Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Letters of John Cockburn of Ormistoun to his Gardner (1727-1733)

Ormistoun and the Cockburns

Of the many branches of the old Border family of Cockburn, that of Ormistoun finds in the author of these letters its last noted representative. The barony, which had come into the family in the fourteenth century through a marriage connection with a Lindsay of the Byres, another and more famous barony in the neighbourhood, was sold by John Cockburn in 1747 to the then Earl of Hopetoun, and now belongs to the Marquis of Linlithgow. This sale must have been a pathetic blow to many hopes—for Ormistoun was as much to John Cockburn as any Abbotsford to the hand and heart that had striven and lived for it. Retiring in 1744 from a post he had long held as a Lord of the Admiralty, and busied with the building of what is now Ormistoun Hall, girt with the garden and the trees he had so lovingly tended, he had to give up the battle within sight of victory. His closing years were spent under the roof of his only son, George, of the Navy Office, and there he died in 1758, the year of the birth of Nelson, at the age of seventy-nine. He inherited his ruling passion from his father, Adam Cockburn, Lord Justice-Clerk under Queen Anne, and on the commission that reported severely on the Glencoe Massacre. In the 'Fifteen he earned much ill-will for severity in dealing as a judge with the rebels who were tried before him. John sat in Parliament from 1707 to 1741. Had he been half as much interested in Walpole's long administration and the ways of his fellow Scots members amid their novel surroundings as these letters show he was in manure, and onions, and turnips, and trees, and the canna-be-fashedness of his tenants, he might have filled now a notable page in British history.

The Old House of Ormistoun

The approach crosses the Orme, a tributary of the Tyne, which it joins below the village, and, rising to the top of the south bank, leads westward alongside the river dean known as the Glen, which the old house faces. This position, on a bank overhanging a river hollow, is a characteristic site for an old East Lothian mansion—witness Seton, Winton, Saltoun, Yester, Biel, and Whittinghame. This ancient home of the Cockburns is now a gaunt, featureless, two-story block, in rear of the modern mansion, and is remarkable only for a low-arched main doorway, at the left side of which is the grated window of a small chamber that formed the temporary prison of the martyr George Wishart. Earl Patrick, father of the Bothwell of sinister aspect and unhappy memory, had seized the preacher at Haddington, torn him from his devoted pupil, Knox, and under promise of safety conveyed him by Ormistoun to Elphinston Tower, standing a grim peel on the ridge to the north across the Tyne valley. Here waited Cardinal Beaton for his victim. The Cockburns had been staunch for the English and reform party. According to tradition, Wishart had often preached under an old yew-tree which is now the most notable object at Ormistoun. This tree is mentioned in a document of date 1474, and still bears witness to its remarkable age. From its gnarled bole rise great corrugations of the stem, supporting a dense mass of branches that sweep the ground and form an arbour two hundred and thirty-eight feet in circumference. John Cockburn casually alludes to it. By east the Yew Tree, Bell is to thin out many of the fruit trees now for their thickness hinders their bearing. It now forms the chief ornament of the flower garden, a bit of ornamentation which the practical Cockburn deemed superfluous, for in all the correspondence flowers are never mentioned. Some time after 1816, when the dowager Lady Hopetoun came to reside at Ormistoun, she enlarged his modest mansion of 1745, and formed the parterres at the expense of his beloved garden.

Mr. John Hamilton, head forester on the estate, has secured for me a manuscript which throws much light on the garden and its history. It was put together in 1816 by the gardener, James Smith, at the request of Sir George Mackenzie of Coul.

Ormiston Hall, in East Lothian, is situated near the western confines of the county, and twelve miles east by south from Edinburgh. The only garden here prior to 1770 was the old one near the mansion-house. It cannot be ascertained when the garden was made out, but from a date1 over one of the doors it must have stood one hundred and eighty years. The first trees for this garden had been selected with great care from the cider and other fruit districts, and was probably the best sorts then cultivated in the island. The trees grew to a large size, and produced very abundant crops, so much so that about 1740 several attempts were made to make cider. This old garden was originally an oblong square, laid out in the Dutch style with grass walks, and divided into squares by holly and yew hedges. Betwixt the above square and the court of the old mansion is another oblong, about half the size of the former, which had been occupied as a bowling-green about a century ago (1716). It still retains the name. The first repair in the garden was in 1775, when the old wall running from part of the old mansion towards the old Isle' (aisle=old church) 'was taken down and rebuilt with hewn stone. In 1789 the noble proprietor removed the decayed hedges, took up the grass walks, widened the borders, introduced gravel walks, and laid it out in the modern style. The Belsis garden was laid out and the walls built in 1770. . . . The ground at the back of this garden (in which stands an old pigeon-house) was taken in in 1800. . . . The yew-tree in 1816 measured 12 feet 7 inches in circumference at three feet from the ground. The late Sir Andrew Louden [Lauder] Dick4 of Fountain Hall (in the immediate neighbourhood) 'used to measure the tree for a number of years, and from several observations found, in 1810, that it increased yearly in circumference about three-quarters of an inch.

