Scottish history: ‘burghs’ – a good idea!

The story of what we consider ‘today’s’ Scotland started after the Picts, Scots, Britons, Vikings, Angles sorted themselves out. Then King David I created burghs – because he needed money.

Look, I agree, the page title isn’t too exciting. History is such a dull word. In our case though, Scottish history is well worth discovering. We’ve got lots of castles, battlesites, historically-themed visitor attractions and the occasional massacre. 

So here’s some background and a few, hmm, highlights. It’s all you need to know for bluffing your way round any museum in Scotland. 

Further down the page are a series of snapshots of the goings-on at certain points in Scotland’s story. Plus there’s a wee selection of places to visit that are of historic significance.  (‘Coughs hopefully’.)

Let’s pick it up here when that story starts emerge from the Dark Ages.

Because until, say, the 12th century, Scottish history includes a whole lot of shadowy battles between the peoples who represent the building-blocks of Scotland: mostly Picts, Scots, Britons, Angles and Vikings. Few early kings died peacefully at home.

Old Pictish centre, Burghead
Burghead on the Moray Firth was an important Pictish ‘capital’

Scotland wasn’t the shape it is today. As for the border, well, the territory of the Picts and Scots was really only north of the River Forth, but hemmed in by the Vikings further north still.

They held sway over today’s Caithness and Sutherland from a power-base in Orkney.

The Lothians, around and east of today’s Edinburgh, were held by the Angles until 1018, while the kingdom of the Britons in Strathclyde to the west became part of the land of the Scots (from Ireland) even later.

It wasn’t until after 1263, when the Vikings were finally defeated at the Battle of Largs, that the nation of Scotland began to take the shape that we know today. Sounds complicated, doesn’t it?

And – an important milestone in Scotland history – this heralded the start of the creation of Scottish burghs, which are explained below. (If impatient by nature, you can scroll down. However, you’d miss that awful old joke about the English, given below.)

Warning – early mediaeval joke here

From the very earliest dates in Scottish history, the Scottish kings were keeping an eye on that other more powerful kingdom in the south – England – an inescapable factor in Scotland and its history.

Around the same time in the 13th century this old joke was coined probably by some Scottish court jester.

It’s the one about the conversation between St Andrew and, uhmm, God, when St Andrew says:

‘Holy Smoke! You’ve given the Scots whisky, the finest beef and lamb, salmon in the rivers, venison from the hills, beautiful mountains….OK, I might be their patron saint – but isn’t all that too much?’ 

To this God replies: ‘No. Not at all. Wait till you see who I’ve given them as neighbours.’

Shock news: Scottish kings may actually prefer English brides

Cockburnspath Mercat Cross
Cockburnspath Mercat Cross – possibly as early as 1503, when King James IV married the sister of England’s Henry VIII. Well, that didn’t work out well…

Local lasses not good enough, eh?

The Scottish monarchy, both the early Royal House of Canmore, and the later Royal House of Stewart, would often diplomatically marry into English royalty and complicate matters of nationhood greatly.

This started with King Malcolm III (Canmore or Galeic ceann-mor – great head or chief).

He married Margaret, daughter of the English King Edward the Confessor.

And it was their son, King David I of Scotland, who took a look at the feudal system and liked the business model.

The feudal system meant that king was top dog and noble cronies got a substantial slice of the pie. It was in place ‘down south’ then as a result of the Norman takeover of Anglo-Saxon England. (The Battle of Hastings and all that 1066 stuff.)

The king liked what he saw, especially the bit about governing the outlying bits of his kingdom through tame nobility who were able to raise a bit of revenue – this often kept them quiet and on-side.

So David, as King of Scotland, found himself a posh Anglo-Norman heiress to give him an English title (the Earl of Huntingdon) by this marriage.

Then he proclaimed open house north of the Border for any Norman-French nobles who wanted a slice of Scotland.

This is why (most famously) Bruce, but also Grant, Fraser, Barclay, Sinclair and lots more common Scottish surnames have Norman-French origins.

Tolbooth at Forres, Moray
The Tolbooth at Forres in Moray. Though this tolbooth is much later than the actual burgh charter signing – sometime between 1130 and 1153 – it stands in the centre of the town as a symbol of the administrative HQ of the old burgh.

