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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
John Hepburn of Bearford


JOHN HEPBURN of Bearford was a remarkable man in many respects, as the following sketch of some traits in his character will show. The recollection of him must now be confined to a very few residents in the county of East Lothian. His late relative, Mr Hepburn Walker, kindly furnished to the author many of the particulars in this paper. He was tenant of Wester and Easter Bearford and East Monkrigg, now incorporated with West Bearford. By the death of a relative he succeeded, while yet a young man, to the leases of these farms, having had to pay a “grassum” for a renewal of lease. The rent of West and East Bearford was ios. per Scotch acre; East Monkrigg was 2is. He also acquired the farm of Northrigg, at the expiry of Mr Forrest’s lease in 1812, at a great rise of rent War prices for grain ruled rents at that time. His father, who was a member of the old East Lothian family of the Hepburns of Waughton, was at one time minister of the parish of Birsay, in Orkney, and was translated to the parish of Athelstane-ford in 1770, by the influence of Principal Robertson, then the leader of the Moderate party of the Church of Scotland. He died in 1770, comparatively a young man, leaving a son and two daughters. His wife was a relative of Admiral Graeme, of Graemeshall, in Orkney, with whom John Hepburn kept up a correspondence when he resided in Edinburgh in 1817.

John Hepburn was born in the manse of Athelstane-ford about the year 1770. In due time he was sent to a school in Edinburgh, and afterwards attended the University for some years. The liberal education he received developed his great natural abilities, and he became a distinguished student at college. Dr Lorimer of Haddington, and Dr Sangster of Garvald, were two of his class-fellows, with the latter of whom he continued on intimate terms to the day of his death. After he entered to the farms before stated, in the end of last century, he limed them to a heavy extent, and had heavy and fine crops afterwards for many years. About the year 1800, he came to reside permanently at Bear-ford, having previously travelled a good deal| and lived in London, &c. He was shortly afterwards left by a relation the estate of Sydserff, in the parish of North Berwick. He was reckoned at this time worth £30,000, a large sum in those days for a tenant-farmer to possess. There was a ruinous castle at Bearford, which Mr Hepburn took down, and built the present farm-house on its site. He erected a water-mill, and for a sufficient supply of water for it, he, at the great expense of £ 2000 (including building of mill, &c.), cut a lead from Morham Burn to Shuit-her-tae Mill, a distance of more than a mile. The water-mill was considered the best and most powerful in the county at the time. The buildings of it still remain, and show the magnitude and substantial work of the erection. The water-course and reservoir can still be seen at Bearford.

About this time, Mr Hepburn joined the Agricultural Society, which held its meetings at Salton. The Society gave medals for the best essays on agricultural subjects, and he was always successful in carrying them off, which showed that he had devoted his mind to, and studied agricultural matters. His acquaintance was courted by most of the principal agriculturists of the day, who were in the habit of visiting him at Bearford and partaking of his hospitality. During the time of the French Revolution, Republican principles began to prevail in this country, and ultimately obtained numerous adherents. Mr Hepburn imbibed these Republican views, and took a keen part in them. In 1791, he visited Paris along with some others of like tendencies, and was introduced to Robespierre, Danton, Marat, and other French Republican leaders. In 1795, he made the acquaintance in London of John Horne Tooke, author of the Diversions of Purley, and of William Goodwin, author of Political Justice, &c. Goodwin visited him at Bearford in 1816. Among other friends invited by Mr Hepburn to meet him, was Hugh M'Callum, a well-known Haddington draper of the day, and a genuine son of freedom. M'Callum declared it was the greatest compliment ever paid him, to be invited to meet such a distinguished man as William Goodwin. Mr Hepburn wrote a vindication of the character of Robespierre, which was published in the London Review, July 17, 1796, of which Horne Tooke was understood to be editor. The essay was read over to Mr Hepburn in 1823, when he said it was a poor production ; but it is written in forcible language, and elegantly expressed. It is curious to note that Mr Hepburn’s views of Robespierre’s character have been lately adopted and commented on in several London prints. An extract from Mr Hepburn’s essay may not be uninteresting at the present day:—

“The main scope of this essay is to elucidate an epoch of French history, and to do justice to a character much misrepresented. It is now near two years since the 9th Thermidore, and since that period it has been fashionable, in England as well as France, to paint Robespierre as an enemy to his country. Aristocracy naturally calumniated its enemy, and with regret we observe the patriot join the false note, and impute all the evils inseparable from a great revolution to a simple individual, whose integrity had shone conspicuous, and who, for five years, had rendered such important services to the cause of liberty. To the interested or prejudiced I do not address myself; but I would impress on journalists, and above all political authors, who wish to form the public opinion on the basis of true principles, to give this subject the most mature investigation, nor rashly condemn that Republican, who enjoyed the confidence of the people for five years, and who, during all that period, surviving the wreck of every conspiracy amidst faction and corruption, merited the title of the Uncorrupted Patriot of France.”The essay is signed “John Hepburn, Bearford, near Haddington.” The Review was printed by Daniel Bond,

4 Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, price 4½d., and the date is "1st Sunday, London, 17th July 1796.” An anecdote is preserved of Mr Hepburn when he returned home from Paris, which shows the extreme political views which were held by Republicans at that time. His steward, George Charles, seeing Mr Hepburn coming up the avenue to Bearford, ran to meet him, and welcoming him back again, took off his hat, and said, “Oh, sir, I am glad to see you home again.” Mr Hepburn replied, “George, in a short time there will be liberty, fraternity, and equality in this country—servants will be equal to their masters, and Lord Wemyss and all other aristocrats will be no better than common men, and their lands will be all divided among the citizens.” Mr Hepburn was intimate with Thomas Muir, Skirving, Gerald, Margarot, and Palmer, who were tried in Edinburgh and sentenced to be transported for sedition in 1793 and 1794. It was understood that the Government of the day kept their eye on Mr Hepburn, but happily no measures were taken against him.

