantitative detail.

There are a few valuable sources of this type, which Craigie did use. For example, Alexander Huntar's quasi-official text of 1624 on weights and measures provides a late and brief overview of Scots weights and measures: Craigie cited it to show an important point (the significance of which may not have been fully recognised) that the trading divisions of the ell were sixteenths. Another is a fragmentary merchant's handbook of c.1400, cited as "Scots Merchandise", which gives a rare early view of the relationship of trading quantities at Bruges (although there is residual ambiguity about whether some of the names are Scots or Flemish).(3) Similarly, material extracted from the records of the Scottish Mint, and published by R. W. Cochran-Patrick, provides valuable comparisons between the various weight series, particularly in the mid-seventeenth century (Cochran-Patrick 1876).

However, the most useful (but slippery) sources of information about measurement terms are the periodic parliamentary assizes of weights and measures, which set the legal sizes of the measurement units and authorised changes or revisions to these. Strangely, Craigie made little use of these measurement term definitions; but where he did include quotations from assizes, for example for the boll and the related firlot and chalder, he seems to have had little sense of the confusion caused by selective use of partial and incomplete descriptions. One can extract little more than the theoretical relationships of four firlots to the boll and sixteen bolls to the chalder, even though in practice the use of customary allowances disguises these simple equivalences.

Craigie may on occasion have felt that a definition term was well enough known for numerical definition to be in some way superfluous; but it is extraordinary that he did not give clues as to the length of the ell, even though every weights and measures assize repeats the liturgy of the ell being 37 inches long, and thus being an inch longer than the equivalent English yard.

Although Aitken and Stevenson undoubtedly adopted a broader and more informative stance in most instances, they nonetheless appeared reluctant to engage in the more technically loaded detail necessary to flesh out the use of measurement terms. Yet from the user's perspective, we naturally assume that these terms must have had distinct and mutually understood contemporary meanings. We instinctively feel that they should be amenable to accurate quantitative explanation, and even at a qualitative level we appreciate a need to convey an adequate context for their practical application. In the internet age there is an increasing expectation that answers to such questions can be found.

Because the current phase of work on DOST involves digitising the text and making it freely available on-line, the disparity between these early entries and the ones produced towards the end of the work will become more noticeable, particularly by comparison with, for example, Elizabeth Gemmill's 1995 glossary of Scots measurement terms to 1540 (Gemmill and Mayhew 1995: 382-409). Although I am dealing here with only a small group of words, it is likely that there are a number of other such groups in equally restricted technical areas where it will also be apparent that there is scope for revision. However, the transfer of the paper DOST to a digitised form presents the ready opportunity (which the strictures of the printed edition always denied) for progressive improvement to selected earlier entries in DOST, providing that the new Scottish Language Dictionaries (SLD) can retain a critical revision facility and the ability to respond to new research.

To take this suggestion further, firstly I will discuss some of the features of assize texts that provide cautions about their interpretation, and secondly I want to look at the layers of meaning that need to be considered to approach an understanding of the 'pint'. The DOST entry for this crucial weight-based unit, on which the capacity series depended, appeared in Part XXXI in 1983. Greater reliance was placed here on official and semi-official sources, but some of the quotations are not self-explanatory and contain evident contradictions. Although we know much more about this term now, there are still large gaps in our knowledge of its historical evolution that raise interesting problems about the contemporary naming of the unit.

Interpreting assize texts

The first weights and measures assize is a text attributed to the legislative vigour of David I; but, although some parts are certainly very early, the text survives in a form that has clearly been subject to amendments in the fourteenth century. It is included in the collections of statutes and regulations traditionally known as 'the Auld Lawes', some of which depends on earlier English legal sources. However, much now has no secure history, principally because of the confiscation and loss of the original parliamentary records during periods of foreign military occupation. Something like a full account of parliamentary acts is available in official records only from the 1420s, and there were subsequently half-a-dozen major assizes of weights and measures, the last of which took place in 1618.

These assizes tend to come near the beginning of reigns (or at least the start of majorities or periods of personal rule) and they can perhaps be interpreted as efforts to maximise aspects of royal revenues, presumably with similarly beneficial effects for the landed elite. A principal feature of these assizes is a progressive increase in the volumes of the crucial measures for grain and meal, and the interpretation of this rise is the main battleground in Scots historical metrology.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is a complex and frequently misunderstood Assize of 1426, dating from near the start of James I's personal rule after his ransomed return from a period of eighteen years' exposure to the English court and administration. The assize is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a rare comparison of newly defined units with the earlier units (inevitably ascribed to David I) which were in force before the Act; and secondly, it includes the single recorded example of a permitted heaping allowance, introduced as an apparent compromise gambit to restrict a larger customary allowance.

