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Significant Scots
John Cockburn


COCKBURN, JOHN, of Ormiston, the Father of Scottish husbandry, was born in the latter part of the seventeenth century. His father, Adam Cockburn, of Ormiston, (in East Lothian,) held the eminent office of Lord Justice Clerk after the Revolution. His mother was lady Susan Hamilton, third daughter of John, fourth earl of Haddington. So early as the days of the reformation, the family had distinguished itself by its zeal in behalf of liberal institutions and public liberty. The laird of that day maintained an alliance with the English reformers, when hardly any other Scottish gentleman dared to oppose the tyranny of Beatoun; and it was in his house that the celebrated George Wishart was found, previous to his being brought to trial and burnt. From that period, down to the Revolution, the Cockburns of Ormiston were invariably on the liberal side of the question. The subject of this memoir inherited all the patriotism of his race, and in the lifetime of his father, in his capacity as a member of the last Scottish parliament, took an active interest in accomplishing the union. He was the first representative of East Lothian in the parliament of Great Britain, and continued to be elected to that distinguished place in all the successive parliaments, till 1741. Mr Cockburn, at one period of his parliamentary career, held the post of lord of the Admiralty.

It was not, however, in a political career that this great man was destined to gather his chief laurels. At the close of the 17th century, on account of the religious and civil broils which had so long distracted the country, the condition of agriculture in Scotland was at a very low ebb. The tenantry, so far from being able to make any improvement, were too poor in general even to stock the lands they occupied. Fletcher of Salton, who published a treatise on the affairs of Scotland, in 1698, describes their situation as abject and miserable; and Lord Kaimes, in still stronger language, declares, that, before the union, they were so benumbed with oppression, that the most able tutor in husbandry would have made nothing of them. By a short-sighted policy, the landlords in general had no other princip1e than to force as much from the soil for every passing year as they could. The tenants were so much disheartened, that it was difficult to let a farm, and none were taken upon leases of more than five years. But, even if other circumstances had been more favourable, there was such a rooted prepossession in favour of old systems, and so much ignorance of the science of agriculture, that improvement was almost hopeless.

Lord Ormiston, father of Mr Cockburn, had made an attempt so early as 1698, to break through the old system of short leases. He then granted Robert Wight, eldest son of Alexander Wight, one of his tenants in Ormiston, a lease of the farm of Muirhouse, now Murrays, to endure for eleven years. Mr Wight accordingly commenced enclosing his fields, a process heretofore quite unknown in Scotland. In 1713, lord Ormiston granted to the same person a lease of a neighbouring farm, to endure for nine years.

John Cockburn, who became possessed of the estate about the year 1714, immediately entered upon a much more extensive system of improvement. He had marked, with extreme concern, the supine condition of Scottish husbandry, which his parliamentary visits to England had enabled him to contrast with the more fortunate condition of that country; and with an enlarged liberality of soul, which scorned all his own immediate interests for the sake of ultimate general good, he began to grant long leases of his farms upon exceedingly small rents. As an instance it may be mentioned, that he granted to Robert Wight a new lease of the Murrays farm for thirty-eight years, from 1718, at a rent of 750 Scots, or 62: 10: 0 sterling, and upon paying 1200 Scots, on 100 sterling, by way of fine or grassum, at the expiration of that term, a renewal thereof for other nineteen years, and so on from one period of nineteen years to another in all time coming: a degree of liberality which speaks more strongly than any thing else possibly could, for the backward state of agriculture at the time. But the enterprising spirit of Mr Cockburn did not rest here. In giving long leases he had enabled his tenants to make the improvements he wished; but still it was necessary to teach them how these improvements should be conducted. For this purpose he brought down skilful persons from England, who introduced the culture of turnips, rape, and clover; and at the same time he sent up the sons of his tenants to study agriculture in the best cultivated districts of the south. Experiments were likewise made of the effects of enriching the land by flooding. Turnips were sown upon the estate so early as 1725, and Alexander Wight, one of his tenants, was probably the first man in the island who sowed them in drills, and cultivated them with the plough. The culture of this valuable root was brought by him to such perfection, that, in 1735, a turnip of his raising, weighing 34 3/4 lbs, was carried to Edinburgh, and hung up in John’s Coffee-house as a show.

