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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Learning and Beliefs


By Norman F Shead

The burgh charter of the late 1170s created a community of free men: burgesses who, apart from payment of dues to the bishop, held their property freely. As freemen they could sell their property, they could marry, and their heirs could inherit, without payment to a lord. They could also buy and sell free of toll in the burgh's market.

Procedure in the burgh court conformed at least partly to the laws of the royal burghs. By the 15th century the head courts were held in the tolbooth in October, January and April, and the proceedings recorded on rolls in Scots. Every burgess was bound to attend. At these courts new burgesses were admitted, questions regarding the common property of the burgh were discussed, and by-laws made. Lesser courts dealing with civil and criminal cases within the burgh were held on a Tuesday every fortnight.

By the late 13th century a well-organised community with its own officials, court, seal and writing-office had come into existence. "Provosts and bailies" may then have been general terms for the leading men of the burgh elected by the burgesses. James II granted the bishop power to appoint a provost (the first sole provost occurred in 1453), bailies and other officials (1450). Presumably nominal elections continued: in 1553 the archbishop nominated two bailies from a list of eight for the following year and the provost and leading men promised to elect them "as the custom is". The flight of the archbishop at the time of the Reformation allowed the town council to claim in 1561 to elect the bailies.

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