Front Page Titles (by Subject) SKETCH II: Government of Royal Boroughs in Scotland - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3
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SKETCH II: Government of Royal Boroughs in Scotland - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 3.
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Government of Royal Boroughs in Scotland
By a royal borough is in Scotland understood, an incorporation that hold their lands of the crown, and are governed by magistrates of their own naming. The administration of the annual revenues of a royal borough, termed the common good, is trusted to the magistrates; but not without control. It was originally subjected to the review of the Great Chamberlain; and accordingly the chap. 39. ;st 45. of the Iter Camerarii, contains the following articles, recommended to the Chamberlain, to be inquired into. “Giff there be an good assedation and uptaking of the common good of the burgh, and giff faithful compt be made thereof to the community of the burgh; and giff no compt is made, he whom and in quhaes hands it is come, and how it passes by the community.” In pur-suance of these instructions, the Chamberlain’s precepts for holding the ayr, or circuit, is directed to the provost and bailies, enjoining them “to call all those who have received any of the town’s revenues, or used any office within the burgh, since the last chamberlain-ayr, to answer such things as shall be laid to their charge.” Iter Camer. Cap. 1. And in the third chapter, which contains the forms of the chamberlain-ayr, the first thing to be done after fencing the court, is, to call the bailies and serjeants to be challenged and accused from the time of the last ayr.
This office, dangerous by excess of power, being suppressed, the royal boroughs were left in a state of anarchy. There being now no check or control, the magistracy was coveted by noblemen and gentlemen in the neighbourhood; who, under the name of office-bearers, laid their hands on the revenues of the borough, and converted all to their own profit. This corruption was heavily complained of in the reign of James V.; and a remedy was provided by act 26. parl. 1535, enacting, 1st, That none be quali-fied to be provost, bailie, or alderman, but an indwelling burgess. 2dly, “That no inhabitant purchase lordship out of burgh, to the terror of his comburgesses. And, 3dly, That all provosts, bailies, and aldermen of boroughs, bring yearly to the chequer, at a day certain, the compt-books of their common-good, to be seen and considered by the Lords Auditors, giff the same be spended for the common well of the burgh, or not, under the penalty of losing their freedom. And that the saids provosts, bailies, and aldermen, warn yearly, fifteen days before their coming to the chequer, all those who are willing to come for examining the said accounts, that they may impugn the same, in order that all murmur may cease in that behalf.” And to enforce these regulations, a brieve was issued from the chancery, commanding the magistrates to present their accounts to the exchequer, and summoning the burgesses to appear and object to the same.
A defect in this statute made it less effectual than it was intended to be. Magistrates, to avoid the penalty, brought the count-books of their common-good to the exchequer; but they brought no rental of the common-good to found a charge against them. This defect was remedied by act 28. parl. 1693, containing the following preamble. “That the royal boroughs, by the mal-administration of their magistrates, have fallen under great debts and burdens, to the diminution of their dignity, and the disabling of them to serve the crown and government as they ought; and that the care, oversight, and control, of the common-good of boroughs, belong to their Majesties by virtue of their prerogative-royal; therefore, for preventing the like abuses and misapplications in all time thereafter, their Majesties statute and ordain, That every burgh-royal shall, betwixt and the first of November next, bring to the Lords of Treasury and Exchequer an exact account of charge and discharge, subscribed by the magistrates and town-clerk, of their whole public-good and revenues, and of the whole debts and incumbrances that affect the same.” This completed the remedy, by putting means into the hands of the Barons of Exchequer to control the ac-counts enjoined by the former statute to be yearly given in.
The foregoing regulations are kept in observance. Every year a precept issues from the exchequer, signed by one of the Barons, addressed to the director of the chancery, requiring him to make out a brieve for every royal borough. The brieve is accordingly made out, returned to the exchequer, and sent to the several sheriffs, to be served in all the royal boroughs within their bounds, as directed by the statute. These brieves are accordingly so served by the sheriffs; and particularly it is a constant form in most of the royal boroughs, to issue a proclamation, fifteen days before the day named for appearance in exchequer, warning the inhabitants to repair there, in order to object to the public accounts of the town: and further, in order to give them opportunity to frame objections, the book and counts are laid open for these fifteen days, to be inspected by all the inhabitants.