Even while engaged in his public duties in England, Mr Cockburn was constantly reverting in thought to the improvements he had set on foot in East Lothian, and he carried on a constant correspondence with his tenants respecting the progress of their mutual plans. In some of these letters he breathes the strongest sentiments of benevolence and patriotism. "No person," says he to Mr Alexander Wight in 1725, "can have more satisfaction in the prosperity of his children, than I have in the welfare of persons situated on my estate. I hate tyranny in every shape; and shall always show 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."

His proceedings were at first the subject of ridicule among the more narrow-minded of his neighbours; but the results in time overpowered every mean feeling, and gradually inspired a principle of imitation. In 1726, he encouraged his tenant Alexander Wight, in setting up a malting brewery, and distillery, which soon got into repute, and promoted the raising of grain in the neighbourhood. As a preliminary step to further improvements, he reformed the village of Ormiston, changing it from the original mean and squalid hamlet into a neat and well built street. He then commenced a series of operations for setting up a linen manufactory. This he considered as one of the staple trades of Scotland, and as the best support of the general interest. He viewed it as intimately connected with husbandry; the land affording an opportunity of producing the raw article to the manufacturers; while they in return furnished hands for carrying on agricultural works, especially in harvest, and for the consumption of its various produce. To attain these objects, an eminent undertaker from Ireland, both in the manufacturing and whitening of linen, was induced to take up his residence at Ormiston; and a favourable lease of a piece of ground for a bleachfield and some lands in the neighbourhood was granted to him. This was the first bleachfield in East Lothian, probably the second in Scotland— for, before 1730, fine linens were sent to Haarlem in Holland to be whitened and dressed. It is said that this Irish colony was the means of introducing the potato in Scotland, at least as an object of field culture; and that valuable root was raised in the grounds on this estate so early as 1734. Mr Cockburn also introduced some workmen from Holland, to give instructions in the art of bleaching. He obtained, for his rising manufactory, the patronage of the Board of Trustees, and likewise some pecuniary aid.

About the year 1736, the progress of agricultural improvement at Ormiston had excited so much notice all over Scotland, that Mr Cockburn, always awake to every circumstance which could forward his darling object, seized upon such a notable opportunity of disseminating useful knowledge among his brother proprietors and their tenantry. He instituted what was called the Ormiston Society, composed of noblemen, gentlemen, and farmers, who met monthly for the discussion of some appropriate question in rural economy, settled upon at their former meeting, on which question all the members present delivered their opinion. This club lasted for about eleven years, and was of great service in promoting the views of its founder. It consisted at last of one hundred and six members, comprising almost all the best intellects of Scotland at that time.

Mr Cockburn was married, first, in 1700, to the Hon. Miss Beatrix Carmichael, eldest daughter of John, first earl of Hyndford; secondly, to an English lady, related to the duchess of Gordon, by whom he had a son named George. It is distressing to think that, about the year 1748, this great patriot was obliged, probably in consequence of his spirited exertion for the public good, to dispose of his estate to the earl of Hopetoun. He died at his son’s house at the Navy Office, London, on the 12th of November, 1758. His son, who was a comptroller of the navy, married Caroline, baroness Forrester in her own right, and was the father of Anna Maria, also baroness Forrester in her own right, who died unmarried in 1808. – Patrick Cockburn, advocate, brother of the agriculturist, was married, in 1731, to Miss Alison Rutherford of Fernilie, a woman of poetical genius, authoress of the more modern verses to the tune of "The Flowers of the Forest," and who died in Edinburgh, November 22, 1794.

It would be difficult to do full justice to the merits of such a character as Cockburn of Ormiston, or to describe the full effects of his exertions upon the interests of the country. It may be said, that he lived at a time when the circumstances of Scotland were favourable to improvement, as it was the first age of re-action after a long depression. But, although the country would have little doubt that he considerably anticipated the natural period of improvement, and gave it an impulse much greater than was likely to be otherwise received. On what other principle are we to account for the immense degree to which Scotland now transcends the agriculture of England – the country from which it so recently derived its first hints at the art?


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