Legal History of Scotland - Feudalism


In the 11th century King David I began the gradual introduction of feudalism in Scotland and established feudal land tenure over many parts of the south and east, which eventually spread northward. As feudalism began to develop in Scotland a number of separate court systems developed.

Sheriffs were appointed by the King in the south and over time spread north. Their scope gradually developed and they were fully established across mainland Scotland by 1300. The sheriffs were originally appointed by the King as royal administrators and tax collectors but their powers grew and as early as 1214 they were holding court to hear a variety of cases. Feudal lords were also normally permitted to hold court where disputes between their tenants, including criminal matters, were adjudicated. By the 14th century some of these feudal courts had developed into "petty kingdoms" where the King's courts did not have authority, except for cases of treason. Burghs, towns which had been given this special status usually by the King, also had their own set of local laws dealing mostly with commercial and trade matters. The burghs themselves established their own separate court system by authority of the King to administer and enforce these laws. The burgh laws were collected as the Leges burgorum by 1270, though, according to Professor John Cairns, the laws applied by the burgh courts and the sheriff courts were similar. Ecclesiastical courts also played an important role in Scotland as they had exclusive jurisdiction over matters such as marriage, contracts made on oath, inheritance and legitimacy. These courts, unlike their lay counterparts, were generally staffed by educated men who were trained in both Roman and Canon law and offered a more sophisticated form of justice. Litigants seem to have preferred to bring disputes before the ecclesiastical courts or an ecclesiastical arbiter rather than the lay courts in Scotland.

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