What Is A Burgh
In Scotland?

And how did these nobles actually make money, both for themselves and for the king? Simple, they went along with the king’s regime and helped found ‘burghs’.

(Pronouce it ‘burr-a’ or better still ‘burrrrrrrrr-aaaaa’. I know I do.) 

You’ll see the word on town names even today. ‘The Royal Burgh of…. etc’.

A royal burgh had certain privileges granted by the king.

The notion of a burgh played an important part in Scotland history. A burgh could protect itself by walls and gates. It could elect officials to make local laws.

Most importantly, it could trade – make money through its markets and manufacturing, for which duties and taxes would be paid to the royal coffers.

The symbol of the market was the mercat cross, marking both the right to hold these trading days and the place where they were held. 

Many Scottish towns still have a mercat cross, though usually replaced and renewed over the centuries.

The Town House, Stonehaven
The Town House, Stonehaven, dating from 1790. Lower right in this pic, the Mercat Cross of 1645, later remodelled. Traffic cone, original, from c. 2018.

Armies might come and go, political parties and factions would leave their mark, but in the history of Scotland, the burgh system, as the bedrock of day-to-day economic life, thrived for centuries.

And though not all burghs survived, many prospered – which is why towns and cities, from Aberdeen to Dumfries, can trace their origins back to the granting of charters in the 12th century.

So, aside from battlesites and great events, the mercat cross and the administrative centre of the burgh, the tolbooth or town house, both survive today as a reminder of everyday economic life in the Scotland of old.

So, that’s all you need to remember about Scottish history first of all. Sure, it was bloody at times, but ordinary folk had to get on with their lives.

And if they weren’t farmers or peasants out in the countryside, then many of them lived in towns which were organised as burghs.

But let’s look at some of the other events in Scottish history

Edited Highlights Of Scottish History

What? The history of Scotland on a single page? Am I mad? Let’s do it by snapshots from the Stone Age to the Highland Clearances. Plus a wee mention of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Wish he’d just stayed away.

I know, I know. I said further up that Scottish history starts around the time of the early burghs. Really, this bit is prehistory.

And if you are going to see the best of prehistory in Scotland, then Orkney is a convenient location, as nowhere else in Scotland delivers that sense of the unknowably ancient. 

Standing Stones of Stenness
Standing Stones of Stenness. Also standing people at Stenness, wandering if they are about to be vapourised by an approaching asteroid. (Look, it’s my caption, OK?)

Oh, wait a minute, that is, except for, say, the Standing Stones of Callanish on the Western Isles, or some of Aberdeenshire’s standing stones and circles and burial cairns.

Or the early sites in Argyll, say, Dunadd. Oh, they give nothing away…

So, for that sense of really ancient days that head for Skara Brae in Orkney. Or at the Standing Stones of Stenness, or the Ring of Brogar or Maes Howe.

For anyone who is interested in connecting with the ancestors of the ancestors, these are the places to go, in all of Scotland.

It’s a must see for a glimpse of the earliest history of Scotland. It’s where you can get closest to the life of folk who lived in this little northern place. And remember the climate was a bit kinder in 3000BC! (Also, there are plenty of Orkney pages on this site, after you’ve done history!)

Ring of Brodgar
The RIng of Brodgar and spring primroses. Almost went with ‘The spring of Brodgar’ here.

Look out, here come…

The Vikings In Scotland

Then, staying in Orkney (because I like the place), fast forward to the Vikings.  

(SNAPSHOT 1) The climate has gone off – big-time – and it’s a miserable day, so a bunch of them, looking for treasure, have found their way into a chambered tomb. While waiting for the weather to clear, they scratch a variety of graffiti into the stonework.

You can still see the runic (and rude) things they wrote on the walls, as the tomb at Maes Howe is now a surviving example of one of the very finest examples of Neolithic craftsmanship to be seen anywhere.

The point is that you may consider the Vikings to have lived a long time ago. But on a time-line of the history of Scotland, these 12th-century guys were making marks inside a structure that was already 4000 years old!

St Magnus Cathedral
St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney, founded in 1137

St Magnus Cathedral (pictured here) is in the centre of Kirkwall – it is also known as the ‘Light in the North’ It was founded in 1137 by the Viking, Earl Rognvald, in honour of his uncle St Magnus.