Immediately to the west of the garden, and completely hidden within a grove of giant trees, the growth of two centuries, stand the ruins of the pre-Reformation church of Ormistoun, approached, according to old accounts, through the laird's garden. It must have been in use in Adam Cockburn's time, and in John's boyhood, for the present edifice was built in 1696. There John must have been baptized, after a short journey through the closs and the garden, and, in due course, catechised by the famous divine, John Cockburn, D.D., who entered minister of the parish in 1683, closing a romantic career as rector of Northall, Middlesex. Like his fellow Aber-donian, Bishop Burnet, Presbytery was always obnoxious to him. John thought of the old church only as a mark for his planting. ' Don't forget,1 he tells Bell,' supplying the Large Elms and also Chesnuts and Oaks in the Old Churchyard' (p. 78). Burial-places used to be secularised without scruple. Of the old church of Ormistoun we have only a beautiful arch in what remains of the south wall and the chancel, both covered with an evergreen pall of ivy. Here too are associations with Knox. On the north wall of the chancel is a monumental brass1 to the memory of Alexander Cockburn, a pupil of Knox, and a lad of great promise, but he was cut off in early life. His mother was Alison Sandilands of Calder, another family closely associated with the reformer. The upper part of the tablet has a Latin elegy extolling the lad's virtues, written by George Buchanan. Knox had tutored him along with the two sons of Douglas of Longniddry, another of the reforming East Lothian families. To these pupils Wishart referred when he parted with Knox, telling him to go back to his bairns, as one was enough for a sacrifice.

The Correspondence The Letters represent but a part of John Cockburn's correspondence. They are contained in a well-bound quarto, carefully transcribed in a modern hand. A thorough scrutiny of the language shows that the transcript has been faithfully made; but where and by whom there is no evidence. Their present appearance is due to the lucky accident of my having found them carefully preserved by Mr. John Hamilton, who had rescued the volume from a mass of unconsidered trifles awaiting the fate of rubbish. He most generously placed the volume at my disposal, after a cursory reading had shown me its novel interest and importance. To him the Society is deeply indebted. The reader will see that there are many gaps in the correspondence, which Cockburn seems to have worked at in season and out of season, both at home and on a journey. To Bell he commends his example: 'If you'l write as you see I do as I can get five minutes, you 'd be less liable to forget,' a frequent failing of the gardener's. His industry as a correspondent is portentous. No. VIII. runs to ten pages of print, four hundred words to the page. No wonder these worthies were able to listen to long sermons. Communication was easily kept up with Haddington, where the postmaster handed over the Ormistoun letters when any one went in on market-days. At Tottenham or Hampstead, where the writer lived, a penny post and a foot post twice daily to London—once called upon to wait till a letter was ready—were established. All the letters but one are addressed to Charles Bell, gardener. There are letters, one or more, for every month of the year, July excepted, and for the years 1727, 1734-5, 1739-44. The correspondence must have been continuous, except for the writer's occasional visits, so that the leakage has been great. A few letters are undated, and these have been dealt with in the notes. Cockburn also carried on at the same time a much more extensive correspondence with his trusted adviser, Alexander Wight, so often mentioned here. Brown of Markle, near Haddington, first editor of the Farmer's Magazine, published (vol. v., 1804) the two articles on John Cockburn, which up till now supplied all the information available regarding the work of this man as an agricultural pioneer. He gives only two letters, out of many, to Wight (August 1725 and December 1726), and these and the articles should be read by every one interested, as they supplement the correspondence now published, a correspondence which throws a flood of light on the little-known subject of the rise of modern agriculture in what has ever since been the premier district of Scotland, as well as on the social development of the villager, the gardener, and the country gentleman.