Revision of Assize texts

These definitions provide much of the information that is necessary to determine the sizes and relationships of the Scottish measurement terms, but for a number of reasons, assize texts are difficult to use and contain traps for the unwary.

There are several distinct reasons for this. The first is that there are some apparent internal inconsistencies and contradictions in assize texts. Although a fairly full record of the parliamentary acts exists from the start of James I's direct rule in 1424, there is no single authorised text for legislation before the 1460s. What we know of the period before this has to be pieced together from a range of sources. The most important for the old laws are the small number of extant manuscript digests and early legal compendia, which are necessarily selective in their coverage and are the products normally of several stages of copying from earlier manuscripts. Not only do these texts vary between themselves, they also tend to introduce and perpetuate occasional transcription errors, which may sensibly alter the meaning. Additionally, since the purpose of making a compilation is to extract a legal record that has current relevance, alterations and revisions may be included, and it is clear that this might affect metrological Acts where legal definitions had been changed.

The first collected edition of the parliamentary Acts, entitled Henryson's "Actis and Constitutionis", covering the period from 1424, was published in 1566. It was the outcome of the latest of several commissions to produce a revision of the statutes in force and was the work of James Balfour of Pittendreich, the Clerk Register for the time. It can be shown that Balfour modified some numerical data to bring the text more into line with the situation in the mid-sixteenth century, and subsequent sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editors were satisfied to accept this modified version of the 1426 Assize, which also appears in Balfour's influential "Practicks" (McNeill 1962-3: I, 90).

In contrast, Thomas Thomson, the editor of the vast nineteenth-century 'Record Edition' of the "Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland" [APS], was not trying to provide a revision of the statutes but a unified chronological edition of the original text of the statutes. Because the authenticated parliamentary record begins in the 1460s, Thomson was obliged to rely on early printings of the 1426 Assize, supplemented by any manuscript copies of the lost record. His version of the 1426 Assize was published in 1814 and it incorporates significant changes from Balfour's version (APS: II, 12). Thomson has recognised some difficulty with the figures for the weights and dry measures given by Balfour (but did not appreciate that they had been modified to account for over a century of change before Balfour's time) and he has uncritically incorporated information from Balfour's "Practicks" and two fifteenth-century manuscript copies to produce a new version. The earlier of these manuscripts (which are still at the National Archives of Scotland), a near contemporary copy from the 1450s, contains an accurate reflection of the original text; the second dates from the 1470s, after another revision of the statutes, and is already to some extent modified and perhaps corrupted by transcription errors.

Thomson's attention was drawn to these manuscripts by a scrupulously accurate transcription printed for publication by William Robertson of the Record Office in the first volume of a projected series of "The Parliamentary Records of Scotland", which Thomson successfully advised the Record Commission to suppress at its publication in 1804. However, a few copies of Robertson's volume survived, and so when the general introduction to APS was written, Thomson's successor Cosmo Innes felt obliged to mention the suppressed volume. Thomson himself never referred to Robertson's work, nor provided more than a cursory description of the two manuscript sources. Instead he felt constrained by the nature of his criticism of Robertson's volume to provide a single and supposedly definitive text avoiding any potential textual ambiguity.

As a result, no information is given about the choices he made between the various texts. Inevitably some of these choices were incorrect: they seem almost arbitrary and they betray a lack of understanding of the statute itself. Far from providing a definitive text for the Assize, Thomson created a version which has confused subsequent commentators, including, it has to be said, William Craigie. Perhaps uncharacteristically, Craigie gave the dimensions of the boll defined in the 1426 Assize, but these are the corrupt dimensions from APS.

The scope of Assize legislation

Secondly, assize legislation is selective in scope and it normally provides information only on some aspects relevant to merchant activity. It is not intended to illuminate other issues such as the nature of the units of internal market trade. There may, for example, be several types of pounds in use at any given time, appropriate for different goods and in different circumstances, but most go unrecorded in the assizes. Only the context of a particular reference may allow the pound type to be identified.

