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Biggar and the House of Fleming
Chapter XV. - Biggar a Burgh of Barony


ONE of the favours which James II. conferred on Robert, Lord (M y Fleming, was the erection of Biggar into a free burgh of barony. The original charter is still preserved in the archives of the Fleming family. Like other early charters, it is of no great length. It states expressly, that, for the love and favour which the King had for Robert, Lord Fleming of Biggar, he erected Biggar into a free burgh of barony, with all the usual privileges, and particularly a weekly market on Thursday. This charter was given under the great seal, at Edinburgh, on the 81st of March 1451, It was renewed by the Scottish Parliament on the 25th November 1526, in the reign of James V., in the following terms:— ‘Our sourane Lord, with avis and consent of his thre estatis, ratifyis and apprevis ye charter of new infeftment maid be our sourane Lord to Malcolme, Lord Flemyng, making ye toun of Beggar and Kirktul-loch burghis in baronyis, with ye mercat dais, in all punctis and artiklis, effcer ye forme and tenor of ye said charter of infifbnent maid yareupon.’ New ratifications of this charter were made by James VL, on the 6th of January 1588; by Charles I., on the 1st of February 1634; and by Charles II., on the 10th of May 1662.

The privileges of a burgh of barony were, in general, the4 holding of a weekly market and certain annual fairs; the exaction of a custom on all merchandise brought into the burgh for public sale; the trial of all disputes and offences which took place within the bounds of the barony, with the punishment of offenders by fine, imprisonment, and even in some instances by death; and, lastly, the recovery of the baron’s mails, duties, profits, multures, and mill service.

It is a popular tradition, that the burgh of Biggar, at one time, possessed the power of self-government; and that it was thus, in point of jurisdiction, similar to a royal burgh, or a burgh of regality. Thi power, it is said, was taken away by the influence or active interference of a lawyer in Edinburgh, who in his youth had been a vagrant, and who, on account of some depredation committed at Biggar, had been rather roughly handled by the authorities and the inhabitants. The following rhyme is understood to have a reference to this transaction, from which it would seem that the individual in question had been drummed out of the town:—

‘The laddie had tricks that cost him fa’ dear,
For he was a runnagait loon;
But their links and their ain drumstick
Hae fared as ill for the toun.’

No written proof exists, so far as we know, to lend anything like confirmation to this tradition, though it is by no means unlikely that the Flemings, for services performed, conferred extra privileges on the burgh, and that some incident occurred which caused these privileges to be taken away. It is evident, however, that the Flemings treated the inhabitants of Biggar with considerable liberality. The whole land in the immediate neighbourhood of the town was conferred on the burgh, and was divided into twenty-four portions, called Burgh or Borrow lands; and besides these, there were also two Cot-lands. A burgh land was of sufficient extent to allow one or two houses to be erected on it, fronting the street, and to afford ample space for a garden and a croft. The possessors of these burgh lands, who, both in common parlance and in legal documents, were styled burgesses, had each of them a right to a piece of land, on the east of the town, called the Borrow Muir, on which they raised crops and pastured their cattle, and had, besides, a ‘ darg9 or ‘ room9 in one of the mosses in the neighbourhood of the town, from which they drew large supplies of peats and divots, or, as they are generally called, roughheads. The burgh lands were not all of the same extent. They ranged from five to eight acres, and each of them was valued at L.12, 13s. 1d. Scots, so that the extent appears to have been regulated by the quality. Taking them at an average of six acres each, this shows that upwards of 140 acres of the best land of the parish were in the hands of the burgesses. Few of the burgh lands remain entire. They have been much subdivided, and some portions of them have been sold to the conterminous proprietors, and persons not connected with the burgh. The feuars, however, still hold about forty acres of arable land, and also thirty-five acres of moss, to which they have a conjoined right, and which are lying in a very dismal and unprofitable state. They are quite unfit for pasture, and are of little use as a source to supply fuel, as coals, by means of the railway, can now be got at a moderate rate. It is therefore very desirable, that efforts should be made to bring them into a state of cultivation.

When a burgh land was sold or bequeathed to a successor, a certain sum was paid for Lord Fleming’s confirmation. On the 28d of January 1668, John Brown, senior, burgess, Biggar, paid 4 ane bunder and six punds threteen shillings and four pennies Scots* for the confirmation of his rights to that burgh land sometime possessed by Mr John Kello. James Brown, who succeeded his father John, in 1678, paid L.40 for my Lord’s confirmation of his right to the burgh land, he being a singular successor. The sums paid for this warrant appear to have differed very much, and to have depended on the value of the land, and the person into whose hands the land was transferred.