A Model Scottish Landlord

The Ormistoun of two centuries ago presented the usual landscape of the time. The upper lands were heath-clad moor, perpetually grazed by half-starved cattle; the hollows by the river-side undrained marsh, from which, in dry seasons, some poor hay was secured as the only winter fodder available. Ten crofters near the village held patches of arable infield in run-dale or long narrow strips, on which crops of bere, oats, or pease were raised in succession till a year in the natural dress of weeds gave repose. These crofters were the kindly rentallers of the barony, tenants at will. Bell's father was one of them. What Cockburn thought of their farming comes out in this to Bell about his father's land, 'His Husbandry goes no further than to gett bad grain one year and worse the next' (p. 17). On the south side of the Tyne were four farms, and on two of these Adam Cockburn made the novel experiment (1698 and 1713) of granting long leases, and this at a time when farmers were too poor and too suspicious to take such a risk. It was a period, too, of political ferment and widespread poverty. This pioneer lease-holding farmer was Robert Wight, of a family long settled on the lands. An ancestor married (1559) a daughter of John Cockburn, the reformer. Alexander Wight, mentioned above, was Robert's son; and succeeding to the leases on his father's death (1734), he became, more than ever, an ardent and intelligent improver under guidance of the laird. We hear much of him in the Letters, both as correspondent and fellow-improver. These leases virtually made the holders perpetual feuars,1 and as the total value of the estate was not great, John Cockburn and his father certainly belied the 'grippy' and shortsighted character usually attributed to men of their class and time. See, for a conspicuous case of his fairness, p. 76. Defoe, writing in the Union days, justly ascribed the miserable plight of the Scottish peasant to the mediaeval system of land tenure which prevailed. John Cockburn, in a letter to Wight (1725), puts his views as a landlord in terms greatly to his credit. 'I hate tyranny in every shape, and shall always have greater pleasure in seeing my tenants making something under me which they can call their own than in getting a little more myself by squeezing a hundred poor families till their necessities make them my slaves. I hope my actions have convinced you of all this, and that I have hitherto studied your advantage equal at least to the making the estate better to those who shall come after me, and I am sure much more than any advance of the rent to myself. The wise benevolence of this model landlord comes out in a letter of 1726. 'My tenants are all interested in the future of the place as well as in the present, for your children will profit by your work. No father can have more satisfaction in the prosperity of his children than I in the welfare of those on my estate." In answer to Wight's of July 16, 1725, he tells him that his turnips should have been hoed by leaving ten inches between every two—evidence of drill-sowing at this early date. Wight showed (1736) in Edinburgh a turnip thirty-four pounds in weight. 'You tell me you have enclosed a garden, a thing which only a laird then attempted. There follow useful hints not only for the farmer but for his good-wife. ' A garden will supply all sorts of roots and herbs. A neck of mutton in the broth with these and some slices of bread—all well boiled on a slow fire till very tender—forms a good cheap dish. A pound or two of beef will make it better. Instead of bread you may put in barley and half a handful of meal to thicken it.'

Before 1727, when the Bell Letters begin, the Wight correspondence in the Farmer's Magazine shows that Alexander had enclosed a garden, sowed rye-grass and clover, and grasses with wheat, feeding cattle and sheep on the grass. Cockburn writes to him—18th August 1725—from Tottenham, Your turnips ought to have been hoed ere this' (in drills, therefore, and not broadcast), and proceeds to give directions as to the hoeing, the laying out of the garden. Again, in December 1726, ' the profit from the one fourth acre potatoes upon the bad land opposite the church is so great, that I hope you will go on with them, especially as you find good crops of corn [barley] after them.' These dates for enclosing sown grasses, clover, drilled turnips and potatoes are in advance of what are usually given. Robertson, in his Rural Recollections, which dated from 1765, sets down the introduction of red clover from seed and of rye-grass to Thomas, sixth Earl of Haddington (d. 1735), and this on a very limited scale.

