Historically the provost was the chief magistrate or convener of a Scottish burgh council, the equivalent of a mayor in other parts of the English-speaking world. Previous to the enactment of the Town Councils (Scotland) Act 1900 various titles were used in different burghs, but the legislation standardised the name of the governing body as “the provost, magistrates, and councillors” of the burgh. After the re-organisation of local government in Scotland in 1975, the title of Lord Provost was reserved to the four major cities, while other district councils could choose the title to be used by the convener: in 1994 twenty-two councils had provosts. Similar provisions were included in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 whch established unitary council areas in 1996. The area councils are allowed to adopt the title of provost (or any other) for the convener of the council, as are the area committees of the council. Some community councils which include former burghs also use the style for their chairmen.
The date of this creation is uncertain, but was without doubt some time in the 11th century. The provosts replaced the viscounts wherever the viscounty had not become a fief, and it is possible that in creating them the Crown was imitating the ecclesiastical organization in which the provost figured, notably in the cathedral chapters. The royal provosts had at first a double character. In the first place they fulfilled all the functions which answered locally to the royal power. They collected all the revenues of the domain and all the taxes and dues payable to the king within the limits of their jurisdiction. Doubtless, too, they had certain military functions, being charged with the duty of calling out certain contingents for the royal service; there survived until the end of the ancien régime certain military provosts prevots d'épée ("provosts of the sword") who were replaced in the administration of justice by a lieutenant. Finally, the provosts administered justice, though certainly their competence in this matter was restricted. They had no jurisdiction over noblemen, or over feudal tenants (hommes de fief), who claimed the jurisdiction of the court of their over-lord, where they were judged by their peers— the other vassals of the same lord. Neither had they jurisdiction over the open country, the pies pays, where this belonged to local seigneurs; and even in the towns over which they were set their jurisdiction was often limited by that of the municipal courts established for the benefit of the burgesses. The second characteristic of the old provosts was that their office was farmed for a limited time to the highest bidder. It was simply an application of the system of farming the taxes. The provost thus received the speculative right to collect the revenues of the royal domain in the district under his jurisdiction; this was his principal concern, and his judicial functions were merely accessory. By these short-term appointments the Crown guaranteed itself against another danger: the possible conversion by the functionary of the function into an inheritable property. Very early, however, certain provostships were bestowed en garde, i.e. the provost had to account to the king for all he collected. The prévôtes en ferme were naturally a source of abuses and oppression, the former seeking to make the most of the concession he had bought. Naturally, too, the people complained. From Joinville we learn how under St Louis the provostship of Paris became a prévôté en garde. At the death of Louis XI the prévôtés en ferme were still numerous and provoked a remonstrance from the States-general of 1484. Their suppression was promised by Charles VIII in 1493, but they are again referred to in the grande ordonnance of 1498. They disappeared in the 16th century, by which time the provosts had become regular officials, their office, however, being purchasable.
Other transformations had previously taken place. The creation of the royal baillis reduced the provosts to a subaltern rank. Each bailli had in his district a certain number of provosts, who became his inferiors in the official hierarchy. When appeals were instituted (and this was one of the earliest instances of their introduction) the provost, the sphere of whose competency was limited, was subject to an appeal to the bailli, though his judgment had hitherto been without appeal. Moreover, in the fourteenth century they had ceased to collect the revenues of the royal domain, except where the prévôté was en ferme, and royal collectors (receveurs royaux) had been appointed for this purpose. The summoning of the feudal contingents, the ban and arrière-ban, had passed into the hands of the baillis. Thus the provosts were left for their sole function as inferior judges for non-nobles, the appeals from their sentences going to the baillis, who also had jurisdiction in the first instance over actions brought against nobles and in cases reserved for the crown judges (cas royaux). This corresponded to a principle which had also applied in the chief feudal Courts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, where a distinction was made between judicial acts which could be performed en prévôté, and those which had to be performed in a solemn assize (assise); this did not, however, always imply the existence of a superior and an inferior official, a provost and a bailli.
The provost in the exercise of his legal functions sat alone as judge, and he alone exercised the judicial authority at his tribunal; but he had to consult with certain lawyers (avocats or procureurs) chosen by himself, whom, to use the technical phrase, he "summoned to his council" (appelait à son conseil). In 1578 official counsellors (conseillers-magistrats) were created, but were suppressed by the ordonnance of Blois of 1579. The office was restored in 1609 by a simple decree of the royal council, but it was opposed by the parlements, and it seems to have been conferred in but few cases.
In the Cadfael series of historical detective novels by Ellis Peters, taking place at 12th Century Shrewsbury, England, an important role is played by the town's Provost - who in addition to this position is a prominent shoemaker.