On the Ayrshire Trail:
Exploring the Mercat Cross in Ayrshire
Cumnock Mercat Cross  Prestwick Mercat Cross

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.

Map to Cumnock Mercat Cross            Map to Prestwick Mercat Cross

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.



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