Equally novel was the work of Cockburn and Wight in enclosing by hedges of earth and quicksets planted atop, frequently discussed in the Letters. An excellent treatise on Ways and Means for Inclosing, ascribed to Macintosh of Borlum, was published by Freebairn in 1729; but the author had no means of giving effect to his instructions. With Cockburn these hedges were made to combine the useful and the ornamental, for he set them thick with white and black thorn, brambles, roses and honeysuckles, elder and privet, producing a most pleasing effect. Following, too, the example he had seen in Herts, he planted at distances in the hedgerows hard-wood trees. Of these the ash was the mainstay, as the most generally useful on the farm The larch, the poplar, and the lime he never mentions.

Letter XXVI. shows what he regarded as the comparative value of forest trees (p. 77). He seems to have found the greatest difficulty in getting oaks and firs. Some fir seedlings he wishes Bell could secure: ' If you can gett such a thing for love or money gett it and soon.' He alludes more than once to a clump of' old firs behind the house, evidently Scots firs of the days before planting round mansions was thought of. Note, as showing the scarcity of timber, that he inquires what was done with a plank he sent from London.

But John Cockburn was not content with infusing enthusiasm on his own estate. He founded the Ormistoun Society or Agricultural Club, which met in the village inn for discussion and mutual help. Brown gives the minute of the first meeting, 19th July 1736s (under John Cockburn's presidency), and the sixteen original members. The last minute is dated 4th May 1747. It had at one time one hundred and twenty-two members—landlords, tenant-farmers, and traders. From the list of members a few names may be noted, such as James Burnet, younger, of Monboddo, not yet the eccentric Lord of Session, and Maxwell of Arkland in Galloway, another pioneer improver. Four others—Robert Anderson, younger, of Whiteburgh, Colonel Gardner of Bankton, the Duke of Perth, and the Laird of Macleod—form an interesting historical group. To this chance association of the first two of them Prince Charlie owed his victory at Prestonpans (see General Cadell's Sir John Cope). Among the original members is John's brother, Patrick Cockburn, advocate. On the parish register of Ormistoun his marriage to Alison Rutherford of Fairnielea is entered on 12th March 1731. She is known as the authoress of the popular later version of the 'Flowers of the Forest,' quite in the sentimental manner of her century, and for an interesting association with Burns and Scott. On the club, too, were Alison's father, Robert of Fairnielea, and her brother, Dr. Rutherford. In her Letters and Autobiography (T. Craig-Brown), she says, 'We lived four years with his' (Patrick's) 'venerable father,' that is, till 1735, when Adam Cockburn died. She nursed him in his Edinburgh house, and speaks of him as 'a man of fourscore,' which would make his birth soon after 1650. Cockburn-Hood (Hoitse of Cockburn) found him 'retoured heir to his brother John in 1671.' Our author, who was the second son, says elsewhere: 'lam now' (Jan. 1740) ' in my 61 year,' so that he was born in 1679. He is stated in the House of Cockburn to have been baptized 1698 and married 1700. The parish register at Ormistoun is unfortunately blank, 1649-1706.


Cockburn came of a good Whig stock, modified by Anglican influence. Macky, the Hanoverian agent, drew up for the Princess Sophia (1723) a report on the Scots public men of the day, in which Adam Cockburn figures as keen for William and Presbytery, 'bigot to a fault, hardly in common charity with any out of the verge of Presbytery, otherwise very fine in person and manners, just, of good sense, sanguine complexion.' Singular that two such strong partisans and political opponents as Adam Cockburn and Fletcher of Saltoun were near neighbours and contemporaries. Both too had their most pleasing and enduring tastes for the rural amenities eagerly cultivated, in the one case by a son, our John Cockburn, in the other by a nephew, Lord Milton.

The portrait in the Farmer's Magazine, vol. v., of John Cockburn is from an original which was long in the family of Haldane of Gleneagles.1 The Letters amply show that he inherited the most pleasing of the qualities Macky ascribes to his father. As a landlord he proved himself eminently just and considerate. At a time when precarious tenure and harassing feudal services kept the 'pure Commounis' in a degraded position, he was kindly and generous to a fault. We find that their services in the making of roads, which he might have claimed, he merely 'expected.** He grudges to hurt David Wight's feelings, and so advises Bell to avoid being seen again planting trees in his hedges. * Make the hole and slip in the horse chesnut at once, for if David sees yow open new ground he'l think himself undone.' He is even patient when some rogues among them set fire to whins (p. 63) and pull up saplings, only threatening, in a Wight letter, to make use of his barony court in the way of punishing them. His thoughtfulness is unceasing. To Wight he says, ' To those born and bred on my own estate I always think I have a particular relation and a tie upon me to encourage, more than strangers.'' Bell's brother, John, is a gardener in London (p. 51) and first of a long succession of Scots abroad in that line, and has had 'brother Adam1 with him as a not very hopeful learner. Bell had himself been at Tottenham as a learner (p. 28). Brodie had learned joinering there, and then transferred his skill to Ormistoun. Alexander Wight was urged (1726) to come south and get insight into the malting business he was about to enter upon. 'I believe I can get you recommendations to several places in the north, about Stockton, in Yorkshire; you will find some very bad husbandry.' If he come to London, he 'shall be welcome to lodging.'

