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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
The Convention of Royal Burghs


THE title of an old book on the Convention of Royal Burghs of Scotland, "compiled by William Black, Advocat,” and published in Edinburgh by Andrew Anderson, printer to the Queen’s most excellent Majesty in 1707, is as follows:—“The privileges of the Royal Burrows, as contained in their particular rights, and the ancient laws and records of Parliament, and their general Convention: Wherein is considered the privileges of merchants, privileges of burghs, the privileges of the guild, the privileges of the four burghs in assisting the Chamberlan Air in falsing dooms, the first constitution of the Convention, the laws by which they enjoy their privileges; the Acts of their own Convention, which confirm their privileges granted by their Kings and Parliament; the jurisdiction, and how far it is the interest of the royal burghs now to observe and maintain their privileges by making such regulations as may tend to all their trading society.”

Almost every Scotchman must be aware that the Convention of Royal Burghs is a very old institution, and that it meets once a year in Edinburgh to discuss matters of public importance, affecting not only the burghs themselves, but Scotland generally—each royal burgh being represented by a Commissioner and Assessor regularly chosen by the Town Council. The Convention may be said to be a remnant of the old Scotch Parliament, and at the present time, when Scotch matters are so much neglected in the British House of Commons, it may be called a sort of Home-rule Convention for Scotland. At a late meeting of the Convention, it was resolved to take measures to form an alliance with the Association of Municipal Corporations of England, and also to consider as to the reconstruction of the Convention in the view of its increased usefulness, by the introduction into Parliament of a bill having for its object the granting of full conventional powers and privileges to all Parliamentary burghs and populous places, in the sense of the Police Acts, such as are enjoyed by royal burghs.

Our purpose in this chapter is to make some extracts from Black’s rare old book, which may perhaps be thought interesting as showing the trading and municipal customs of Scotland in former times. The burghs royal were at first erected by special grants from the sovereign, for eminent services to either their prince or country, and by their charters were endowed with many valuable privileges, which exist to this day. Of old, the affairs of the “burrows” were managed by four burghs —viz., Edinburgh, Stirling, Roxburgh, and Berwick— which were called the “Chamberlan Court.” When the last two burghs fell into the hands of the English, Lanark and Linlithgow were substituted in their place, and these burghs did frequently call other burghs to their assistance, as appears by the books of the Majesty.

Haddington appears to have been a burgh of much importance at this early date, for it was the burgh where the Chamberlan Air held its court once a year, as appears by the following statute, issued in the reign of King David II., in 1348, in a Parliament held at “Pearth:” — “It is statute by the three estates of this realm that sua lang as the Burghs of Berwick and Roxburgh ar detained and halden by Englishmen (quilk are and sould be twa of our four burghs quha in auld tyme did hauld an Chamberlan Court ains in the yeir at Haddingtoun anent falsing of dooms, quilk wer again said before the Chamberlan in his Chamberlan Airs), the Burghs of Lanark and Lithcow shall be received and admitted in their place, and fra this tyme furth they shall be advertized to compear at Haddingtoun and serve sua the Court to be haldine as said is (be the Commissioners of Edinburgh, Stirleing, Lithcow, and Lanark), in so far as concerns common justice, sail be als vailliable as gif there wer na impediment or obstacle of the other twa burghs halden and occupied by Inglishmen; providing that when the other twa burghs return to the possession and the King’s hand, they shall bruick and enjoy their awn priviledge without delay or contradiction.” In chap. 2 of the said statute, it is laid down that “all judgement against said within the burrow court sould be decreited and decyded (in the second instance) before the Chamberlan—that is to say, three or four at the maist discreit burgesses of ilk burgh of Edinburgh, Stirling, Lithcow, and Lanark, haveand lawful commission, sail compear personally before the Chamberlan at Haddingtoun, they being lawfully summoned to that effect, and there the right or the wrang of the doom, whilk was again said by them, sail be discust and determined. And it is to wit that sick ane court, where the four burrows are assembled together before the Chamberlan to try and discus the doom whilk is again said, is als vailliable among burgesses as gif it wer finaly ended and done in Parliament.” It thus appears that before this Chamberlan Court were “discust and determined,” and the doom fixed, of all questions affecting “burrows and burgesses, as gif it wer finaly ended and done in Parliament.”

