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Arbroath and its Abbey
Chapter III - Social State of Angus in the Twelve Century

WE, in this nineteenth century, can form but a very faint idea of the important privileges which the inhabitants of Arbroath five or six centuries ago would derive from the place having been created a free burgh of regality, nearly equal to the rank of a royal burgh. With this view, it is worth while to take a cursory view of the state of the population of Scotland before the erection of burghs, and of those who for sometime afterwards continued to live beyond the reach of burghal privileges. And, in connection with this subject, it may be allowable to allude to a few of the many bygone marks which served to denote the wide distinction which formerly existed betwixt the rural and urban populations. The following description applies chiefly to the eastern counties betwixt Forth and Spey, which formed the ancient kingdom of Scotland, and the centre of which was occupied by the district of Angus, rather than to the Saxon people of ancient Lothian, or to the then pure Celtic inhabitants of the Highlands, Galloway, and Nithsdale.

With the exception of the barons and the clergy, the extra-burghal inhabitants, about the time of the foundaLion of Arbroath Abbey, were, in every sense of the word, slaves. They bore the distinctive name of "thralls," or bondmen, in public documents. They were born slaves, and as such they lived and died. They were unable to hold any property in land; but they could be, and often were, conveyed along with the lands as part of the purchase. Several of the older grants to the religious houses conveyed lands, with all the men upon them, just as a conveyance or sale of land at the present time includes (if it does not express) all the hares, partridges, and grouse that may be found on it. They were also sometimes bestowed on religious houses separate from lands, and distinguished by their names, as slaves are still transferred in America.. Cristine, daughter of Walter Corbet, gave to the Canons of St Andrews, to be held on their lands of the village of Maurice, Martin, son of Vnieti, with his sons and daughters (nativi of the late Walter Corbet), and that in perpetual servitude, with all generations of their posterity. (Reg. St Andrews, p. 262.)

The goods, liberties, and even the lives of these bond-men were as completely at the disposal of the barons or landholders as those of Russian serfs are at the disposal of the Czar's nobility at the present day. Their condition was even worse, for the kings of Scotland never possessed that power of controlling or meliorating baronial oppression which the Czar is now exercising. These barons often held the lives of their bondmen at little value ; and they were enjoined by the old laws to have always in readiness pit and gallows, or gibbet and draw-well, for the more convenient hanging of men and drowning of women.

The powers of life and death over their vassals were retained and exercised by the great Scottish barons until a comparatively recent period, in their characters of judges and feudal superiors, long after they lost the proper powers of slaveholders over the persons of their dependents. Many memorials of the stern enforcement of this judicial power still remain in the names of the Gallow-towns, Gallow-dens, Gallows-knowes, Gallow-hills, and Widdie-hills, which are to be found near the seats of the old barons. The executioner was accordingly in those days an indispensable officer in every baron's court; and the piece of ground which formed his proper patrimony still bears in some places the name of the Hangman's Acre, or the Hangman's Croft, Although Scotland now possesses a population probably six times more numerous than in some of the periods to which we have referred, it is at the present time totally destitute of such an official. Hence the complaint which has been ironically put into the mouth of the Society for the Protection of Scottish Rights that, among other wants, Scotland does not possess so much as one hangman, and could not put a capital sentence into execution without borrowing such a functionary from England.