The reader will not fail to form an intimate picture of the writer from two aspects of the correspondence—the way in which he keeps Bell and his servants up to the mark and his severe handling of the unprogressive, prejudiced, and limited attitude of the people for whose benefit he was giving his right hand. Beautiful too is his self-criticism—his ironical deference to the judgment of others along with confidence in his own, his consciousness of elaborating his instructions to weariness, and the self-restraint in the confession, 'I dare say no more for fear of getting into a passion' (p. 95); or this bit of homely frankness: ' I hate wrangling, and when I cant make a shoe do I choose in the easiest way to let it go down in the heel'—a surprising confession from a Lord of the Admiralty in the days of Pope and Addison. True ' gentility' breathes in this to Wight, 'My wife returns thanks to yours for the receipt for making starch; and, as we are farmers here, she says there is no receipt which she, as a sister farmer's wife, can return but she shall be glad to send.' But the most abiding feature of the picture is the strenuous concentration of the man. These letters are a revelation of, in its own way, as interesting a personality as that more famous official of the Navy Office, Samuel Pepys. Bell is to give him a journal of what he does every day. He irks to know what his neighbour laird, Hepburn, thinks of his improvements. Every five minutes he has to spare he gives to Ormis-toun. Almost pathetic is this: 'Last evening we had the finest soft shower could be and this a fine sunshine morning. It actually has made a great change upon the colours of the fields already, and it now gives me great pain only to be able to see the fields and the changes every day will make from my windows' (p. 52). Concentration could hardly go further than this bit of unconscious humour: 'Arch. Pringle, who has lost his wife, talks much of his Onion Seed, so I send you a little of it, to give it a fair trial' (p. 50). Archie was another 'brither Scot' doing well on gardening in the south. Delicious, too, is the dry remark: 'This has been a clear, frosty day'—closing some plain speaking about ' unthinking stupidity.

The frankness of his reference to 'my Wife,' and of his criticism of 'my Brothers' shows how unsophisticated the Scots laird was, and how homely even in the ceremonious eighteenth century. See also p. 38, ' If Patk: asks you, etc.

The footing on which his brothers stood, it is difficult to understand. Charles lived at, especially is much about, Ormis-toun Hall, and, though John is said to have assumed the care of affairs in 1714, he writes, in 1735, the year of his father's death, as if the brothers were not seeing eye to eye with him : ' Borrow a cart from any of the Tenants for the Spars or any other uses without asking my Brors for the least thing or taking any notice when you are to borrow one. None of the Tenants will refuse you one. The year before this he is quite deferential on the subject. 'What I write is only my opinion to you, but doe you follow the orders you receive from my Brother, whether agreeable to what I write or not' (p. 3). The confidence he reposed in Bell is shown in this (p. 20): 'I need not tell you this letter is to yourself and the other to be communicated to my Brothers as usual.' The freedom of his criticism must have made Bell regard him as ' gey ill to do wiV Now it is, 'you shd gett better Ink,' for the very address was scarce legible. Again he gives a home thrust like this: 'Don't glance this Letter and then throw it by, as if saying you have read it was enough. Read and consider it over and over, for I can't have time to repeat the same things every Post'; ' What can I think of any other orders when what I have repeated a hundred times is not minded'; ' I can't have time to write ten times before I can know all the circumstances which a line or two more to your first letter wd have made me understand at once.' Bell is not spared even the shame of exposure, for in a joint letter to him and Dods we have, 'If he' (Bell) 'observes as overly as he writes, he had as good stay within doors.' He is so full of enthusiasm that he can account for remissness in answering letters on two grounds only, little is done, and the less said about it the better, or ' as I write seldom you think you need neither be in haste in going on nor in writing, but drone on trifling away the season properest of all the year for business.'' He forgets that the gardener, after his day's manual labour, and with but a modest share of clerkly skill, might find composition unkindly under such conditions as Burns has sketched:—

'the spewing reek,
That filled, wi' hoast-provoking smeek,
The auld, clay biggin',
An' heard the restless rottons squeak
About the riggin'.'

