Burghs (Towns)

The big towns of Medieval Scotland were called burghs. They were founded by King David I (who reigned from 1124-1153) to be centres for trade; encouraging craftsmen and merchants to settle on the high streets. Several burghs existed throughout Scotland, but not all of them were founded as early in the Medieval period as the reign of David I. Many burghs were actually already towns before this time and King David I’s charter only served to confirm their status as a burgh. This was the case for the some of the early burghs such as Berwick Upon Tweed and Edinburgh, where towns already existed. While others were granted burgh status, or founded, later in the medieval period and beyond.

The word ‘burgh’ relates to how the towns were laid out and to the concept of ‘burgage’ – a system of ownership of land. Burghs were often aligned along a single high street, which stretched from the castle at one end and usually ended with a church at the other. Houses were arranged facing out onto the cobbled high street with long strips of land behind. These were known as ‘burgage plots’, ‘tofts’ or ‘rigs’ and often ended in a ditch or wattle fence. When these were joined with neighbouring plot boundaries, they formed the outer boundary of the burgh. People used the long burgage plots, behind the buildings, for many different things. They could be used as garden plots; to keep livestock or for small industrial uses such as workshops, kilns and brewhouses. They were also often frequently home to other houses, particularly for poorer town folk; as not everyone could afford a street-fronted house. In the early medieval period the homes on both the street front and in the backlands of the burgage plots would probably have been constructed from wood; while in later times the wealthier houses were rebuilt in stone.

Excavations in the burghs of Aberdeen and Perth found that paths often led between the buildings out into the burgage plots. Evidence of these can still be seen today in the survival of the many ‘closes’ or ‘wynds’ on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh which would have originally served as paths to the backland burgage plots. On the right you can see a picture of 'Advocates Close' where you can see down the close and between all the buildings.

Although we don’t have any maps of these burghs from the medieval period we can often still see their layouts in the property boundaries of later maps. Have a look at the map of Jedburgh below and you can still see the long strips of land leading back from the main street.

You may also have noticed that some of the names of the towns already mentioned actually include the word ‘burgh’, such as Edinburgh and Jedburgh. Another border town that was a prominent burgh in the Medieval period was Roxburgh, which was even home to David I for a time during his reign. Roxburgh the medieval burgh doesn’t survive today, the current village is around two miles north of the site of the former burgh. The ruins of the castle can still be seen however, near Floors Castle outside Kelso.

Life in a medieval burgh would have been loud and smelly, but not like the busy cities today. The streets would have been full of people working and trading in their market stalls, people transporting wares on horses or even on their backs and animals either grazing in the plots, or being shepherded out of the burgh to graze in the fields. The backlands would have been similar, with all the different small industries and workshops creating noises and definitely smells! Can you imagine the noise and the smell if you were to walk down a path between two burgage plots, one containing stables for horses at the front, with a pigsty at the rear and the other containing a small brewhouse! In addition to this, there was no such thing as rubbish collection until after the medieval period. People either disposed of their rubbish in rubbish pits, the town midden or even the town ditch, if there was one. Bad smells were often associated with disease and were considered dangerous. Find out more HERE.