I PROMISED last week to interrupt my series on the ancient towns of Scotland to address the issue of royal burghs as requested by several readers, mostly young people who were not alive when an injustice was done to many towns and districts.

This is something I have been interested in for more than 50 years because as a teenager in the early 1970s, I was appalled to learn that royal burghs across Scotland were to lose that status due to the Local Government Scotland Act 1973.

It was passed by Ted Heath’s (below) Conservative government and the Act’s changes to local authorities were implemented on May 16, 1975, by the Labour government of Harold Wilson. Both governments followed the recommendations of the 1969 Wheatley Report from the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, named after judge Lord John Wheatley who was made a life peer for his leadership of the commission.

The National:

His report was the culmination of years of investigation, and considerable agitation, on changing the system of local government in Scotland, though if you read the press coverage of the lengthy proceedings leading up to the act, the biggest single problem was the sheer size of Strathclyde Region. The act also established the Local Boundary Commission, but that’s a whole other issue for a different time and place.

Nobody really listened to the views of the centuries-old Convention of Royal Burghs, predecessor of today’s Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla).

The convention could trace its existence back to the Middle Ages but was swept away by the modernisers. Good Unionists all, in 1973 the Tories and Labour combined to change the local authority structure across the country and bring in 53 districts inside nine regions – Borders, Central, Dumfries and Galloway, Fife, Grampian, Highland, Lothian, Strathclyde, Tayside – and the three unitary authorities, the “island areas” of Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles.

Section one paragraph five of the act was brutal: “On May 16, 1975, all local government areas existing immediately before that date, that is to say all counties, counties of cities, large burghs, small burghs and districts shall cease to exist and the council of every such area shall also cease to exist.”

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At a stroke, centuries of Scottish history and ancient traditions were thrown on the scrapheap. With many people outside Parliament protesting against the new regime, one MP raised an objection to the end of royal burghs. Leith Labour MP Ronald King Murray – later Lord Murray, Lord Advocate and a judge – told the House of Commons in December 1972: “Most of the well-known cities and towns of Scotland became royal burghs by charter.

“The bill does not say that those charters are removed or are of no legal effect but Schedule 24 repeals the legislation upon which they appear to stand. I hope the government does not intend to abolish entirely the ancient rights of royal burghs, at least to be royal burghs.

“That would be unfortunate in terms not only of transition but of tourism. If by a side-wind the bill were to remove from the entrances of some of our nicer seaside resorts the sign ‘royal burgh’, that would be unfortunate and unnecessary.”

Describing section 1(5) as a “death warrant”, Murray added that royal burghs “represent abiding communities which have survived under adverse conditions for many years”. He suggested that the new community councils could preserve the royal burghs’ names, adding: “Communities like this represent abiding interests and abiding realities, geographical, environmental and human. They are continuing communities which are likely to continue in future. They will still be there.

“They are obviously prime candidates for the status of areas qualifying for community councils. But is that enough? I hope it will be at least enough. I hope these areas will qualify to have community councils and that at least they can be given that degree of reality.”

The National: The Royal Burgh of Inverkeithing Pipe Band at the Lammas Races.

More than two years after the changes took effect, people were still bemoaning the loss of royal burgh status.

Labour minister Frank McElhone laid down the UK Government’s position: “Section 23 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 governs any change of name of region, islands or district councils. There is no statutory ban to the continuance of historic titles for other purposes.”

Several community councils did as suggested and incorporated “royal burgh” into their name so now we have the likes of the Royal Burgh of St Andrews Community Council, the Royal Burgh of Selkirk and District Community Council and plenty more from Wick to Annan.

The government said that it was up to councils to allow the use of the term in the name of community councils as long as the secretary of state consented and the Lord Lyon, King of Arms, also allowed the term to be used in armorial bearings. The fact is, however, that since 1975, royal burghs have had no legal status, no legal right to exist and no legislation to underpin their very existence – quite the opposite, in fact.

If Glasgow City Council, for example, wanted to change its name to the Royal Burgh of Glasgow City Council, it couldn’t do so. Indeed, as I read the law, none of the 32 local authority areas could claim royal burgh status because such a definition legally does not exist.

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So today I am calling for the Scottish Parliament to at least investigate the possibility of returning royal burghs on to the statute book, to make those who claim that status for their town able to legitimise their standing. An “Act for the Restoration of Royal Burgh Status” has a nice ring to it.

