Last updated

The Royal Burgh of Culross in Fife Royal Burgh of Culross, Fife.jpg
The Royal Burgh of Culross in Fife

A burgh /ˈbʌrə/ is an autonomous municipal corporation in Scotland and Northern England, usually a city, town, or toun in Scots. This type of administrative division existed from the 12th century, when King David I created the first royal burghs. Burgh status was broadly analogous to borough status, found in the rest of the United Kingdom. Following local government reorganisation in 1975, the title of "royal burgh" remains in use in many towns, but now has little more than ceremonial value.



Seal of Haddington town: "David Dei Gratia Rex Scottorum. Sigillum commune burgi de Hadington" Ordnancegazettee03groouoft raw 0284.png
Seal of Haddington town: "David Dei Gratia Rex Scottorum. Sigillum commune burgi de Hadington"

The first burgh was Berwick. By 1130, David I (r. 1124–53) had established other burghs including Edinburgh, Stirling, Dunfermline, Haddington, 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 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 other North Sea ports on the continent, in particular in the Low Countries, as well as ports on the Baltic Sea. 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 Burgh Seal of Crail, Fife (reverse).JPG
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 Linlithgow Burgh sign.gif
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.[ dubious ] 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:

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 area councils, who must make "have regard to the interests of the inhabitants of the area to which the common good formerly related". The use of these assets are to be for the benefit of the inhabitants of the former burgh. [14] Any person or body holding the honorary freedom of any place... formerly having the status of a city, burgh or royal burgh continued to enjoy that status after the 1975 reorganisation. [15]



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

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.


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]


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.

Dean of Guild

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]

Trading privileges

Early Burghs were granted the power to trade, which allowed them to control trade until the 19th century. The population of burgesses could be roughly divided between merchants and craftsmen, and the tensions between the interests of the two classes was often a feature of the cities. Craftsmen were usually organised into 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.[ citation needed ]


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 language 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'[ clarification needed ]. Another variant pronunciation, /brʌf/ ( Loudspeaker.svg listen ), is heard in several Cumbrian place names, e.g. Burgh by Sands, Longburgh, Drumburgh, Mayburgh Henge.

The English language borough, like the Scots Burgh, is derived from the same Old English language word burh (whose dative singular and nominative/accusative plural form byrig sometimes underlies modern place-names, and which had dialectal variants including "burg"; it was also sometimes confused with beorh, beorg, 'mound, hill', on which see Hall 2001, 69-70). The Old English word was originally used for a fortified town or proto-castle (e.g. at Dover Castle or Burgh Castle) and was related to the verb beorgan (cf. Dutch and German bergen) 'to keep, save, make secure'. In the German language, 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.

The word has cognates, or near cognates, in other Germanic languages. For example, burg in German, and borg in both Danish and Swedish. The equivalent word is also to be found in Frisian, Dutch, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. 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]

A number of other European languages have cognate words which were borrowed from the Germanic languages during the Middle Ages, including brog in Irish, bwr or bwrc, meaning 'wall, rampart' in Welsh, bourg in French, borgo in Italian, and burgo in Spanish (hence the place-name Burgos).

The most obviously derivative words are burgher 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]

Burgh/borg/burg is translated as 堡 (bǎo, bǔ, pù) in Chinese. 堡 in Chinese means "fort", "castle", "fortress", "town" and the like. The word 堡 was appeared as early as in year 648 in "The Book of Jin".


Burgh is commonly used as a suffix in place names in Great Britain, particularly Scotland and northern England, and other places where Britons settled, examples:





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

See also


  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. 1 2 3 4 A. MacQuarrie, Medieval Scotland: Kinship and Nation (Thrupp: Sutton, 2004), ISBN   0-7509-2977-4, pp. 136-40.
  4. 1 2 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. 1 2 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. 1 2 "Lord Provost and Bailies". Glasgow City Council. 28 March 2007. Archived from the original on 15 September 2009. Retrieved 24 August 2009.
  17. "Stirling's New Bailies". Stirling Council. 13 May 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2009.[ permanent dead link ]
  18. "Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (c. 65) s.227". UK Statute Law Database. Office of Public Sector Information. 1975. Retrieved 24 August 2009.
  19. "About the Merchants House of Glasgow". Merchants House of Glasgow. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. Retrieved 24 August 2009.
  20. Stewart 1967:193
  21. "Wörterbuchnetz".

Related Research Articles

Borough Administrative division in some English-speaking countries

A borough is an administrative division in various English-speaking countries. In principle, the term borough designates a self-governing walled town, although in practice, official use of the term varies widely.

Stirling City and administrative centre in Scotland

Stirling is a city in central Scotland, 26 miles (42 km) northeast of Glasgow and 37 miles (60 km) north-west of Edinburgh. The market town, surrounded by rich farmland, grew up connecting the royal citadel, the medieval old town with its merchants and tradesmen, the Old Bridge and the port. Located on the River Forth, Stirling is the administrative centre for the Stirling council area, and is traditionally the county town of Stirlingshire. Proverbially it is the strategically important "Gateway to the Highlands".