In the reign of James II. the town of Edinburgh obtained a charter from that prince, whereby the court of the four burghs was in all time thereafter to meet at Edinburgh in place of Haddington. This court of the four burghs doubtless gave the first rise to the Convention of Royal Burghs. The first institution of the Convention (Black says) was in anno 1487, in the reign of James III., when they were appointed to meet at Inverkeithing; but there is no record of their meetings till the year 1552, and that meeting was at Edinburgh. It is believed that the yearly meeting has been kept there ever since.

Merchants in royal burghs possessed very important privileges and rights in the way of their trade. By the 36th statute of King William it is enacted — “No prelat or kirkman, earl, barron, or secular person shall presume to buy wool, skins, hides, or sicklyke merchandize; but they shall sell the same to merchants of burghs;” and it is commanded by the king that “ the merchandizes forsaid and all other merchandizes shall be presented to the mercat and mercat cross of burghs, and offered effectualy to merchants of burghs without fraud or guile; by which it is evident that merchants and none others enjoyed this privilege. And in chap. 8 of the same statute it is enacted—“Gif a plea arise betwixt a burgess and a stranger merchant, it should be ended and decided before the third flowing and ebbing of the sea.” There was evidently no taking to avizandum in those days.

In the reign of King David I. was enacted the laws and constitution of burghs, commonly called the “Burrow Laws.” The privileges of burghs are there enumerated under several acts and ordinances relating to the Magistrates, their jurisdiction, and the duties of citizens. The statute for electing bailies is very stringent as to the choosing good men and true, viz.:—“At the first Head Court after Michaelmas, the bailies should be chosen of faithful men and of good fame by the common consent of the honest men of the burgh ; and they shall swear fidelity to the king and indwellers within the burgh, and they shall keep the customs and laws of the burgh; and that they shall not minister justice to any person for anger, hatred, fear, or love of any man, but according to the advice, counsel, and judgment of the wise and good men of the burgh. They shall also swear that in the ministration of justice they shall spare no man for fear, love, hatred, consanguinity of any man, or for tinsel of their own goods and gear.” And it was also ordained—“That no man be capable of the Magistracy, or other office within a burgh, except merchant and traffeckers within the said burgh, allenarly and no others.” It used to be an old saying and rule in Haddington, that no one was eligible for a councillor or magistrate unless he “raised reek” in the burgh. It was also the privilege of the bailies of any burgh that if they should be challenged for anything touching their office, they were only answer-able before the Chamberlain.

By an Act of Queen Mary, it was ordained—“That magistrates of burghs cause deacons, craftsmen, and hostlers sett and take reasonable prices for their work and victuals, or else deprive them of their office and priviledges;” and also—“That none make private conventions, put on armor, display banners, or sound trumpet or talbron, without the Queen and Magistrates license, under pain of death.” By an Act of James VI. it is enacted—“That all the inhabitants are ordained to assist the magistrates and their officers for suppressing of tumults, under the pain to be punished by the magistrates and council of the burgh as fosterers of the said tumults.”

By an Act of Charles II., ruinous houses are thus to be treated — “Where houses are ruinous within the burgh by the space of three years, the magistrates may warn those known to have interest therein of property or annual rent, personaly, or at their dwelling-houses, and them and all others at the Paroch Kirk, and Mercat Cross, and, in case of absence out of the realm, at the Cross of Edinburgh, peer and shoar of Leith, on sixty days to repair them within year and day ; otherwise they will cause the same to be valued and sold to others paying or consigning the price, who will repair them within the said space; or, if none will buy, then the magistrates may buy and rebuild them, and this right to be an unquestionable security to the builders.”

The privileges of the royal burghs were therefore, very extensive, and these extracts show that they were made from time to time for the encouraging of trade and promoting unanimity and good order. The privileges of the Guild were also very extensive.

By the “Gild” is understood the society of merchants, freemen, and burgesses in each burgh. Each royal burgh has a Dean of Guild, who is next magistrate to the bailies. The Dean of Guild, in all burghs where there is trade, signifies a great deal more than the bailieship, for his power is more extensive, as first he is judge in all controversies arising betwixt merchants relating to their trade, and in actions betwixt them and masters of ships anent “fraughts,” averages, damnified goods, &c. He is judge also in controversies arising betwixt neighbours within burghs anent their building of houses, putting out lights, stopping of canals and aqueducts, and any other thing that tends to the pre-sedation of good neighbourhood.