Much of the medieval stonework is thought to have been done by master masons trained at Durham Cathedral in England.

It is the most northerly cathedral in Britain and contains many interesting memorials to famous Orcadians such as Eric Linklater, George Mackay Brown and the explorer John Rae. It is a fascinating place to visit.

From the Norsemen, let’s fast-forward past the Wars of Independence, the Stewart monarchs, the 17th-century Covenanters (very complicated!)

By the way, the National Trust for Scotland run a visitor centre on the site of the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn. (Check if it’s still open, though.) There’s also some background to the Scots’ victory at Bannockburn here, though it mostly deals with Robert the Bruce’s PR team. (I wouldn’t take it over-seriously, if I were you.)

Bonnie Prince Charlie

– oh no, what’s he doing in Glasgow?

Preamble: the Catholic Stuart monarchy of Scotland (and England) have been kicked out and the Protestant Hanoverian dynasty is ruling. Scotland has had the same monarch as England for more than a century.

Then, to paraphrase a lot, the Scottish aristocracy decided to unite with England in 1707 and close down the Scottish Parliament. (Money changed hands. Ordinary folk had no vote. There were protests and riots in the streets of Edinburgh.)

Bonnie Prince Charlie ‘The Young Pretender’ from the old Stuart line, his family in exile, has been brought up to believe that with the help of the Catholic nations of Europe, such as France and Italy, he can regain the throne.

The Prince's Beach, Eriskay
Where Prince Charles Edward Stuart first set foot in Scotland – Isle of Eriskay, the Prince’s Beach.

There is sympathy for this cause in both Scotland and England. As it was King James (Charles’s grandfather) who went into exile, supporters of the Stuart dynasty are called Jacobites, from the Latin Jacobus, meaning James.

Charles landed in Scotland in the spring of 1745 and caused quite a stir and won a few battles against the government armies in the now united kingdoms of Scotland and England.

So let’s focus on the winter of 1745. Let’s go to Glasgow. There are cargoes unloading at the quayside on the River Clyde.

Off the ships at the quayside comes tobacco, sugar and rum. Linens, woollens, shoes, stockings and metalware go aboard. It’s all heading for the Americas and Glasgow’s merchant class is making its fortune.

(Face it though, the Scots were up to their oxters in the slave trade…)

(SNAPSHOT 2) Suddenly in the middle of all this mercantile bustle, there’s the sound of bagpipes and a crowd of unkempt and wild Highlanders march in and draw up on the ground beside the river.

Oh, great – it’s the last thing the locals need. Who are these people?

Well, it’s a Highland army – but under control as this is Bonnie Prince Charlie’s forces, northbound. Having failed to get to London, England, and now heading for disaster, they’re looking to re-equip.

The Glasgow townsfolk are aghast. Charles demands 12,000 shirts, 6,000 coats and 6,000 pairs of stockings for his ragged army from the ‘Merchant City’ – the heart of this industrial city.

While all this is being organised, the Young Pretender goes out to dinner, and reviews his troops on Glasgow Green. The busy folk breathe a sigh of relief as the mob eventually leaves for the north.

Glasgow’s mercantile outlook was an important part of the history of Scotland.

Only a little later after Charlie’s departure, they started to make even bigger, heavier things and exported them across the world.

That’s a detail (pictured here) of a steam loco in Glasgow’s fine Transport Museum, Riverside Museum.

So, off goes Charlie to defeat and Jacobite romantic myth-making – and Glasgow gets on with the Industrial Revolution, making money and playing its part in building a forward-looking economy.

Connecting rods detail, steam loco
In Glasgow Riverside Museum, the transport museum

The mad adventure by the reckless and deluded prince ends in slaughter on the battlefield of Culloden a few months later.

Soon after, parts of the history of Scotland are gradually invented for the Jacobites that concentrate on the romance of this dashing adventurer instead of the anachronism and irrelevance.

(Think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at this point, suddenly realising that there isn’t a place any more for their lifestyle. The world had moved on. So it must have been for Charlie’s clansmen.)

Highland clearance village, Skye
A barely recognisable abandoned village on the island of Skye: Leitir Fura, near Kinloch. A sad chapter in the history of Scotland. The inhabitants went to Canada. This is looking eastwards to the mainland, Ben Sgriol on the horizon.

