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Burgh and community

Burgh records: research guide 6

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For most of its history (from medieval times until 1975) Scotland was divided into counties, parishes and burghs for civil and religious purposes. Burghs (especially royal burghs) were often treated differently by central government and the legal system. They were urban settlements which enjoyed trading privileges from medieval times until 1832 and which regulated their own affairs to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the type of burgh) until the abolition of all Scottish burghs in 1975. Many had their own courts of law, local government, churches and schools. The physical and social structure of burghs differed from the rest of the country for much of their existence. Burghs produced characteristic forms of historical record, such as court books, guild records, registers of deeds, financial accounts and, latterly, records of burgh institutions such as schools and libraries.

The burgh records have featured in an exhibition at the John Gray Centre, and you can see some of the items featured here; items in the archive catalogue relating to burgesses can be seen here.

The royal burghs

These were granted privileges in charters directly from the Crown. The inhabitants paid their rents to and held their lands from the Crown and were subject to the jurisdiction of the Royal Officers. Early burghs, most of them sea ports, were given a monopoly on foreign trade, and were granted rights to trade within the burghs. These rights were tightly enforced and this allowed the control of markets until the 19th century. The burghs had a right to representation in Parliament.

Musselburgh Burgess Tickets, 1654–1824

Musselburgh Burgess Tickets, 1654–1824

Tradesmen who lived within the burgh could gain their right to trade – their ‘freedom’ – by inheriting from their fathers, buying it after serving an apprenticeship or being granted it as a mark of favour; those citizens were then known as burgesses, with rights to vote on local issues. Burgesses could be roughly divided into merchants and craftsmen, and the tensions between the interests of the two classes were often a feature of the burghs. Craftsmen were usually organised into individual guilds. Merchants, who included all traders, from stall-holders and pack-men to shop-holders and traders of considerable wealth, also had a guild, but it did not include all merchants, and was run by a small group of the most powerful merchants. While craftsmen, even as burgesses, were restricted to dealing in goods of their own manufacture within Scotland, they could import raw materials from abroad for their own use. Merchant burgesses, on the other hand, could buy goods from many sources through the network of local markets, selling them at home and overseas and importing manufactured goods and agricultural produce. This kind of trade, not based on manufacturing input, was the jealously guarded prerogative of the guild brethren, who paid significantly higher entry fees to the Town Council.

The ruling body of a burgh was a council drawn from the burgesses. The chairman was called the provost and under him were bailies or magistrates who were not only councillors, but were responsible for the enforcement of laws. They often had specific tasks such as inspecting the quality of cloth, wine or ale, or other products sold at market, and could levy fines if the produce was sold in short measure. The title of Dean of Guild was held by one of the bailies of the burgh, who would preside over a Dean of Guild Court; this was given the specific duty of building control. Although the title of bailie ceased to have any statutory meaning in 1975, modern area councils do sometimes make appointments to the office on a purely ceremonial basis.

Haddington Charter

1318 Charter from Robert the Bruce to Haddington

At least 16 burghs (including Haddington) date from the reign of King David I (1124–53); by 1600, there were 92, but only 12 were created after 1600. Until 1879, the ‘burgess estate’ in Parliament was drawn entirely from the royal burghs. Royal burghs were abolished in 1975 by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. A royal charter reaffirming Haddington’s status as a royal burgh was issued in 1318 by Robert the Bruce, after the original one signed by King David was lost, and this is held in the archives at the John Gray Centre.
Burghs of regality and barony

These were burghs granted by the Crown to a secular or ecclesiastical landowner.

A burgh of regality was granted to a lord of regality (leading Scottish nobles who held very large estates with wide powers in criminal and civil law).

A burgh of barony was granted to a tenant-in-chief (a landowner who held his estates directly from the Crown).

Both groups could apply to the Crown for permission to ‘erect’ or found a new burgh on their land. These were often in direct conflict with existing burghs, which wanted to preserve their trading privileges. The status of the burghs of regality disappeared in 1747, when certain heritable jurisdictions were abolished. The burghs of barony survived until 1892, by which time most of them had converted to police burghs.

More than 300 burghs of regality or barony were created between 1450 and 1707, but many did not survive for long, and many others were ‘parchment burghs’ (burghs erected/established by landowners, which never developed).

The parliamentary burghs

These were created under the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867–68 and the Private Acts of 1885 in order to increase to size of the burgh share of the vote. They were formed from royal burghs and burghs of regality and barony.

Police burghs

These derive their authority from the series of General Police Acts which were passed between 1833 and 1889 to allow inhabitants of ‘populous places’ – those with over 700 inhabitants – to adopt a ‘police system’ to cover such matters as watching, cleaning and lighting and other amenities of the burgh. The burghs were ruled by elected magistrates and councillors who had the power to levy rates to pay for the services. Between 1900 and 1975 over 100 police burghs were created. Some were existing royal burghs and burghs of regality or barony. Others were new creations – growing towns that wanted to control industrial pollution, crime and so on.

Small burghs, large burghs & cities

In 1930 (under the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1929) burghs were divided into counties of cities (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee), large burghs and small burghs. Burghs were abolished in 1975 and replaced by district councils, which in turn were replaced by the current local authorities in 1996.

