Taxing History: Space, Place, and Gender in Early Modern Edinburgh

The issues of ‘space’ and ‘place’ have been sources of increasing interest for historians in recent years. Concerns relating not only to where people lived and worked, but what those locations can communicate about the nature, sociability, and respectability of lives and occupations have inspired exciting new research questions that help us to understand not only where people lived, but how they lived. Of course, one of the main drawbacks of this avenue of enquiry, particularly for medieval and early modern historians, is the paucity of sources. Information regarding location can sometimes be pieced together, but discrete sources that clearly communicate locations are few and far between.

One of these rare sources that provide a wealth of information regarding the layout of an early modern town is the 1635 Housemaills Tax for Edinburgh, Scotland. Held in the Edinburgh City Archives, this tax was commissioned by Charles I in order to raise money for the stipends for church ministers in Edinburgh. The tax was assessed (but never collected) between 1634 and 1636, and lists the household head (both landlord and tenant), and value, of every building in the burgh. Significantly, the list was also taken of each household in sequence, allowing subsequent readers to ‘walk’ from door to door along the High Street, alleys, and closes of seventeenth-century Edinburgh. I transcribed this tax with a colleague, Dr Aaron Allen (Edinburgh) during my PhD at the University of Edinburgh and this transcription was published by Boydell & Brewer for the Scottish History Society in October 2014.

Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the tax is the degree to which it speaks to the integration of society, and particularly gender, in early modern Edinburgh. Those tenants whose properties were valued at £500 are visible, but so too are those whose properties were valued at £2. Lord Cranston Riddell owned extensive property in the south west quarter, acting as landlord to a number of people. Among his tenants was Lord Haddington, who rented a gate, close, lodging, and yard near the Cowgate, which were valued to the sum of £400. This was clearly a salubrious lodging, yet Lord Haddington’s nearest neighbours were a single woman, Isobel Crombie, and the widow of a man named Adam Gairnes. Isobel rented a low fore house for £20, while the widow rented a tavern for £26 13s 4d. Naturally, though, it was not only men who owned expensive properties. William Dick of Braid may have owned a property worth £500, but so too did Lady Yester. Topping the list of the most expensive properties in Edinburgh was the property of James Lands, a merchant, whose property was valued to £733 6s 8d, while the second most valuable was owned by Alison Steinson, who rented a dwelling house, cellars, and two shops, all of which were valued to £533 6s 8d. And both men and women rented dwellings valued at a mere £2 per year, the majority of which were found in the southwest quarter which was, on average, the poorest. In between, a great variety of merchants, craftsman, and their wives and families made their livings.

Although the majority of landlords and tenants listed in the housemaills tax were men, the tax is also useful for illustrating the role women played as owners and controllers of property and, as a result, the roles these women played in the wider community. Upon her marriage in seventeenth-century Scotland, a woman surrendered all control of her moveable property, including the rents of her heritable property, to her husband. However, a woman holding property when she entered into a marriage retained that property as separate from any property owned by her husband though she could not sell any such property without the express consent of her husband. Similarly, her husband could not sell her land without consent of her heir, and a husband’s right to his wife’s heritable property was that of administration – ius administratione – because a woman’s heritable estate passed to her heirs, and was never actually her husband’s.

Women acted as landladies of 232 properties listed in the tax roll. These 232 properties comprised 837 separate dwelling houses, booths, taverns, stables, cellars, lofts, bakehouses, slaughter houses and work houses, and ranged in value from a few pounds to a few hundred pounds. Women tended to act as landladies of properties worth between £0 and £39, with 69 per cent of the properties rented out by women falling into this bracket. (However, it is worth pointing that, in comparison, 66 per cent of all tenants listed in the tax roll paid less than £40 per year for rent.) Women sometimes controlled extensive amount of property. Elizabeth Frame, for example, the widow of a hatmaker, was the landlady of 28 properties which were contained in two tenements and ranged in value from £3 to £33 6s 8d. Other women acted as landladies of much more valuable properties. Catherine Simpson, another widow, rented out four properties, ranging in value from £32 to £160. Still other women took advantage of properties that may have been left in their control by the deaths of their husbands and rented out properties that were used for specific occupations. The widow of John Henryson, who had been a flesher (butcher), rented out a house and two slaughter booths, which presumably had been used by her husband during his life to provide a livelihood. As tenants, women were named as the heads or controllers of slightly more than 1,000, or 25 per cent, of the properties listed in the tax roll. The properties rented by women included dwelling houses, booths and shops, taverns, cellars and vaults, stables, and lofts, providing at the same time indications of the occupations in which these women were engaged.


Dr Cathryn Spence is assistant professor in European history at the University of New Brunswick – Saint John in New Brunswick, 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 was published by Boydell and Brewer for the Scottish History Society in October 2014. She is also currently completing her first book, 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.


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