The state of bondage in which a large proportion of the inhabitants of Scotland were formerly held was more complete, and can be much better established than is generally believed. As in the Southern States of the American Union at the present day, laws were enacted containing punishments on all who connived at or abetted the attempts of the unfortunate "thralls" to escape from their bondage. Thus, one of the laws of King William, the same monarch who founded Arbroath Abbey, was passed for restoring back to their slave masters born serfs or thralls who had fled from their bondage. It provides that, "if any man holds a bondman who is kind-born (i.e., born a slave) to another, after he be asked of his true lord, he sail yield the bondman with all his goods and cattle, and sail give to the lord of the bondman double of all his scaiths by him sustained, and be in the king's mercy for his lvrangous withholding." Even King David, the great patron and protector of the burghs, had no idea of giving liberty from bondage to his poorer subjects, unless within the ports of his royal burghs. One of the laws of this King, who was, in many respects, in advance of his age, reminds us of some of the American Negro laws. It provides that, "Gif ony man be fundin in the king's land that has nae proper lord, after that the king's writ be read within the king's mutes (i.e., the king's courts), he sail have the space of fyfteen days to get him a lord. And gif that he, within the said term, finds nae lord, the king's justice sail tak of him to the king's use aught kye (eight cows), and kepe his body to the king's behoof till he get him a lord." Thus it appears the bondman was held bound to provide a slave master for himself. Not only was the poor thrall doomed to slavery all his lifetime, but his children were born slaves, and transmitted their thraldom through unlimited generations. The last remains of this state of things were found among the colliers and salters on the shores of the Firth of Forth, who remained in slavery till they were emancipated by Acts of Parliament not more than a hundred years ago. The following singular statement of a case, and the solution given to it, found among our oldest laws, exhibits a resolution to perpetuate the stigma and misfortune attendant on slavery to the slave's wife and children, even where the mother of his children did not belong to the doomed class of thralls. It bears the title of "A gude were of law," and proceeds in these set terms —"Twa sisters (freewomen) has an heritage as richteous heirs,—the tane taks a thrall (i.e., marries a bondman); the tother taks a freeman: She that taks the freeman has all the heritage (i.e., she shall possess the whole heritage); for this, that ane thrallman may have nane: The thrallman begets a bairn with his wife: The bondman dees: The bondman's wife, her husband (being) dead, gaes till her heritage, and enjoys it for her lifetime: The wife dees: (The question then arises,) May the son recover the heritage'? (The answer is,) Na, lie shall nocht, for this (cause), that he was begotten with that thrall's body that is dead."

At the period of which we are speaking, the class of our population known by the name of farmers had no existence. For centuries afterwards, agricultural tacksmen were only known as " the puir people that labour the ground." They were almost all tenants at will; and such leases as they could obtain were looked upon as mere private arrangements, to be set at nought on any change in the proprietor's position, or any transference of the property. Their goods were liable to be seized for the proprietor's debt, because they were situated on his lands, and were also liable to. be carried off, for the same reason, by escheat or forfeiture if he was convicted of rebellion or other crimes. Even in the case of a private sale of the estate, the purchaser had power to disregard the leases of the tenants, and turn them off as soon as he entered on possession. This continued to be the case down till the reign of King James II., in 1449, when the Parliament "ordained, for the safety and favour of the puir people that labours the ground, that they and all others that has taken, or sall tak, lands in time to come frae lords, and has terms and years thereof, that, suppose the said lords sell or annalie that land, the takers sall remain with their tacks unto the issue of their terms, whas hands soever these lands cum to, for sicklike mail as they took them for." A short view of the principal steps by which the emancipation of the Scottish peasantry from their original state of feudal thraldom was effected, will be given in a note appended to this volume. (See Appendix No. I.)

Barbour, the old Scottish poet, understood something of the condition of Scottish serfs, whom he terms "thrylls," as appears from the following lines:—

"And thryldom is weill wer than deid, [Well worse than death]
For quhill a thryll his lyff may leid,
It merys [Mars or ruins.] him, body and banys,
And dede anoyis him bot ant's:
Schortly to say, is nane can tell
The haille conditioun of a thryll." [Barbour's Bruce, Book I.]

Such was the state of the rural population of the Lowlands of Scotland about the time that Arbroath came into historical notice by the planting of King William's princely Abbey in its vicinity. But it is well known that the barons and great landlords of Scotland often made their powers to be formidably felt by the monarch on the throne, their professed superior, as well as by the poor vassals, who were both really and professedly their slaves. To obtain a counter-balance to these powers, and having witnessed the wealth and enterprise which the free towns of the Continent had introduced into the states where their liberties were protected, King David made it his object to establish as many such corporations as possible in his kingdom. He erected many of his towns and villages into free burghs, holding of himself, and hence styled burghs royal. From the influence of his example, the Abbots and other great lords of regality formed their villages into burghs, holding of them, and styled burghs of regality; while the barons erected the hamlets near their castles into burghs of barony, with privileges more or less extensive.

The nature of the inducements held out by King David for men to settle in his burghs, as well as the contrast between the freedom of a burgess, and the bondage of what was then styled an upland man or thrall, will be best understood from the following two specimens of his enactments. The first provides that, "Gif ony man's thrall, baron's or knycht's, comes to burgh, and buys a borrowage, and dwells in his borrowage a twelvemonth and a day withoutyn challenge of his lord or of his bailie, he sail be ever mare free as a burgess within that king's burgh, and enjoy the freedom of that burgh.' Another is in these terms: King David statutes that all burgesses "suld be free through all his kinrik, as weil be water as be land, to buy and to sell, and their profit for to do, withoutyn ony disturbance, under full forfeiture: the which are under his firm protection."

