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A Burgess Ticket

The Scottish Burgh


During the Medieval times / Middle Ages most people lived ‘hand-to-mouth’ off the land.  But Burghs were different as they depended on craft manufacturing and trading, and using the profits to buy food and raw materials. They usually had a castle or abbey and a market place at the center. Scotland's burghs are unusual in Europe in that they did not derive from earlier Roman models, but were developed later as planned medieval towns, supported by a clear feudal, legal and trading structure. Their origins have strong English (Norman) and Flemish influences.

The first  were founded by David I in the 12th century e.g. Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Elgin, Forfar, Glasgow and Perth.  With the surrounding agricultural resources these were largely self-sustaining communities.  They were able to impose tolls and fines within their boundaries.  In general, Burghs carried out far more local trading with their sourrounding area, on which they relied for food and raw materials, than trading nationally or abroad. Kings and other nobles saw the possibility of taking part of the trading profits for themselves - so burghs were granted a monopoly of local trade.


Burgh Independence

The Burgh was an urban settlement in a loose feudal structure that enjoyed economic privileges (until they were reformed in 1832). 

  • They regulated their own affairs, until their abolition in 1973. 

  • Burgh life was highly organized, with rules about whom could become a "burgess" and how the trades should be organised. 

  • Each Royal Burgh had the right to representation in the Parliament of Scotland. 

  • Burgesses elected the Town Council, with: a Lord Provost (Chief Magistrate); 2/3 Bailies (serving as Burgh magistrates); 10/12 Councilors. 

  • The Deacons of the local Incorporated Crafts were ex-officio members or ‘Trade Councilors’. 

  • Burghs produced characteristic records such as: Chancellery Court book; Guild records; and Registers of deeds (Book of Sassines). 

  • The 16th and 17th centuries were the great days of Scottish burgh life, when burgh industry and trade were most prosperous, and their autonomy most complete.  

  • But in the end their growth in prosperity and independence hastened their change after the Reformation.


Burgess Roll

A Freeman of a Burgh was one who, in return for the right to earn a living there as a merchant or craftsman and for protection from the ‘unfree’, assumed certain duties.  These included the payment of taxation, a share in the guarding of his town, and also a share in its government.  Burgesses were the “members” of the burgh - the rest of the inhabitants were called “indwellers” and had no particular rights.  Burgesses could trade free of charge (viz. freeman), become Guild members, vote for the local Town Council and vote on National affairs. There were two classes of Burgess - merchants and craftsmen - with much argument and social positioning between them. 

Burgess rights (‘tickets’) could be obtained through inheritance, marriage, purchase, or a gift to the burgh or Guild. Admission as burgess required a payment of a sum of money graduated according to the qualifications of the applicant for freedom. The son of a burgess paid a small sum, as did the man obtaining freedom by marriage to the daughter of a burgess. An apprentice to a burgess paid more, while a considerable sum was payable by an ‘unfreeman’.  This gave protection to existing burgesses from too much competition. In 1855 there were 238 Burgesses in Forfar. 

Parishes and Records

- The other key organisational form was the Parish – a territorial division containing a parish kirk - introduced in Scotland in the 12th century. 

- Until the reformation in 1560 the Roman Catholic Church controlled through its dioceses (e.g. Brechin, St Andrews) and principal centers (e.g. Jedburgh Abbey, Priory of Restenneth) considerable lands and local political power.

- The life and times of every parish in Scotland is given a full and colourful description in The Statistical Account of Scotland. The local Minister of the Parish Church wrote these parish accounts in the 1790’s, and again in the 1840’s.  There is a map of the 18th century Angus parishes on page 19.

- The Parish church also kept the register of births, burial and marriages up to 1854.  However these Registers have a high level of omission and inaccuracy (perhaps as much as 70%), although this varies greatly from parish to parish and from period to period. 

- The principal causes for this were probably the 'negligence' of people, particularly the Dissenters, and the introduction in 1783 of a stamp-duty on every the registered entry.  This duty was very unpopular, and perhaps whole parishes and even counties (Sutherland) ceased maintaining registers entirely.

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