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Title: Burgh  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Government in Medieval Scotland, Town, Large burgh, The Canongate, Town privileges
Collection: Burghs, Types of Subdivision in the United Kingdom
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The Royal Burgh of Culross in Fife

A burgh was an


  • History 1
    • Types 1.1
    • Modern history 1.2
  • Features 2
    • Provost 2.1
    • Bailies 2.2
    • Burgesses 2.3
    • Dean of Guild 2.4
    • Trading privileges 2.5
  • Etymology 3
  • Linguistics 4
    • England 4.1
    • Scotland 4.2
    • Other 4.3
  • See also 5
  • References 6


The first burgh was Berwick. By 1130, David I (r. 1124–53) had established other burghs including Edinburgh, Stirling, Dunfermline, Perth, Dumfries, Jedburgh, Montrose and Lanark.[1] Most of the burghs granted charters in his reign probably already existed as settlements. Charters were copied almost verbatim from those used in England,[2] and early burgesses were usually invited English and Flemish settlers.[3] They were able to impose tolls and fines on traders within a region outside their settlements.[3] Most of the early burghs were on the east coast, and among them were the largest and wealthiest, including Aberdeen, Berwick, Perth and Edinburgh, whose growth was facilitated by trade with the continent. In the south-west, Glasgow, Ayr and Kirkcudbright were aided by the less profitable sea trade with Ireland and to a lesser extent France and Spain.[4]

Reverse side of the burgh seal of Crail, a Fife fishing port

Burghs were typically settlements under the protection of a castle and usually had a market place, with a widened high street or junction, marked by a mercat cross, beside houses for the burgesses and other inhabitants.[3] The founding of 16 royal burghs can be traced to the reign of David I (1124–53)[5] and there is evidence of 55 burghs by 1296.[6] In addition to the major royal burghs, the late Middle Ages saw the proliferation of baronial and ecclesiastical burghs, with 51 created between 1450 and 1516. Most of these were much smaller than their royal counterparts. Excluded from foreign trade, they acted mainly as local markets and centres of craftsmanship.[4] Burghs were centres of basic crafts, including the manufacture of shoes, clothes, dishes, pots, joinery, bread and ale, which would normally be sold to "indwellers" and "outdwellers" on market days.[3] In general, burghs carried out far more local trading with their hinterlands, on which they relied for food and raw materials, than trading nationally or abroad.[7]

Burghs had rights to representation in the Parliament of Scotland. Under the Acts of Union of 1707 many became parliamentary burghs, represented in the Parliament of Great Britain. Under the Reform Acts of 1832, 32 years after the merger of the Parliament of Great Britain into the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the boundaries of burghs for parliamentary elections ceased to be necessarily their boundaries for other purposes.


There were several types of burgh, including;

Modern history

A sign in Linlithgow, Scotland

Until 1833, each burgh had a different constitution or "sett". The government of the burgh was often in the hands of a self-nominating corporation, and few local government functions were performed: these were often left to ad hoc bodies.

Two pieces of reforming legislation were enacted in 1834: The Royal Burghs (Scotland) Act (3 & 4 Will. IV c. 76) and the Burghs and Police (Scotland) Act (3 & 4 Will. IV c.46).

The Royal Burghs Act provided for the election of magistrates and councillors. Each burgh was to have a common council consisting of a provost (or lord provost), magistrates (or bailies) and councillors. Every parliamentary elector living within the "royalty" or area of the royal burgh, or within seven statute miles of its boundary, was entitled to vote in burgh elections. One third of the common council was elected each year. The councillors selected a number of their members to be bailies, who acted as a magistrates bench for the burgh and dealt with such issues as licensing. The provost, or chief magistrate, was elected from among the council every three years.[8] The Royal Burghs Act was also extended to the 12 parliamentary burghs which had recently been enfranchised. These were growing industrial centres, and apart from the lack of a charter, they had identical powers and privileges to the royal burghs.[9] Royal Burghs retained the right to corporate property or "common good". This property was used for the advantage of the inhabitants of the burgh, funding such facilities as public parks, museums and civic events.