The burgesses appear, like the other vassals of the Flemings in the parish, to have also had a certain right to the Common of Biggar, an extensive hilly tract lying to the north-west of the town. The different claims to this Common led to a series of litigations between the vassals or feuars and their superior, the Earl of Wigton, before *the Court of Session, in the beginning of 1739, a short time before the Biggar estate was last entailed. Notices of these cases are to be found both in Kilkerran and Morrison’s Decisions, We will give one or two of these notices, and refer those curious in such matters to the works just mentioned for a detail of the others.

'Jan. 23rf, 1739.

'The Earl or Wigton contra his Vassals.

‘In the process of division in the Common Muir of Biggar, at the Earl of Wigton’s instance, against his vassals, some of whom were proprietors, others had only servitudes, wherein the Earl claimed not only a proportion of the Muir, according to the valuation of his adjacent property lands, but also a prsecipuum of a fourth, agreeably to the decision of the Muir of Foggo in 1724. The division was not opposed, and though it had, it is believed that it would have been sustained, in respect there were common proprietors. But the objection being made to the prsecipuum by those having only servitudes, that there was no foundation for any such preecipuum in the Act of Parliament, and that they were entitled to a proportion of the whole commonty sufficient for their servitudes, the Lords 44 found the superior not entitled to a pracipuum, and that those having servitudes were entitled to a proportion of the Common sufficient for their servitudes.”

'Feb. 1st, 1739.

'The Earl of Wigton and Lockhart of Carnwath contra the Feuars of Biggar and Quothquan.

'In the division of the Common Muir of Biggar, it being controverted, whether certain of the charters of property produced by the vassals imported a right of property, or servitude in the Muir,—the Lords found, that where lands were disponed with parts, pertinents, and pendicles, or where they were disponed with mosses, muirs, commonties, and parts and pertinents in general, whereon possession in a common muir had followed for forty years, it did import a right of property ; but where lands were disponed with parts, pendicles, and pertinents, with common pasturage used and wont, though the possession in the muir had, for forty years, to all intents been the same as in the former case, it was found to import only a right of servitude in the common muir.*

The likelihood is, that the Earl of Wigton, previous to effecting a new entail of his lands, purchased the rights of the feuars of Biggar to the Common, and thus all knowledge of these rights has, in a great measure, faded from the remembrance of the present generation of feuars.

The burgesses of Biggar, for their possessions, were bound to render the superior the usual service; that is, to attend his court, to follow him to the battle-field, to oast and win his peats, and to lead both his peats and com, so far as they had horses, and received command to do so. Besides this, the feuars and burgesses of Biggar were bound by their original charters to pay to the lord superior six chalders of malt, with exception of two pecks and a half. This, at least, is stated to be the case in 1675, by an entry in one of the Earl of Wigton’s books of that period. After the rebellion in 1745, an Act was passed for abolishing heritable jurisdictions; and thus the holding of land for military service was changed into what is called feu or blench tenures, that is, tbe payment of an annual sum of money, or some honorary acknowledgment of vassalage; and by this means the burgesses of Biggar were, like all other vassals, released from their obligation to follow their lords superior through the gory ranks of war.

In a burgh of barony the chief magistrate was the baron himself; but as that dignitary often found it inconvenient to attend to all the duties of his office, he generally deputed his powers to a substitute, called his Bailie. The Chief Bailie of the Flemings, at least in later times, was most commonly a lawyer, who had charge of all their estates; and being often non-resident at Biggar, he had power to appoint one or two deputes. Biggar had thus almost always two bailies, and sometimes three. It had three in 1729. The Chief Bailie at that time was John Wardlaw. Luke Vallange, tailor and burgess, and a man of very considerable wealth, had, for a long time, held the office of Depute-bailie; but his advanced age and increasing infirmities rendered him unable to discharge efficiently the whole duties. Bailie Wardlaw, therefore, gave him a colleague in the person of Alexander Baird; and these two worthy deputes sat on the judicial bench in the Tolbooth together. The next official in the burgh was a Procurator-fiscal, who seems to have been joint prosecutor with the Bailie, and to have received the fines imposed in the Baron’s Court. Besides these, there were a Clerk, to draw up indictments, record the trana* actions of court, etc.; a Dean of Guild, to take the oversight of the buildings; Inspectors of Markets, to examine the goods exposed for public sale, and ascertain if they were of good material and Workmanship; Quartermasters, to secure lodging* for travelling soldiers, and horses for the conveyance of their baggage; Referees or Birliemeb, as they were called, to settle disputes, inspect the fences, and decide upon boundaries; and lastly, an Officer or Constable, to apprehend offenders, issue summonses, and warn the vassals to pay their feu-duties, rents, kains, customs, and casualties. A Head Court was held once or twice a year, and an ordinary Court once a month, and, at times, oooe a week.

