What the ell?

Dr Cathryn Spence is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada. She has published on the topics of women, credit and debt, and work, as well as co-edited the Edinburgh Housemaills Taxation Book, 1634-6, which will be published in October 2014. She is also currently working on her first book, ‘For her Interest’: Women, Credit and Debt in Early Modern Scottish Towns. Her research interests include urban and economic history, and the impact of gender and socioeconomic status when accessing credit in Western Europe.

A stroll through the Dornoch kirkyard affords many pleasures. Located in the centre of town, in the shadows of Dornoch cathedral, this peaceful space beckons the visitor to wander awhile and consider the stones and monuments contained therein. The kirkyard also holds a special treat for those interested in medieval Scottish markets for, embedded into a slab of mossy and pitted stone, lies the ‘Plaiden Ell’. An accompanying plaque identifies the Plaiden Ell as a tailor’s measure, used to measure cloth at the markets and fairs held on that site since medieval times.

Scottish burghs tended to follow a theme with regard to their layout. One of the most important components of any burgh was the market place, which was indicated and protected by the market cross. Near to this was usually found the burgh’s ell. In addition to ells, Scottish marketplaces were also often home to a public weighbeam, or ‘tron’, where goods were weighed and measured by local authorities who tried to regulate the commercial activities of those both from within the town, and those who would enter the town on market days to sell their wares. These three components – mercat cross, ell, and weighbeam – were integral to medieval Scottish marketplaces.

On market days, typically held once per week, the regular hustle and bustle of day-to-day life in a medieval Scottish burgh would reach fever pitch, as both those dwelling within the burgh and those living outside of it prepared to sell or buy, or both. The market cross gave a guarantee of fair dealing to all who came to the market in good faith, while features like the ell and the weigh beam provided a physical backing to that guarantee. Markets were carefully organised affairs. Prices were set for staple goods such as bread, wheat, barley, malt and ale; specific hours for selling were laid down; the quality of goods was inspected by officials such as the ale tasters, flesh or meat tasters and wine tasters; and the activities of unlicensed hucksters was strictly controlled. Forestalling, the act of buying certain goods before they reached the official market in hopes of procuring a better price, or so they could be resold for a higher price, was expressly forbidden.

ImageCathryn inspects Dornoch’s Plaiden Ell.  Photo from collection of Cathryn Spence.

Once a feature of many towns, both in Scotland and further afield, there are now only three surviving ells in Scotland. In addition to the Plaiden Ell in Dornoch, there are also ells in Dunkeld and Fettercairn. The ell in Dunkeld can be found on the corner of the Ell Shop (owned by the National Trust for Scotland), so-called because, since the 18th century, an iron ell-stick has been attached to one corner. Like the Plaiden Ell in Dornoch, it was once used to measure cloth and other commodities in the adjacent marketplace. The third, and final, ell is engraved into the shaft of the seventeenth-century Kincardine Mercat cross, which now stands in the main square of the town of Fettercairn.

Originally, an ell was a unit of measurement approximately the length of a cubit (approximately the length of a man’s arm from the elbow, or about 18 inches – the word ‘ell’ comes from the Latin for arm, or ‘ulnia’). Several national forms existed, with different lengths. The Scottish ell was approximately 37.1 inches (94 cm), and was standardised in 1661. The exemplar for this Scottish measurement was kept in the custody of Edinburgh. However, Scottish measures were made obsolete, and English measurements made standard in Scotland, by an act of parliament in 1824. In England, ells were usually 45 inches (1.143 m), or a yard and a quarter. An ell-wand, or ellwand, was a rod of length (similar to the ell found in Dunkeld) of one ell used for official measurement and Edward I of England required that every English town have one. This was mainly used in the tailoring business, but is now obsolete. Although the exact length was never defined in English law, standards were kept.

Elsewhere in Europe, ells were of a similar length and used for a similar purpose. The Flemish ell measured approximately 27 inches (68.6 cm), the French ell 54 inches (137.2 cm), the Polish ell 31 inches (78.7 cm), the Danish ell 25 inches (63.5 cm), the Swedish aln 23 inches (2 Swedish fot, or 59 cm), and the German ell 23 inches (57.9 cm).

While ells now survive only as an interesting quirk on a monument or building, their legacy lives on in the popular expression: ‘Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile’ or ‘… he’ll take a yard’. Originally, the length taken was an ell, rather than a mile or inch, and was first published as ‘For when I gave you an inch, you tooke an ell’ in 1546 by John Heywood.

A Letter of Advice by Sir Robert Gordon, 1620.

Wade Cormack is the post-holder for the Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship at the Centre for History, University fo the Highlands and Islands. His research explores early-modern sport and cultural history of the Moray Firth.