At the 1426 Assize a new ounce type is introduced, with descriptive name of 'trois' or 'troyis', and this is a weight series that is restricted to bullion operations. It turns out to be the same as the English 'troy' ounce (about 31g), which had recently been incorporated into formal English metrology. However, a subsidiary Scots Act of 1426 allows us to see that this trois pound was different from the current merchant or 'Scottis' pound, although they shared the same stone (APS: II, 10: Act 14).

Perhaps more significantly, the assizes tell us nothing at all about the 'trone' weight series, which was described in 1613 as 'the ordinair and proper weght of the kingdome' (Burton, RPCS: series 2, VIII, 333), and which dominated the burgh markets. It is mentioned only once in the legislative record, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to abolish it in the final major Assize in 1618. So entrenched was trone weight in market practice that it continued in everyday use until at least the mid-nineteenth century. It has only been by locating and measuring surviving sixteenth-century trone standard weightsthat we have been able to confirm much later statements that trone weight was maintained at 1¼ times the size of the merchant weights.

But there are other instances in this vein. Wool, for example, was a major export for Scotland. Perhaps it should not be unexpected, but Scottish wool was reckoned in the particular Flemish pound of the wool market in Bruges where most of it was sold.

Change in the Assize units

A third problem with assize definitions is that they describe situations which are clearly not static, and in which changes are introduced by the legislation. This is made quite explicit in the 1426 Assize, which compares the original with the new units. This reveals, amongst other changes, that the gallon has been doubled in size. As a general rule the market resists change that disrupts trade. We must ask therefore whether this is a case of the legislation catching up changing practice, or whether perhaps the change does not affect the operation of trade and is in some way specific to the process of formulating definitions. Clearly this has an impact on any attempt to quantify the trading gallon's size. We will return to this issue in the discussion of the pint.

Customary allowances

A final problem with interpreting assize texts is that they provide only the theoretical relationships between the capacity units, and this masks the traditional practice of taking various levels of heaping allowances or 'charities' in the course of transactions. These form part of the tacit knowledge of the market and are almost never explicitly mentioned. As an example of this, a tenant who paid his rental in grain might expect to pay a set number of firlots measured to the flat brim of his superior's capacity measure, the surface being 'struck' level with a rod. Instead, he would in effect face a demand that the measure should be 'heaped'. Because the permitted size of the heap was strictly controlled, the capacity measure was constructed with a larger volume in order to incorporate the heaping enlargement so that the measure could again be struck with a level surface.

Merchants who traded by the larger boll would be allowed an additional charity, ostensibly to compensate for loss or spillage in the course of dividing goods for resale in smaller quantities. Similar additional allowances applied when trading at the level of chalders and when shipping material by the so-called water metts used only at ports. In practice, therefore, the quantities traded were often significantly larger than would have been the case if measured by the units described in the assizes.

Throughout the sixteenth century the acceptance of heaping allowances in the burghs meant that the customary firlot was up to an eighth larger than the 'legal' firlot, and was increased by this amount at each assize. To take a greatly simplified view, the process involved Parliament calling for the standard to be produced by the official cooper of Linlithgow. It was measured and found to be larger than authorised at the last assize, perhaps forty or fifty years before, but the cooper would swear that it was the original, true and just measure. With a show of reluctance, the parliamentary commissioners would accept and legalise this larger size. But, recognising that the burghs would insist on having the full advantage built into their measures, the cooper would make them one eighth bigger. It would be this larger size that would be presented at the next assize – when the cycle of enlargement would be repeated.

It is quite clear that everyone knew what was happening, and although there were safeguards incorporated for re-calculating existing contracts, these must have been widely disregarded. And again it was the tenants who bore the brunt of the increase.

When we add in further refinements – reflecting, for example, that the size of the defining pints changed subtly during periods when French and then Flemish troy weight was the official standard in Scotland – the progression of firlot sizes that can be deduced from the assizes matches intervals of one eighth. We can accurately recreate the firlot sizes of the 1618 Assize, but only by using the appropriate dry fill to raise the firlot from the pint, and we can confirm the permitted customary size in 1500 from a rare surviving burgh firlot gauge.

