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Sources of Detritus

Commerce, Courts and CausewaysMidden - The place in the garden or courtyard used to dump kitchen waste, the contents of chamber pots, soiled rushes and manure from cleaning byres and yards.

The combined output of waste to appointed or casual middens would have been extensive in the Medieval Aberdeen Streets - what an attraction for Flies, Mice, Birds or Rodents and the then unknown threat from Pollution and Microbes reaching the water courses.  The stench of a fly blown midden pit mixed with household waste, human waste and its attraction to hungry dogs or foxes must have been nigh intolerable but then the Olfactory senses are self dulling when over exposed to such.  A casual midden was a pile of faeces and other household rubbish which ran the length, down the centre of roads to combat erosion and fill potholes – or more usually the Alleys, Pends, and Closes between houses.  The alleys were often very narrow and the middens were often too wide to be avoided.  Because the rows between houses were often narrow it was possible to empty one’s pysse pot from the upstairs window of your house. When doing so it was good mannered to warn unfortunate people who just happened to be walking by, by shouting the phrase “gardez l’eau!” or “look out for the water!”

This is perhaps the clean version of what they actually shouted but there is no need to discuss this with your children who would readily recite - Brown, brown - shit coming down - saccum stercoris.

He's aye jaggin his graip inti somebodie else's midden .....
The excavation of a designated midden yielded countless fragments of bones belonging to large livestock (sheep, cattle and pigs) as well as rabbits, birds, rodents, fish and of course endless shells or fragments of whale bone.  Long term they would prove to be value to enrich impoverished soil when well rotted.

Each Burgh was surrounded by a rural hinterland on which it depended for the production of agricultural raw materials which generated the wealth of the medieval economy.  In its turn, the hinterland was dependent on the Burgh because its goods must be sold there.  Agricultural and craftsmen's produce from the countryside was only allowed to be sold at legal fairs and markets within the burghs.  Certainly the meat must have been eaten, but it was however the inhabitants of the towns who had most access to the meat of cattle and sheep.  The diet of the rural people was based on cereals such as oats, barley and rye, with the addition of dairy products from sheep, cows and goats.

In Medieval Aberdeen most people, including the highest in the Burgh, were involved in farming. People cultivated every available piece of land including the crofts ringing the town and the backlands (Backies) behind their houses.  In the mid 17th century, Parson James Gordon described a number of cultivated fields to the east of the City and next to Fittie where corn, wheat, bear, oats, peas and herbs were grown.  Excavations near St Clement's Church have revealed evidence of medieval farming in the form of plough marks in the subsoil, while similar remains were found in the Green. Plant remains from excavations indicate the presence of a range of cultivated cereals, mainly barley and oats. Wheat and rye are also evident along with weeds such as corncockle which grew in cereal fields. Other remnants of cultivated foods include leeks and apples; while a coriander fruit fragment is a reminder of the importance of flavourings to medieval cooking. Large numbers of animals were kept in Burghs and there were many statutes about animals and the controlling of their movements. In Peebles in 1662, animals could be pastured on the town's common pasture if money had been paid, and the people in question were land owners in the burgh. In Aberdeen in 1487, restrictions were placed on the pasturing of animals on the Links, along with a system of fines and enforcements.

The archaeological evidence of animal husbandry in Aberdeen is vast. Environmental evidence demonstrates that peatland material was brought into the burgh for use as litter in stables where cattle, goats and horses were kept. Animal bones indicate the range of species utilised, their sizes and types, as well as their health and welfare. Damage to one pig skull from Netherkirkgate appears to show an abortive attempt to kill or stun the animal which survived long enough for the injury to part heal.


Flesher (Butchers)
nterestingly though, the age pattern of the sheep recovered from urban sites in Aberdeen contrasts with the ages found at a rural site excavated in Aberdeenshire:  there is some evidence from the deserted medieval burgh of Rattray which indicates that here, many of the younger sheep were absent.  Presumably they had been sent for sale to the burgh market at Aberdeen, while the older animals were kept in order to produce crops of wool and propagate the flock.  The sole very elderly sheep found at one of the Aberdeen sites (16-18 Netherkirkgate) may have been a flock leader or `lead wedder' which could have headed the flock on its final walk to market.  Eating mutton rather than what we would nowadays consider prime lamb was however probably no hardship; various travellers to Scotland in the 18th century described the meat of Scottish sheep (which had probably changed little since the medieval period) as `exceedingly fine'.  18th century household books, such as the Ochtertyre Book of Accomps, 1737-39 and The Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie, 1632-1733 show that while wedders, ewes and hoggs (all adult sheep) were consumed often, lambs were much less so. 