Behind all this arbitrariness, however, there must have been a real regard for Bell. He is at great pains in planning ways and means for improving Bell's position and prospects by market-gardening. The remarkable No. VIII. letter is almost entirely devoted to this. In a dark passage (p. 28), after such excellent advice as this—'Never grudge laying out a penny when you see a probability of 2d. returning—he thus hints,' When I see you next I shall possibly propose to you what may make you incline to reside there and do my business and push your own on strongly at the same time.' As he had been discussing how to cultivate a market in Edinburgh, the 'there' may refer to some scheme for doing business in the capital in which Bell and the village might share, 'for my chief view in the many advices I give to people at Orm. is to advance their own thriving.''

Language and Style

If the truest art is always that which comes nearest to self-revelation, then these letters come under the category, all the more that they are the artless outpouring of mind and heart full to overflowing with the subject. We have got far beyond what Cockburn has to say of seeds, tree-propagating and planting, fruits and vegetables, poultry and pigeons. His wise remarks on nascent economics have an increasing interest to us, for the rural exodus, the village decadence, and the growth of home industries are living questions still. But behind all these are the man himself and the presentation through him of a notable phase in national development. He wrote at the time of that change in speech and writing which followed the Union, and nowhere can we get better material for its study. The language wants polish and knows no tricks of rhetoric, but there is no mistaking the meaning, provided we trust to the ear and not to the eye, for the punctuation seems to us defective. In this, as in so much else, we moderns are treated like children, thanks to the progress of book-making. There is no space to speak of the spelling, though it finely illustrates archaic survivals, inconsistencies, and all those features of the time which only accurate reprints show. But I must draw attention to a point now rarely presented to the reading public, the presence of what Scottish writers of the century dreaded under the reproach of Scotticisms. While Cockburn as an educated man— and he certainly writes like one, though true to the situation he makes no show of learning—would conform to English as he heard it and used it officially, there is no doubt he could scarcely avoid the homely ruts in writing to Bell. Thus while we have such usual forms of the period as dont, your's, their's, our's, it's growth, people's living, Brodies friends, you'l, he'l,' we have also specially Scots ones in c wch, w*, ace*, agt (against), Bror, comon, ane, ye (the) papers.' More interesting are forms which are due to Scots pronunciation—'ditchen (ditching), farthen (farthing), non (none), through (thorough), and hight—both with strong guttural, watter, jobb, halfs (halves), espicially, rasberry, then (than), collyflowers, unsensible, closs, allers (alders), for fear of their middling with trees, leed (mill-lade), least (lest), Norraway, moneth (Ger.monaty Such spellings, too, as 'moue, saue' show that the letters u and v were still treated as virtually the same. Peculiarly realistic is the Scottish emphatically pronounced negation,' No sure' for surely not, and 'Sure, sure, he is most obstinate.' But a spelling of exceptional interest is 'fain' in the sentence (p. 100)—'Let them (the cattle) stay there no longer than it is so, till 1st March, and then carry them to back Lee (lea) altogether, and fain that south of the Garden.' The word ' fain ' here is obscure. But ' when,' used here in the sense of ' after,' a common idiom, is in dialect pronounced ' finn,' so that the meaning is, punctuated to please the modern—'and, when that is done, remove them to south of the garden.' Initial wh is regularly any in Aberdeenshire; in the Lowlands only 'when' is so treated. This is no more barbarous than the Englishman's w'ich, wot, wye, wen; and much better than his attenuated 'oo, 'oose, 'oom.

