Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Short Introduction to the Medieval Burgh in Scotland

by Louise Turner

If I asked you to name a historic settlement in Scotland, chances are you would immediately respond with ‘Edinburgh’ or ‘Stirling,’ because these are the places that immediately spring to mind. They have castles, they’re associated with historic churches or cathedrals, and above all, they are in possession of this intangible thing called ‘history.’

But there’s much more to Scottish history than the well-trodden and the celebrated. My post today is devoted to a more humble aspect of Scottish medieval life: the burgh. Some have been with us for almost a thousand years, and most still survive in some form or other. They’ve grown and modernised and they’ve been transformed through the centuries, but underneath a late 18th/19th century veneer, their medieval or post-medieval past can often still be identified – so long as you know what you’re looking for.

The medieval burgh in Scotland represents a seriously underused and under-represented resource in historical fiction, which is a real shame, because in archaeological terms, it’s one of the most widely-studied aspects of medieval life we’ve got. It’s certainly one of the most rewarding to explore upon the ground. My aim today is to help introduce you to these treasures and to do this, I’m going to take a multi-disciplinary approach. I’ll start off talking about the history, before moving onto the more physical aspects, in particular the archaeology, before considering the way in which the modern burghs have evolved from their medieval predecessors and explaining how you can still appreciate their historic origins by examining modern townscapes.

We know from the historical record that the arrival of the burgh in Scotland was down to one man - King David I – who introduced the concept from Norman England in the early 12th century (Hall, 2002, 11). Unlike their neighbours south of the border, the Scots never enjoyed the benefits of Romanisation, so the idea of the planned town was an alien concept to them. That nucleated settlements of some kind were developing prior to this date is highly likely, but unfortunately we do not yet have much in the way of evidence for these ‘pre-burghal settlements,’ as they are known. In a way, they remain an elusive holy grail of Scottish medieval archaeology: some argue (Ewan, 1990) that the adoption of the burgh as a working concept was grasped so quickly and so completely in Scotland that the pre- (or even ‘proto?’- ) burghal settlements must have been sufficiently well-organised to make the transition to the new system a fairly painless one.

Where the burghs probably departed from their predecessors was in the fact that they shared a very formalised layout. Each consisted of a collection of ordered plots set out to a standard pattern. Whether the burgh in question is Aberdeen, or Lanark or any number of towns in between, the form is similar. The burgh is laid out in linear-fashion along a single main street, which is overlooked on one (or both) sides by a series of ‘burgage plots.’ These were independent land holdings created by the landowner which were then sub-let to interested investors: their layout follows a consistent pattern, with the front elevation of the house usually overlooking the street frontage, and the ‘backlands’ stretching out to the rear. Access to the backlands is through a narrow lane or pend, with each plot of land demarcated from their neighbours by way of boundary ditches or hurdle fences. Every burgh had at least one church, and often a castle, too: many of these new burghs potentially occupied pre-existing ‘castletouns’ or ‘kirktouns’ which had grown up around these important administrative buildings.

Scottish burghs were rarely enclosed by walls in the manner of English cities like York or Chester: a ditch to the rear of each burgage plot was often the only means of delineation, and this was only required to stop livestock from straying. Gates were fitted to control access into and out of burgh, but these were introduced more to facilitate the collection of tolls and duties than as a defensive measure. There were some exceptions – Berwick being an obvious example – but such defences were often built in response to a direct threat rather than in anticipation of it. The Flodden Wall in Edinburgh, built after the Scots’ defeat in 1513 is a good example of such a reactionary measure.

As the burghs grew and prospered, new streets might be laid out running parallel to the Main or High Street – Saint Andrews, with its three parallel streets, is a good example of how this growth manifested itself. However, despite the varying layouts, the use of linear plots remained consistent until well into the modern period.

The Remains of a Burgh Weighing Machine,
or ‘Tron’ at Culross, Fife (1)
At the heart of every burgh was its market place. Here the main street was broader, to accommodate an area where commerce could be conducted on market days and fair days. The market place was where the three key elements of burgh life were located: the mercat cross, the ‘tron’ (the burgh weighing machine) and the tolbooth. In the early days, burghs might conduct their business within open spaces such as churchyards, but most aspiring burghs opted to construct a tolbooth at some point. The tolbooth was the burgh’s beating heart, the building in which its day-to-day running was carried out by its officers. Legal disputes were dealt with in its chambers; there was an on-site jail for the punishment of offenders and transgressors.