The Court of the Lands and Barony of Biggar was long held in the Tolbooth of the burgh. This was a strong vaulted building, which stood on a spot behind the present Com Exchange. One part of it was used as a court-house, and another as a prison. It was the scene of many a curious trial, and a place of resort to the burgesses to hear the sentences and the laws given forth by the Baron Bailie. It was, in a great measure, discontinued as a court-house about the year 1737; but the cause is not now known. The court, after this period, was generally held in an apartment of the Bailie's own house.

Had the records of the Court of the Lands and Barony of Biggar, during the three hundred years that it existed, been preserved, they would, to us at the present day, have been extremely interesting, and would have been worthy of being published by some of the literary clubs, which have done so much to extend a knowledge of rare books and ancient manuscripts connected with Scottish history. The only memorial of this court known to exist, is a mutilated fragment of the last volume of its transactions, extending from 1719 to 1781; but the entries after the abolition of heritable jurisdictions, and the death of the last Earl of Wigton in 1747, are few and of little importance. The perusal of it, however, brings very vividly before the mind of the reader a considerable portion of the inhabitants of Biggar, and their doings in the earlier part of last century. We will give a few extracts from it, illustrative of the rights, liberties, and proceedings of the inhabitants at that period.

One of the first entries shows the great care that the Bailie manifested in preserving the horses of the parish from infectious diseases:— ‘ Court of Lands and Barrony of Biggar, holden in the Tolbooth thereof upon the 12th day of November 1719, by Alexander Wardlaw, factor to the Earl of Wigton, and the suits called and the court fenced and affirmed; the whilk day the Bailie statutes and ordains, that no person nor persons keep colded nor scabbed horses, or otherwise insufficient, within the parroch, under the pain of ten punds Scots, by and attour of repairing their neighbours’ skaith and damage. And where such horse or mare is found in the fields, that they be taken up and sighted, and if found insufficient, that the magistrate of the town caus dispatch them, and the owners thereof punished as said 1s.

The appointment of the birliemen was vested in the Head Bailie; and it appears, as we have already said, that the suburb of Westraw had a set of these functionaries of its own. At the Head Court held on the 19th May 1720, the Bailie, Alexander Wardlaw, appointed ‘David Tweedie and Thomas Aitken, Westraw, to be birliemen there for ane year, and for that effect has taken their oaths de fidele admmis-tratione.' The sort of cases in which the birliemen gave their decision, is shown by the proceedings which took place at the Court held by Luke Vallange on the 28th of June following, viz.: 4 The same day the Bailie fynes Andrew Aikman and James Tluypland, ilk ane of them, in the soume of fyve punds Scots, for cutting peats in their neighbour's peatt moss roumes, and that conform to ye birliemen's declarations ’

The dealers in horses, or horse-coupers, as they were usually called, are now characterized in the Biggar district for their orderly habits, and the honesty of their transactions. Within the memory of persons still living, the state of matters was different Then, cheating in horse-dealing was proverbial; and the evenings of the fairs at Biggar and Skirling often presented scenes of swearing, fighting, and tumult among the generation of horse-coupers, truly appalling. Similar exhibitions, it appears, were common one hundred and forty years ago. The old record states, that Bailie Alexander Wardlaw, taking into consideration ‘the many complents made to him anent drinking, fighting, cursing, swearing, and cheating, by reason of selling and exchanging of horses under night, when mercat tyme is over, for remeid whereof, the Baron Bailie statuts and ordains, that no person whatsoever buy, sell, or exchange any sort of horses after daylight is gone, under the pain and penalty of five pund Scots, toties quottes, for each transgression, and all bargains, after daylight is gone, are hereby declared null and of no effect. He renews all former Acts of Court anent forstallers of mercatts, and keeping up horses, and not presenting them to the mercat in tyme of day, and ordains this Act to be proclaimed at the Mercat Cross, on Thursday, in tyme of mercat.