Other useful, and edible, animals such as goats, pigs and horses are also found in urban assemblages, but these are numerically much scarcer, possibly swamped by the sheer volume of material from the economically important cattle and sheep.  At Castle Street, knife cuts on a horse pelvis were certainly associated with meat removal.  The meat might have been intended as food for dogs, but could just as well have been eaten by humans.  As for pigs, it is known that they were kept within the burgh roods, but their importance was in the conversion of food scraps such as waste from milling into a source of meat for human consumption. They thus had little importance in terms of trade and raising revenue.  They would have been kept on a small scale by the inhabitants of the burgh, as well as cottagers, and would have come to market in much smaller numbers than cattle and sheep.  Their bones, like those of goats, are therefore swamped by the volume of remains from cattle and sheep found in urban assemblages.  Recent studies have shown that the long-legged, speedy and bristle-backed type of pig found in the medieval period bore little resemblance to modern meat breeds.  They were probably quite agile and had a bad reputation.  There are many instances in the burgh records of depredations caused to crops and gardens by pigs running loose in the town.  In Aberdeen they were banished from the Kirkyard for rooting around in the kirkyard `cassin up great graves and incoverit deid corpses’, and they were also banned from the Burgh roods in Lanark for reputedly eating `a barin in credill’.

The impact of Fleshers on the environment would have been very obvious and would have also produced a specific reaction in people. The fleshing (or butchery) trade produced a considerable amount of waste and gore which a number of statutes and ordinances sought to control.  Aberdeen fleshers, such as Hugo Carnifex (1399) and Thomas Johannis (1400), were to operate only in specific areas, especially for butchery and storage. These places were called the shambles and the flesh house. When conducting the butchery, fleshers had to ensure enough vessels were available to catch the spill. Moreover a regulation, perhaps demonstrating an awareness of infection, stipulated that fleshers were to keep their shambles clean at all times.  The 'Regulacons anent Fleschouris' stipulated that no middens should be suffered near the workplaces of fleshers. In Peebles in 1671, a new flesh market was constructed at the back of Thomas Smith's house on conditions that it should not be prejudicial to either him or to the sweeping of the high street.

In 1578 the Council in Aberdeen laid down a number of regulations to govern the prices of flesh and fish (which were treated at the filleting and sales level as equivalent and may have been stored in the same place). From marks and cuts on bones found during excavations in the Medieval Burgh, Butchery practices are evident. Cleavers or axes were used for dividing and disjointing carcasses, with saws being reserved for removing valuable items such as horn cores or deer antlers. One goat horn from Gallowgate found during excavation had at least 10 hacks at the base providing evidence of a heavy-handed technique or a very blunt tool. Animal bones also provide evidence of butchery practices, and of the types of tools used.  Usually, fleshing was carried out using axes or cleavers The butchers’ axe is referred to in the early Burgh records of Scotland  (Statuta Gilda, APS, I, 436), under the term securis (simply, an axe)The axe, as a symbol of the trade, often appears on post-medieval gravestones and in heraldic devices such as the coat of arms of the Nine Incorporated Trades of Dundee, displayed in St Andrews Trades Kirk (built 1722). Here, the axe is shown with a curving handle and flat blade, curving at the leading edge.  It is crossed in  the Coat of Arms with a pole-axe, An axe having a hammer face opposite the blade, the implement used both to dispatch the animal and then dismember it.

There were also restrictions on the slaughter and sale of animals, which meant that, as all animals had to be presented for sale along with their own hides, in effect all animals for sale at the Burgh Markets had to arrive on the hoof This was probably intended to discourage cattle reiving (rustling).  However, we know that some sellers tried to dispose of carcasses along with hides which did not match.  There was a fine for this offence, along with forfeit of the produce, as we know from surviving Burgh records.  Traditionally, similar trades were clustered together in the medieval burghs possibly because of the noxious smells which they engendered, as well as the risk of fire to wooden buildings from the likes of tallow boiling and fat rendering.


Fleshers (butchers) were required to `sell good meat openly and at the time of slaughter (Leges Burgorum).  Not only that, animals were to be slaughtered during the hours of daylight, in full view of the public, not as a free sideshow, but to ensure fresh meat was being offered for sale.  The meat was to be hung on `treis’ which can mean just that, a tree, or more likely, a post or pole.  Making sure that the meat was being sold at an appropriate price were the appreciatores carnibus or appraisers of meat who feature in the Burgh records of Aberdeen.  Not that dirty tricks weren’t practiced.  There are many references to the blawin or blowing of meat (particularly in the records of Dundee).  This involved blowing air through the carcass, presumably using straws to make the flesh seem plumper and more attractive. 

Meat was eaten in various forms in medieval Aberdeen as evident in registers and excavations. Thomas Mitchell in 1572 for example was named as a sausage maker.  Butchery marks also appear on the bones of horses as well as cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Horsemeat may have been fed to dogs or eaten by humans as it is in other present-day European cultures. Cuts on dog and cat bones may be associated with skinning.

