Perceptions of Wealth in Late Medieval North-East Scotland

Is he wealthy or does he just have a big family?

Colin Shepherd, author of The Late Medieval Landscape of North-east Scotland, sets out to answer this question through a series of fascinating archaeological discoveries from Late Medieval Scotland. Scroll down to find out more!

How is wealth signified in the archaeological record? This is a subject widely studied for many different periods, in which the portrayal of wealth might take many forms. But what about in a 17th-century lordly context in Scotland?

The remains of a revetment for a terrace overlooking Druminnor’s late Renaissance formal garden.

It might be imagined that one of the wealthiest lords in the north-east of Scotland, with appropriately impressive castle, is likely to have had as impressive an array of consumer products than his English counterpart. But, excavations at Druminnor Castle – ancestral caput of the Lords of Forbes – as part of the Bennachie Landscapes Project (, suggest otherwise. For ten seasons the volunteer workforce have been puzzled by the lack of finds from the early modern period. The architectural foundations of the castle – the above-ground structures having largely been removed in 1800 by an asset-stripping entrepreneur – indicate all the trappings associated with a great house of that time. However, a household inventory of 1683 – made shortly after yet another substantial architectural makeover – may help to explain the dearth in finds. Lord Forbes appears to have had a very limited array of crockery, pots and pans. Even those he had were frequently broken – according to the inventory. It begins:

“Eleven trenchers, a dozen playtes and two useless playts.”

However, although his guests would have eaten off crocks little different to what they would have enjoyed at a local farmer’s house, they may well have been wowed by the silverware from which the food and condiments were served:

“A great silver syllabub pot with a cover and a stoup, a silver tankard, a silver pottinger with cover, a large silver dish, a great silver salt cellar, seventeen silver spoons, four silver forks, a large sugar box.”

Anecdotally, Scots lairds expressed their wealth in conspicuous feasting. The evidence from the Forbes household of the 17th century suggests otherwise. Eleven trenchers and a dozen plates would not have served a multitude, unless paper plates were an, as yet, unattested part of 17th-century Scottish hospitality.

The surviving south range of the upper courtyard of Druminnor castle with the north barmkin range under excavation.

How about relative agricultural wealth across a lowland area in 13th century Scotland? Surely, agricultural productivity and means of production in one parish cannot have been so different from another in a similar topographic situation thirty miles away. You might be surprised – as was I – that ecologically-targeted production meant that two areas could have dissimilar systems and profit margins. An area of grain-based agriculture along the River Urie, whilst producing the greatest profit overall, showed a much lower index of profitability when measured on a per capita basis than a more mixed agricultural area around the River Ugie, near Fraserburgh. Anecdotally, Scotland prior to the modern period consisted of an homogenized agricultural system. This notion requires a drastic overhaul.

Notions of wealth are slippery fish and turn on perspectives. An English lord visiting Druminnor Castle in the 17th century is likely to have been impressed by its outward appearance, displaying the aura of a late Renaissance palace with upper and lower courtyards and an ancient six-storey tower attesting to the family’s longevity in the area. (Their first recorded charter for the lordship of Kearn and Forbes belongs to the early 1270s, though our archaeological evidence demonstrates high status occupation of the site in the mid 12th.) But, our visitor may have been somewhat shocked to find what he was expected to eat from, when compared to what is known of lordly consumer goods in English mansions of the time. Then again, if the visitor decided to act in a disdainful manner, he is likely to have had to face down a couple of thousand well-armed bodyguards. Wealth in Scotland, at that time, was still largely a measure of how many men might be placed on a field of battle. This human resource requirement, in turn, affected methods of agricultural production. By reducing labour – even though it may have increased profit margins – would have resulted in a deficiency in personal protection and outward display of wealth.

So, displays of wealth depend upon their social contexts. And wealth creation, even in terms of agricultural production – which Adam Smith saw as the only genuine indicator of wealth –  is itself only measurable with respect to its social setting, as seen in the case of North-east agriculture in the 13th century. Clearly, when notions of relative wealth are discussed, they must be argued with respect to social context. And, when comparisons are made across different geographical areas, some attempt has to be made to ensure that the comparisons are valid. It’s difficult to compare apples to oranges.

The Late Medieval Landscape of North-East Scotland: Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution
By Colin Shepherd

This book paints a picture of rural life within the landscapes of north-east Scotland between the 13th and 18th centuries, using documentary, cartographic and archaeological evidence. He shows how the landscape was ordered by topographic and environmental constraints that resulted in great variation across the region and considers the evidence for the way late medieval lifestyles developed and blended sustainably within their environments to create a patchwork of cultural and agricultural diversity.

Colin Shepherd is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and Associate of the Chartered Institute for Archaeology. For the last ten years he has been heavily involved with the Bennachie Landscapes Project, jointly developed by the Bailies of Bennachie and the University of Aberdeen. Background comparative research and archaeological excavations for that project have contributed greatly to this volume.

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