|At first the burghs were
governed through the burgh courts, originally a gathering of 'all
the good men of the community'. Gradually the burgh court meeting
in a judicial capacity came to consist of the bailies only, while
the town council (provost, bailies and councillors) attended to the
administrative business. The merchants dominated the magistracy of
the towns as the royal charters of trading privileges were in effect
charters to merchants as they brought in the largest part of the burgh
revenues, the burgh customs.
Different types of burghs exhibited a wide variety of systems of
government, until 19th century legislation imposed uniformity. The
1833 Burgh Reform Act also swept away the corruption of self-perpetuating
town councils by introducing elections for town councillors. Royal
burghs still retained certain privileges, including their own registers
of sasines, but in the 20th century all except the largest lost
some powers and functions, mostly to the county councils.
Types of burgh:
Royal burghs: those given their privileges directly by the Crown.
They acquired a monopoly of national and foreign trade.
Burghs of Regality: burghs created by Crown vassals who had been
given the Crown's rights over a given area.
Burghs of Barony: granted their charters by barons or churchmen.
Parliamentary burghs: 13 non royal burghs created by the Representation
of the People (Scotland) Act, 1832.
Police burgh: the Burghs and Police (Scotland) Act 1833 allowed
inhabitants of royal burghs and burghs of barony to set up police
commissioners. This was extended to parliamentary burghs in 1847.
Using the records
The burgh records can be consulted in the Historical
Search Room at General Register House. When using the records
you should bear in mind that the burgh boundaries have changed over
time. Check the report of 1832 on Parliamentary Representation in
Scotland available in the Historical Search Room. It gives the proposed
constituency boundaries and contains maps and reports on the appearance,
condition and population.
The records of each burgh are not always similar, either in form or
quantity, as unfortunately not all of the main series of records survive
for each burgh. No burgh archive, except for Aberdeen whose records
are held by the Aberdeen City Archives, has a significant series of
records pre-1500. Many burgh records, apart from the burgh registers
which were deposited in the NAS under the terms of the Burgh Registers
(Scotland) Act have been transferred to local archives.
Including royal charters. Some are very early eg. Cupar begins 1364
(NAS ref. B13/21) and Haddington, 1318-1940 (NAS ref. B30/21)
Registers of deeds
Mostly relating to debt, tacks of property and indentures of apprenticeship,
charter parties and other contracts
Books kept by notaries, lawyers authorised to draw up certain legal
documents including sasines - useful before the burgh register of
sasines began or the register of sasines in 1617.
Registers of sasines
Burgh registers were instituted by an act of 1681. Only royal burghs
had the registers and the register related to lands within the original
burgh boundaries. The Burgh Registers (Scotland) Act of 1926 arranged
for their gradual demise.
The medieval burgh court had both administrative and judicial functions.
Eventually administrative acts were kept separately in the council
minutes. The books include burgh statutes and ordinances, admission
of burgesses, small debt, removal of tenants, assault, breach of
the peace, inquests recognising someone as heir to a deceased person
and offences against trade such as forestalling. The burgh also
dealt with the moral and social good behaviour of their inhabitants.
Cases were passed from the kirk sessions to the burgh courts - eg.
adultery, fornication, irregular marriage, witchcraft.
The day to day running of the burgh and the regulation of the lives
of its inhabitants and the burgh's involvement in local and national
affairs. Acts of the council, elections of councillors, bailies
and other council officers, lists of inhabitants paying stent (tax),
burgh schools, trade disputes, offenders against burgh regulations.
Generally before 1600 the council minutes appear mixed in with court
business in the court books.
Dean of Guild books
Buildings, public middens, street lighting and weights and measures
[Dunbar (NAS ref. B18/19), Dunfermline (NAS ref. B20/14), Haddington
(NAS ref. B30/16), Linlithgow NAS ref. (B48/11), Musselburgh (NAS
ref. B52/7), East Linton (NAS ref. B75/2), Newport on Tay (NAS ref.
A list of surviving records for each burgh is given in:
Rebecca Bailey, ed., 'Scottish architects papers' (Edinburgh,
Iain Gray, 'Dean of Guild Court Records' in Scottish Archives,
The Journal of the Scottish Records Association, vol. 5 1999.
Burgh income and expenditure. Money derived from the burgh's lands
and fishings became known as the 'common good' and was intended
to be used for common purposes, such as the repair of the town clock.
The books can be a source of information on specialist topics such
as the cost of a harbour or other public works.
Applications for licences for sale of ale and other liquors for
inns or shops.
Police Commissioners minutes
Supervision of police, street cleaning and lighting and water supplies,
1833-1890. Police Commissioners were often also town councillors.
Burgesses were originally any inhabitant of a burgh who held land
there. It was later restricted to merchants and craftsmen. Burgess
tickets were also granted to outsiders who had performed some service
for the burgh. In addition to the burgess rolls and court books
recording the admission of burgesses in the burgh records, there
is a separate series of burgess tickets in NAS ref. RH10. The Scottish
Record Society has published indexed or alphabetical lists of burgesses
for Edinburgh, Canongate, Glasgow and Dumbarton.
A number of registers survive for burghs from the time when the
burghs were in separate constituencies from the counties.
Information on the commissioners representing the burghs in the Scottish
Parliament is given in 'The Parliaments of Scotland: Burgh and shire
commissioners', edited by Margaret Young (Edinburgh, 1992)
Crafts and trades
The burgh records are useful sources for information on crafts and
trades. Consult our guide
to crafts and trades records for detailed information.
Plans for burghs can be found in the Register House Plans series.
Read guide to topographical,
architectural and engineering plans for more information.
The burgh series can include some records which you would not expect,
eg. records of the East Lothian Banking Company 1815-31, are among
the Dunbar burgh records (NAS ref. B18/39) and the Haddington School
of Arts minute book 1827-53, is in the Haddington records (NAS ref.
Other sources for burgh records are: parliamentary
council (PC), exchequer
(E) and private
records (GD). A small series of miscellaneous material relating
to burghs is in NAS ref. RH9/11. For information on new towns built
after the war of 1939-45, look at the records of the Scottish
Office Industry Department (NAS ref. SEP).
Cecil J Sinclair, 'Tracing
your Scottish local history' (Stationery Office, 1994), chapter
'Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia: The laws of Scotland', (Stair Society),
volume 14 Local Government.
M Lynch, ed., 'The Early Modern Town in Scotland', (London, 1987)
E Ewan, 'Town life in fourteenth century Scotland' (Edinburgh, 1990)
GS Pryde, 'The burghs of Scotland' (Oxford University Press, 1965)
lists royal burghs and burghs of barony and regality with a brief
history including the charters of their erection from the Register
of the Great Seal.
Craig Mair, 'Mercat Cross and Tolbooth' (Edinburgh, 1988)
W M Mackenzie, 'The Scottish burghs' (1949) Detailed surveys of Scottish
towns are being undertaken by the University of Edinburgh's Centre
for Scottish Urban History in the Department of Scottish History.
Reports on Aberdeen, Coupar Angus, Cumnock, Melrose, Musselburgh and
Dalkeith have already been published by Historic Scotland.
The Burgh Record Society has published extensively from the records
of the burghs of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lanark, Paisley,
Peebles and Stirling.
National Archives of Scotland
Crown copyright 2006