In theory, the Scottish units were abolished in favour of the existing English weights and measures at the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, and new sets of English standards were issued to the main Scottish burghs. In practice, Scottish units continued in widespread use, particularly in country markets, until the mid-nineteenth century, when they were progressively replaced by the new British 'Imperial' system. However, in the absence of centralised control, the sizes of units began to diverge, and different patterns of use developed. People had also forgotten just how the definition system operated, and in trying to re-interpret the old legislation a number of unfortunate errors and wrong assumptions were made. Much of the received view of Scots metrology is based on somewhat naïve comparisons made at the time between the new Imperial standards and the traditional units, and on earlier antiquarian enquiries. It is these figures from the 1820s (which were gathered together more accessibly by George Buchanan and published in 1829) that form the basis of the measurement entries in the Scottish National Dictionary [SND].

The Scots pints

The word 'pint' brings together at least two separate functions that were arguably central to burgh life. Not only was it the retail unit for drink throughout the kingdom, it was also the principal intermediary in defining the firlot, which was clearly a crucial measure in trade and the payment of rentals. But was the name applied in a similar fashion in both contexts? What was understood at the time by the word 'pint'?

James Stevenson's 1983 DOST entry on the pint, initially edited in 1973, slides over quantitative meanings by describing it merely as 'a pint in the general senses and collocations … varying in capacity according to time and locality'. His reference to the firlot being 21¼ pints is from a late seventeenth-century source and gives no indication of the evolution of this final (legal) definition, nor indeed that the more significant barley and malt firlot of 1618 was 31 pints. The pint's size is given as 41 ounces from the 1426 Assize, and then 55 ounces (or 3 pounds 7 ounces) in Huntar's description, taken from the 1618 Assize. In addition, however, Stevenson repeats the anomalous description as 41 trois ounces from the 1587 Assize (where the legislators were merely covering their backs because the texts of the earlier definitions at 55 ounces had not survived). The main thrust of his definition is hardly supported by quotations that pass the test of being self-explanatory, and even his subsidiary point about geographical variation does not apply in the period covered by DOST.

In fact the pint, as defined in the assizes, changed its size twice. At the 1426 Assize the gallon is doubled in size, but the definition also shows that it moves from being a 6-pint gallon to becoming an 8-pint gallon. The pint, therefore, was increased by a half in 1426. A further enlargement, in which its volume is increased by a third, occurs in about 1500. (The parliamentary record of this last Assize is lost.)

A number of surviving standards of this last period are known; indeed Stevenson himself referred tothe standard retained at Stirling, the so-called Stirling Jug, as David Murison had earlier done in SND. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that Stevenson was unaware that the Stirling Jug survives, because it has been reproduced so many times and was indeed discussed by Lawrence Burrell, a former senior weights and measures inspector, in a 1961 article. Such was the paucity of secondary literature in this area in the 1980s that almost any enquiry would have led quickly to a reference to Burrell's analysis. Burrell argued (incorrectly, as we now know) from his inspection of several sixteenth- and seventeenth-century standards available to him, that the size of the pint had not sensibly altered from the 1450s until the mid-nineteenth century. It was this size of about 104 cubic inches (1.70 litres), based on Buchanan's published results of the inquiries of the 1820s, that was reproduced in the table of 'Scottish Currency, Weights and Measures' in the Volume 10 Supplement to SND.(4)

Although the 1426 Assize tells us that the pint had increased in size, in fact this did not represent a disruptive change because there was a constant underlying unit. Whereas the pre-1425 pint comprised two chopins, the 1426 pint contained exactly three such units, and indeed the larger pint of about 1500 contains exactly four. It is therefore quite possible that the popular names for the vessels for drink and other trade and domestic uses did not change, or at least were transferred to the larger sizes only gradually.

Several other aspects of the 1426 Assize appear to show similar changes which would be disruptive to trade, but when we examine the reconstructed original text we find that in every instance the Assize shows continuity in the trading units, and in this sense it is a declaratory Act.

The occurrence of sharp increases in the defined size of the measurement terms themselves poses a problem, because it implies that the name is being applied in a very specific and more limited sense as part of a metrological definition. In the 1426 Assize the pint and the gallon are used, through their weight equivalence, to define the (theoretical) sizes of the large grain measures, the firlot and boll. However, enough evidence is provided to show that these dry units do not exhibit jumps in size – indeed we can demonstrate continuity in the size of a customary boll which is considerably bigger than the legal boll. This must be the real boll of the market. But might the legislators merely be telling us that the proper administrative units for the purpose of defining the boll are a 'pint' and a 'gallon', which are respectively half as big again and twice as large as the old units? This is an important issue if our purpose is to provide data useful for the description of market practice.

