James V: The Gudeman of Ballengeich

Chapter 1: Introduction

A story is often told that James V would dress up (or rather, dress down) as a yeoman farmer, and would walk amongst his subjects incognito, calling himself the Gudeman of Ballengeich (ie the tenant farmer of Ballengeich, a place near Stirling). Thus disguised, James would find out about life from the perspective of his subjects, rather than just hearing what his nobles or clergy told him.

Whether the facts are true or not, the story points to a belief that James was interested in the life and fate of the common man, and this certainly seems borne out in his attitude to one of his chief roles, that of giver of justice.

In England, the role of judge had long been delegated from the King to professional judges, but in Scotland, it remained an important part of his kingship.

He would travel to the ‘caput’ or main town in the various sheriffdoms (from which the word shire derives) and hear the most serious case at sessions called Justices in Ayr. These would last from four to seven days, with Sundays always excluded. The day to day matters of justice were dealt with in the Barons’ courts, with the baron, or laird, having ‘right of pit and gallows’ and jurisdiction over ‘life and limb’.