In medieval times, burghs allowed a community
of merchants and craftsmen to live and work outside the feudal
system. In return each burgh paid large sums of money to its creator
(the crown, an abbot, a bishop, or a secular baron). Burghs were
first created in Scotland in the twelfth century. Some were ancient
towns already (such as Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling and Aberdeen).
Others were entirely new creations, often in the shadow of a royal
castle such as Ayr. By 1707 three types of burgh existed: royal
burghs, burghs of regality and burghs of barony. Most royal burghs
were sea ports, and each was either created by the crown, or
upgraded, as it were, from another status, such as burgh of barony.
The burghs became the market towns, which regulated themselves to a
greater or lesser extent and held trading privileges from the
Medieval period until 1832. They were abolished in 1975.
The Mercat (Market) Cross was the place where, by
a law said to have been made by William I (1165-1214), all goods to
be sold in the burgh had to be presented. It was the central point
in the market-place where all announcements were made. The mercat
cross was the symbol of a burgh's right to trade.
Photos of Cumnock Mercat Cross
The mercat cross is closely associated with the
tolbooth and the tron. To begin with, the tolbooth was the booth at
which the tolls or taxes were paid, but later on it was used to
describe the town hall. The Tron was the public weighing place where
weights and measures were checked. The tolbooth, tron and mercat
cross would be positioned at a key point in the high street and the
cross was often the town's symbolic centre. Some burghs had specific
market places but most used the High Street as the market.
Photos of Prestwick Mercat Cross
Mercat Crosses existed as early as the 12th
century, at which time they are believed to have been wooden. The
cross is not actually a cross, but a shaft crowned with an
appropriate heraldic or religious emblem. The style of the cross
varied from burgh to burgh. The earlier examples of these have a
thin stone shaft rising from a solid, stepped base, crowned with
some form of ornamentation, often a unicorn holding a shield charged
with the royal arms. Another popular ornamentation was a sun dial.
Some of the more spectacular mercat crosses, such as Edinburgh's,
are raised up on a platform surrounded by a parapet that can be
accessed by an internal staircase.
As high streets developed, the mercat cross has
often been removed and in many cases, lost. In Ayrshire we have
several surviving crosses; two examples are at Prestwick and
Cumnock. Both have been moved several times over the centuries and
have undergone a fair degree of reconstruction but are nevertheless
still there to be seen.
Prestwick was the first Royal Burgh in Scotland.
Its existence as a burgh before 1165 is found in the Charter of
Confirmation dated 19th June 1600, granted by James IV himself.
Cumnock became a burgh in 1509 when James Dunbar
of Cumnock, the proprietor of the barony, and patron of the parish,
obtained a charter from James IV creating the church lands of
Cumnock into a free burgh of barony.