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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
John Cockburn of Ormiston


ONE of the most distinguished men who ever possessed land in East Lothian, or perhaps in Scotland, was John Cockburn, proprietor of the estate of Ormiston. Descended from a family long and honourably known during the various struggles which Scotland made to shake off the fetters of tyranny, Mr Cockburn inherited with the estate of Ormiston a genuine and liberal patriotism. He was born about the year 1685, and was the son of Adam Cockburn of Ormiston, Lord Justice-Clerk of Scotland after the Revolution of 1688. He sat as a member of the last Scottish Parliament, during the life of his father, and took an active part in the Union of Scotland, with England, which was consummated in 1707. Afterwards he was successively elected to represent the county of Haddington, from 1707 to 1741, in the Parliament of Great Britain. For many years he filled office as one of the Lords of the Admiralty with much credit, and proved himself to be of much service to the State. It is, however, as the first great improver of land, and as an able and energetic instructor in husbandry in East Lothian, that we desire to notice him.

In the period in which Mr Cockburn lived, the land in East Lothian, as elsewhere, was in a very low and miserable state of cultivation. Tenants were poor, and rarely accepted leases; they were oppressed by the lairds. Many farms were unoccupied and untilled. Lord Karnes declared, in his usual characteristic style, that the tenantry were so benumbed with oppression, that the most able instructor in husbandry could have made nothing of them,

Fletcher of Salton, a contemporary of Cockburn, describes the situation of the tenants as truly deplorable. In one of his discourses concerning the affairs of Scotland, written in 1698, he says:—“The causes of the present poverty and misery in which the commonalty of Scotland live are many. Yet they are all to be imputed to our own bad conduct, and mismanagement of our affairs. *Tis true; trade being of late years vastly increased in Europe, the poverty of any nation is always imputed to their want of that advantage. And though our soil be barren, yet our seas being the richest of any in the world, it may be thought that the cause of all our poverty has been the neglect of trade, and chiefly of our own fishing. Nevertheless, were I to assign the principal and original source of our poverty, I should place it in the letting of our lands at so excessive rates, as makes the tenant poorer even than his servant, whose wages he cannot pay; and involves in the same misery day-labourers, tradesmen and the lesser merchants who live in the country villages and towns, and thereby influences no less the great towns, and wholesale merchants, makes the master have a troublesome and ill-paid rent, his lands not improved by inclosure, or otherwise, but for want of horses and oxen fit for labour, everywhere run out, and abused. The condition of the lesser freeholders or heritors (as we call them) is not much better than that of our tenants; for they have no stocks to improve their lands, and living not as husbandmen but as gentlemen, they are never able to attain any. Besides this, the unskilfulness of their wretched and half-starved servants is such that their lands are no better cultivated than those by beggarly tenants.”

The science of agriculture was at that time so imperfectly understood, and the situation and means of tenants so reduced, that substantial improvements could not be undertaken by them, unless their minds were previously enlightened and their condition mended. To the accomplishment of these objects Mr Cockburn’s mind was directed, and he entered so energetically into the improvement of his estate of Ormiston that in a few years great success attended his efforts.

“Ormiston in a little time was flocked to by the amateurs of husbandry to see the improvement made, and we have not only traditionary, but even written testimony to prove that the first dawn of Scottish improvement appeared upon the estate of Ormiston.” (See Farmers' Magazine, Vol. V., from which we quote freely a memoir of Mr Cockburn, written by Mr Brown of Markle.)

Four farms south of the Tyne, viz., House o* Muir, Muirhouse (now called the Murrays), Dodridge, and West Byres, though containing the poorest soil in the estate, were the first improved by Mr Cockburn. They were enclosed by ditches, and hedges and trees planted on the banks. In 1698, the Lord Justice-Clerk granted to Robert Wight, son of Alexander Wight, one of his tenants in Ormiston village, a lease of the farm of Muirhouse, to endure for eleven years. It was the first enclosed, and Robert Wight was the first tenant.

Again, in 1713, his lordship granted a lease to the said Robert Wight of the adjacent farm of House o’ Muir for nine years. About this time, and after the death of his father, Mr Cockburn entered upon his agricultural career with great energy. Finding that Robert Wight and his son, Alexander, entered with zeal into his views, he granted a new lease to Alexander of the Murrays for thirty-eight years, at a rent of 750 pounds Scotch (40 sterling), and upon paying 1200 pounds Scotch (64 sterling) in name of fine, or grassum, at the expiration of that term, a renewal thereof for other nineteen years, and so on from nineteen to nineteen years, in all time coming, or as long as “wood grows and water runs.”

