At the heart of so many Scottish towns and cities stands a mercat cross. First recorded in the late twelfth century, mercat crosses signaled a Royal Burgh’s unique trading privileges and its direct relationship with the crown. These crosses also became focal points for legal and political practises: sites for enacting justice; platforms for promulgating official proclamations; meeting spaces for burgh magistrates in lieu of a tolbooth or town house.
The ‘Who Owned Scotland’ conference was hosted by the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland in June 2021. It presented an exciting opportunity to discuss the past, present and future of Scottish land ownership. The panels covered an impressive range of topics and periods to address the layered and complex relationships between land, resources and people, and the event was particularly strong in linking historical topics to themes as varied as social justice, heritage and literature. Who had access to land? Who did not? Working on the emergence of production-driven attitudes to landscape in the eighteenth-century Scottish Highlands, the conference resonated with my own research and led me to reflect on what ‘ownership’ means then and now.
When I first began my research on the royal seals of Scotland, I had to repeatedly convince friends and family that I wasn’t studying semi-aquatic marine mammals. Instead, my work focused on wax impressions that might have been attached to documents such as charters. Less cute but, to my mind, incredibly interesting. So, why did I want to study seals? What fascinated me was the way in which a seal was both a practical object, used almost as an alternative to a written signature, and a symbolic object, which could embody the presence of the sealer and assert something about how they wished to be perceived.
In March 1700, the Scots colony of New Caledonia on the Isthmus of Panama was abandoned for the second time. Already overwhelmed by “the Extreamity of famine” the previous year, the colony was finally and forcefully dislodged by the Spanish. Despite the ultimate failure of the colonial project, the Darien scheme – by its very existence – underlined a fundamental contradiction in Iberian colonial doctrines of occupation and highlighted a significant chink in the imperial armour of the “Spanish” Americas.