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Scottish Burghs
  Burghs were essentially 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 concerned) until the abolition of Scottish burghs in 1975. Burghs produced many types of record, useful to the historian. This page gives you more information about burghs.



Medieval burghs
In medieval times burghs allowed a community of merchants and craftsmen to live and work outside the feudal system. In return each burgh paid large sums of money to its creator (the crown, an abbot, a bishop, or a secular baron). Burghs were first created in Scotland in the twelfth century. Some were ancient towns already (such as Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling and Aberdeen). Others were entirely new creations, often in the shadow of a royal castle such as Ayr). By 1707 three types of burgh existed: royal burghs, burghs of regality and burghs of barony.

Royal burghs
Most royal burghs were sea ports, and each was either created by the crown, or upgraded, as it were, from another status, such as burgh of barony. An important document for each burgh was its burgh charter, creating the burgh or confirming the rights of the burgh as laid down (perhaps verbally) by a previous monarch. Each royal burgh (with the exception of four 'ineffective burghs') was represented in the Scottish parliament and could appoint magistrates with wide powers in civil and criminal justice. By 1707 there were 70 royal burghs.

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, i.e. one of the leading Scottish nobles who held very large estates and had 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. Over 300 burghs of barony or regality were created between 1450 and 1707, but many did not survive for long, and many others were 'parchment burghs' (burghs erected by landowners, which never developed into the market towns they hoped for).

Parliamentary and police burghs
In the second half of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century there were growing calls for reform of the burghs. Many suffered from financial mismanagement and corruption, particularly regarding parliamentary representation, and larger towns faced problems coping with industrial pollution,sewerage disposal and water supply. In 1800 Glasgow obtained a local act of parliament to set up a system of policing, whereby a body of police commissioners, elected by householders, oversaw a police force, and the maintenance of paving, lighting and cleansing the streets. Other Scottish burghs obtained similar local acts in the next few years, including Edinburgh in 1805. In 1832 and 1833 legislation converted royal burghs and many burghs of barony and regality into parliamentary burghs with elected councils. The Burgh Police (Scotland) Act allowed burghs to adopt policing, paving, lighting and cleansing powers through a sheriff court process (which was much less expensive than an act of parliament). Under the Police of Towns (Scotland) Act 1850 and the General Police and Improvement (Scotland) Act 1862 hese (and further public health) powers were extended to populous places, and the result was the creation of over 100 'police burghs'. The Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1890 ended the anomaly whereby some burghs had an elected body of police commissioners and a town council, and granted further powers to burghs.

Twentieth century burghs
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 current local authorities in 1996.Burgh Records 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 Scottish Archive Network is in the process of compiling information about Scottish burghs and where historical records relating to burghs can be found. At present the best guide to the whereabouts of burghs records in Scotland is the Scottish Records Association's Datasheet 6. This should be available in most Scottish archives and reference libraries. It is, however, somewhat out of date, as it refers to the holdings of archives and libraries prior to local government reorganization in 1995.  Other useful books are Michael Cox, Exploring Scottish History, 2nd edition (Hamilton, 1999), and Cecil Sinclair, Tracing Scottish Local History (Edinburgh, 1994). 



Frequently Asked Questions

To search for information about a particular burgh click here.

For a list of Scottish royal burghs and police burghs click here.