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The History of Burntisland
 Chapter IV. Government of the Burgh


The Town Council, as originally authorised by Janies V, “be ye grace of God, King of Scotia,” consisted of 21 members, including’ a Provost and three bailies. The Councillors were all men of substance, though from the first an attempt was made to have representatives from the leading trades. Annually, in October, the old Council chose the new, and the new and old Councils together then chose the Provost and bailies, two officers—“jandis or serjandie”—two constabillie, a “tliesaurare,” “procuror fischal,” and a “dempster.” By rights, these were submitted to what was called a “ Head Court of the haill inhabitants,” but this ceremony appears only once previous to 1612. There was another public meeting, held some time after 1592, which may have been made to do in place of it—“Calling ye comon Roll is.” “Quarto die Meuse Octobris 1005, the quliilk day the burgesses inhabitants of ye bur beand thrie several tymes callit upone at ye Tollmith Dore . . ye absentis was nottit and everie ane of yame condaminit in ye unlaw of fourtie shillings.” The chief magistrate was usually a nobleman or lauded gentleman. On one occasion a bailie was advanced to the Provost ship, but often there was no Provost, a bailie being* chosen “moderator” or “convener.” Whether Provost or moderator, the first magistrate was also the representative of the Burg'll in the Scottish Parliament, and usually in the General Assembly of the Church, and the Convention of Burghs, which at one time was almost as important as Parliament. These conventions were held in a different burgh each year. In 1607 the convention was held at Burntisland. Each year the Commisioner. on bis return from the convention presented a report of the subjects discussed, usually 20 or 30 in number. In 1647 there were over 60 subjects filling many pages.

The blanks in the Council Records, and the difficulty of reading* some portions, make it impossible to give a complete list of the Provosts or moderators. The following are all I have discovered :—

1592-8.—“Sir Robert Melville, youngare, of Murdocaruie, Kniclit, Provost.”
1599-1602.—‘‘Sir George Home, of Spot, Knicht, Great thesaurer, was elecit aud cliosin Provost.”
1603.—No Provost.
1604-5.—“Sir Robert Melville, Provost.”
1606-10.—“Ane Potent and nobille Lord, George Erie of Dumbare, Lord Home of Berwick, Heicli Thesaurer of Scotland, and cancellare of the cstliebare of England, Provost,”
1611.—(Bailie) “Patrick Greilf, burgess of ye said Burgh, Provost,”

Town Records absent from 1613 to 1645, but in the Privy Council Records of 1617.—“ Patrick Greif, . . . Provost of Bruntiland.”

The following- two are found in Speed’s notes, except that he gives the second as William, which was wrong :—

1618-1635 (or part of).—Sir Robert Melville, after 1621 Lord Melville, Provost.
1640-1640 (or part of).—Sir James Melville, of Halhill and Burntisland Castle, Provost.”

From 1649 to 1660—first Commonwealth, Cromwell’s protectorate, Richard Cromwell, and second Commonwealth, there was no Scottish Parliament, but a very frequent mention is made of the Council of State to which the representative bailies were always being sent. This body took something- like the position of the Privy Council, and was composed of eight Englishmen sitting at Dalkeith, and afterwards at Edinburgh, when some Scots were introduced. At tlie same time the Commonwealth gave Fife one representative in the Parliament at Westminster. James Sword was elected in 1652 to represent the Fife burghs there, and in 1656 Col. Werthaimer (?) who on one occasion was paid 100 for his main-tainance.”

1650.—“ Captain Andro Watson (Bailie) was electit moderator and convener of thair meetings.”
1655.—“ George Davidson (Bailie) . . Moderator of ye meetings of Counsall.”
1663.—“ Gilbert Halyburton (Bailie) . . . apoynted commissioner to the currant Parliament.”
1670.—William Ged (Bailie) “ commissioner.”
1673.—James Dewar (Bailie) “ commissioner.”
1685.—Michael Seton (Bailie) “ commissioner to the Scottish Parliament.”. (Seton was paid . 40s a day for expenses.