The Highland Clearances

Ethnic cleansing or just toffs and monied industrialists tidying things up?

Finally, let’s go forward another hundred years from Culloden. (SNAPSHOT 3)

There’s a gathering in a kirkyard, actually, Croick Church, high up a remote Highland glen (but today an easy drive, say, from Inverness).

The people are straggling in, carrying what they can of their personal possessions. They are of all ages. Grandchildren help their elders. Improvised shelters have been rigged up.

But it’s not unique. It’s just another eviction in the Highland Clearances. Nowadays we might call it ethnic cleansing.

But we know a lot about this particular episode in May 1845 at Glencalvie, because, firstly, the evicted local folk scratched messages on a pane of window glass in the church. (See pic below)

Secondly, it was witnessed by a reporter from ‘The Times’ of London, England. (You can still view the messages scratched on the glass – a viewing platform has been built – and can read an account as it appeared in the newspaper.)

A fire was kindled in the churchyard, round which the poor children clustered.  

Part of the original account reads “Two cradles with infants in them, were placed dose to the fire, and sheltered round by the dejected-looking mothers.”

Glencalvie Church window
The scratchings on the Glencalvie Church window, preserved since 1845. NB Pictured from inside, so writing appears reversed.

At the same time as these events were unfolding in Highland Scotland, you could travel speedily and safely, between Scotland’s two largest cities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, by its first inter-city railway line.

It had been open for three years, as a symbol of the modern age.

So what do these little cameos mean? Well, firstly that the History of Scotland goes a long way back.

Secondly, that Highland and Lowland Scotland were utterly separate in language and culture for a long time.

Thirdly, that Bonnie Prince Charlie should have stayed away from Scotland – full stop – and let the illustrators of shortbread tins find themselves another subject.

And thirdly, it’s quite easy to connect with the history of Scotland if you use a little imagination as you visit the many historical sites.


FOR MORE INSIGHTS INTO THE SCOTTISH NATION’S STORY

Here is a short list of key locations

Culloden Battlefield, near Inverness

No, it wasn’t Scotland versus England in 1746 – far from it – but it was the last battle in a civil war that was fought on Scottish soil. Learn all about it at this vivid evocation just a few minutes by road from Inverness.

Walk the battlefield, enjoy the vivid audio/visual experience, see demonstrations and maybe if you are lucky you will be picked to demonstrate how to fire a musket. It’s not loaded, by the way.

This is everything a historic visitor centre should be.

– plus there is a nice self-service café and a well-stocked gift shop with an excellent book section. And what was Bonnie Prince Charlie thinking about? Delusional, methinks.

Memorial Cairn at the battlefield of Culloden near Inverness
Memorial Cairn at the battlefield of Culloden near Inverness
Dunadd Fort
Dunadd Fort, the path leading to the hilltop

Dunadd, Argyll

This isn’t a spectacular place in the sense that there is a huge amount of structure to be seen. There isn’t! But Dunadd was the site where the first kings of Scotland were crowned. (The Scots came east from Ireland.)

There’s a rock cut basin and a footprint, perhaps part of early ceremonies, and the site is close to all kinds of other prehistory. Fine setting in the heartland of Argyll. Can be a bit of midge paradise.

Glenfinnan Monument at the head of Loch Shiel
Glenfinnan Monument – pencil-like structure at the head of Loch Shiel. Ben Nevis on skyline top left.

Glenfinnan, (Quite) Near Fort William

Glenfinnan on the Road to the Isles – the road linking Fort William and Mallaig – has a famous viaduct, the ‘Harry Potter bridge’ – and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Monument nearby. 

Another important historic site that has the advantage of being set somewhere scenic. 

The Glenfinnan Monument marks where our delusional chum Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) unfurled his flag and rallied (a few of) the clans in 1745.

The figure on top of the monument is, apparently, not meant to be the prince, just a generic Highlander. By 1815, when it was erected, the Jacobite myth-making machine was in full romantic cry.


There’s more on the Jacobites on the Rob Roy page. And you can find out about the Scottish kings, especially the Stewarts. There were a lot of them – and several were very accident-prone or a bit unpopular or had English wives. Just saying….

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