Archery by Royal Decree
When the Scots king James I recognised the advantage of regular archery training in the early 15th century, practise with the bow and arrow was already long established in England. James had seen the power of the longbow on French battlefields whilst a captive of the English, under the protection of no less than the English king Henry V himself, whose archers won him everlasting fame at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
On his release and return to Scotland in 1423 James embarked on a parliamentary campaign to reform the Scots military establishment, with archery at the forefront. Scots soldiers already used the bow in times of war, but now the big idea was organised peacetime practise all year round. The legislation was refreshed on several occasions throughout the medieval Stuart reigns. Fines were introduced for not practising, and the money raised ('drink silver') provided alcoholic refreshment for those who did turn up for Sunday shooting. However, in spite of this incentivisation I suspect the general public remained unenthusiastic about using bows.
The reality of military archery is incredibly tough. Even just learning to use the heavy draw weight bows required for battlefield use is an investment of time and money that was likely beyond most people's budget and physical capabilities, without long years of training from an early age. It's no wonder that football and golf were preferred pastimes.
Known as 'bowmerks' in Scotland, archery butts consisted of raised earthen banks or mounds onto which targets were placed for shooting practise in the middle ages. At this distance in time the actual form and size of these butts is now a matter for imagination.
Below is an illumination from the The Luttrell Psalter, a manuscript from the 14th century, depicting the butts as beehive shaped, with rope rings placed on them as target marks. The archers shoot with wooden 'blunts' to prevent their arrows sinking in too deeply, potentially damaging both the arrow and the butt.
There is much speculation about the exact composition of butts; some say barrels were placed in them and packed hard with soil, or mattress type bags filled with hay. We will probably never know for sure, but my money would be on a basic mound of earth and turf or raised bank, none the least for ease of maintenance. All this aside, butts were usually roughly 100 yards or so apart to allow end to end shooting. Rope or willow garlands or simple cloth marks would serve as targets.
These archery practise grounds of our medieval ancestors are still in the landscape today, reflected in street names in villages, towns, and cities across Scotland.
When I get the time I seek them out, often starting with the National Library of Scotland's online digital map collection.
They have maps of all kinds which help with initial identification of the sites. Then it's a road trip....
You don't have to look far for evidence of the butts at Galashiels. The site has long been built over but is next to the ancient burial ground at Gala Aisle. Now populated by unassuming flats, the butts would have stood in open ground next to the nearby parish kirk, as shown on the map.
Bow Butts Close runs along one side of the burial ground, where an information board enlightens visitors of the archery activity that once took place there, as per the first of the 'Archery Acts' in 1424. The arrow head fence railings are a nice touch....
In Kelso the site of the butts lies under a street of attractive little terraced houses, in the shadow of the ruined abbey.
Directly across the street is the 18th century parish kirk. According to Canmore, following the Reformation part of the abbey was converted into the parish kirk in 1649. It can be assumed that abbey land was used for siting the butts in the 15th century.
Once again the butts in Lanark are evident in the old maps and in the street signs. The long gone Lanark Castle site sits a bow shot away next to the bowling green.
There is no parish kirk nearby, but the adjoining street Friars Lane hints at a the possibility of a religious institution or kirk existing in the vicinity in medieval times.
It is of course possible that the butts were simply sited on open ground near the castle, rather than next to parish church land.
AberdeenOccasionally there is no map evidence, but other sources can shed light on the business of butts.
This extract from an 18th century periodical mentions bow butts near the old bishop's palace in the city of Aberdeen.
Linlithgow Palace is fairly unique in my investigations thus far, in that the site of the butts is actually still in existence. Nothing has been built on the peel by virtue of the fact that the ground is protected under the jurisdiction of Historic Environment Scotland.
I'm assuming the peel roughly follows the same shape and contours as it did in the 15th century. The old map shows the site of the bow butts, and it is still very evident today. I was quite excited by this and even made a video...
The image of the Butt Well is from the Stirling Smith Gallery blog.
The Butt Well is so named for the archery butts which used to stand below the castle, where there was also a tilt yard for jousting. The map is by John Wood, taken from an 1820 survey of Stirling.
The maintenance of the butts fell to the parish council, with subscriptions being collected for their upkeep. Perhaps those who couldn't afford contributions were expected to help with the work itself. Peebles is an often quoted example of this, since evidence still exists in the burgh records. This is one of the mentions I've come across of the Peebles example from 'The Great Warbow'.
Although they clearly existed, in spite of my efforts I can't find the site of the Peebles butts on any of the old maps. I'll stick my neck out and hazard a guess that it was somewhere around the Hay Lodge Park. This stands at the edge of the Tweed in the Old Town with the Old Parish Church nearby at one end of the modern High Street.