Records absent 1688-1701.

1702.—Alexander Ged (Bailie) “commissioner to Parliament” (and for several years before. On June 5th “Bailie Alexander Ged signified to the Counsell that the reason why lie conveued them to-day is that he intends, God willing, to goe over to Edgli. upon Munday nixt to attend the Parliat. sitting doune the nixt day. And yrfor desires to know what commands they have to lay on him and what instructions they have to give him anent his voting in the ensuing sessjone of Parliament. The Counsall’s answer is that they were very well pleased with his behaviour in the last sessione of Parliat., and that he went along with ye Duke of Hamilton and his pairty who were for the good and interest of their country. And they hoped and expected that he would still adhere and . . . (vote) with that pairty.” The Earl of Leven had complained to the Council of Ged’s not being of the Court Party. But Ged held that he had fulfilled bis promises to the town, and reminded the Earl that the Government owed Burntisland three years’ stipend; nothing had been paid for the transport of troops by the town’s boats, and the old promise to grant the town power to impose 2d on the pint of ale was still unredeemed. The Earl’s real opposition to Ged lay in Ged’s favouring the ill-starred Darien scheme, the colonisation of the Atlantic border of the Isthmus of Panama. This, the English feared, would be detrimental to their plans in India.

In 1702 the Provostship and the representation of the burgh in Parliament were separated for the first time. While Ged went to Parliament, a Provost remained in Burntisland.

1702-1722.—“ The Right Hon. John Lord Leslie, lawful son of the Earl of Rothes, Provost.” In 1722 this Lord Leslie became 8th Earl of Rothes, and Commander-in-Cliief of the forces in Ireland. Daniel Defoe had just visited Burntisland and Leslie House in the time of his father. Xorman Leslie, master of Rothes, who, with his brother John assisted at the murder of Cardinal Beaton, was a son of the 3rd Earl. There are a great many communications in the Council Records from the notorious Otli Earl of Rothes, who was Sheriff of Fife as well as Chancellor of Scotland. He had bonds on the town for money lent, 1067-1081.

1723-24.—“The Hon. Thomas Leslie, brother german to the Earl of Rothes, Provost.”
1725-27.—“The Hon. Charles Leslie, brother german to the Earl of Rothes, Provost.”
1780-83.—“Janies Townshend Oswald, of Dunnikier, supernumerary counsellor and Provost.”
1788-91.—“'William Ferguson, Esq., of Raitli, supernumerary counsellor and Provost,” .
1792.—“ Sir Janies St Clair Erskine, of Dysart, supernumerary counsellor and Provost,”

Returning to 1702 when, for the first time, the offices of Provost and Commissioner to Parliament were separated, we find Bailie Ged was the Commissioner in June. In September, the Council elected the Right Hon. Sir Jon Arskine, of’ Alva, Knight and Baronet, to be their Commissioner to Parliament. He continued to represent Burntisland until the union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707. In 1706, in reply to a communication from him regarding the union of the Parliaments, the Council at a special meeting wrote that in these critical times they prefer not to be represented (on the question of union then to be decided) at the special Convention of Burghs. “Sir Jon” afterwards represented them in London until after the Union was consummated, and the first election for the new constituencies over. On May 14th, 1708, “ Sir Jon Arskine of Alva, their Commissioner to the Parliament of Great Britain,” writes saying their address was presented to “ Her Majesty, being introduced by the Duke of Montrose . . The House of Commons was in a great concern to have a good harbour and dockyard in the Firth, and seemed generally to think Burntisland the best. But the invasion broke them up in a kind of confusion. . . .” This invasion, which apparently delayed the progress of Burntisland, was that of the fleet of Louis XIV., who sent 26 vessels with 4000 troops in an unsuccessful attempt to land the “Pretender” at Leitli.' On 24th May the Council appointed a commissioner to go to Dysart “to vote for a member (for tin' group of burghs) for the session to be held on the 8tli day of July, at the Citie of Westminster.” I believe the first representative for these burghs was Lord St Clair, but on lOtli January, 1710, “Colonel Janies Abercombie was chosen to go to Parliament in place of Mr St Clair,” who bad been unseated on account of being a peer. In June, 1711, Capt. James Oswald, of Dunnikier, is voted for as “their burgess for to represent the said district in the ensuing Parliament of Great Britain.” In 1727, “Colonel James Stellar was elected comr. for the Burghs to Pari.”