Notwithstanding this enactment, the horse merchants could not be altogether deterred from pursuing their evil courses. We have evidence of this from the following sentence pronounced by the Bailie a short time afterwards:—*The same day, the Baillie fines and amerciates Richard Steill, horse merchant, in Biggar, in ye sum of ten pound Scots, for contumacy in not compearing, being personally summoned, at ye fiscall's instance, and likewise fines him in ye sum of five pounds Scots, for his cursing, swearing, and breaking ye peace of ye fair.' Richard appears to have been rather an outrageous knave, for on his appearing next court-day, the Bailie fined him in the additional sum of five pounds Scots, for cursing and swearing in the face of Court, and using other opprobrious language.

The horse merchants of Biggar, it appears, were guilty of the practice of forestalling the market; that is, the sale of their horses before exposing them in the public market place. This practice was constituted a crime by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1592, and was punishable by the escheat of moveables. The horse merchants, however, were not the only dealers at Biggar who were chargeable with this crime. On the 12th April 1729, the Bailie, Luke Vallange, fined Gilbert Bannatyne, Thomas Forrest, James Watson, and William Bertram, and on the 2d of May following, Andrew M‘Watt and Gilbert Reid, all meal-mongers in Biggar, ‘ ilke ane of them in L.5 Scots,' for not presenting their meal to the market, in market time of day.’

It is a proof of the traffic then carried on at Biggar, that it had at least six dealers in the article of meal.

The following is a specimen of the punishment inflicted by the bailies for the crime of theft At the Court held on the 20th October

1720, by Bailie Luke Vallange, Margaret Stevenson, a native of the parish of St Ninian’s, was arraigned, at the instance of the Fiscal, for the criihe x>f breaking into the house of John Wilson, shoemaker, , Biggar, on the fast-day before the Sacrament, and theftuously carrying off all his clothes. The culprit confessed that ‘ she took from him ane ooat, ane gown, ane weast coat, ane pair of stockings, and twa shifftis.

The Bailie having considered the complaint, and the defender’s judicial confession, ordains her to stand in ye jugs for the spaoe of ane hour, and to be banished out of ye toun by touok of Drum.’

The customs of Biggar were farmed by one of the burgesses, and were generally exposed every year to public competition. The Bailie, at a Court held in the end of October, intimated that a meeting of the burgesses would take place in the afternoon, when the customs would be rouped; and that none were to bid who could not produce a sufficient cautioner, under the penalty of L.50 Scots. This meeting, though primarily intended for business, appears to have also partaken of a festive character, as the customer, or person into whose hands the customs fell, was, at least on some oocasions, bound to pay for ‘ a chopin of brandy ’ to regale the company. At the hour appointed for the meeting, the officer set up the half-hour sandglass, and cried 4 three several Oyesses, and the highest bidder, when the last particle of sand had run down the glass, was declared the ‘customer1 for the ensuing year. The customs of the two fairs of the town of Biggar were set’ in 1671 to Andrew Telfoord, my Lord’s officer, for twenty-eight pounds Scots yearly. The sum yearly obtained from the customs of Biggar during the early part of last century, ranged from L.60 to L.70 Scots. In 1730, Bailie John Wardlaw drew up a revised tariff of customs for Biggar, and ordered it to be engrossed in the Court books, and observed in all time to come. It is interesting, as showing the rate of custom at the time, and the kind of commodities that were exposed for sale at the fairs and markets of Biggar. It is divided into two parts, the dead and the quick customs; and fixes a higher rate of custom for fairs than for the ordinary market days. On market days, it appears, there were exposed for sale, shoes, smith work, pewter dishes, spinning wheels, chests, ploughs, harrows, caups, sieves, riddles, candle, coal, butter, cheese, salt, tallow, lint, hone, nolt, sheep and dog skins, webs of doth, and suoh merchandise as were hawked about in horse and foot packs. At fairs, a stand for a horse pack was 1 s. 4d., and for a foot pack 8d.; a stone of lint was 2s.; and a stone of tallow, tobacco, cheese, butter, and other weighable ware, was Is. 4d. Each shoemaker, smith, cooper, wheelwright, and joiner, paid 8d.; while a horse-load of caups, sieves, and riddles was 8d., of pewter utensils, Is., and of any other ware, la. 4d. A web of doth was 8d. ? and each load of meal was the full of the town-ladle, neither heaped nor stropped. On ordinary market days, the rate of custom was, in general, about one-half less than what it was an fair days. The quick customs, which were levied only at fairs, and upon both buyer and seller, were 2s. Scots for a horse, Is. for a cow, 3s. 4d. for each score of old sheep, and 2s. for each score of lambs. The custom on cattle still belongs to the superior, and the custom on grain has been let on a long lease to the shareholders of the New Com Exchange at Biggar.

