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Arbroath and its Abbey
Chapter II - Constitution and Rank of Burgh


THE period when Arbroath was first constituted a Royal Burgh has been considered a question of some uncertainty. A minute examination of the Abbey writings is fitted to lead to the conclusion that, although from the time of King David II., in 1351—at least Arbroath enjoyed several immunities similar to those of Royal Burghs—it did not hold the proper rank of a Royal Burgh, with right of representation in Parliament, till after the Reformation. The position of Arbroath in this respect was somewhat anomalous ; and may be compared to that of its Abbots, who, although not Bishops, were still entitled to use the style and insignia of Bishops.

By two charters of David II. the regality of Arbroath and its burgh were declared toll free, or protected against such local impositions as were formerly levied on all merchandise; and also custom fee, and entitled to pass their exports of wool, hides, tallow, salmon, &c., by virtue of its own koket, as fully as was the case with the king's burghs. There are not many instances, after the dates of these charters, of the use of the phrase "our Burgh," by the Abbot and Convent; the usual phrase being rather "the Burgh." The older expression was still, however, occasionally used, and occurred so late as 1534—within thirty years of the dissolution of the Abbey. Another fact which militates against the idea of Arbroath being then a royal burgh is that, down at least till the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Chartulary occasionally contains both original feuing charters, and charters of confirmation of tenements in Copegate, Rottenrow and other parts of the original Burgh, to be held burgage for feu-duties to be paid to the Monks of the Abbey. A list of these duties was recorded in the Town's books so late as 1605. The Monks have very carefully preserved and recorded King David's grants as to the great customs and right of koket. They have also recorded the charter of King James I. in 1436, confirming their privileges of regality; with the charter of King James V., in 1529, confirming their rights of koket and custom ; and even the charter of King James IV., in 1495, by which he erected their village of Torry, near Aberdeen, into a burgh of barony, under the Abbot and Convent. But none of these writs afford any indication that Arbroath was removed from under the Abbot, as its overlord of regality, to the immediate superiority of the king, so as to raise it to the rank of a proper royal burgh. And we cannot conceive that a change of so much importance to the Abbey could have taken place without its being recorded in the Abbey archives, and without the effects of the change being indicated more or less distinctly in such subsequent writs as related to the Burgh in its connection with the lord Abbot and Convent. The burghs of Arbroath and Brechin do not appear among the twenty-two royal burghs mentioned in the Chamberlain's accounts for 1330, although Forfar, Dundee, Montrose, and even Fyvie in Aberdeenshire, there appear as King's Burghs.

It has been already stated that the registering of writs in the Arbroath Chartulary, so far as yet found, terminates in 1536. Lord John Hamilton, Commendator of Arbroath at the Reformation, and for many years afterwards, was next heir to the throne after Queen Mary and her young  son James IV., and his possessions were the greatest and richest in Scotland. It is not till the sudden downfall of the powerful family of the Hamiltons, in 1579, that we have any evidence of the Burgh of Arbroath being represented in Parliament; while the neighbouring Burghs of Montrose and Forfar appear to have been represented, at least for several years previous to that time, as shown by the records of such Parliaments as contain lists of members. Upon Lord John's outlawry, in May 1579, the Abbacy and Lordship of Arbroath was held as vacant, and fallen into the hands of the king, who thus became the immediate superior of the burgh and other dependencies of the regality. And the formal forfeiture of Lord John, his brother, and many more of the same name, was determined on and carried into effect in the Parliament which met on the 20th October of that year. The Commissioner of Arbroath for the first time appears in Parliament on that day, when it is recorded that " David Person" compeared by his attorney; and the " Commissioner" for Aberbrothock is again mentioned in the session or sederunt of 11th November following. This representative is " David Peirsone, burges of Aberbrothock," who after the Reformation obtained the lands called Barngreen, for a feu-duty of eight shillings Scots. No representative of Arbroath as a burgh is recorded as appearing in Parliament again for a long period after this year. It seems to have been practically unrepresented even subsequent to the date of the Royal rrown Charter, till the Parliaments of Charles I. in 1643 and 1611, when John Ochterlony acted as Commissioner. It is likely that, according to the feudal principles which regulated the constitution of Scottish parliaments, David Peirson's short-lived appearance for Arbroath in the year 1579, arose from the Burgh being dependent at that time on the king directly, as its feudal superior, or lord of regality; and as the parliaments were in one sense equivalent to the king's regality courts, and as Arbroath could not then be represented, as formerly, by Lord John Hamilton, the former subject superior, it became both the privilege and the duty of the Burgh to appear by its representative in the Great Court or Parliament of its immediate overlord the king.