In the year 1284, there were (Black says) several statutes of the “Gild” made and constitute be Robert Durham, Mair of Berwick, Simon Martel, and other good men, as they are recorded in the Books of the Majestie. We quote a few of them :—“Na particular congregation of burgesses should brak or violat in any pairt the liberties or laws of the general gild, or to conceive new devices or counsels against the same; ” “ That nae brither do wrang to another brither, under certain penalties according to the offence ; ” “ That nae man shall be received in the confraternity of this guild for nae less sum than fourty shillings (which was then a great sum) unless they be guild sons and guild daughters; ” “ That guild brithers falling indecreped, age, poverty, or sickness be relieved; ” “ When the Dean wills to convene the gild brithers for to treat upon the affairs of the guild, all the guild brithers shall conveen after they hear the straik of the suech or the sound of the trumpet; ” “ Nae man shall buy woole, hydes, nor woollen skins to sell the samine again, or shall cut claith, but be quha as a brither of guild.”

In the royal burgh of Haddington the Dean of Guild Court has always been held and kept up. No persons, except king's freemen, discharged soldiers and sailors, could begin business in the town, or enter any of the corporations, before they were made burgesses and guild brethren or guild sisters. The eldest sons of burgesses were entered at the smallest fee, betwixt £1 and £2; second and third sons paid more; strangers paid betwixt £14 and £1$, besides a fee to the town clerk in all cases. Generally a number were entered at a time, and a supper, called “spice and wine,” was given by the Dean to his Council and the young burgesses in one of the hotels of the town. The Dean of Guild fund, raised by such fees and other perquisites, was at one time large, and yearly sums used to be distributed to poor and decayed burgesses, or their relatives, out of the box, agreeable to the old statute above quoted. Differences within and betwixt burghs were ordered to be reconciled, and that each burgh should keep within its due bounds, so that no burgh should be encroached upon to the prejudice of the society. In 1514 it is thus enacted:—“That all burrows assist others in their lawful affairs; and in all differences betwixt burrow and burrow the same shall be determined by a general convention, and every burgh to stand to the said determination without appellation." In prosecution of this act the Convention, at their meeting at Stirling, 5th August 1578, unlawed Haddington for pursuing the town of Dunbar before the Session without first meaning themselves to the royal burrows. The burrows have also upon many occasions stopped gifts in favour of particular persons; for setting up or carrying on any branch of trade or manufactory, as in 1610, there was a commission to several burrows to seek redress of a gift for making salt upon salt, for making soap, for transporting yearn, &c.; and in 1615, in the Convention at Perth, Joseph Marjoribanks obtained a patent for making red herrings! He, upon a complaint that it was a monopoly, compeared before the burrows, and consented to cancel the gift, and got his expenses refunded to him.

The above is an instance of the close and illiberal system the Convention pursued in those days. In 1738 James Maxwell of Innerwick, and John Cunningham of Barns (probably East Barns of the present time), having obtained a patent for the lights of the May, the burrows stopped the impost, and accordingly Innerwick and Barns did restrict themselves to a fourth part of the allowances they had by their patent, and passed all ships coming with victual to the Firth, in the months of May, June, July, and August, as free of any duty. The above seems a liberal measure to the public in comparison with the Red Herring Act

The jurisdiction of the Convention of Burrows was at one time very extensive. Black says:—“That ever since their first constitution they have decided differences in the burghs betwixt the Magistrates and citizens, and in difference betwixt distinct burghs. They determine the methods of elections of magistrates and council. They fine delinquents, and those that are disobedient to their decrees. In July 1691 they appointed a visitation throu the haile burghs of the Kingdom, from Whithorn to Thurso, to enquire into the state of each burgh, both as to their real and casual rents and revenues, as to their trade and shipping, the condition of their prisons and publick works, their harbours and bulworks, the condition of their houses, and management of their common good, as is at length contained in the instruction recorded in the books of the Convention. The Convention are judges of all misdemanners in their own convention, and fine and imprison the delinquents, as in the case of one Kello, treasurer of Dunbar, who, having uttered some idle and rash speeches upon the Convention discharging the town of Dunbar from exacting 40 shillings upon the last of herring packed and peilled by Edinburgh merchants, the Convention fined and imprisoned him, but upon his humble acknowledgement he was set at liberty.”