The burgh’s laws were strict, but fair. They were put in place to benefit the burgesses, of course, by protecting their property and their interests, but safety nets were also introduced which both limited the degree to which individual members of the trading community could gain at the expense of others, and protected consumers through centralised control of weights and measures, and strict regulation of the quality of goods for sale, particularly foodstuffs. Adulterated flour and underweight loaves, for example, were serious areas of concern for burgh officials. It should be borne in mind, however, that this well-meaning system had its limitations: these principles worked on the assumption that burgh officials could never be guilty of corruption, but – human nature being what it is- I’m sure that through the centuries there were numerous examples of burgh officials who were less than exemplary in their conduct.

First to benefit following the introduction of the burghs were immigrants from the Low Countries who were encouraged to settle there. This first wave of burghs comprised the Royal burghs, where duties and taxes were collected on behalf of the king. The introduction of the ‘burghs of barony’ followed, with these foundations becoming increasingly popular from the late 15th century onwards: here, the beneficiary was a local landowner such as the church or a member of the nobility. But it wasn’t just the foundation of a burgh of barony which brought benefits to the landed classes: they’d already been profiting following the growth of the Royal burghs. Power and influence could be won through service to the King as a burgh servant, with offices such as bailies and Sheriffs being highly sought-after positions which were often hereditary, the possession of which occasionally sparked long-running and violent disputes. The feud between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghames, for example, which caused unrest between the two families for over a hundred years in North Ayrshire, had its roots in a disagreement over the appointment of a Montgomerie to an important office which gave him authority throughout the burgh’s rural hinterland. This had a direct impact on the local burgh of Irvine, where Montgomerie also enjoyed the role of Constable: historical sources tell us that the town’s bailie courts were disrupted for several years during the late 1480s by armed bands loyal to these contesting families to such an extent that King James IV ordered their suspension.

Unicorn Figure on the
Mercat Cross in Stirling (2)
[Practical Note For Burgh Sleuths #1: Today it is often still possible to establish whether a burgh originated as a burgh of barony or a Royal burgh from the design of its mercat cross. After the reformation, medieval mercat crosses, with their religious imagery, were superseded by a secularised version featuring a stone shaft with a heraldic beast sitting on the top. Royal burghs are graced with a unicorn (like the mercat cross at Stirling with its unicorn), while burghs of barony have a lion. This difference in design has been faithfully replicated even in the many modern, 19th century mercat crosses built to replace lost medieval and post-medieval originals.]

Right from the outset, the burgh’s key function was as a centre for trade and commerce. The burgh had a monopoly on produce derived from its rural hinterland, with producers only permitted to ply their wares within the limits of the burgh on recognised market and fair days. Foreign trade was even more fiercely protected, permitted only within the Royal burghs. Scotland’s exports throughout this period were almost exclusively restricted to hides, woolfell and salted herring (during the late 15th century, salted herring was consumed in particularly huge quantities in the Low Countries as a Lenten foodstuff, with Irvine being a particularly important supplier). Raw materials were imported into the Continent and transformed by skilled craftsmen into high quality goods and products which the Scots were all too keen to acquire. This meant, of course, that the merchants of the Low Countries made a vast profit by putting a huge mark-up on the finished items.

[Practical Note for Burgh Sleuths #2: Luxury goods for the Scottish market were often shipped in vessels which carried a ballast of roofing tiles. These ‘pantiles’ with their distinctive ‘s’ curve to the section, became widely used in the post-medieval period as a roofing material on the east coast of Scotland: even today, many of the buildings in east coast burghs around the Firth of Forth (such as Culross and Crail in Fife) are roofed with pantiles. The use of clay tiles gives these burghs an entirely different appearance and character to those of the west coast, where the earlier thatched roofs were ultimately replaced with slate.]

Much can be learned about Scotland’s burghs by studying the towns themselves and interpreting their street plans and the standing buildings which still survive there. But it’s fair to say that our understanding of the Scottish medieval burgh has been transformed through information recovered during a succession of urban excavations undertaken in Scottish burghs since the early 1970s. It was recognised then that physical evidence which could improve our understanding of the history of Scotland’s towns and cities was at risk of total annihilation through the ongoing redevelopment of historic city and town centres. At the vanguard of developer-funded work at this time was the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust, which carried out important excavations in Perth, Aberdeen and Glasgow. Around the same time, a series of well-respected publications were released which summarised the history and development of a number of Scottish historic burghs, and highlighted those areas most at risk of destruction through uncontrolled redevelopment. The Scottish Burgh Surveys are an excellent resource for archaeologists and writers alike, with new publications in the series still being released to this day.