While children should always listen to their elders, whether they do or not is totally up to them! The year was 1620 and eleven-year old John, the 13th Earl of Sutherland, received a letter of advice from his uncle and tutor, Sir Robert Gordon. Sir Robert wanted John to become a successful leader, a calculated but kind master, a learned man, and someone respected throughout the land. His advice covered disparate topics, from the vices of man, how to select a proper wife and how to administer his estate effectively. He also instructed him on the themes of sport, education and ‘civility’.

Robert Gordon was born at Dunrobin Castle in 1580 and was the fourth son of the 11th Earl of Sutherland. Initially he was educated in Dornoch before leaving for St Andrews, Edinburgh, then continuing his education on the Continent at Saumur, Poitier, Bourges, finishing with six months in Paris. Along the way he became a student of Neo-Stoicism. In 1606 he was at the court of King James VI and I where he was subsequently admitted as a Gentleman to the Bedchamber and was knighted. These influential positions gave him direct access to King James and he began his long political career.

After the death of the 12th Earl of Sutherland in 1615, Sir Robert became the tutor to his six-year old nephew. He set John’s affairs in order and sent him to school in Dornoch. During these schooldays we find the first references known to date of golf being played in town. The Earl’s expenses show that ‘Item ten poundis guven this yeir for bowes, arroes, golff clubbes, and balls, with other necessars for his L[ordship’s] exercise’. Sir Robert was an accomplished archer himself, winning the silver arrow in Edinburgh during the King’s visit in 1617. He was a proponent of sport and believed it was a crucial part of education. Sir Robert solidified Dornoch’s reputation for sport in 1630 with his A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland. He famously stated ‘About this toun… ther are the fairest and largest linkes…of any pairt of Scotland, fitt for archery, goffing, ryding, and all otherexercise; they doe surpasse the feilds of Montrose or St Andrews.’

As the Genealogical History existed only in manuscript copies for nearly 200 years, the promotion of Dornoch’s links was for the eyes of the Earls of Sutherland. However, Sir Robert’s Letter of Advice shows broad participation in sport. He urged John to ‘Cherishe your countreymen and train them vp in all kynd of honest exercise, such as hunting, ryding, archerie, shooting with the gun, gofing, jumping, running, swimming and such lyk’. Golf in this region was not just an elite preserve then, but was for all of the Earl’s countrymen. Although the direct references to golf in Dornoch fade from then until the nineteenth century, this evidence suggests it was widely played.

Young men were prepared for manhood and leadership through martial activities and a good education. Although ‘gofing’ had been previously restricted by the Scottish kings because it was of no military benefit, Sir Robert felt it was acceptable. Football, however, another sport restricted on the same grounds, was not recommended to John: ‘footeball [w]as a dangerous and vnprofitable exercise’. Sir Robert’s reasoning for this was probably because in many cases football became a riotous event, considered to cause great disruption and damage to people and communities. The disruptions caused by golf, by comparison, were limited.

ImageThe Royal Dornoch Links 1900 (Image Courtesy of HistoryLinks Image Library)

Sir Robert was also keen to ‘improve’ the Sutherland lands, especially Dornoch. In 1609 the Statutes of Iona promoted the assimilation of the western Highlands and Islands into a Lowland culture. As an influential man at the court of King James, Sir Robert would have been involved in discussions on how to accomplish this. Sir Robert’s ideas on the importance of English language education and literacy; on ideas of civility; on sport; and on how to bring up young men, noble and commoner, for the good and cohesion of the realm, were influential at the highest level. Sir Robert believed the best way to transform the people of Sutherland was to: ‘plant schooles in ewerie corner in the countrey to instruct the youth to speak Inglishe. Let your cheif scooles for learning be at Dornoche, and perswade the gentlemen of your countrey to bestowe lairglie vpon ther children to make them schollers, for so shall they be fittest for your serwice. Preasse to ciwilize your countrey and the inhabitants therof, not onlie in this poynt, but lykwyse in all other things which yow shall obserwe abrod in your trawells among other nations.’ Sir Robert then advised John to ‘erect a biblio-theck in Dornoch and fill it with sufficient store of books, boith for your credit and the weell of this countrey, to amend ther ignorance which increases through laik of books’.

From a child’s perspective, Sir Robert’s Letter of Advice was rather daunting. Judging by his later character, John internalised much of his uncle’s advice though. Moreover, he continued to support sport, education and ‘civility’, and passed these lessons to his sons, who continued the tradition of Sutherland men playing golf, being well-read and educated. Nearly 400 years later, the connection between golf and education continues in Dornoch, thanks to the collaboration of the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Royal Dornoch Golf Club to support and investigate that passion of Sir Robert’s: the place of sport in society.

National Library of Scotland, The Sutherland Papers, Dep. 313/1597.
Allan, David. Philosophy and Politics in Late Stuart Scotland. (East Lothian: 2000).
Fraser, William ed. The Sutherland Book. 3 Vols., (Edinburgh: 1892).
Gordon, Robert A Genealogical History of the Earldom of Sutherland from its Origin to the Year 1630: with a Continuation to the Year 1651. (Edinburgh: 1813).