John Hepburn was a gentleman of the most honourable feelings. Kind, hospitable, and facile to a fault, possessed of abilities of mind far above the average, sober, and never extravagant in his person or habits, he yet ran through a large fortune, and died at the age of fifty-three in penury and distress. An article appeared in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal in 1832,Vol. I, p. 202, entitled “The Victim of Facility.” A memoir is presented, under the assumed names of Heron of Bearcroft, which at the time was easily recognised as that of John Hepburn. A class of his acquaintances, knowing his weak point, kept constantly frequenting Bearford, and living for days and weeks on him, he being too polite to tell them of selfish motives, or to order them away. Lawyers, doctors, officers in the army accompanied by their commissaries and adjutants from the barracks at Haddington, came to him and lived on him as friends, but their principal object was to borrow money from him, and to deprive him of his property. He had not the fortitude to withstand their solicitations, but facilely yielded to their importunities, and new visitors and applicants for money appeared like locusts to devour everything they could lay their hands on. His visitors became so numerous that he purchased a hogshead of sugar, which was placed in a small apartment adjoining the dining-room, with a spade in it, to distribute the contents as they were required, also a puncheon of whisky from which his visitors helped themselves in his absence.

His dinners were of the plainest description, and no extras, but after dinner a large punch-bowl, and sometimes two, were placed on the table that all might enjoy themselves with the contents. A number of his visitors played at cards, others at draughts and backgammon, while the athletes took to the boxing-gloves, all in the same room. The greatest hilarity prevailed, but to the great loss and detriment of the facile landlord. A valuable snuff-box, which had belonged to his father, and which he kept as a memento of him, and placed on the table (there was no smoking in those days), was believed to have been stolen by one of his rascally visitors. He often went to Edinburgh to be safe from the importunities of his ravenous friends, and once went to London for fourteen days. When he came back, he inquired at his housekeeper if any of his friends had called in his absence. “Oh, yes,” she said, “Tam Mitchell o’ Dunbar, the soapboiler [who went by the name of “Soapy" and who was a character in his day], has been here all the time you were away, and had company every day, including officers from the barracks, and they had royal ongoings all the time in playing cards,’ &c. Mr Hepburn said they must have been enjoying themselves very much.

His kindness of heart was shown in the following story:—When in a printing establishment in Edinburgh, one day a smart boy of the name of Saunders attracted his attention. He brought him to Bearford, educated him, and then sent him to college to study medicine. He passed M.D., and became in course of time one of the principal doctors in Edinburgh. Dr Saunders showed his gratitude to Mr Hepburn in his last days in relieving his necessities, and administering to his comfort in his last illness. A story is told of one of his most insatiable applicants, who urged him to give him a loan of money or a bill to relieve him, as he was in great difficulties. Mr Hepburn told him he was in the same situation himself, but if he would go to his banker at Haddington with a promissory note, he would probably get the money. The following day the bill was presented at the bank for discount After calmly reading it, the banker said, “I am saying, man, this bill is wrong drawn. It says, I promise to pay; it should have been written I promise not to pay; and you must get it written so.” The presenter of it went away displeased with the proposed alteration, and the bill was not cashed. To show his easy facility, an extract is given from Chambers’s article:—“I recollect hearing that Heron of Bearcroft being in Haddington market one day, and receiving £100, a bet was taken, and I am sorry to say gained, that he would not refuse the loan of the money, though he was known himself to require it at the time. The person walked up, and with some ridiculous preface requested the loan of £100. ‘Certainly, sir,’ said the infatuated man, drawing it from his pocket, and giving it to the person. The bet was gained, but the money was returned to Mr Hepburn.” The upshot of Mr Hepburn’s easy facility was that he soon got into insurmountable difficulties. His property and effects having been devoured by ravenous wolves—wrongly called friends; his grain plundered by his servants for want of proper surveillance; his horses and cattle starved for the want of meat; his household plenishing and effects broken to pieces, and entirely dilapidated; his crops and farm stocking sequestrated for arrears of rent—he had at last to leave Bearford. He went to live in Edinburgh, and there on account of his literary attainments, he applied for and obtained a situation as editor of a magazine, on condition that he made himself master of the Spanish and Hindustani languages. This he did within a month, but his health was quite broken, and he died shortly after in 1823, in the fifty-third year of his age, without commencing his duties as editor. He was buried at Prestonkirk, the family burying-place of the Hepburns.

A number of his East Lothian friends and acquaintances, headed by Adam Bogue Esq., Linplum, who gave £100, and other leading farmers, collected a large sum of money for the purpose of buying an annuity for him, but before this could be accomplished he was dead. Some time before his death he had commenced to write a history of England, but he did not live to finish it. He was succeeded on the farm of West Bearford by Mr Alexander Begbie; in East Bearford by Mr Archibald Skirving; and in Northrigg by Mr Robert Turnbull—now all dead. The writer recollects him dining in the house of his father, who was an old schoolfellow of his, and was much struck with his intellectual powers and his manners as a gentleman. Although much broken down in health, he still kept up his tall and handsome appearance. In a short time afterwards he was dead. Chambers concludes his article in the following words:—“A man of herculean frame and robust constitution, of temperate habits, and in possession of affluence, and never personally expensive in anything; whose general information was extensive, his perceptions as concerned others clear, and his observations ever keen and searching; who in this way showed that he had a very tolerable head, and whose heart was in the last degree honourable and affectionate, who had in short no fault so prominent as to excite observation, except an inexplicable facility. This man at the age of fifty-three died with an exhausted constitution and a broken heart.” John Hepburn of Bearford deserved a better and happier fate.


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