The appointment of the two town’s officers (serjandie), whose dress was a four-tailed red coat with white lining, and a cocked hat, was complete on receiving "thair wandis cojuntillie and severallie.” These wands were carried with them when delivering missives, and often appear before the Council to deliver “broken wandis” (we hope figuratively) against those who had refused to recognise their authority. One of their duties was to attend the Council to the Kirk. In 1681, “ ordanis ye liaill Counsell ilk Sabotli day to com peir at ye ringing of ye Tolbuith bell, in ye chamber under ye Tolbuith, and attend ye Magis trates to ye Kirk, ye officer David Couper to goe befoir them with ye halbert.”

The first time “constabills” appear is in 1611, when 3 burgesses are elected “constabills of ye pace” for six months, and in May following Baxter, a talyeor, and a Coupar were elected in tlieir room. These men gave their services gratis, and Speed says, on the abolition of the system in 1833, that the paid men would never be so efficient as the old.

The Dempster was a person who delivered the finding and sentence of the Court.

According to the report on the Municipal Corporations in 1833, the Council could appoint two Town Clerks.

That the Head Court, by which the self-elected Councils were supposed to be confirmed, was a mere legal formality, and did not allow the end intended—the goodwill of the community—is very often in evidence. A serious instance, showing the popular disatisfaction with this method of election, occurred iu 1617 when (Privy Council's Records) “John Roswell, skipper, James Ramsay, Coupar, Eustatius Robertson, mariner,” and 7 others were tried at Edinburgh for disturbing the peace of ”Bruntiland.” . . Tliay brocht the said Burgh, quhilk of late wes composit of a liomber of peciable, modest, and obedient inhabitants, in that estate and condiioii that now the obedience of the magistrate is eossin aft . . . The said persons . . . most unlanchfnllie factiouslie and seditiouslie convocat and assemblitt togidder a grite nomber of the inhabitants without the presence of the magistrat, first in the Kirk about fyve in the clock in ye morning, and in ye efter noone . . and in Juny last in ye Tolbuith of ye said Burgh, and proudlie and arrogantlie unsurpit upone thain the autliorite of ye magistrate And not (‘ontent with this form of eonrocatioune thay began to presoome so far of tliair pouer and force within ye sd burgh that very proudlie and malapairtlie thay took upone tbaim the office of the magistrate and appointit thair meetings with sound of drum. Thay sent twa drumis throu the said Burgh commanding the inhabitants to meet with thame. Thay haif imposit and layd taxatioune upone ye poor inhabitants the better to mak thame follow oute and prosequute thair factious courses . . .” Only three appeared at the trial. These were committed to the Toltooth of Edinburgh indifinitely, and the others declared rebels.

In 1611 “Ye Bailvies and Clerk of ye Brint-iland wes committit to the Tolbuith of Edinburgh,” it appears for some evasion of the sett of the Burgh. It was in this year Patrick Grief, a bailie, was chosen Provost by a pluralitie of votes.