City status in the United Kingdom Status granted by royal charter to settlements in the United Kingdom

City status in the United Kingdom is granted by the monarch of the United Kingdom to a select group of communities. As of 26 January 2022, there are 70 cities in the United Kingdom—52 in England, 6 in Wales, 7 in Scotland, and 5 in Northern Ireland. Although it carries no special rights, the status of city can be a marker of prestige and confer local pride.

The politics of Edinburgh are expressed in the deliberations and decisions of the City of Edinburgh Council, in elections to the council, the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament.

Local government in Scotland System of state administration on a local level in Scotland

Local government in Scotland comprises thirty-two local authorities, commonly referred to as Scottish councils. Each council provides public services, including education, social care, waste management, libraries and planning. Councils receive the majority of their funding from the Scottish Government, but operate independently and are accountable to their local electorates. Councils raise additional income via the Council Tax, a locally variable domestic property tax, and Business rates, a non-domestic property tax.

Royal burgh Autonomous municipal corporation granted a royal charter in the Kingdom of Scotland.

A royal burgh was a type of Scottish burgh which had been founded by, or subsequently granted, a royal charter. Although abolished by law in 1975, the term is still used by many former royal burghs.

Stirlingshire Historic county in Scotland

Stirlingshire or the County of Stirling, Scottish Gaelic: Siorrachd Sruighlea) is a historic county and registration county of Scotland. Its county town is Stirling.

The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which created the current local government structure of 32 unitary authorities covering the whole of Scotland.

Provost is a title held by the civic heads of local governments in Scotland. It is similar in use to the title of mayor in other parts of the English-speaking world.

A bailie or baillie is a civic officer in the local government of Scotland. The position arose in the burghs, where bailies formerly held a post similar to that of an alderman or magistrate. Baillies appointed the high constables in Edinburgh, Leith and Perth. Modern bailies exist in Scottish local councils, with the position being a courtesy title and appointees often requested to provide support to the lord provost or provost - the ceremonial and civic head of the council - in their various engagements.

A police burgh was a Scottish burgh which had adopted a "police system" for governing the town. They existed from 1833 to 1975.

History of local government in Scotland

The History of local government in Scotland is a complex tale of largely ancient and long established Scottish political units being replaced after the mid 20th century by a frequently changing series of different local government arrangements.

John Duncanson was a Scottish minister, one of the Roman Catholic clergymen who willingly converted to the Protestant doctrines at the Reformation. He was reputed to have lived to be nearly 100 years old. He was as the President of St Leonard's College, St Andrews in 1556, around the time that he accepted the reformed faith. He held this position until 1566. He was the minister at Stirling in 1560.

Local government areas covering the whole of Scotland were first defined by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1889. As currently defined, they are a result, for the most part, of the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994.

City of Edinburgh Council Local government body in Scotland

The City of Edinburgh Council is the local government authority for the City of Edinburgh. It was created in 1996 under the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, with the boundaries of the post-1975 City of Edinburgh District Council of the Lothian region.

The Black Bond was a 1773 agreement by three councillors in the Scottish burgh of Stirling to illegally influence the elections of councillors and magistrates and the appointments of council officers. The agreement came to the attention of the authorities and the men were tried at the Court of Session. They were found guilty and the election of Michaelmas of 1773 was annulled and the burgh council dissolved. The burgh also lost its right to elect a Member of Parliament. The rights were restored and a new council elected in 1781.


A tolbooth or town house was the main municipal building of a Scottish burgh, from medieval times until the 19th century. The tolbooth usually provided a council meeting chamber, a court house and a jail. The tolbooth was one of three essential features in a Scottish burgh, along with the mercat cross and the kirk (church).

The Incorporated Trades of Edinburgh are the trade and craft bodies of the City of Edinburgh, Scotland, in much the same way as the Livery companies are in The City of London, but on a much smaller scale. The Incorporations are not "guilds", that term being properly reserved in Scotland for the merchant bodies in the various burghs. The Incorporations have never referred to themselves as guilds; indeed they came into existence, mostly in the latter part of the fifteenth century, in order to counter the growing power of the merchant guild, known as the Royal Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh. By 1562 the Incorporations formed what became known as The Convenery of Trades of Edinburgh, an umbrella body that still exists and which looks after the interests of all the Incorporated Trades of the burgh. The Convenery consists, in the narrow sense of the word, of the Deacons of each of the Incorporations, plus the two Trades Councillors. In the broad sense of the word, however, the term "Convenery of Trades" embraces all the Freemen of all the Incorporated Trades of the Burgh, together with their journeymen and apprentices, in a convivial fellowship of mutual support.