We learn from the records of exchequer, that, from the year 1660 to the year 1683, accounts were regularly given in to ex-chequer, in obedience to the statute. The town of Edinburgh only having failed for some short time, Captain Thomas Hamilton merchant there, by an action in exchequer, compelled the magistrates to produce upon oath their treasurer’s accounts, which were accordingly audited. And we also learn, that, from the Restoration down to the Union, a clerk to the borough-roll was appointed by the crown, whose proper business it was to examine and audite the accounts of the boroughs.
Notwithstanding the foregoing salutary regulations, and the form constantly practised to make them effectual, the boroughs of late years have forborn to present their accounts in exchequer; hoping that they would be overlooked by the English court of exchequer, established in Scotland after the Union; which accordingly happened. This neglect in the court of exchequer is greatly to be regretted, because it reduces the royal boroughs, by the mal-administration of their magistrates, to the same miserable condition that is so loudly complained of in the statutes above mentioned. It is undoubtedly in the power of the Barons to restore good government to the boroughs, by compelling the magistrates to account yearly in the court of exchequer, according to the foregoing regulations: no more is necessary, but to signify publicly that they are resolved to put these regulations in execution.
How beneficial that step would be to this country in general, and to the royal boroughs in particular, will appear from considering, first, the unhappy consequences that result from suffering magistrates to dispose of the town’s revenues, without any check or control; and next, the good effects that must result from a regular and careful management, under the inspection of the King’s judges.
The unhappy consequences of leaving magistrates without any check or control, are too visible to be disguised. The revenues of a royal borough are seldom laid out for the good of the town, but in making friends to the party who are in possession of the magistracy; and in rioting and drunkenness, for which every pretext is laid hold of, particularly that of hospitality to strangers. Such mismanagement tends to idleness, and corruption of man-ners; which accordingly are remarkable in most royal boroughs. Nor is the contagion confined within the town: it commonly spreads all around.
Another consequence no less fatal, of leaving magistrates to act without control, is a strong desire in every licentious burgess, of stepping into the magistracy, for his own sake, and for that of his friends. Hence the factions and animosities that prevail in almost all the royal boroughs; which are violently and indecently pursued, without the least regard to the good of the community.
The greatest evil of all, respects the choice of their representatives in parliament. A habit of riot and intemperance, makes them fit subjects to be corrupted by every adventurer who is willing to lay out money for purchasing a seat in parliament. Hence the infamous practice of bribery at elections, which tends not only to corrupt the whole mass of the people, but, which is still more dreadful, tends to fill the House of Commons with men of dissolute manners, void of probity and honour.
But, turning from scenes so dismal, let us view the beautiful effects that result from an administration regularly carried on, as directed by the statutes above mentioned. The revenues of the royal boroughs are supposed to be above L. 40,000 yearly. And were this sum, or the half of it, prudently expended, for promoting arts and industry among the numerous inhabitants of royal boroughs; the benefit, in a country so narrow and poor as Scotland, would be immense: it would tend to population, it would greatly increase industry, manufactures, and commerce, beside augmenting the public revenue. In the next place, as there would be no temptation for designing men to convert the burden of magistracy into a benefit, faction and discord would vanish; and there would be no less solicitude to shun the burden, than at present is seen to obtain it. None would submit to the burden but the truly patriotic, men who would chearfully bestow their time, and perhaps their money, upon the public; and whose ambition it would be to acquire a character, by promoting industry, temperance, and honesty, among their fellow-citizens.
And when the government of the royal boroughs comes to be in so good hands, bribery, which corrupts the very vitals of our constitution, will be banished of course. And considering the proper and constitutional dependence of the royal boroughs upon the king’s judges, we may have reasonable assurance, that few representatives will be chosen, but who are friends to their country and to their sovereign.