The Burghs and Police Act allowed the inhabitants of Royal Burghs, Burghs of Regality and of Barony to adopt a "police system". "Police" in this sense did not refer to law enforcement, but to various local government activities summarised in the Act as "paving, lighting, cleansing, watching, supplying with water, and improving such Burghs respectively, as may be necessary and expedient".[10] The Act could be adopted following its approval in a poll of householders in the burgh. Burghs reformed or created under this and later legislation became known as police burghs. The governing body of a police burgh were the police commissioners. The commissioners were elected by the existing town council of the burgh, not by the electorate at large. The town council of a burgh could by a three-quarters majority become police commissioners for the burgh. In many cases this led to the existence of two parallel burgh administrations, the town council and the police commissioners, each with the same membership, but separate legal identity and powers.[9] Further legislation in 1850 allowed "populous places" other than existing burghs to become police burghs.[11]

In 1893, most of the anomalies in the administration of burghs were removed: police commissioners were retitled as councillors and all burghs were to consist of a single body corporate, ending the existence of parallel burghs. All burghs of barony and regality that had not adopted a police system were abolished. Councils were to be headed by a chief magistrate using the "customary title" of the burgh.[12] In 1900, the chief magistrate of every burgh was to be known as the provost - except in burghs granted a Lord Provost.

The last major legislation to effect burghs came into effect in 1930. The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929 divided burghs into three classes:

  • "Counties of cities": the four largest royal burghs, they combined the powers of a burgh and county council.
  • "Large burghs": independent of the county council except in major services such as police and education.
  • "Small burghs": performing minor local government functions such as street-cleaning, housing, lighting and drainage..

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 formally abolished burghs. Section 1(5) of the Act stated: On 16 May 1975, all local government areas existing immediately before that date, that is to say, all counties, counties of cities, large burghs, small burghs and districts, shall cease to exist, and the council of every such area shall also cease to exist.[13] The use of the title continues in informal use, however.

The common good properties and funds of the royal burghs continue to exist. They are administered by the present

  • Hall, Alaric, 'Old MacDonald had a Fyrm, eo, eo, y: Two Marginal Developments of < eo > in Old and Middle English', Quaestio: Selected Proceedings of the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, 2 (2001), 60-90.
  • Stewart, George R. (1967) Names on the Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  1. ^ J Mackay, The Convention of Royal Burghs of Scotland, From its Origin down to the Completion of the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, Co-operative Printing Co. Ltd, Edinburgh 1884, p.2
  2. ^ G. W. S. Barrow, Kingship and Unity: Scotland 1000-1306 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989), ISBN 074860104X, p. 98.
  3. ^ a b c d A. MacQuarrie, Medieval Scotland: Kinship and Nation (Thrupp: Sutton, 2004), ISBN 0-7509-2977-4, pp. 136-40.
  4. ^ a b R. Mitchison, A History of Scotland (London: Routledge, 3rd edn., 2002), ISBN 0415278805, p. 78.
  5. ^ K. J. Stringer, "The Emergence of a Nation-State, 1100-1300", in J. Wormald, ed., Scotland: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ISBN 0198206151, pp. 38-76.
  6. ^ B. Webster, Medieval Scotland: the Making of an Identity (St. Martin's Press, 1997), ISBN 0333567617, pp. 122-3.
  7. ^ J. Wormald, Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), ISBN 0748602763, pp. 41-55.
  8. ^ Royal Burghs (Scotland) Act, 1833 (c.76)
  9. ^ a b Mabel Atkinson, The Organisation of Local Government in Scotland, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1. (March, 1903), pp. 59-87.
  10. ^ Burghs and Police Act (3 & 4 Will.IV c.46)
  11. ^ Police (Scotland) Act 1850 (13 & 14 Vict. c.33)
  12. ^ Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1892 (1892 c.55)
  13. ^ Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (1973 c.65)
  14. ^ Report on the Stirling Burgh Common Good Fund, 9 October 1997
  15. ^ The Local Government Area Changes (Scotland) Regulations 1977 (1977 No. 8) (S. 1)
  16. ^ a b
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Stewart 1967:193
  21. ^


