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Freedom of the Burgh

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Freedom of the Burgh
00:00 / 05:13

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The once highly practical granting of 'Burgess' status in Kirkcaldy gave way in later years to the largely ceremonial presentation of the 'Freedom of Kirkcaldy'.

This month we look at some of the town's burgesses and reflect on how the custom has changed over time.

In depth written study

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Freedom of the Burgh

The Freedom of the Burgh is a phrase whose meaning has changed considerably over the centuries. We have to travel back into the mists of time to trace its evolution and also look at some words which are no longer in common parlance. Such a word is ‘burgess’ – which originally simply referred to an inhabitant of a burgh, but in time came to mean an elected or unelected official of a municipality.  A burgh itself was a town normally incorporated by charter which allowed it a considerable degree of self autonomy until the local government reorganisation of 1975 swept away their powers.

Being a burgess was a highly prized position. The craftsmen and merchants of burghs formed themselves into “guilds.” The principal objective and intention being to protect their livelihoods by preventing ‘outsiders’ making inroads as competitors, therefore the ability to trade inside a burgh was jealously guarded. Only burgesses could trade within the boundaries and normally the most common way to secure what was called a ‘burgess ticket’ was to be born in the burgh. There were alternative ways in which ‘burgess status’ could be secured – by apprenticeship, by heirship to a burgess, or by marriage to the daughter of a burgess. The applicants also had to be vetted by the magistrates to ensure they were worthy of inclusion.

 It was a cherished position as it offered the twin benefits of earning a living, as well as the security of being inside the town walls. Therefore the original granting of burgess status was vitally important to the quality of life of the individual and his family. It was in no way ceremonial, in fact quite the opposite. As well as these privileges, burgesses had duties such as guarding the town gates to ensure that no illicit person entered to try and pilfer trade. It was also necessary to ensure that no corrupt tricks were being used to disadvantage fellow burgesses. It could therefore be said that a burgess was a ‘freeman’ of the burgh.

Kirkcaldy certainly embraced making its councillors ‘Burgesses’ as soon as they were elected. This practice only ended in 1900. Kirkcaldy’s Roll therefore contains a mass of these ‘’automatic’ burgesses.

As times changed, burghs started to honour a valued member of the community, or a visiting celebrated or important individual, by granting them its freedom. In essence, it became an honour which was only ceremonial without the granting of any privileges.

Kirkcaldy, over the years, has been very sparing with granting the Freedom of the Burgh. In fact, only 13 individuals have been accorded the honour since 1843, although that does not include a number of Kirkcaldy Volunteers who volunteered to fight in South Africa during the second Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902).

It was always a matter of pride with the Town Council that, although the numbers were modest, the quality was high. The Kirkcaldy Roll contains household names along with those less well known and some perhaps hardly known at all. However, there is no denying that all, either before or after having the honour bestowed upon them, made their mark on the national and/or international stage. Only two of the names contained on the roll were born in Kirkcaldy, and they are Sir Sandford Fleming and Sir Michael Nairn. The ceremonies came to follow a well trodden path. Firstly, the formal part saw the presentation of the scroll together with a silver gift which was normally a container for the document. The second part was invariably a ‘Cake and Wine’ banquet followed by any number of toasts and responses to them.

Kirkcaldy’s list of burgesses covers many professions including politicians, diplomats, industrialists, the military, a religious leader and an engineer.

It had been intended to grant the honour to another two individuals. However, ill health prevented one, while the other simply refused.

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