It appears by the records of the Convention that in the year 1570 they had the privilege of trade in the Netherlands. They entered into contracts with the town of Campvere, from which they got several immunities and encouragements to settle the staple of trade at that place, and in consequence a Scotch colony of traders and merchants was established there. The Convention had a Lord Conservator for looking after the Scotch trade, and who acted as supreme judge in matters civil as well as criminal. The last Conservator was Sir Andrew Kennedy, and numerous statutory articles regulating the trade passed betwixt him and the Dutch king. The Conservator had also power of a “conserjorie ” house, which is the inn or house of Scots merchants. They named the keeper or master of this house, and gave him particular instructions, which he was bound to obey. They also presented a minister to the Scots Church at Campvere, and paid him his stipend, and laid on a particular duty on Scots goods for the payment thereof.

We find that a Mr George Sydserff of Ruchlaw, a probable ancestor of the present Mr Sydserff of Ruchlaw, was ordained minister of the Scots Church at Campvere, in the year 1625. The congregation had the privilege of sending a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The last one who sat in the House was in 1797, but Campvere still remains on the roll of the Assembly, and is still called over like other places entitled to send deputies. The earliest notice relative to the appointment of a minister in the Convention was on the 4th July 1582, when it was resolved that “There be ane minister elected for preaching at Campvere,” and upon the 3d of the following November, the meeting “ agries to the erecting of a kirk and minister at Campvere, and for his maintenance appoints the exyse of the beer and wine granted by the town of Campvere to the Scots natione ; and gife there be anie excycressance, the same is to come to the use of the Burrowes in generall. One pastor is to be electet and nominat be the burghs with the advyce and consent of his Majestie.” We find it narrated that one Captain Paul van Borselen, son of Henry the second Lord of Campvere, in consideration of eminent services rendered in his capacity of Conservator of the Scottish privileges in the Netherlands, received the honour of knighthood, together with the lands and lordship of Lauderdale. His venerable castellated mansion, within the walls of Campvere, was pulled down some years ago, and was called Lauderdale House, after the family estate in Berwickshire. This Paul died in 1504. Maximilian, the last foreigner who bore the title of the Earl of Lauderdale, died without heirs in 1577.

The Convention of Burrows had also much intercourse at one time with France, and many important privileges were conferred by the French kings on Scots trading to the city of Deip (Dieppe), and they were relieved of French duties on goods bought by them. In ISI8, 1554, &c., down to 1684, numerous important privileges were conferred on Scots traders with France, and Commissioners were frequently appointed by the Convention to proceed to France to negotiate. The last one sent, one William Aikman, was in July 1684.

Black thus concludes his Treatise on the Convention of Royal Burghs. In quoting the words of the Article of the Treaty of Union:—“The rights and privileges of the Royal Burrows of Scotland as they now are and do remain intire after the Union, and notwithstanding thereof" he proceeds to say, “here is as full a ratification as ever was granted to the Royal Borrowes by any of their sovereigns, and it is the more valuable in this that they may rest satisfied their privilege will never be violated, and nothing but a surrender can wrest them out of their hands. They should consider that as they have particular charters from their sovereigns ratified in Parliament, so they have the forementioned Acts of Parliament to maintain their rights, and the Articles of the Union as a strong hedge, a bulwark about all to defend. When the Royal Burrowes are thus secured it should animate them to do those things that are answerable to so valuable privileges. The British Parliament will no doubt be ready enough to give all due encouragement, and therefore the Burrows should make their meetings more frequent, should give directions to such as represent them in the British Parliament to prosecute every good design that may tend to the advancement of trade in this part of North Britain. To conclude, if they do their part in what concerns their privileges and trade, their sovereign will no doubt protect them. The Parliament of Britain will certainly maintain them in their just rights; their citizens will improve in trade; and their burghs and societies will thereby flourish."


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