Mastering Artillery and Festivities?: Burgh Appointments in Aberdeen in 1523

In April 1523, an entry in the council register of the Scottish burgh of Aberdeen appointed two individuals, Thomas Menzies and Patrick Lesly, as Masters of Artillery for the following year.[1] Out of context, this appointment seems unsurprising. The first recorded Masters of Artillery in Aberdeen were appointed in 1512; both Menzies and Lesly were significantly involved in burgh government in the 1520s and in April 1523 had also been appointed to a small council advising on defence against a feared English attack.[2] However, eyebrows are often raised for, in the same register entry, the two men were also appointed as Lords of Bon-Accord, Aberdeen’s ‘lord of misrule’ figure, who led the burgh’s traditional seasonal celebrations.[3] At first, appointing the Lords of Bon-Accord to take charge of the burgh artillery, particularly in a year in which war with England threatened, seems irresponsible, if not wilfully ignorant, on the part of the burgh council. However, further investigation highlights that the two roles shared several key similarities.  

Image: Map of New Aberdeen from James Gordon, Abredoniae novae et veteris description (1661). Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland from


Firstly, it is important to recognise the organisational scope of both roles. The Lords of Bon-Accord might be expected to organise plays, burgh ridings, decorations, dances, and banquets.[4] The role of the Masters of Artillery in Aberdeen involved acquiring supplies for the artillery, raising relevant funds, ensuring gunners were paid, and playing a role in organising the physical defence of the burgh.[5] Both roles therefore required an individual with both the time to facilitate, and the skill to organise, the activities within their remit.


Aberdeen’s civic government was relatively closed, and only limited individuals, like Menzies and Lesly, would be considered appropriate holders for roles which confirmed, or affirmed, status. Indeed, in Aberdeen in 1531 the role of the Lord of Bon-Accord was described specifically as ‘an office of honour.’[6] While the prestige of the role of the Master of Artillery was less explicitly stated, at the national level Lord Methven, the third husband of the Dowager Queen Margaret, was, in 1528, appointed ‘gret Lieutennat of the gret artilyhie quhilk with us is an office honourable’, suggesting that a command role over artillery imparted a degree of status and honour.[7] It is also notable that the Menzies family, who dominated Aberdeen’s politics in the sixteenth century, continually ensured their control of the burgh’s artillery, seemingly both for security and as a statement of status and authority.

Utilising Gunpowder

Masters of Artillery were involved in ensuring the burgh was supplied with gunpowder which was, in turn, frequently used during burgh festivities. Gunners commonly played a role on these occasions while, in Edinburgh, entertainments in the first half of the sixteenth century often referenced payments for gunpowder, sometimes explicitly delivered to the local equivalent of the Lord of Bon-Accord.[8] In Aberdeen, it is also known that an artillery salute was fired in 1512 at the royal entry of Queen Margaret, and that the Lords of Bon-Accord were heavily involved in organising royal visits to the burgh in 1492 and 1552.[9] It is highly likely, therefore, that the Lords of Bon-Accord would have played a role in organising the salute in 1512, although it is perhaps not coincidental that this is also the first year for which a record of the Masters of Artillery survives for the burgh.

The roles of Master of Artillery and Lord of Bon-Accord therefore, shared several common features – both required organisational skills, bestowed status and required a degree of mutual knowledge. While there is no evidence at present that the conflation of these roles was explicitly repeated, a recurrence would perhaps not be as surprising as it had, at first, appeared.

[1] Anna Mill, Medieval Plays in Scotland (Norwood, 1978), p. 142.

[2] ACA/1/9, p.108; ACA/1/11, p. 272; William Kennedy, An Alphabetical Index [….] 1398 – 1800 (copy), MS 595 (1826), Vol. 10 p.81; Vol. 11 p.99.

[3] Mill, Medieval Plays, p.142; Michael Lynch & H. Dingwall, ‘Elite Society in Town and Country’ in E. Patricia Dennison, David Ditchburn & Michael Lynch (eds), Aberdeen Before 1800: A New History (East Linton, 2002), p. 183.

[4] Mill, Medieval Plays, p. 27.

[5]ACA/1/11, p 90.

[6] Mill, Medieval Plays, p. 143.

[7] David Caldwell, Guns in Scotland: The manufacture and use of guns and their influence on warfare from the fourteenth century to c. 1625 (University of Edinburgh, Unpublished PhD thesis, 1981), pp. 181-2.

[8] Philip Butterworth, ‘Theatre of Fire: Special Effects in Early English and Scottish Theatre’ (London, 1998), pp. 132-3; John Smith, The Hammermen of Edinburgh and the Altar in St Giles Church (Edinburgh, 1906), p.30.

[9] Mills, Medieval Plays, p. 133, 149; Priscilla Bawcutt (ed.), The Poems of William Dunbar, Vol. 1 (Glasgow, 1998), p. 64.

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