But this state of matters did not continue long. Within a few years afterwards the Hamiltons were restored; and King James having, in 1599, granted a formal charter to Arbroath, as to many other burghs, regularly constituting it into a corporation, holding of himself as its immediate superior, lie the following year granted a charter of the Abbacy, with certain exceptions, to James Hamilton (afterwards second Marquis of Hamilton), in whose favour it was, by Act of Parliament, in 1606, erected into a temporal lordship. In the preface to this erection the Abbacy is described as "being in his Majesty's hands, be resignation made thereof by the Abbot and Convent of the same;" although many years previously such personages had existed only in name, if not perhaps rather in imagination.

This view of the former burghal rank of Arbroath agrees in general with that expressed by the Town Clerk in 1742, with the exception that we have not seen that the king's charter expressly refers to any "old evidences of royalty." His words are — "It was certainly the Abbot's burgh before the Reformation, although the charter of erection from King James the Sixth, in 1599, bears a novodamus [i.e., a renewal of a former grant], and assigns a reason that these old evidences of royalty [?] had been abstracted by the Bishop of Murray. Yet even before the Reformation the burgesses had considerable privileges, being under the immediate jurisdiction of two bailies, whereof one was chosen by themselves and the other named by the Abbot."

The Town Charter of Arbroath is commonly termed a Charter of Novodamus, although it contains something more than a mere renewal of former grants. This peculiarity is confirmatory of the views already expressed. The charter narrates very fully that "the village of Aberbrothock, lying within the regality of Aberbrothock, with the houses, buildings, lands, &c., of old, was erected, confirmed, and endued with all liberties pertaining to a free burgh, by our most noble progenitors." But it does not indicate that it had before that date held the rank of a royal burgh. After narrating the robbery of its ancient evidences from the Abbey, "where the said infeftments, ancient erection, and confirmations of the said burgh for the time were set in order," the king proceeded to "confirm the ancient erection of the said burgh into one free Burgh, with all privileges, &c., of which the burgesses and inhabitants, at whatsoever times bypast, were in possession." This part of the charter is thus only a confirmation of the old privileges of a free burgh of regality, with freedom of customs, &c., as formerly enjoyed. It is by the succeeding portion of the king's charter that Arbroath is made a royal burgh. In that part he says —"WE OF NEW constitute, create, erect, and incorporate, all and hail, the village and burgh of Aberbrothock, with all and sundrie buildings, lands, &c., in one free Burgh and Burgh-Royal of Aberbrothock, in all time coming." The framers of this Act had been well acquainted with the previous position of Arbroath, namely, that it had not been a royal burgh but a regality burgh, with free privileges of custom and other immunities.

The conclusions to which the various documents bearing on the point are fitted to lead is, that Arbroath, like several other Scotch towns, rose step by step from the lowest to the highest rank of burghs; in other words, that it was first a burgh of barony, then a burgh of regality, and latterly a royal or parliamentary burgh. This is illustrated by the manner in which the town is described, many years after it was known to have been a royal burgh, in the title-deeds of the families of Hamilton and Panmure. In some of these writings Arbroath is occasionally styled a burgh of barony, and at other times a burgh of barony and regality, the bailies of which the Earls of Panmure are stated to have the privilege of appointing. In illustration of the municipal position of Arbroath, it may be remarked that the neighbouring town of Brechin, although dignified with the title of city, in reference to its bishop and cathedral church, was not properly a royal burgh till so late a period as 1695, or nearly a century after Arbroath received its royal corporation charter. Before this time it appears to have been merely a burgh of regality, holding of the bishop as its overlord or superior, notwithstanding a charter of erection granted by Charles I. in 1641. While existing as a burgh of regality it had privileges of trade like Arbroath and other burghs which held of great church lords, and had the burden of sending a commissioner to Parliament. Its erection into a free royal burgh was under a reservation somewhat similar to the case of Arbroath, namely, a privilege to the Earls of Panmure of choosing one of the bailies of the burgh, who shall be "constable and justiciar therein."

The power of nominating one of the bailies of Arbroath was held by the Abbots till the Reformation. For some time after that event the Councillors of Arbroath elected annually a bailie for the Town and another bailie for the Place (the Abbey.) From 1617 to 1636 this bailie was nominated by a Commissioner of the Marquis of Hamilton ; and he was, during several years thereafter, elected by the Councillors, till the power was resumed by the Earls of Panmure, as proprietors of the Abbacy. They retained this privilege till about the middle of last century, when it is said to have been renounced. The Act of Parliament abolishing the Scottish heritable jurisdictions in 1748 would be a sufficient cause for the renunciation of such a power, as that Act limited the functions of magistrates thus appointed to a fraction so small as to render the retention of such a prerogative almost worthless.


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