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Early Scottish Courts

As there was no fixed capital, the King’s Court, in David’s time, followed the King in his annual circuits through his realm, between Dumfries and Inverness. Later, the regions of Scotia, north of Forth, Lothian, and the lawless realm of Galloway, had their Grand Justiciaries, who held the Four Pleas. The other pleas were heard in “Courts of Royalty” and by earls, bishops, abbots, down to the baron, with his “right of pit and gallows.” At such courts, by a law of 1180, the Sheriff of the shire, or an agent of his, ought to be present; so that royal and central justice was extending itself over the minor local courts. But if the sheriff or his sergeant did not attend when summoned, local justice took its course.

The process initiated by David’s son, William the Lion, was very slowly substituting the royal authority, the royal sheriffs of shires, juries, and witnesses, for the wild justice of revenge; and trial by ordeal, and trial by combat. But hereditary jurisdictions of nobles and gentry were not wholly abolished till after the battle of Culloden! Where Abbots held courts, their procedure, in civil cases, was based on laws sanctioned by popes and general councils. But, alas! the Abbot might give just judgment; to execute it, we know from a curious instance, was not within his power, if the offender laughed at a sentence of excommunication.

David and his successors, till the end of the thirteenth century, made Scotland a more civilised and kept it a much less disturbed country than it was to remain during the long war of Independence, while the beautiful abbeys with their churches and schools attested a high stage of art and education.

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