The excavations at Aberdeen and Perth showed us that the majority of houses were built of wattle-and-daub around a timber frame, and that the ‘backlands’ to the rear of the main house were often used for a variety of uses, ranging from horticulture to industries such as tanning, tawing or brewing. They also showed us that all manner of imports were being brought into the country, ranging from shot silk cloth to exotic pottery types which included Valencian lustre ware (a brilliantly-coloured majolica type ceramic from 15th century Spain) and stoneware from Germany. In the decades since these early excavations took place, developer-funded archaeology carried out by commercial units has continued to inform us about life in the Scottish medieval period, with excavations undertaken in a wide range of burghs (though usually on a much smaller scale) such as Ayr, Dumbarton, Linlinthgow, Paisley, Rutherglen and – more recently - Irvine.

Right from the outset, life in the burgh became an attractive option for Scots. For a peasant tied to the land and the incessant demands of landowner and agricultural cycle, the freedom to pursue a craft or a trade within the burgh must have seemed enticing. To qualify as a burgess, an individual had to reside in the burgh for a year and a day – from that point on, they could have a say in the running of their own affairs which gave them a degree of autonomy which would have been unheard of in the rural hinterland. As successful burgesses became increasingly wealthy, ultimately they became important landowners and political figures in their own right.

Not only were the burgesses expected to maintain law and order within the burgh by pulling their weight in the nightly duties of watch and ward, but they also played a vital role in providing soldiers to fight for the Scots kings. Burgesses were expected to maintain a set of arms and prove their willingness to fight by attendance at regular wappenschaws, though as time progressed they might instead pay hired soldiers to take their place. The Royal burghs sent representatives to parliament, and as burgesses started to accumulate land, they became members of the minor gentry in their own right. The local landed families were also quick to see the advantages of working with the burghs rather than against them: even before the days when they could profit directly by establishing a burgh of barony, they were able to benefit by feuing property within the burgh which could be sub-let at a profit, or by negotiating their way into holding hereditary offices such as sheriffs or bailies. This was not always without risk: when there was political stability on a national scale, the burghs and their inhabitants suffered, too. The Wars of Independence are an obvious example: numerous burghs suffered violence and destruction as they pledged their allegiance to one side, or the other, and the Royal burgh of Berwick was lost to the English for good despite numerous attempts by Scottish kings to get it back. On a more regional scale, we see situations like the ongoing rivalry mentioned previously between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghames at Irvine: this quarrel was exacerbated by a regime change in 1488, and during the same period, we see tensions between another neighbouring burgh - the Royal burgh of Renfrew – which ended up in dispute with the nearby abbey town of Paisley. This came to a head when Paisley declared itself a burgh in its own right and started collecting its own customs and dues, creating a loss of revenue to Renfrew which wasn’t taken lightly by the burgesses. A period of unrest ensued which included the physical destruction of Paisley’s mercat cross, with Royal intervention ultimately required in order to stabilise the situation.

Throughout the centuries, the burghs changed and adapted as the requirements of their inhabitants shifted. Early changes were largely material: thatched roofs were replaced by slates or pantiles; timber and wattle buildings were replaced in stone in the late medieval and post-medieval periods. This was probably a response provoked at least in part by fire: records indicate, for example, that substantial portions of the burgh of Irvine burned down on at least two occasions between the 1500s and the 1800s. The all-embracing character of the early burgh also soon fell by the wayside: as the burghs became wealthier, and their inhabitants more well-heeled, so the more unpleasant and antisocial craft industries were banished from the centre of the burgh and sometimes entirely from within its bounds. Potteries and tanneries were early casualties of an increasing desire to improve the residents’ quality of life, and areas for slaughtering livestock – the so-called ‘shambles’ – were also tightly segregated. The disposal of domestic waste also became an issue – to begin with, many people buried their rubbish in massive pits behind their houses (inadvertently creating the mainstay of the urban medieval excavation), but as the backlands became increasingly crowded and built-up, this became more difficult. In the post-medieval period efforts were made to collect this material for use on agricultural land beyond the burgh and this led to the accumulation of extensive (and smelly) middens outside front doors and in the streets which caused much consternation and annoyance.