In fact, a number of features of the 1426 Assize suggest that its form may consciously have mirrored the evolving metrology to the south of the border, which was familiar to James and his advisers. Firstly, there is the unexpected introduction of a troy weight that matches the new English troy series, for which the proper areas of application were bullion, pharmaceuticals and 'measure' – meaning use in metrological definitions. There is also the 8-pint gallon, at 8 gallons to the boll, which can therefore be seen to mirror the 8-gallon English grain bushel. To some extent, such relationships represent ideal situations which take no account of traditional allowances, and at least in the case of the 1426 boll it is clear that the administration ultimately failed to contain the growth of the customary size. Perhaps for this reason, this was the last time that the Scots gallon figured in the dry measure definitions, and in subsequent assizes the only intermediary was the pint.

But when we look for evidence that an 8-pint gallon replaced the older 6-pint gallon in trade, this is more difficult to find. Elizabeth Gemmill has recorded a specific example in the early sixteenth century, and another (which indicates only that there were 16 chopins to the gallon) in the Aberdeen records for 1458-9 (Gemmill and Mayhew 1995: 394). An attempt to justify a consistent volume for the salmon barrel, which was given in terms of gallons, suggested that the 8-pint gallon was in use before the 1470s. It is perfectly possible, therefore, that the 1426 gallon was introduced initially only as a dry definition gallon, intended to form part of the dry capacity series, acting as a mirror of the English corn gallon, which was the only statute form of gallon in England, differing from the separate wine and ale gallons.

We can now appreciate that we are indeed in deep water, because there were also separate wine and ale gallons in Scotland, at least before the 1426 Assize. The DOST entry for 'Gallon' is in Craigie's section of the dictionary; and in it he cites the portion of the early David Assize of Weights and Measures that described the boll as a sexterne or 12 gallons of ale, but not the parallel definition of the wine gallon in the undatable David Assize of Wine (APS: I, 676: "Assisa de Vino"). From these we can deduce that the ale gallon was the same size as the statutory gallon before 1426, whereas the wine gallon was half as big again and matched a 6-pint gallon with the larger 1426 pint. Perhaps the implication of this is that the change in 1426 was simply an administrative decision to base the dry series on the wine rather than the ale pint. (Each pint had its own chopin; so the Aberdeen reference of 1458-9, which was specific to the import of wine, tells us nothing about the ale units, or about the underlying relationship of the ale chopin to the statutory pint.)

There is a further level of complication. Although these pints have been equated to two levels of the basic statutory pint, drink was always sold in vessels that were a sixteenth larger. The origin of this tradition is unknown, but it may perhaps have been because part of the volume was considered tainted by residue and therefore an allowance was given so that tax was paid only on the drinkable portion, namely the basic pint. This allowance is seen in wine calculations in the Scots merchant handbook of c.1400 discussed earlier, although to interpret it we must consider that two wine pints were the same as a 'stope' (Hanham 1971: 119); however, the allowance is first explicitly described in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In England, separate wine and ale gallons continue in use for centuries; indeed the English standards sent in 1707 included wine gallons and the pints and quarts of the ale gallon (in addition to copies of the dry gallon). But in Scotland we have no clear evidence of the use of separate gallons after 1426 – but probably only because we don't yet recognise it. It remains possible that the old ale pint remained the normal size for retail use, emerging as the half of the large sixteenth-century pint. Thus, conceivably, the alternative name for the Stirling pint – the Stirling Stoup – may refer to its being twice the usual (old) pint, as in the early merchant handbook. There is some indirect evidence for the overlapping use of different pint sizes: Shetland rentals were rendered in kind in Edinburgh using a unit directly related to the Scots pint, but it was only in the 1560s that these rentals were increased by a third to reflect the change in the statutory pint that had been introduced in about 1500.

By the third quarter of the sixteenth century, drink was certainly being sold in the large pints of 104 cubic inches (or over three present-day pints). We know this because there are two surviving burgh standards, of 1563 and 1574, which are made a sixteenth larger than the basic size; both are self-levelling vessels with spouts, and therefore eminently suitable for the rapid testing of large numbers of retail vessels.(5) One is specifically named as a 'pint' in an inscription ('PINTA SANCTI ANDREAE' – the St Andrews pint). Reliable early eighteenth-century references describe this enhanced size as the 'pewtherers' pint, and so clearly identify it with the usual vessels for retail sales (Grabiner 1996: 236).