Archaeological sites produced numerous cat bones and skulls with the typical pattern of skinning cuts (just above the orbits of the eyes.  An adjacent site, 80-86 High Street, was also abundant in cut cat bones.  This was probably a small-scale industry, but again it gives an indication of the clustering together of craftsmen with related trades.  Skinning cuts have also been seen on a cat skull from 16-18 Netherkirkgate, Aberdeen.  Dogs were also skinned for their fur: the Aberdeen dogs and cats were no safer than those in elsewhere.  Searches found cut dog bones in a post-medieval tan-pit at 45-75 Gallowgate and other cut dog bones, probably associated with skinning, were found at Castle Street But a dog humerus from 16-18 Netherkirkgate with cuts at its distal articulations, similar to those commonly seen in sheep humeri, were more suggestive of meat removal.  Other small mammals must also have been killed for their fur:  Scotland was reputedly famous for its `fine small peltry’, and although the Exchequer Rolls rarely give details of species which were exported, they probably included fox, badger and pine marten Fox bones are commonly found on urban sites, and one badger bone, with a cut mark.  Apparently, badger also makes a very fine preserved ham, so the carcase may have been eaten too.

As with the other Trades the Flesher Craft tended to be dominated by the same families. Even then, although the surname may change as a result of a son in law adopting the business.

Image of Medieval cookAnd Flesche and fische aneuch, baith fresche and salt’
Fish formed a very important part of the diet in medieval Aberdeen with Fittie and Torry developing as fisher communities. Fishing at sea and on the Don and Dee was carried out by many people including John Penuyr (1461) and Andrew Brabnar, a fisher who lived at the Brig o' Polgouny (Balgownie) in 1508. Hand lines would have been used for large fish and nets for smaller ones.  The value of fishing is amply attested to by the value of buying, selling and leasing fishing rights. The market for fish was vast: the city wanted fish and the hinterland wanted fish. Aberdeen was involved in an extensive export business in fish particularly salmon, some of which was caught by Thomas Augussoun from Shiprow in the 1520s. The Catholic Church also assigned certain days as fish days.

The filleting of fish produced similar waste to butchery (Heads, Tails Gut and Bones) with regulations to deal with that very problem. As with the fleshers, environmental problems would have occurred through odours and 'disturbing' waste products. Bones from a wide range of medieval fish have been found during excavations in Aberdeen, with cod and ling being the most common, followed by haddock, pollack and saithe. Large quantities of oyster and other shells found are a reminder of the importance of shellfish in the diet. Interestingly, neither salmon nor eel have been identified, despite their mention in historical sources but these would likely have been pickled and the bones dissolved..

Archaeological evidence can throw light on the progress of fish from water to the table. Hooks may have been associated with the catch or may have been used for hanging the fish for ease of transport. Cut-marks on the bones indicate that the fish were gutted and cleaned near to the sites where the bones were found. The cod and ling available in medieval Aberdeen were consistently large but not of record size. This may indicate a selective fishing strategy in considerable depths of water probably for safety of getting back ashore from a row-able distance rather than preserving stocks.

Medieval Poultry
The established custom of certain parts of Christendom was that poultry and fish were identical in the eyes of the Church, and accordingly continued to eat them indiscriminately. We also see, in the middle of the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas, who was considered an authority in questions of dogma and of faith, ranking poultry amongst species of aquatic origin. the Church eventually forbade Christians the use of poultry on fast days, it made an exception, out of consideration for the ancient prejudice, in favour of teal, widgeon, moor-hens, and also 2 or 3 kinds of small shell fish. As far back as modern history can be traced, we find that a similar mode of fattening poultry was employed then as now. Chickens were fattened by depriving them of light and liberty, and gorging them with succulent food.

People during the Medieval times of the Middle Ages also ate fattened geese. For some time geese were more highly prized than any other description of poultry, and flocks of geese, which were driven to feed in the fields, like flocks of sheep. This bird was considered a great delicacy by the working classes, as were ducks. The pea-fowl (peacocks and peahens)  played an important part in the chivalric banquets of the Middle Ages. According to old poets the flesh of this noble bird is "food for the brave." A poet of the 13th century said, "that thieves have as much taste for falsehood as a hungry man has for the flesh of the peacock". As time passed the turkey and the pheasant gradually replaced them, as their flesh was considered somewhat hard and stringy.

The principal role of calsaymakers involved paving the streets within the Burgh and removing the middens which built up on the street frontages. In dealing with the rubbish from the street frontages, it seems from some documents that Calsaymakers created their own large communal middens Calsaymakers were therefore directly involved in Environmental improvement.  Although regular efforts were being made to clear the streets from at least 1399, the 1st named occupant of the role of Calsaymaker appeared in 1471 when Sandy Cowtis was appointed to care for the streets of Aberdeen. Calsaymakers were appointed regularly from the mid to late 15th century in burghs across Scotland. Later the more familiar term scaffie (Scavenger) came into use.  Traces of medieval road surfaces have been found at various places in Aberdeen including Futty Wynd and Guestrow.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013