See also

And as a placename on its own, in the West Germanic countries:





Burgh is commonly used as a suffix in place names, in England, Scotland (especially where Scotland borders England, and also the Northern Isles) and other countries to which people of these nations emigrated, examples:


The most obviously derivative words are in English, Bürger in German or burger in Dutch (literally citizen, with connotations of middle-class in English and other Germanic languages). Also related are the words bourgeois and belfry (both from the French), and burglar. More distantly, it is related to words meaning hill or mountain in a number of languages (cf. the second element of iceberg).[21]

A number of other Italian, and burgo in Spanish (hence the place-name Burgos).

The word has cognates, or near cognates, in other Danish and Swedish. The equivalent word is also to be found in Frisian, Dutch, Norwegian, and Icelandic. Burgh in placenames is found in its greatest UK concentration in the East Anglia region of southern England, where also the word has taken the form bury, as in Canterbury.[20]

The English language borough, like the Scots Burgh, is derived from the same German Burg means castle or fortress, though so many towns grew up around castles that it almost came to mean city, and is incorporated into many placenames, such as Hamburg, Flensburg and Strasburg.

As used in this article, the Scots language word burgh is derived from the Old English Burh. In Scotland it refers to corporate entities whose legality is peculiar to Scotland. (Scottish law was protected and preserved as distinct from laws of England under the Acts of Union of 1707.) Pronunciation is the same as the English word borough, which is a near cognate of the Scots word. The identical English word Burgh (in place names such as Bamburgh, Carrawburgh and Dunstanburgh) sounds exactly like the Scots Burgh, with the emphasis on the 'r'. Another variant pronunciation, Listen, is heard in several Cumbrian place names, e.g. Burgh by Sands, Longburgh, Drumburgh.


Early Burghs were granted the power to trade, which allowed them to control trade until the 19th century. The population of guilds. Merchants also had a guild, but many merchants did not belong to it, and it would be run by a small group of the most powerful merchants. The class of merchants included all traders, from stall-holders and pack-men to shop-holders and traders of considerable wealth.

Trading privileges

This was a title held by one of the bailies of the burgh who presided over a Dean of Guild Court which was given the specific duty of building control. The courts were abolished in 1975, with building regulation transferred to the relevant local authority.[18] Appointments to the office of Dean of Guild are still made in some areas: for instance the Lord Dean of Guild of Glasgow is described as the "second citizen of Glasgow" after the Lord Provost although the appointment is in the hands of the Merchants House of Glasgow, and not the city council.[16][19]

Dean of Guild

A resident granted the rights of a "freeman" of the burgh, was styled a burgess (pl. burgesses), a title also used in English boroughs. These freemen and their wives were a class which did not include dependants (e.g. apprentices) and servants, though they were not guaranteed to be wealthy.


Under the provost were magistrates or baillies who both acted as councillors, and in the enforcement of laws. As well as general tasks, they often had specific tasks such as inspecting wine, or ale, or other products sold at market. The title of bailie ceased to have any statutory meaning in 1975, although modern area councils do sometimes make appointments to the office on a purely ceremonial basis. For example, Glasgow City Council grants the title in an honorary capacity to senior councillors, while Stirling Council appoints four bailies to act in lieu of the provost in specific geographical areas.[16][17]


The chief magistrate or convener of a burgh, equivalent to a mayor, was called a provost. Many different titles were in use until the Town Councils (Scotland) Act 1900 standardised the term as "provost", except in cities with a lord provost. Since 1975 local authorities have been free to choose the title of their convener and provosts are appointed to chair a number of area and community councils.

The Council Chamber in Leith which ceased to be an autonomous burgh in 1920




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