Some of the young women of Biggar, it would seem, in former times occasionally amused themselves with a reprehensible pastime, which in our own day is termed larking. An instance of this occurred in May 1728, aa appears from the following entry. The same day the Bailie fines Marion Bob, in Easter Toftcombs, and Janet Bob, servant to William Liddell, Biggar, ilk ane of them in the sum of two punds Scot* to the fiscal, for their masquerading, and breaking and overturning of muck carts in Biggar, under cloud of night, when all the inhabitants were at rest,’

In the days when the Flemings and their bailies reigned in Biggar, it is evident, from the reoords which they have left, that the inhabitants had to submit to a considerable amount of interference with their liberties. Let us give one or two instances. The Bailie not only ordered a number of the burgesses, in 1723? to dispose of their horses, cows, and other bestial, within eight days, under a penalty of L.10 Soots, on the ground of their not having a sufficient quantity of provender for their support, but on the 14th of February of the year following, statuted and ordained, 'that none within the toun of Biggar, nor Barrionie thereof, belonging to my lord Wigtoun, sell any fodder until the toun and tennantrie belonging to his Lordship be served therewith—they always paying such reasonable prices as others pay for the same, under the pain and penalty of twenty pounds Scots, toties quoties.

Another prohibitory act of the Bailies of Biggar, which seems to have been supported by a regulation of the Justices of the Peace of the county, but which has been unknown in practice for a long time past, was the prevention of servants from hiring themselves out of the parish, so long as there was within its bounds any demand for their services. The following is an enactment of Bailie Alexander Wardlaw on this subject, on the 17th February 1721:—‘The whilk day the Bailie having considered the grivancess of the parroch of Biggar anent there servants, not only fieing without the said parroch, but in going to the neighbouring shyre for the love of extravegant fies, con-trair to the act of the Justices of the Peace within this shyre, so that servants cannot be had in the parroch for laboring and manuring the ground, ffor remeid whereof the Bailie statutes and ordains, that no man nor woman servant lass nor lad flit nor remove from there master or mistress out of the said parroch in tyme coming, until the people of the said parroch be served, under the pain of ten punds Scots to each transgression, toties quotiea, and that by and attour the loss of what fies and bountiths shall be resting them by their masters or mistresses at the time of there going out of their service; and every such servant suspect to contravene this Act, shall be obliged to find caution to obtemper the same under the pain of imprisonment, and ordains this Act to be intimat at the cross of Biggar the next mercat day.’

The powers and prerogatives of Biggar as a burgh, if they are not now extinct, are at least in abeyance. It may be questioned if it now possesses a fully accredited Baron Bailie. It has no Procurator-fiscal, no legally appointed Birliemen, no Dean of Guild, no Inspector of Markets, no Burgh Clerk, and, perhaps, not even a Burgh Officer. A Baron Bailie’s Court has not been held for years. A proclamation at the Market Cross, in all its state and ceremony, has not been seen by the present generation. The preservation of the public peace is now in the hands of one or two officials of the county police, who have recently got a location in the neighbourhood of the place on which, in former days, stood the Tolbooth of the burgh. However active and efficient these men may be, they appear to us to be a miserable substitute for the Baron Bailie with his staff of assistants. Biggar may now be compared to a state ruled by foreigners instead of its native princes. Disputes and offences, instead of being brought before its own magistrates, and disposed of by their decision, are now dragged away to Lanark, and subjected to the fiat of a Sheriff-substitute of the county. We anticipate, however, a time when Biggar, increased in size and importance, will once more possess the power of self-government, and take its place among the burghs of the kingdom.


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