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Criminal Jurisdiction


The extent of criminal jurisdiction varied quite widely. In general, treason and the four pleas of the crown (murder, rape, robbery and fire-raising) were reserved to a higher court. However, these exclusions were often modified and some charters granted powers so extensive that these courts became known as "courts of regality". Lords of Regality exercised a jurisdiction co-equal to that of the crown.

An explicit grant was required for a baron to try capital crimes. This generally included the phrase "furcae et fossae" (pit and gallows). The drowning pit was used to sentence women as it was considered a kinder death. By no means all baronies had this prerogative. The crimes liable to a death sentence that could be tried by a baron's court were therefore restricted to serious crimes not reserved to a higher court. In practise this was limited to such crimes as infang theft, where the thief was caught in the act, and crimes of violence.

By the 17th Century records of the baron courts were generally devoid of actions involving life and limb. It appears that fines were limited to 50 Scots for crimes involving bloodshed and 10 for lesser crimes.

After the 1745 rising there was a massive programme to deprive clan chiefs of their power. In 1747 the Heritable Jurisdictions (Scotland) Act severely curtailed the jurisdiction of the baron courts.

Punishment for criminal acts was limited to:


  • a fine not exceeding twenty shillings sterling.
  • setting the delinquent in the stocks for not more than three hours in the day time.
  • imprisonment for any time not exceeding one month.