This short essay sets the context for the special section on communities, courts and Scottish towns. Scottish burgh records generally, and Aberdeen’s UNESCO recognised collection in particular, are considered in light of their legal character. The changing features of premodern political society between the fifteenth century and the early nineteenth century are introduced as a shared problem for investigation, and an ancien regime framework is examined as a comparative tool in this field. A vital concern of these papers is with the construction and sometimes contested use of vocabularies of law and authority, privileges and liberties, and ideas of urban ‘community’. Courts at the municipal level, and in the world beyond the burgh, are appreciated as legal and governmental fora. The ambition of this special section is to prompt European comparisons, and encourage greater dialogue with and consideration of Scottish urban records in future research.