Burgh records: research guide 6
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 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.
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.
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.
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
Burghs of barony
Burghs of regality
|Cockenzie (as Winton)||1686|
|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 www.johngraycentre.org/collections/archive-collections-2/.
|Archive reference no.||Title||Date|
|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/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/6||Planning and development||1894–1975|
|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/2/5/1||Burgh surveyors department order books||1960s|
|HAD/3||Accounts and finance||1660–1968|
|HAD/5||Property and land||1671–1973|
|HAD/8||Planning and development||1669–1975|
|HAD/14/7||Index of burgh files||nd|
|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/5||Property and land||1780–1975|
|MUS/5/1/2||Register of properties held under the housing scheme||1921–1938|
|MUS/8||Planning and development||1871–1975|
|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/5||Property and land||1567–1977|
|NB/8||Planning and development||1878–1972|
|PAN/2||Minutes and council business||1871–1975|
|PAN/7||Property and land||1932–1961|
|PAN/8||Planning and development||1926–1972|
|TRA/2||Minutes and council business||1877–1975|
|TRA/3||Accounts and finance||1939–1949|
|TRA/5||Property and land||1885–1975|
|TRA/6||Planning and development||1906–1975|
|CPS||Cockenzie and Port Seton||1885–1975|
|CPS/2||Minutes and Council Business||1885–1975|
|CPS/3||Accounts and Finance||1912–1956|