In 1725 a new lease of House o’ Muir was granted for thirty-eight years and three lives, therein named. Alexander Wight having entered heartily into all Mr Cockburn’s measures for improving the estate, got the above lease cancelled in 1734, and a new one was granted for nineteen years, renewable for every nineteen years in all time coming, upon payment of a grassum. Leases of the other farms on the estate were granted on similar terms, with slight modifications. Thus some are held upon a tenure of three lives, in which case, when one dies, the tenant upon renewing it is bound to pay his grassum. If he does not renew it, and one of the remaining lives fall, he. forfeits his lease. Several attempts have been made by the present proprietors to set aside these old leases, but they have not succeeded. The old leases have been sold again and again, and none, or few, of the descendants of the old Wights of Ormiston (the original lessees) now remain. Mr Cockburn, in consequence of his official situation, had to reside much in London, and was seldom at Ormiston. He kept up, however, a regular correspondence with Alexander Wight and several other of his tenants, and pointed out excellent rules and useful hints for the management of soils, and the way in which improvements should be executed, such as planting and enclosing, making public roads, sowing fallow wheat, raising turnips, ryegrass, and clover, planting potatoes, feeding cattle and sheep, a knowledge of the culture of which he had acquired in the southern counties of England.

Alexander Wight was probably the first tenant who raised turnips in drills. He brought the culture of them to such perfection that in 1736 a turnip of his raising, which weighed 34! lbs., was sent to Edinburgh, and exhibited in John’s Coffee-House, Parliament Square.

Mr Cockbum’s letters to his tenants evinced his extreme solicitude for the welfare and prosperity of every person on his estate. In one dated 24th February 1735, he thus expresses himself in this noble manner:— “My tenants are quite upon a different footing from those of other people, and all of you are interested in the future as well as the present prosperity of the place, which is not the case with people who are only from year to year, and at the end of the year, or at most at the end of a few years, are not sure of having any more to do with the place or parish. But the advantage of your children’s children in some measure depends upon your putting a helping hand in advancing improvements, and your children are sure of being the better for what you do, which is not the case with your neighbours.”

In another letter to Alexander Wight, he says:— “No father can have more satisfaction in the prosperity of his children than I have in the welfare of persons situated upon my estate. I hate tyranny in every shape, and shall always have greater pleasure in seeing my tenants making something under me they can call their own, than in getting a little more money myself by squeezing a hundred poor families till their necessities make them my slaves.”

The whole of his constant, hearty, and lengthy correspondence with Mr Wight and others is filled with useful information and instruction how to bring the soil into the best possible condition for raising heavy and remunerative crops.

The following extract from one of his letters, intended, no doubt, for his tenant’s wife as well as himself, shows his characteristic kindness in thinking of household matters :—" If you manage your garden right at first, I daresay you will have all sorts of roots and herbs for your pot in perfection. A neck of mutton made into broth, with herbs, roots, and some slices of bread, well boiled upon a slow fire till the roots and meat are tender, is a good dish, and not expensive. Instead of the bread you may put in a little barley, and half a handful of meal, to thicken it a little. A pound or two of beef will make it much the better, and give a great deal more of it than the mutton alone. In short, you will find roots and herbs in your garden of advantage in your family many ways. I shall always be ready to answer you any question, or give you the best advice I can. So write freely as you think the hearing from me can be of service.—Tottenham, 18th August 1725.”

Mr Cockburn, finding his improvements to succeed on the south side of his estate, set about improving two farms on the north side containing the best land, viz., Cotterwell and Limielands, with Tynemount, also other lands around the village.

Mr Cockburn, being far advanced with the enclosing and other improvements on the different farms on his estate, in 1726 devoted himself with energy to improve, rebuild, and renovate the village of Ormiston. Situated in the south-western boundary of the county of East Lothian, it is naturally a pleasant and healthy place, and must have been made much more so by Mr Cockburn’s improvements. The houses built by him, or feued by others, were erected in a superior style, and remain to this day. A wide, neat, and regular street was formed, with a village cross in the centre, from a plan by Mr Lewis Gordon, a land surveyor brought from England.