Nor were the Bailies and Councillors always satisfied with the way they were elected. They do not appear to have been consulted as to their willingness to take office. There are innumerable instances of their refusal to accept office. Especially after Cromwell’s triumph in 1651 and well into the 18th century the difficulty of obtaining Councillors was extreme. Due to the heavy assessments for the military many burgesses emigrated. Even the Town Clerk fled to Aberdour, and refused to return “ except lie be exempted from quartering1, watching and warding.” Which was agreed to. Then, after the “ bonf'yres” and rejoicings, came (1661) Charles II.’s declaration of ecclesiastical supremacy. At first none would sign it; by 1662 only a few, and that with qualifications. Even in 1616 four Councillors were fined 100 each for refusing to sign. Then from gradual loss of trade from the Union came the town’s bankruptcy, when the Bailies were imprisoned. A good general example was'as late as 1704., when “Ye Council” decided to “ fyne Archibald Angus in the soume of ane hundred pounds Scots money for his not accepting to be baillie, and ordaines him to be apprehended and put in ye Tolbuith keep until he pays his fyne or accepts office.” At the same time three councillors were fined 50 Scots each, and imprisoned until they “ paid or obeyed.”

The Council constituted, a move is made to apportion the various duties. The principal committee was what Speed calls the jury of 15, of which I find the foreman termed the “concelare.” This body made “ye statutes and common actis.” That is, fixed the prices at and the conditions under which the various commodities were to he sold, and framed laws anent beggars, riots, house letting, middens, etc. In early times, the Bailies, while hearing cases, delivered judgment only when the facts were admitted. When disputed, the jury of 15, or one of similar numbers specially appointed, heard the case. The names of the jurors are written in Latin, and occasionally their calling is added. Mr Allan Rodger, F.E.I.S., Barrhead, has been good enough to translate a few of these, which are here given :—

Bestiarius—Cattle dealer.
Polsntarim—Dealer in pearl
Caltiarius—Shoemaker. barley.
Camus—Dog keeper.
Pistor—Miller.
Fabermarariu—Smith.
Sartor—Tailor.
Farmarius—A meal seller.
Viator—An officer! to summon
Fastor—Controller of games. before a magistrate.
Navila—Boat hirer.
Vestiarius—Clothes dealer.
Nanta—Sailor.

Then were appointed the “visitors to ye Harborie,” and to the meal and flesh markets, the ale-tasters, the quartermasters—who kept men watching and warding, to keep order, prevent smuggling, etc.—the “common Mettaris”—apparently to examine the measures and “wechts”; stent-masters, and a Postmaster.

The various sources of revenue were rouped, in each case to the highest bidder—Anchorage or Docksilver, Postshipe, Beaconage, Boatsilver, Coal dues, Small customs, “Hyred hors” dues or Postsilver (a duty of o per cent, on the earnings of each horse). I came on a curious correspondence between the Excise and the Tom'ii Council which looked like an offer of a slump sum for the right to collect. Strange! The booths under the Tolbooth, eight in number, and the “Comon Lands,” north and south—the Brume Hills and Craigkennochie, and the Links, Lammerlaws, and kirk-yard—were also rouped. A stent roll was then framed by the Stentinasters to meet the requirements of the year. It sometimes happened that the tacksmen found their tack a loss at the end of the year, in which case, on proper representation, the Council granted an abatement.

The Council meetings were held with strict decorum and regularly weekly. The hours of meeting were unearthly, modelled on the daylight saving lines. In 1655 “ Ye Counsell enactis and ordainis that no Counsellor be absent from Counsel I during ordiner Counsell day promptlie at ye ringing of ye bell qlk sal be at seven liouris of ye morning in summer tyme fra ye eleventh of March xnitill ye eleventh of Sepr. and at audit houris in ye morning fra ye eleventh of Sepr. untill ye eleventh of March . . . under ye pain of 6/-,” and if half an hour late “3/-”; those departing before the “ last prayer 12/-.” In the last case money could be saved by not going at all. Those appearing without “ honest hats, or wanting cloaks” were relieved of “ 6/- for ye first fault, doubling for ye nixt.”. For refusing to vote or express an opinion “ 20/- for ye first fault, doubling yrof fr ye nyxt,” and for those refusing to pay up confining them “as ye counsell sail determine.” These fines were put in the poor’s box—the fortunes of the poor rising or falling with the improper or proper behaviour of their law givers.


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