Page last updated at 10:11 GMT, Tuesday, 13 May 2008 11:11 UK

Old parliament archives go online

Environment Act
Some 16.5 million words have been translated and digitised

An online archive of the proceedings of the original Scottish Parliament from its first surviving act of 1235 to its dissolution in 1707 has been launched.

The records show how politicians were arguing over fuel shortages, binge drinking and the credit crunch as far back as the 13th Century.

They also reveal how heated parliamentary debates regularly resulted in mass brawls and even duels.

The project took St Andrews University researchers 11 years to complete.

The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland (RPS) website, which features full translations of the original documents from Scots, French and Latin into English, is designed to replace and update a 19th Century printed version.

The website also represents the largest single record written in the Scots language, providing an unparalleled history of dialect usage from the late 14th Century until the early 18th Century.

Scotland has every reason to be proud of its lengthy parliamentary history and the record the institution left behind
Prof Keith Brown
University of St Andrews

Project manager Dr Gillian MacIntosh said the RPS archives were one of the country's richest historical sources, and would help further understanding of all aspects of Scottish society prior to the Act of Union in 1707.

She added: "Just like today, decisions made in parliament had a major impact on every aspect of life and society.

"Things haven't changed nearly as much as you might imagine, and most people's lives today are affected by many of the same issues facing the old parliament.

"I think MSPs today would be very familiar with many of the issues and concerns facing politicians hundreds of years ago, whether it was fuel shortages or excessive drinking."

However, anyone concerned that the behaviour of politicians is declining after watching Alex Salmond and Wendy Alexander go head-to-head in Holyrood would have been shocked at the conduct of some of their predecessors.

Dr MacIntosh said: "Parliament was a pretty rowdy place back then - members were allowed to take a sword in, and there are records of duels and arrests being made after punch-ups broke out in the debating chamber."

The records reveal that issues such as fuel shortages are far from exclusive to 21st Century Scotland, with an act passed by parliament in the reign of Mary Queen of Scots recording a "most exorbitant dearth and scantness of fuel" within Scotland because significant amounts of coal were commonly used in empty ships for ballast.

Parliament House
Debates took place at Parliament House in Edinburgh prior to 1707

The act outlawed any export of coal beyond that to be used for fire in the ship's voyage, under the pain of confiscation of the ship.

Similarly, tolls over the rivers Forth and Tay exercised MPs in the 15th Century, although debate concerned ferries rather than bridges, and acts from as far back as 1428 legislate on the thorny topic of MPs' allowances.

The archive also reveals how Scotland suffered a credit crunch in the 16th Century, forcing parliament to legislate to control loan sharks as "exorbitant and immoderate interest" had been "the cause and ruin and decay of many ancient livings within this country."

Excessive drinkers and "haunters of taverns" were legislated against by a series of acts in the 1600s, with anyone found drinking in a pub after 10pm subject to corporal punishment or imprisonment.

The research team was led by Professor Keith Brown, of the university's school of history, who said he believed the archives overturned any notion that the original Scottish Parliament had been a weak and ineffective institution.

He said: "From its origins in the 13th Century to its termination in the 18th Century, Scotland's parliament represented a political legitimacy that could not be ignored.

"Furthermore, far from being a rudimentary institution, parliament evolved rituals, procedures and a level of self-conscious awareness on a par with any other representative body of that age.

"Scotland has every reason to be proud of its lengthy parliamentary history and the record the institution left behind. It is with great interest that we await to see what new research is created by the users of the resource produced by the project."


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