Loudon Hall, Post-Medieval Building in Ayr 
Associated with the Campbells of Loudon, 
Sheriffs of Ayr (3)
In the long centuries since their foundation, it is inevitable that some burghs have prospered more than others. And as relict medieval or post-medieval townscapes, it is the most successful examples which have lost most of their original character. Old cluttered streets and cramped buildings have been swept away, in order to accommodate increased levels of traffic and to present a more classically refined facade to visitors, and early tolbooths have been demolished to make way for modern town and city halls. Glasgow has suffered in this way; so too have Perth, Dundee and Irvine, to name but a few. Even so, the old lines of their medieval street plan can often still be traced and sometimes original buildings survive, like Loudon Hall in Ayr. In Edinburgh’s case, the old burgh was left more or less intact, and an entirely new town built to provide more spacious accommodation for the Georgian rich. In Glasgow, too, 19th century development shifted the city centre, leaving some relict elements of the city’s medieval origins intact until very recent times: visitors to Glasgow can still see the 17th century tolbooth steeple in its original location, but few realise that this is just the surviving remnant of a much larger building demolished as late as 1921 in order to make way for a traffic-improvement scheme.

The Tolbooth Steeple, Glasgow (4)

Looking Towards the Mercat Cross
in Culross, Fife (5)
If you want to get a real feel for Scotland’s post-medieval past, you should seek out those burghs that didn’t quite make it into the premier league. Forget the cities and the Scottish equivalents of the county towns like Paisley or Ayr: go instead to places like Culross in Fife or Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway. The main streets may be narrow and difficult to navigate by car, but the failure of these burghs to keep with the metaphorical Joneses during the 19th and early 20th centuries has done us a real favour, for these picturesque locations remain a tangible link with Scotland’s post-medieval – and in some cases medieval - urban past.


1) By Palickap (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
2) By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
3) George Rankin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons  
4) User:kilnburn, via Wikimedia Commons
5) "Little Causeway Culross - - 1419729" by Jim Smillie. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
 Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about Scotland’s medieval urban past, here’s a selection of titles which are worth investigating:-
Bogdan, N. Q. and Wordsworth, J. W. 1978. The Medieval Excavations at the High Street, Perth Perth High Street Archaeological Excavation Committee
Ewan, E. 1990. Townlife in 14th Century Scotland. Edinburgh University Press.
Hall, D. 2002. Burgess, Merchant and Priest: Burgh Life in the Scottish Medieval Town Birlinn
Holdsworth, P. 1987. Excavations in the Medieval Burgh of Perth 1979-81 Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph No. 5
Murray, J. C. 1982. Excavations in the Medieval Burgh of Aberdeen 1973-81. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph No. 2
Plus any of the Scottish Burgh Surveys (now in their third series), which provide comprehensive guides to individual burghs throughout Scotland, from Aberdeen to Wick.


Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in Archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on
the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent. She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management. Her initial expertise in prehistoric archaeology has expanded over the years to include the medieval and modern periods, and she recently authored a paper on Thomas Telford, James Watt and their contribution to the evolution of Glasgow’s water supply, published in last year’s Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Writing fiction has always been an important aspect of her life and in 1988, Louise won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story Busman’s Holiday. Her debut novel Fire and Sword, published in 2013 by Hadley Rille Books, recreates real characters and events and is set in the turbulent early years of James IV’s reign. Fire and Sword explores the challenges faced by a Renfrewshire laird, John Sempill of Ellestoun, whose father is killed defending the murdered King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in June 1488 .

Louise, who lives in west Renfrewshire with her husband, has recently completed her second novel, a follow-up to Fire & Sword provisionally titled The Gryphon at Bay.


  1. A fascinating account. Thank you Louise.

  2. visited a lot of these places when I lived in Scotland

  3. Interesting and informative post, Louise. My local burgh of Haddington has a goat atop its Mercat Cross - no one's given a feasible explanation yet!

    1. Ah, someone's got to be different, haven't they? Or perhaps the architectural historian who filled me in on the lion/unicorn business was telling me porky pies....

  4. Brilliant blog, Louise, enjoyed it immensely!


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