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Chapter XV: The Burgh

Yet more, around these Abbeys gathered towns,
Safe from the feudal castle's haughty frowns;
Peaceful abodes where Justice might uphold
Her scales with even hand; and Culture mould
Her heart of pity, train the mind in care
For rules of life sound as time could bear.
                                           Wordsworth.



WHEREVER throughout Scotland there rose the towers of a castle or the spires of a cathedral or abbey, there were to be found the humble houses of a hamlet or village, built under the shadow of the greater pile. These, when adjacent to a castle, were inhabited by the vassals of the baron who owned it; when near a cathedral or abbey, by artisans and labourers. Their inhabitants were bound by feudal ties to their over-lord, to whom also—whether baron, bishop, or abbot—the profits of their industry belonged, so that when there were amongst them a number of successful traders, or clever artisans, the revenues of their feudal superior greatly increased. [1] As wealth accumulated, the inhabitants of these villages bought their liberty from their over-lords, and formed themselves into communities, to which the Sovereign granted peculiar privileges. They had power of self-government, and were able to carry on with spirit commercial and industrial operations. These privileged communities were called Burghs. The earliest description of Burghs are the Royal Burghs, so called because they were directly constituted by the Sovereign, and had special privileges bestowed on them by him; but the great lords of the Church, anxious to share in the advantages of trade which attended these new erections, obtained privileges of the same nature for the villages which sprang up around their cathedrals and abbeys. Thus the Burghs of St. Andrews, Brechin, and Glasgow were created by the special favour of the Bishops of these Sees ; Selkirk, by the Abbot of Kelso ; Newburgh, by the Abbot of Lindores ; and Paisley, by the Abbot of its Convent.

The privileges of a Burgh depended on the charter of its erection; but in all cases the inhabitant of the Burgh was thereby raised in his status both socially and politically. He was no longer in the condition of a serf or slave, who could be transferred from one master to another, and he escaped from all the severities and exactions of the feudal system. The Burgh in the early period of its existence was a place of freedom, a sanctuary to the slave. “Gif oney maunis thryll barounis or knychtis cummys to burgh and byis a borrowage, and duellis in his borrowage a twelfmoneth and a day foroutyn challange of his lorde or of his bailye, he shall evir mare be free as a burges within that Kingis burgh, and joyse the fredoume of that burgh,”
[2] so runs one of the earliest laws for burghal government. The burgess, besides, was subject only to municipal government. The baron or abbot's “baylie” could not lay hold of him, and the dungeon of the castle or convent thereby lost its terror. He was amenable only to the community and its officials, and if attacked and carried before another court, he could claim. “hys awen cross and market,”—could demand to be tried before the court of his own burgh, by his fellow burgesses. [3] Each burgh had the privilege bestowed on it of holding one or more fairs during the year. Institutions of this kind were peculiarly serviceable in the earlier stages of society. The number of shops, and the commodities in them, must have been comparatively limited, and but little sought after by dealers. It was, therefore, for the advantage of all that fairs should be established, and merchants induced to attend them. For this purpose various privileges were annexed to fairs, and numerous facilities afforded for the disposal of property at them. To give them a greater degree of solemnity they were associated with religious festivals. In most places they are even yet held on the same day, as the feast of the saint to whom the church of the place is dedicated, and till the practice was prohibited in England, it was the custom to hold them in the churchyards. [4] The fair was a day of perfect liberty. Though the owner of a bondman met him at the fair, he dared neither “chace nor tak him.” On the day of the fair the humblest trader from a distance could exhibit his wares as freely as if he were a burgess of the town. Every facility was given to induce merchants to bring their goods for sale, and on Saint Mirin's Day—the day of the great Paisley fair—the “mercator extraneus,” as he is called, would be welcomed within the Burgh.


[1] For the general statements in this chapter I am indebted chiefly to “Scotland in the Middle Ages,” by Cosmo Innes.—Tytler's Hist. of Scot., Vol. I., “Lindores and its Abbey,” and Robertson's “ Early Kings of Scotland.”
[2] Leges Burgorum, No. 15.—Robertson's Early Kings.
[3] Lindores and its Abbey, p. 147.
[4] M‘Culloch's Dictionary of Commerce.—Chitty on Commercial Law, Vol. II.