Whithorn’s Burgh Status

Scottish burghs (the English word ‘Borough’ has the same origin) have a distinctive history, since, unlike many towns in England, they did not originate in Roman towns, but grew up often out of religious settlements – like Whithorn – and were later remodelled perhaps according to Norman practices. In essence, the medieval burghs were licensed to trade and collect duties, and their burgesses could build on the ‘burgage plots’ allocated within the town.

Those who were not burgesses did not have the same “liberties” to trade and build within the burgh. Whithorn was certainly an ecclesiastical burgh before it became a Royal Burgh. One of the surviving charters dates from the time of James IV (1511) and confirms the rights of the Prior and Convent of Candida Casa to Whithorn as a ‘free burgh’ with the right to hold a market and fair, as well as the tolls and customs of the port at the Isle of Whithorn. This charter refers to previous grants of privileges by King Robert and David Bruce.

The fact that Whithorn became a Royal Burgh relatively late in its existence may in fact indicate that for many years the Prior was an independent force in this area : we know that in the fifteenth century, the Prior of Whithorn’s lands were erected into a ‘regality’, which effectively gave him virtual royal powers, including the power over life and death in all pleas except treason, within his own domain. It may be that the confirmation of Whithorn as a Royal Burgh indicates a tightening of the Crown’s influence over a once virtually independent organisation. The significance of the grant by the Crown of the exclusive right to trade eventually lessened, as the royal burghs lost their monopolistic grip over trade.