Hearing proclamations in seventeenth century Scotland

I first looked at proclamations during the middle stages of my doctoral research, after becoming drawn to the way they mirrored the other spoken or ‘performed’ media of later seventeenth-century Scotland that I was already writing about. Like official celebrations, public executions, and even many seditious protests, proclamations were staged at burgh mercat crosses and employed the same sounds to compete for the same crowds. As I later demonstrated in my thesis, Scottish proclamations were primarily designed for audible delivery and aural reception, and they became central to my growing interest in how such displays might be recontextualised within the sounds and spaces that originally surrounded them to more accurately recover their contemporary practices and meaning.

Most research approaches early modern proclamations as written and very often even printed texts. There are exceptions to this, of course. Una McIlvenna, for example, has written on the routes taken by criers to deliver proclamations to passive audiences in early modern Paris.1 Work on Dutch ordinances has explored their performance, but has also largely focused on their subsequent display in print as a fixed feature of a town’s political landscape rather than how their speech and sounds might have originally filled these urban spaces.2

Arguably, this approach is only logical when proclamations remain visible to us only as manuscript drafts or printed texts, but primary evidence for Scottish proclamations is far more often focused on their sights and sounds. ‘Executions’ (certifications) of each proclamation were signed by members of the Lyon Court heraldic order, which was the group responsible for overseeing their performance. These signed statements testified, in detail, the audible and performative conventions that made a proclamation legal: ‘publicly proclaimed’ and ‘read’ with ‘sound of trumpet’. Likewise, it was these features most often noted in contemporary diaries and letters.

Unusually, however, there is an audible source available for Scottish proclamations – and one that you can even watch on YouTube. The Lyon Court continues to proclaim Scottish Parliaments from Edinburgh mercat cross, but comparison of these modern ceremonies with primary material shows key differences, even though they employ many similar sounds.

Today’s proclamations are far more ceremonial than their pre-modern predecessors and interact differently with the other sounds and spaces of Edinburgh’s High Street. Today, each decree is marked by the appearance of a professional, rousing military band and followed by the national anthem. Seventeenth-century proclamations, however, began with a procession of privy councillors and burgh magistrates and were led by heraldic, rather than military, trumpeters. Of course, sounding trumpets would have helped gather a crowd but, foremost, it helped officials to forge their way through the bustling street. The town guard was instructed to attend if trouble seemed likely, but the proclamation of special occasions, like kingdom-wide fasts, were embellished by psalms not military tunes. For routine proclamations, like those addressing trade or administration, there is little sense of pomp or expectation. Rather, their timing (usually just after midday) had evolved to avoid competition from other features of the Edinburgh soundscape, like canons fired by the nearby castle or the banks (drumbeats) of the town watch. Unlike today’s ceremonial occasions, the sounds of pre-modern proclamations demonstrate that they played a functional role in everyday life.

This difference is clear in the way proclamations are read aloud and, also, how they are received by the crowd. Today’s proclamations are still delivered by the Lord Lyon, but through a static microphone. In the seventeenth century, the Lyon (or, actually, in many cases one of his deputies) used the whole platform of Edinburgh mercat cross to theatrically project their voice towards the crowds on each side. Every proclamation still concludes with the words ‘God save’ the monarch, but in the past spectators were expected to echo this call with their own enthusiastic shouts. Now, however, these closing words are greeted by the same silence as the reading of the text itself, interrupted only rarely by the soft clicks of tourists’ cameras. Indeed, politely gathering behind pre-erected cordons, present-day crowds seem far quieter than any noted in contemporary sources when a decree’s commands, wording, or even the appearance of certain individuals could be met with either approval or resistance. The performance of each pre-modern proclamation generated a space – both physical and conceptual – for an entire spectrum of reactions, from loud affirmations to seditious murmurs. How might the cries of street traders have interacted with a proclamation on trade made in the same space just moments before? How might balladeers and news-singers have supported or subverted proclamations’ royalist rhetoric?

The mercat cross thus functioned as a central stage for proclamations and, indeed, many of the other political sounds that reverberated around seventeenth-century Edinburgh. Daniel Bellingradt’s notion of a ‘resonating box’ instantly springs to mind.3 But my biggest fascination with Scottish proclamations was how they could be used to communicate beyond the city walls and broadcast the government’s words across the kingdom. After their initial recital in the capital, proclamations were then promulgated (re-issued) with similar musical conventions at the mercat crosses of important towns across Scotland. To me, this audible ripple of trumpets, drums, and rhetoric suggests that a Scottish proclamation text might often be more accurately treated as a script. The many voices, stages, and urban landscapes used to promulgate each proclamation across the kingdom implies a significant variety in how it would have been both recited and received on each separate occasion. This also suggests that the accompanying sounds of a proclamation – such as the heraldic trumpets and the concluding echoes of ‘God Save the King’ (whether repeated enthusiastically or not) – were central to how they were identified and experienced by contemporary crowds.

I am currently working on proclamations across the British Isles during the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth-century, and my fascination with them only increases as I explore further how their relationships with text and print evolved throughout this period. I am particularly interested in how this differed across the archipelago. How did reception and dissemination of ‘a proclamation’ relate to each kingdom’s dominant means of communication? Would visitors from England, Ireland, or Wales have recognised the sights and sounds of a Scottish proclamation? These are issues I look forward to teasing out in current and future projects.


Laura Doak is studying for her PhD in the History Department at Glasgow University

Feature Image: Aberdeen Mercat Cross, photographed by Laura Doak



1 Una McIlvenna, Scandal and Reputation at the Court of Catherine de Medici (2016), 72-74; Una McIlvanna, ‘Chanteurs de rue, or street singers in early modern France’, Renaissance Studies, 33:1 (2018), 78.

2 Monica Stensland, Habsburg Communication in the Dutch Republic (2012), 18-19; Arthur der Weduwen, “Everyone has hereby been warned.’ The Structure and Typography of Broadsheet Ordinances and the Communication of Governance in the Early Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic’, in Broadsheets: Single-Sheet Publishing in the First Age of Print (2017), 240-267. See also: Nina Lamal, ‘Commerce and Good Governance: The Broadsheet Ordinances in the Van der Meuelen Archive’, in ibid., 207-239; Michel Reinders, Printed Pandemonium: popular print and politics in the Netherlands, 1650-72 (2013), 66.

3 Daniel Bellingradt, ‘The Early Modern City as a Resonating Box’, Journal of Early Modern History, 16 (2012), 201-240.

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