From these, and many other illustrations which might be given, we may come to understand something of the force and point of such expressions as "the freedom of the burgh," and "the liberties of the burgh," which occur so frequently in the documents connected with every municipal corporation in Scotland. At the time when these phrases were adopted, they truly described the existing state of burghs as distinguished from the extra-burghal territory. Within the bounds of the burgh was the domain of liberty and freedom; beyond these boundaries lay the domains of thraldom and servitude. The burgesses were both proud and jealous of their liberties; and to mark these the more distinctly, they built ports or arched gateways over the public thoroughfares at the points where they crossed the burgh boundaries. Of such gateways the inhabitants of Arbroath are still reminded by the names of the North Port, Guthrie Port, and West Port, erected apparently some time after the Reformation; and such ports remained in many burghs till within the last century. The town treasurer's accounts for 1608 contain various charges for the repairs of the North Port during a pestilence which was then prevailing. The ports were not intended to serve as defences against assaults from without, so much as to be visible badges of the political and social distinction between those who lived on either side of the structures, for very few of our Scottish towns appear to have been surrounded with walls or fortifications fitted to withstand a siege.

These ports were frequently associated with spectacles of a nature so loathsome and melancholy that the recollection of them makes us less to regret the demolition of our town-gates. These were, first, the lepers ("the lipper folk"), who were not "tholed to thig" within the burghs, but were allowed on certain days of the week to sit at the ports and receive alms from the passers-by. This continued to be the case till the reigns of the Jameses. They were also the places where the heads and limbs of malefactors, offenders against the State, were exposed to rot and blacken in the sun. This barbarous practice continued till the Revolution of 1688. The heads and hands of the Covenanters, smeared with tar, were the last of these dismal relics which were publicly exhibited at our burgh ports; but this was done in the southern and western districts of Scotland rather than in Forfarshire.

Another distinctive badge of the burgh was its market-cross, or according to the ancient orthography, its mercat Croce. While only a portion of our Scottish burghs possessed ports, every burgh, even the smallest burgh of barony with its seven or eight score inhabitants, had a cross. And the cross, like the freedom of the burgh, was in those days not a name but a reality. It was not a more circle of stones in the pavement, but a pillar with its upper part formed like a Latin cross, and often having for its basement a series of three or four stone-steps, either round or polygonal, and arranged in a pyramidical form. The most primitive market-cross now existing is perhaps that of the village of Dull, in Perthshire. In the more important burghs the steps supported a building of considerable size, generally octagonal in form, and containing a staircase leading to a platform, surrounded by a parapet or railing. These buildings sometimes exhibited considerable taste, as in that of Aberdeen still existing, and in that at Edinburgh foolishly demolished. The proper cross or pillar in such cases was erected in the centre of the platform ; and the platform was a convenient position for heralds, officers, and public speakers. When crosses fell into disrepute, at the Reformation, the arms of the cross were cut off, and the stone generally now appears (where market-crosses yet remain) in the simple form of a round pillar surmounted by a unicorn. The mutilated stone unicorn which is said to have surmounted the cross of Arbroath was very lately, if it is not still, to be seen in the garden of Mr Andson of Friockheim. We have not been able to learn the precise construction of the Cross of Arbroath, which stood, not at that part of the High Street where three successive town-houses have been built, but almost at the foot of that street, not far from the Old Shore Head. When printing was unknown, or but sparingly used, town crosses were objects of importance. They were the points from which all edicts and proclamations were published. The acts of the Scottish Parliament had to be read and proclaimed at the crosses of at least all the King's burghs, until which time they were not held to be in force; and (which appears strange to us) they were not even then considered to have full legal effect if the proclamation was met at that moment by a counter protest, at the instance of any party who considered his rights to be compromised by the law so proclaimed. Our history affords several instances of stealing marches in order to get an obnoxious law proclaimed before its opponents could be ready with their protest.

In the vicinity of the market cross were the merchants' shops, then termed booths, with their fronts open to the street. The goods were withdrawn into the inner part of the building at night, and reexposed in the morning. Arbroath does not now seem to possess any houses built on this plan, although numerous instances may be found in some other towns. One of these booths was always used as the place for collecting the tolls or customs of the burgh, from which use the name of Tolbooth is derived. The magnates of the burgh naturally assembled at the Tolbooth for public business; and the place of confinement for delinquents, as a matter of convenience, was constructed there. Hence the original term, first formed to denote an open shed or booth for the receipt of custom, came afterwards to be the name of a town-house, and is now known as the old-fashioned and somewhat obsolete title of a Scotch jail.