Ormiston can vie in beauty and salubrity with the pretty little villages of Dirleton or Gifford, and is admired by every stranger, and the railway communication to it must now make it a convenient place at which to live. It was about this time also (1726) that the land around the village was feued at low rents for planting, and forming the numerous gardens and orchards which exist to the present day. The finest vegetables and fruits are raised, and Ormiston strawberries have long been famous.

In connection with the improvement of his lands, and the consequent increase of the produce of grain, Mr Cockburn gave encouragement to Alexander Wight, as a tenant, for the erection of a brewery and malting, as also a distillery in Ormiston. Malt and good ale, and excellent whisky, were manufactured, all of which contributed much to the promotion of agriculture in the neighbourhood, and the increase of the population. The distillery continued in operation until a late date —somewhere about 1820. The brewery, however, was given up at an earlier date. Mr Cockburn warmly encouraged the manufacture of linen, and considered it one of the staple trades of Scotland, and intimately connected with husbandry, the land producing the raw material to the manufacturers, while they furnished hands for carrying on the works, and for the consumption of the various products. One eminent in the trade was brought from Ireland to Ormiston for the manufacturing and bleaching of linen. A favourable lease of a bleachfield on the banks of the Tyne was granted to him. This was the first bleachfield which was formed in the county, probably the second in Scotland. Before 1730, linens were sent to Haarlem, in Holland, to be whitened and dressed. Pecuniary aid was obtained from the Honourable the Board of Trustees for Manufactures in Scotland, for the support of the infant manufacture, and experienced workmen were imported from Holland, under the managership of a Mr Keysar from Flanders, to instruct the natives of the district.

A school for teaching young girls to spin linen yarn was established under the direction of a qualified instructor. Premiums were given by the Board for the best growths of flax, and an annual salary for an established dresser and heckler. A considerable quantity of linen yarn was spun on the spot, which supplied the manufactory with materials of the best quality. These were the days of spinning-wheels—articles of useful domestic use now entirely unknown in households.

Lint seed was sown by farmers, cottars, and hinds, in large quantities, and lint brairds and tow were extensively sold by town and country merchants. It is not certain when the Ormiston Linen Manufactory and Bleachfield was given up. It probably survived until Mr Cockburn’s death in 1747, when the estate passed by purchase into the hands of the Hopetoun family.

Mr Cockburn, always awake to every circumstance which could advance agricultural interests, instituted in 1736, a club in Ormiston composed of noblemen, gentlemen, and farmers, who met monthly for the discussion of some appropriate question on rural economy. The club subsisted for ten years, and was. perhaps ended by the troublesome circumstances tinder which the country was placed by Prince Charlie’s raid into Scotland in 1745, or by Mr Cockbum’s death.

The first minute of the Ormiston Society is dated 19th July 1736: the last 9th May 1747. The original members numbered 106. Among tenants we find the old county names of the Walkers (3), the farmer at Mainshill (Francis); the Wrights (8); James Skirvine, tenant in Ewingston; John Carfrae, tenant in Park of Yester; George Ronaldson, tenant in Dodridge Park, Blackhouse; the Cuthbertsons (2), Adniston and Long-niddry; Torrence, Peaston; Wilson, Peaston; and of proprietors the names of John Cockburn, George Cockburn, younger of Ormiston; Cockburn of Clerkington ; Anderson of Whitburgh; Hepburn of Humbie; Dundas of Dundas; George Broun of Coalston; Sir Hew Dalrymple of North Berwick; Colonel James Gairdner of Bankton; Charles Hay of Hopes; the Earl of Stair, Sir John Sinclair of Longformacus, &c.

Premiums for raising flax were given in 1839 by the society, who were the means of getting home the best sowing lint seed from Riga. In 1742 samples of lint were produced, and submitted to judges, who pronounced them equal to any imported from Holland.

At the time the Ormiston leases were granted by Mr Cockburn, they assuredly held out great encouragement to the tenants to improve their lands to the utmost extent, they paying small rents to Mr Cockburn, who certainly sacrificed his patrimony, and lost sight of his own interest, in his patriotic acts for the good of his country, which compelled his son, after his death, to sell the property, and leave the seat of his ancestors. It seems to have been the practice of East Lothian proprietors, during Mr Cockburn’s time, and after his death, to give liferent leases. On the Yester estate, for instance, several farms were so possessed in East Lothian, and several in Berwickshire—such as Duncan-law, Sheriffside, Townhead, and Ewingston. The first three tenants went by the names of Duncum, Shirrum, Townum, and were all Hays; on the Ballincrieff estate, Mr Andrew Pringle of Ballincrieff Mains, and Mr William Mylne of Lochhill, were the last, life-renters.

