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Scot and Lot, Warch and Ward

R  ecognition of Burgesses as citizens willing to accept public responsibilities goes back a long way. This is exemplified in the earliest Royal charters granting them exclusive privileges, in return, of course, for their support, especially in financial terms.

It was necessary, therefore, that Burgesses possessed the means, as well as the willingness, to meet these responsibilities and be not only local laws and customs but also the burgh itself.

By definition, citizens, involved in many aspects of business and trade, but not every inhabitant became a Burgess. Employees were excluded, as were women, even those who ran their own businesses.

Fishermen, clergy and lawyers similarly found no place in the ranks of the medieval Burgesses, all of whom had to pay a fine, an entry fee, to the Town Council which went towards the Common Good.

A new Burgess took the oath to respect and further the economic interests of the burgh, to pay the King’s taxes and to defend the burgh against its enemies – the medieval formula of liability to pay Scot and lot, watch and ward. Each new Burgess had to present a weapon to the burgh’s armoury and, as a mark of acceptance in the community, had to pay for a feast for the Provost and Councillors.

So, it is easily seen how it was that only certain citizens were regarded as eligible to be admitted as Burgesses.

We do not know who were the first Burgesses in Aberdeen nor do we have a firm foundation date for the burgh, but there are several pointers.

The earliest document in Aberdeen city archives, a charter of King William the Lion from c.1180, claimed that the privileges of those burghs north of the Mounth – a recognised track crossing the hills and leading to south markets – were established by his grandfather, King David, who died in 1153.

King David had fought several campaigns against old established Celtic leaders to extend his Royal authority throughout Scotland and one of his acts was to confer on Aberdeen the status of a Royal burgh which was also a means of ensuring more taxes being raised for his coffers. It also allowed him, in turn, to confer trading privileges on those who offered their loyalty.

The attraction of living and working in a Royal burgh for anyone with drive and initiative in the 12th Century is simple to understand. Craftsmen and traders were free men in relation to everyone except their lord, the King. They could call upon the support of Royal officials to protect them from any oppression by lesser lords, and they could be tried only in the King’s court. The downside, of course, was the arbitrary nature of Royal taxation.

The organisation of a burgh in those days was quite simple. An area within recognisable boundaries was designated as the burgh, within which a code of laws geared to the needs of manufacturers and traders, as well as to the maintenance of public order, had authority.

Within the burgh, a market place was designated, streets laid out and building stances created on regular lines along and between streets. In Aberdeen, the Castlegate contained the largest market square in medieval Scotland. Weekly markets and annual fairs were established and alongside them a burgh court for the speedy resolution of disputes between buyers and sellers.

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