To us who have seen the peculiar privileges of burgesses accounted of so little value as to have been abolished by Parliament without a solitary voice raised in favour of their retention, it is interesting to look backwards through a period of seven hundred years to the time when these privileges were first obtained, cherished, watched over, and guarded with such jealous care. The apathy with which we have witnessed their abolition might have been caused by a knowledge of evils arising out of the abuse of such privileges, greater than the advantage derivable from them, or from indifference to the cause of liberty and freedom itself. A better reason can however be assigned for the modern depreciated estimate of burghal privileges. In early times the burghs, like wells and reservoirs in a dry and thirsty land, were highly prized and carefully protected, as the only fountains of freedom in the midst of an enslaved and depressed population. But when the wilderness becomes a pool of water, and the dry land is turned into water springs (to borrow a metaphor from the Sacred Scriptures), when water can be readily obtained anywhere and everywhere, then particular fountains will necessarily lose their comparative high value, and cease to be objects of anxiety. So, in like manner when, in consequence of the merciful spirit of Christianity, and the diffusion of wise and liberal political principles, the inhabitant of every village and hamlet now enjoys as much personal and political liberty as could be secured to an ancient burgess, these corporation privileges, however valuable in themselves, and venerable as the first fruits of freedom, have lost their comparative importance, and have ceased to stand in need of statutory protection,—not because the burgess has in any respect sunk down from his proud position to the lower level of the upland man or thrall, but because every upland man throughout the kingdom has risen to the level of the once envied platform of the burgess or king's freeman.

If the condition of the Scottish peasantry generally about the time of the formation of burghs was, as we have seen, very melancholy, the state of the inhabitants of these burghs themselves was not by any means to be envied by us who live in times of greater freedom and higher civilisation. The glimpses we obtain of their manners exhibit that jealous care of small possessions, and vindictive punishment of the least aggressions upon these, which is characteristic of a poor people, together with the comparatively little value put upon human life which characterises a barbarous people.

The following excerpts from the burgh laws will help to illustrate the first part of this remark. By one of these it is provided that—"Gif a burgess or ony other halds swine or other beasts through the whilk the neighbours taks skaith, the swine fundin in the skaith withouten ony keeper following them, may weil be slain, and made escheat, and eaten after the law of the burgh." Another provides that—"Gif ony finds gait or geese in his scaith (i.e., doing mischief to his property), lie sail tak the heads off the geese, and fasten the nebs in the yird, and the bodies lie sail eat,—the gaits, forsooth, he shall slay and bald the bodies for escheat." The "statute of theft" is an illustration of the low value of human life in former times. It exhibits an extraordinary gradation both in the crime and the corresponding punishment, in the following terms— "Gif ony be tane with the laff of a halfpenny in burgh, he aught to be dung through the toune; and frae a halfpenny worth to four pennies, he aught to be mair sairly dung; and for a pair of schone of four pennies, he ought to be put on the cukstool, and after that, led to the head of the toune, and there he sail forswear the toune (i.e., he shall swear to leave the town for ever); and frae four pennies till aught pennies and a farthing, he sail be put upon the cukstool, and after that, led to the head of the toune, and there he that took him aught to cut his ear off; and frae aught pennies and a farthing to saxteen pennies and a halfpenny he sail be set upon the cukstool, and after that led to the head of the toune, and there he that took him aught to cut his other ear off; and after that, gif he be tane with aught pennies and a farthing, he that taks him sail hang him. Item, for threttie-twa pennies one halfpenny, he that tales a man may hang him."

'There are documents found among our old laws showing similar gradations as to crimes against the person. By one of these the life of a man may be compounded for by "nine score kye; and another contains the following item in a valuation put upon all sorts of assaults— For a man's life, twelve mark." There is more agreement between these two apparently contradictory modes of valuing human life than is seen at the first view. By the first, the life of a poor thief is forfeited through his stealing thirty-two pence halfpenny. By the second, the rich criminal is allowed to redeem his own life when forfeited for murder, by one hundred and eighty cattle. Two shillings and eightpence halfpenny were accounted of more value than the life of the thief who was unable to redeem himself; and one hundred and eighty cows were accounted fully equivalent to the life of the victim if his murderer was wealthy enough to be able to give them.

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