Life In The Middle Ages

Towns and Burghs in Scotland were first created formally by King David I in the 12th century although most of these settlements went back much further. The new status however of these towns, driven by an upper merchant class who suddenly found themselves promoted to local magistrate positions, as the King and his new Norman elite devolved power in the shires, did alter the way people then lived. Organised trading economies now replaced the self sufficient nature of the communities which had up to this point been dependant on the land or the sea for survival.

Towns grew strong, merchants and tradesmen flooded in from across Europe bringing with them increased trading opportunities, new skills and technologies, which in turn increased wealth and created more opportunities for raising taxes. The leading townspeople were created 'burgesses' and it was these men who set up trades guilds and monopolised markets, in a sense they created the first rules regulating trade. Growth was rapid and trade international, pottery, foodstuffs and textiles from across the continent and beyond have all been excavated on archaeological digs across Lowland Scotland. 

Street patterns usually took the form of a street linking church and castle or castle and harbour with a centrally located market with permanent stalls. Businesses and homes ran off this in plots with some businesses such as blacksmiths located just outside of the main settlement to avoid the risk of fire spreading (which was common). Other businesses were also located on the outskirts such as tanneries and brothels. Churches, hospitals (most towns had a church run hospital by the 15th century as the influx of pilgrims and returning crusaders had brought leprosy into Scotland), hostels and cemeteries were located on roads leading into towns and mills were situated next to the water source which drove their wheels. 

Streets were sometimes maintained and gravelled. Most houses would have been simple, single story affairs made of wattle and timber and clad with turf, clay or dung. Houses would also double as byres as the inhabitants often shared them with their livestock although by the 14th century many were fitted with sleeping quarters partitioned off from the animals. Heating came from a central fire and the floor was simply beaten earth with mats woven from bracken or reeds or piles of heather used for sleeping on. Roofs were thatched with straw, reeds or heather. Most homes would have little in the way of furniture, perhaps a bench, some stools or a chest. Some of the rich merchants and burgesses would have had grander timber or stone buildings as their homes. The towns also controlled huge stretches of arable land which surrounded them which was ploughed and used for horticulture or used to graze animals. 


Scotland's trade was based on the export of wool, cattle, hides and cured fish mainly to the Low Countries. Scotland had healthy industries and did a booming trade with her neighbours until the 13th century which saw unstable times for Scotland's economy due to an effective English blockade of trade, by sea and road, leaving or entering Scotland. 


Common trades in Scottish towns included tanners, leatherworkers, fleshers, candlemakers, millers, weavers, metalworkers, potters and labourers. Other more specialist traders and craftsmen were evident though, goldsmiths, merchants who dealt in exotic overseas goods and even artists. 

Food, Medicine and other useful Crops 

Ordinary people ate a mostly cereal based diet with oats and barley being the staple crops. Flax was grown though to produce linen and linseed oil. Other plants were cultivated or collected for use in dying with bright yellows and reds being popular colours. Also plants like opium poppies and deadly nightshade were cultivated for use as painkillers. Hemp was grown for rope and mosses were collected and used in various medicines and also as a form of medieval toilet paper! 

Although cattle were the most common type of livestock, people also kept sheep, pigs, and goats, meat would be salted or smoked to preserve it. Animals were valuable though and would not have made up a large part of the diet of ordinary people. They would rely on porridge, broth, rough barley bread (bannocks) and ale. By far the most commonly grown vegetable was kail but others were available such as onions, leeks, peas and beans. Commonly picked plants such as sweet violets, wild garlic, parsley, primroses and borage were used as herbs and flavourings. Hazelnuts and berries such as elderberries, rowanberries, apples, cherries, raspberries, blueberries and brambles were also plentiful and would have been collected seasonally. Wild harvests were often a patchy affair especially around c.1300 when like today Scotland was undergoing a rapid climatic change and became colder, windier and wetter, the subsequent deterioration in crop regularity brought with it famine and disease. 

The milk from cattle, sheep and goats could be made into cheese and butter. Domestic geese and chickens provided eggs although seabird or pigeon eggs too were eaten. Birds such as gulls, puffins and curlews were also trapped for food. Bees were kept for honey which was used to sweeten food. Being surrounded by the sea a large part of the diet for many people was of course fish and shellfish, with most types of both sea and fresh water species being eaten fresh or smoked or salted for later consumption. The sea also provided another resource; salt. Salt was used not solely to flavour food as it is today but also to preserve meat and fish and was therefore used in much larger quantities than today. The town in south west Scotland which is most associated with this marine industry is 'Saltcoats'. Kelp was also collected by coastal communities for use as fuel or winter feed for livestock. 

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