Let’s examine some facts first. Royal burghs had been in existence since the 11th century when King Malcolm III gave Tain a charter in 1066 that recognised its standing as a town and gave it certain rights and responsibilities. It could not call itself a royal burgh because they didn’t yet exist but Malcolm Canmore’s charter was the first to be issued and that’s why Tain is recognised as the oldest royal burgh.

It was also the blueprint for what was to come – a royal burgh not only had its name and status confirmed by royal charter, it was also given rights to conduct activities such as markets and fairs. Perhaps most importantly, royal burghs were usually given trading rights, especially those based on ports.

It took a man of genius and drive to make the new burghs possible. Malcolm’s son David I created the whole system of burghs during his reign from 1124-53. He had studied how the Anglo-Normans introduced feudalism into England and he wanted that for Scotland, based on burghs which were townships and settlements, usually developing around castles and monasteries. He confirmed Tain’s status and before 1124 he had issued royal charters to create new burghs.

The first were Berwick and Roxburgh, followed before 1130 by Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Perth, Scone and Stirling. As he solidified his grip on Scotland, he added Aberdeen, Dundee, Elgin, Forres, Linlithgow (below), Lanark, Montrose, Peebles, and Rutherglen.

The National:

Other royal burghs followed in the reigns of Malcolm IV and William I, the Lion. By 1214 there were 40 royal burghs, while other non-royal burghs were created by the aristocracy or clerics to show their hold over particular towns – St Andrews was one such, but became a royal burgh in 1620 when King James VI & I granted it that status.

Other “burghs of barony” or “burghs of regality” were also made into royal burghs, and the creation of new royal burghs continued right up until the reign of William II (III of England) who made Campbeltown a royal burgh in 1700.

Royal burghs were superior to ordinary burghs as they had the right to be represented in the Scottish Parliament by a commissioner, the third of the Three Estates after the prelates and lairds.

At the time of the Act of Union, there were 70 royal burghs across Scotland and more than 200 other forms of burgh. There is one very important political/historical point which SNP MSPs in particular might consider.

In the Act of Union passed by the Scottish Parliament in January 1707, article XXI states: “That the Rights and Privileges of the Royal Boroughs [note English spelling] in Scotland as they are, and do remain entire after the Union.”

When did those “rights and privileges” cease? About as soon as the Union took effect, some would argue, though the parcel of rogues in Scotland and England that brought about the Union made it the responsibility of Scotland’s burghs to standardise weights and measures to English levels, showing they believed royal burghs had a role to play in the future of the United Kingdom.

Royal burghs continued to function as they had previously until the Great Reform Act of 1832 brought an element of democracy to local authorities, which until then had been self-perpetuating bodies without a trace of what we would recognise as democracy. The later reforms – such as the creation of police burghs and county councils – weakened the standing of royal burghs but most of them jealously guarded their status, many of them becoming “county towns” as headquarters of council administration.

Perhaps the most indicative sign of the decline of burghs was the long, slow diminution of the Convention of Royal Burghs, which before the Union had been Scotland’s most powerful organisation apart from the Parliament itself.

The convention’s commissioners did everything from making rules and regulations on trade for all its members to conducting foreign negotiations on behalf of Scottish traders. Other forms of burgh were allowed membership and by 1899 the convention had 103 member burghs. But in 1975, the convention ceased to exist overnight.

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I am making a point here not about royalty but about history. The fact is that all Scotland’s royal burghs came into being before the Union and were given their status by the kings – and one queen regnant – of Scotland. This is nothing to do with the current royal family, though with his keen knowledge of history and love of Scotland I don’t think Charles III would object. There could be a huge boost to tourism if royal burghs were allowed to brand themselves as such legally, for instance, for copyright matters.

As far as I know, nobody sits at the top of our 282 Munros and stamps your record book to say you’ve just climbed one, but imagine creating a Royal Burgh Trail – I know not one single royal burgh that doesn’t have some form of tourist attraction – where visitors could collect approved souvenirs to show that they had “bagged a burgh”.

Re-instating royal burghs could also be a huge educational boost for the teaching of Scottish history in our schools. And yes, I know councils are cash-strapped at the moment, but many if not most royal burghs have common good funds.

They are now controlled by councils but were established by burghs and should be used to promote the good name of burghs. And why not get the National Lottery to fund a nationwide campaign to promote royal burghs?

It would not take much time and effort to get the scheme going, and indeed it could be put through Holyrood – local government is fully devolved – and be ready to run by 2025, the 50th anniversary year of the great injustice that was done to uniquely Scottish institutions.