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.

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