It is easy to pick up or drop a pronunciation, but an idiom abides. In this regard Cockburn's Scotticisms are most characteristic. His actual Scots words are comparatively few. They are : frush = easily broken, bye times = odd times, knowe = knoll, overly = remiss, fend = get along, fale = turf, sods. But one characteristically Scottish form is entirely absent. A seventeenth-century speaker would say ' choakit' where Cock-burn has ' choaked.' If the suffix -ed forms a syllable it appears, but otherwise we have 'd, a printer's convention in verse, now happily disappearing. In the Letters, however, we have ' straittened' as well as 'body'd.' Under use of words note : 'you have done (finished) about the house; you must be sensible (aware) there is a great deal to do ; not one scrape (bit of writing) from Lowther.' The same is true of phrases, e.g. 'against May comes three years; between and to-morrow night; put work by (out of) hand ; up the way (road); few breed by (in comparison with) what might have done.' The adjective used as adverb was as common in Middle, and even in Elizabethan, English as it still is in German and Scots, e.g.c ne'er saw them right managed, cheaper made.' Examples too occur of a use off shall,' now regarded as specially Scottish, but quite common in English of an older day. A marked feature of Northern English, which includes Lowland Scots, was an apparent looseness in the use of plurals. Many examples are here: ' severals otherx particulars; when you are in doubts; you was complained of to them as you know you was to me; money and time is lost.' The most interesting of all these idioms, however, is the omission of the relative in the nominative case, e.g. ' Alex. Cockburne's son and the man came with him; in a ship sailed yesterday,' and many others. Now in the oldest Scots, as in the Laws of the Four Burghs, the unemphatic relative 'that' regularly appears as 'at, and as regularly is heard in the speech of to-day. The slight stress on the word led to its being omitted. The ear of Burns must have noticed nothing amiss with this:—

'Or like the snow' [that] ' falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever.'

During the eighteenth century this became a familiar trick to give an archaic effect, as in the ballads, and no point so well supports, as this, Chambers's theory of the late and largely artificial presentation of this much debated literature. The unique value of the Letters in this regard consists in their showing, without suspicion of pose and without the intervention of the printer, how an educated Scotsman of the period wrote and spoke.

The Letters leave no doubt of the fact that Cockburn wrote and spoke English, and that plain farmers like Wight, and even Bell the gardener and Dods the ploughman, understood it. And yet we are told that the speech of Scotsmen, like Cockburn, who sat in the English Parliament after the Union was a source of wonder and amusement to the Southron members; but after the example set before us this must be coloured with the hues of romance. Of course the oddities of accent and intonation must be taken into account as a factor in the amusement, but surely the indubitable provincialisms among the English members themselves would be as marked as any Doric. Though wordy enough, Cockburn is fond of elliptical compression and of what the grammarian calls the gerundial style. Two phrases from the same letter offer typical illustrations of the gerund subject: 'Their not doing this cleverly will lose him much of the advantage of what he has learned ... to push it heartily in every part is wanting to bring it to bear.' Here is a striking case of compression: 'You have now had a trial of [what] ' the Garden produces can best be disposed of.' If we compare Cockburn's language with that of Defoe in the letters he wrote about the same period to Harley from Scotland, it will be found to be quite as clear, natural, and idiomatic.

Cockburn's Work and Place

These Letters suggest much that might be said about Cockburn,s contemporaries who were busy at work on lines such as he, and with very little effect beyond endangering their own fortunes, as befell him; much too, in themselves, they tell about modes of living and of making a living that what we call modern progress has removed far into the forgotten past. They illustrate, with a fulness unknown before, the picture of rural life which is presented in such publications of the Society as the Court-Book of the Barony of Urie, the Masterton Papers, and Baron ClerWs Memoirs.

The Farmers Magazine gives 1726 as the date of the laying out of the village, but in the light of the Letters this is too early. i If I can get a draught from Mr. Gordon, youl have much occasion for being at the Town of Orm:' so Cockburn writes to Bell from Hampstead, June 1735 (No. VIII.). This letter is the longest, as it is one of the most important. John's father died this year, and one can see onwards from this point a fever of development setting in, embracing dyke-making, market-gardening, bridge and road making, coal-mining, and, above all, improvements in the town. There is a hint also of friction between the new laird and his brothers. It is hard to say where Gordon came from, but he is a stranger in the village shortly before 1735. He was employed as a draughtsman. His name is on the Club List, but not as one of the original sixteen. But in August 1739, we have him about to be settled at Ormistoun, for his house is being roofed then ' before winter"*; and again (p. 67, February 1741), its position is indicated. In 1742 (p. 80) Mr. Yool seems to be in charge, and Gordon is not again mentioned. But building operations are then under discussion, leading to the uprooting of cherished hedges and trees. We cannot, therefore, put the first mention of the laying out of the village earlier than 1735, though the phrase in a letter of December 1734—' I hope the Town is upon Improving'—seems to mark the inception of the plan in CockburrTs mind (see also September 1735). In No. XXVII. we have CockbunTs own advanced views on the subject, and this in October 1742. The idea on which Cockburn worked for the conversion of Ormistoun from the usual crofter-clachan of the period into a well-built market town was part of his long-cherished scheme for creating here a busy industrial centre. He did not, however, himself build (p. 33), but in every way encouraged his feuars to do so on their own ground, generously helping them with timber and stones (see p. 80). '