In 1972, the Convention of Royal Burghs of Scotland consisted of 201 burghs:

  • Royal burghs – 68
  • Parliamentary burghs – 14
  • Police burghs 119 

Royal burghs

Town Charter date
Haddington c 1124–1153
Dunbar 1370
North Berwick 1425

Burghs of barony

Town Charter date
Cockenzie 1591
Prestonpans 1552
Tranent 1541/2

Burghs of regality

Town Charter date
Cockenzie (as Winton) 1686

Police burghs

Town Charter date
Haddington 1858
North Berwick 1860
Tranent 1860
Prestonpans 1862
Dunbar 1863
East Linton 1863
Cockenzie & Port Seton 1885

Musselburgh was included in Midlothian until local government reorganisation in 1975, when it was transferred to East Lothian. It was made a burgh of barony in 1315–28, a burgh of regality in 1562 and a parliamentary burgh in 1832.

Burgh records at the JGC

The records in the East Lothian Archives are divided into the following broad categories. For more detailed information, please see our main catalogues, which you can also browse online at

Archive reference no. Title Date
DUN Dunbar Burgh  
DUN/1 Charter and constitution 1369
DUN/2 Minutes and council business 1537–1975
DUN/3 Finance and accounts 1631–1974
DUN/3/1/4 Burgh of Dunbar harbour accounts 1862–1946
DUN/4 Property and land 1695–1976
DUN/4/1/9 Registers of unfit houses, clearance areas and new houses provided in the burgh of Dunbar Mar 1931-Feb 1939
DUN/5 Planning and development 1752–1975
DUN/6 Legal 1566–1973
DUN/7/2/3 Burgh court 1678–1868
DUN/8 Licensing 1961–1974
DUN/9 Public order 1753–1947
DUN/11 Local government and electoral records 1653–1966
DUN/13 Heritors and parish records 1733–1903
EAL East Linton Burgh  
EAL/2 Minutes and council business 1863–1974
EAL/3 Accounts and finance 1863–1967
EAL/4 Legal 1627–1930
EAL/5 Public order 1874–1943
EAL/6 Planning and development 1894–1975
EAL/9 Government 1933–1974
HAD Haddington Burgh  
HAD/1 Charters and constitution 1318–1805
HAD/1/3 Charter by king robert i to the burgh and burgesses of hadingtoun [haddington] of their rights, liberties, privileges, etc. 1318
HAD/2 Minutes and council business 1554–1975
HAD/2/1/3 Burgh minutes 1951–1974
HAD/2/5/1 Burgh surveyors department order books 1960s
HAD/3 Accounts and finance 1660–1968
HAD/4 Legal 1520–1994
HAD/5 Property and land 1671–1973
HAD/6 Licensing 1890–1975
HAD/7 Public order 1732–1970
HAD/8 Planning and development 1669–1975
HAD/11 Government 1723–1973
HAD/14/7 Index of burgh files nd
MUS Musselburgh Burgh  
MUS/1 Charters and constitution 1670–1974
MUS/2 Minutes and council business 1679–1975
MUS/2/1/102 Minutes of the town council of the burgh 1964–1965
MUS/3 Accounts and finance 1656–1975
MUS/4 Legal 1492–1975
MUS/5 Property and land 1780–1975
MUS/5/1/2 Register of properties held under the housing scheme 1921–1938
MUS/6 Licensing 1924–1975
MUS/7 Public order 1865–1975
MUS/8 Planning and development 1871–1975
MUS/10 Government 1856–1885
NB North Berwick Burgh  
NB/1 Charter and constitution 1568–1971
NB/2 Minutes and council business 1605–1973
NB/3 Accounts and finance 1586–1990
NB/4 Legal 1539–1972
NB/5 Property and land 1567–1977
NB/6 Licensing 1828–1974
NB/7 Public order 1826–1973
NB/8 Planning and development 1878–1972
NB/11 Government 1832–1973
PAN Prestonpans Burgh  
PAN/2 Minutes and council business 1871–1975
PAN/4 Legal 1937–1964
PAN/5 Health 1929–1947
PAN/6 Public order 1892–1974
PAN/7 Property and land 1932–1961
PAN/8 Planning and development 1926–1972
TRA Tranent Burgh  
TRA/2 Minutes and council business 1877–1975
TRA/3 Accounts and finance 1939–1949
TRA/4 Legal 1880–1949
TRA/5 Property and land 1885–1975
TRA/6 Planning and development 1906–1975
TRA/7 Public order 1862–1902
TRA/8 Health 1873–1970
TRA/13 Licensing 1912–1946
CPS Cockenzie and Port Seton 1885–1975
CPS/2 Minutes and Council Business 1885–1975
CPS/3 Accounts and Finance 1912–1956

2 thoughts on “Burgh records: research guide 6”

  1. Graham - Hutton says:

    I attended the 50th anniversary of the opening night f Musselburgh Burgh primary school and the school rolls were on open display, I believe loaned by yourselves. Are these available during the week to view? Many thanks

    1. FrancesW says:

      Hi Graham,
      I’m afraid the archives don’t hold the registers for Musselburgh Burgh Primary. The school must have these themselves.

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