But if the bulk of burgh standards of the 'basic' size are not involved with liquid sale, what is their purpose? We are almost obliged to conclude that they exist to provide a back-up route to the defining or testing of a standard firlot, which contains a set number of pints. It is certainly the case that in the 1770s the official cooper at Linlithgow was using the town's pint to gauge firlots, because we know that his work came under the critical eye of the Court of Session, which was being advised in such practical matters by the Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University. His slap-dash procedure gave results which help explain some of the variation in dry measure noted at the time; and his use of water as the measuring medium, rather than grain, gave an enlarged size which only approximately matched the single stage of enlargement allowed on the old 1618 measures

Knowing more about the greater variety in size and purpose of the pint takes us further down the road to understanding its use. But this only poses more questions, and there are still strict limits to our knowledge.


It is inevitable that in the editing of DOST, spread as it was over such a substantial period of time, there would be some unevenness in the presentation of any group of associated words. To a great extent this has necessarily been conditioned by the evolving scope and editorial policy of the dictionary. In the particular case of measurement terms, which are tightly related in an administrative sense, there has been the additional constraint of a developing understanding of the subject matter and its social and economic context. However, earlier editors of DOST did not engage in the technical detail of these terms, and so the entries do not exemplify the clear encyclopaedic approach which has become such a valued feature of DOST.

This approach contrasts with that of SND, where measurement terms are assigned clear values at the start of the entries, reinforced by presenting the information again in tabular form in the Supplement. There is, unfortunately, great danger in presenting seemingly exact detail in this way, even in the somewhat different circumstances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and much of the detail of this tabulation is now appreciated to be incorrect or inappropriate.

However, the tabulation was undoubtedly found to be useful, and its perceived value to users led to its later incorporation in the Concise Scots Dictionary (CSD). A revised analysis, which presents a more balanced view of the historical development and operation of Scots metrology, is likely to replace the earlier table in the planned new edition of CSD. As well as the need for revision, this acknowledges the established benefits of having such information available in a digested form.

The ability to consult DOST and SND on the web will inevitably expose SLD to a new type of dictionary user, indeed to a user community which is sophisticated in the use of on-line resources. This is not only an issue of freely providing public access to its database; SLD will also be in a position to demonstrate its responsiveness to user expectations for limited and targeted electronic revision programmes, following the editorial standards which have been tuned so effectively to the need of the existing user community in Scotland and abroad. Perhaps through the proposed Institute for the Languages of Scotland, SLD can retain the necessary editorial expertise and capacity to maximise the potential of the early volumes and the revision materials already gathered.

1 Connor and Simpson 2004, Foreword, p. ix. Unless otherwise noted, the issues discussed in the present article are drawn from this volume.
2 DOST, s. v. stane n.III. I am grateful to Marace Dareau for her advice and comments in the preparation of the present article. Eileen Finlayson kindly provided additional details.
3 Hanham 1971. The manuscript is in the National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS 34.7.6. Alison Hanham was Assistant Editor at DOST from 1965 till 1968.
4 For a corrective see Pryde 1996: 104-5.
5 The Jedburgh and St Andrews pints are discussed in Connor and Simpson 2004: Inventory, numbers 110 and 111.

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The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


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Information about Document 837

Interpreting Scots measurement terms: a cautionary tale


Text audience

Informed lay people
Audience size 100+

Text details

Method of composition Handwritten
Year of composition 2004
Word count 7011

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Text publication details

Publisher Edinburgh University Press
Publication year 2005
Place of publication Edinburgh
ISBN/ISSN 0 7486 2281 0
Edition 1st
Part of larger text
Contained in Perspectives on the Older Scottish Tongue
Editor Christian J Kay and Margaret A Mackay
Page numbers 139-152

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Author id 849
Forenames A D C
Surname Simpson
Gender Male
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Retired museum curator
Place of birth Edinburgh
Region of birth Midlothian
Birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Edinburgh
Region of residence Midlothian
Residence CSD dialect area midLoth
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation University Professor
Father's place of birth Edinburgh
Father's region of birth Midlothian
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Teacher
Mother's place of birth Edinburgh
Mother's region of birth Midlothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


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