A sign in Linlithgow, Scotland

A burgh (play /ˈbʌrə/) was an autonomous corporate entity in Scotland and Northern England, usually a town. 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 "burgh" remains in use in many towns, but now has little more than ceremonial value.



The first burgh was Berwick. By 1130, David I had established burghs at Haddington, Stirling, Dunfermline, Aberdeen, Perth and Scone, as well as Edinburgh.

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

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.[1] 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.[2] 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".[3] 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.[2] Further legislation in 1850 allowed "populous places" other than existing burghs to become police burghs.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]



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.[9][10]


The common citizen of a burgh was a burgess (pl. burgessess), a title also used in English boroughs. These were freemen, a class which did not include dependants, servants and so on, though freemen might not 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.[11] 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.[9][12]

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 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'.

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), meaning "to keep, save, make secure". In 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 Strasbourg.

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, and Icelandic. In southern England, the word took the form bury, as in Canterbury (Stewart 1967:193).

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). [1] [2]


Burgh is commonly used as a suffix in place names, in Scotland, England and other countries to which people of these nations emigrated:

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

See also


  1. ^ Royal Burghs (Scotland) Act, 1833 (c.76)
  2. ^ a b Mabel Atkinson, The Organisation of Local Government in Scotland, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1. (March, 1903), pp. 59-87.
  3. ^ Burghs and Police Act (3 & 4 Will.IV c.46)
  4. ^ Police (Scotland) Act 1850 (13 & 14 Vict. c.33)
  5. ^ Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1892 (1892 c.55)
  6. ^ Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (1973 c.65)
  7. ^ Report on the Stirling Burgh Common Good Fund, 9 October 1997
  8. ^ The Local Government Area Changes (Scotland) Regulations 1977 (1977 No. 8) (S. 1)
  9. ^ a b "Lord Provost and Bailies". Glasgow City Council. 28 March 2007. http://www.glasgow.gov.uk/en/AboutGlasgow/LordProvostsmessage/History+of+the+office+of+Lord+Provost.htm. Retrieved 24 August 2009. 
  10. ^ "Stirling’s New Bailies". Stirling Council. 13 May 2008. http://www.stirling.gov.uk/text/index/council/news.htm?id=168854&m=5&y=2008. Retrieved 24 August 2009. 
  11. ^ "Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 (c. 65) s.227". UK Statute Law Database. Office of Public Sector Information. 1975. http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?LegType=All+P...1&searchEnacted=0&extentMatchOnly=0&confersPower=0&blanketAmendment=0&sortAlpha=0&PageNumber=0&NavFrom=0&parentActiveTextDocId=1607484&ActiveTextDocId=1607484&filesize=501. Retrieved 24 August 2009. 
  12. ^ "About the Merchants House of Glasgow". Merchants House of Glasgow. http://www.hfweb.co.uk/merchantshouse/about-merchants-house-glasgow.html. Retrieved 24 August 2009. 

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