Book Reviews

“Weights and Measures in Scotland: A European Perspective” by Connor, R, Simpson, A and edited by Morrison-Low, A

Reviewed by Aaron Allen FSAScot

RD Connor, ADC Simpson, edited by AD Morrison-Low 2004 “Weights and Measures in Scotland: A European Perspective”, Edinburgh: NMS Enterprises Ltd. & Tuckwell Press, ISBN 1901663884, 872pp, 8 colour and 315 b&w illustrations. £50.00. Reviewed by Aaron Allen, University of Edinburgh

Weights and Measures in Scotland: A European Perspective

“Weights and Measures in Scotland: A European Perspective”

In 1972, when the Metrication Board was planning to introduce the metric system, Dr Simpson was setting up a small exhibition on weights and measures for what was then the Royal Scottish Museum. This was intended to set metrication in its wider context of the history of metrology in Scotland. By studying the various objects which came to light for the exhibition, it became apparent that previous work on the subject from the 60s was unsatisfactory and did not explain the evolution of Scottish weights and measures. This started a project which has come to fruition in this wonderful book, combining both the historical record and the previously-unexplored surviving material culture, to work through the vast array of regulation, legislation and unwritten measurement and trading procedure.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part discusses the history of weights and measures in Scotland in nine chapters. The beginnings of Scottish metrology are laid out in the first, while subsequent chapters deal with units of length, such as the ‘ell’; units of weight, such as the ‘troy’ and ‘stone’; units of volume, such as the ‘firlot’ and ‘boll’; and legislation in regards to metrology, both in local and European contexts. Examples are drawn from various institutions, such as the parliament, mint, weigh-house and market place.

The second part of the book is an inventory of the surviving material culture. Linear measures, weights and capacity measures which survive in Scotland’s museums are drawn upon to illuminate the history of metrology, with a vast number of black and white pictures of select objects. Each category contains sections which are divided up into pre- and post-1618 measures, Union measures, and pre-1835 measures.

The third part of the book contains the appendices. These include a wealth of primary source material relating to the subject, as well as shorter essays on various topics such as regional diversity and the weights and measures of bread and ale. Further material includes a directory of the known craftsmen who made the weights and measures, giving further depth to the objects in the inventory.

This book should be the first place one looks for when confronted with a question on the highly complicated, numerous systems of weights and measures used in late-medieval and early modern Scotland. The divisions and conversions used in the day to day lives of merchants, traders and craftsmen relied heavily on a mix of legislation and local knowledge, making a very complex problem for today’s historian. Despite attempts by municipal and central governments to rationalize the melee of divisions, regionalized systems remained in use well into the modern period. The historical record alone can still leave a rather puzzling and misleading interpretation, but by taking a multi-disciplinary approach through the inclusion of material culture, this wonderful study has established a new framework for understanding Scottish metrology in its international context. As Prof. Smout has commented, ‘At last, in the fog of ancient measurement, we have a beacon to guide us through.’

A M Allen
University of Edinburgh

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