A good remark is still remembered, which was made by the late Mr Alexander Halyburton, a very worthy man, and the last of an old East Lothian family. He was the last liferenter of the farm of Hollandside, on the Hailes estate. A wag said to him one day in Bailie Neill’s shop—“Sandy, when does your lease of Holland-side end?” Mr Halyburton replied, “It is not given me to know that, but I hope I will have a long lease in heaven, and I hope you will have the same.”

A story about old liferent tenancy may perhaps be worth recording here, and be interesting to agriculturists of the present time. Mr Richard Somner, of Ewingston, the last of an old family of farmers, was the last liferenter of Ewingston. As soon as he died, the occupancy ceased. He was very ill in the month of July, and his death looked for. A large field of the farm was intended to have been sown with fallow wheat about the usual time of sowing, being the end of September or beginning of October. The field was all sown and finished in the end of July, being perhaps the earliest sown fallow wheat ever seen in East Lothian or elsewhere, thus securing a crop of wheat to Mr Somner’s heirs, as he died in the beginning of September.

It is believed that Mr Archibald Ainslie, of Dodridge, is the last of the liferenters in the county, excepting those on the same property who hold their leases as long as “wood grows or water runs.”

Mr Cockburn, judging from an engraving of him in the Farmers' Magazine, seems to have been a very good-looking gentleman, with long flowing curly hair. His manly and open countenance is uncommonly pleasing. The engraving is copied from an original portrait which was taken in 1804, an' is in possession of Mrs Haldane of Gleneagles, formerly the Cockburns of Sandybed, the lands round about the Millfield Nurseries, &c., at Haddington. They and the Cock-bums of Clerkington were branches of the Ormiston family. The Cockburns of Clerkington were all buried in the west end of the Haddington Churchyard, where a tombstone with a Latin inscription on it dated 1568, now much obliterated, is yet to be seen. Mr Cockburn died in his son’s house in London at the Navy Office, aged 62 years. He was probably buried in London. Shortly after, the estate of Ormiston was sold by his son, George Cockburn, Esq., afterwards Comptroller of the Navy.

Mr Brown of Markle thus concludes his memoir of Mr Cockburn in the Farmers’ Magazine:—“While it is painful to state that this property was renounced by a family who for centuries had deserved so well of their country, it is some comfort to reflect that the purchaser was also of a branch to whom the agriculture of Scotland has been, and continues to be, under great obligations, as might be instanced by the case of the property of the Barony of Byres, where improving leases were granted many years ago. In a word, the name of John Cockburn will not soon be forgotten in East Lothian. His numerous successful attempts to promote the prosperity of the county are riveted in the hearts of the inhabitants, and will be handed down from father to son for many successive generations. When the whole of his life is considered, we are warranted to pronounce him the father of Scottish husbandry, an ornament to his country, and an honour to the county of East Lothian, which gave him birth.”

Ormiston can boast of being the birth-place of the venerable African missionary, Dr Robert Moffat, father-in-law to David Livingstone, the still more celebrated African missionary explorer. He first drew breath in a small cottage in the village, now rebuilt, on 21st December 1795, and is thus in his eighty-eighth year.

A doubt expressed by some neighbouring influential persons that Ormiston was not his birth-place, was recently dispelled by a letter addressed to Thomas Fairgrieve, Esq., of Ormiston Cottage, by the venerable old missionary himself, in which he says, “As to my birth-place, there need not be a shadow of a doubt, for well do I remember, during my boy days, my mother during one of her visits to Ormiston, taking me to the spot, and pointing with her hand, adding, there my ‘dear laddie" is the very spot where you were born. I have since visited the place now built over, with emotion easier felt than described.” Two brothers were also born in Ormiston. His father, who was a custom house officer, was removed to Portsoy, and afterwards to Inverkeithing.

The venerable missionary’s name ranks with, and can be honorably associated with those of David Brainerd, missionary to the North American Indians, of Carey, missionary to India, of Dr Duff, and many others who nobly went forth, and spent the best of their days, and their godly talents, in civilizing and christianizing heathen and savage lands. A movement is at present going on among influential persons, to erect at Ormiston, a lasting tribute in remembrance of this famous and Christian man. It has been well responded to, and will, no doubt, be soon successfully accomplished.


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