The neighbourhood was already an attraction. Defoe was in Scotland for some years before and after the Union. In the first edition of his Tour (1725) Ormistoun is simply the seat of the Lord Justice-Clerk. The second edition (1732) has 'Ormistoun, a perfect English plantation, curiously hedged and ditched, a fine old seat of the Cockburn family.'' This is taken exactly, word for word, from Macky's Journey through Scotland (1723). Defoe's third edition (1742) speaks of the ' thriving little toon and handsome estate, so well planted and improved. I do not remember to have seen a more beautiful spot. A pretty good Seat here; but when I saw it, it was very much out of Repair,' a remark which explains the building of the new house about this time. As Defoe died in 1731 this is not to be taken as his own observation, but the Tour was kept up to date through the century in successive editions. These extracts, however, are all contemporary with the Letters, which they illustrate. The stranger enters the village now with pleased surprise at its well-built main street, the fine old manse garden, the stretch of green sward in the centre with its quaint worn cross, and the ring of noble trees in which the whole is set. How it looked near the close of the century (1792) is shown in the Statistical Account: (Country enclosed with hedges of white thorn, mixed with sweet-briar and honeysuckle and hedge-row trees. Flax-dressing never succeeded.'

As representing John Cockburn's industries there were surviving, in 1792, two distilleries and a starch-work. His gardening, for which the valley is admirably adapted, was represented, when the New Statistical Account appeared (1841), by two vegetable gardens, which sent from two to three hundred Scots pints of strawberries in the season to Edinburgh. This fruit he never mentions. In our own day fruit culture and market gardening have enormously developed here since the railway came near the village. Cockburn was sage enough to see that the producer without a customer was nought, but he lived long before the age of Industrialism. His mill is now a dwelling-house and the lade dry. The bleachfield survived longest. Though we have been led to understand that, in the June days, 'lint was in the bell' all over old-time Scotland, Cockburn never mentions it. In a Wight letter he observes, 'I cannot say that I know anything of flax by experience.' It must have been grown by Wight, however, for he goes on to say, ' I have always heard that the seed ought to be changed frequently. I therefore advise your getting seed from Holland, though your own may be excellent.' This was in 1726, but we are not to infer that there was any bleachfield till much later. We first hear of it in 1733. Neither flax-growing nor flax-dressing is mentioned in the Letters ; but the matter was taken up by the Club (1736-41), which petitioned the Board of Trustees to appoint a proper person from Holland for the industry. Accordingly, on the later list of Club members, we have Mr. Keysar, lint-dresser from Flanders. Along with him is 'John Christie, linen-draper in Ormistoun,' named in No. VIL as corresponding with Cockburn. This is early in 1735 (see note, p. 21). Lord Milton's bleachfield at Saltoun is dated 1750 in the old Statistical Account, and generally regarded as the first in Scotland. But the Club minutes show that Ormistoun had an earlier start.

With Wight's malt-making there is an interesting link that brings it almost to our own day. Robert Moffat, the African missionary, was the son of a revenue official stationed for a time in the village. His monument most fitly adorns the main street. If a prophet were ever honoured at- home, John Cockburn, the maker of Ormistoun, would surely be also remembered here. A son of Isabella (Mrs. Begg), the sister of the poet Burns, was for a time the schoolmaster, as my friend, the Rev. Mr. Proudfoot of Haddington, has informed me. His mother, then a widow, lived with him, and also taught in the village. Gilbert Burns lies in Bolton churchyard, further down the Tyne.

While Cockburn must have seemed a trifle too opinionative in Bell's eyes, his opinions were uncommonly sound. Nor is he unduly arbitrary. Resenting Alexander Wight's failure in answering repeated inquiries put to him, he says: 'I only mention upon such occasions what I think may be of service, but I never insisted upon my thoughts being followed. I design them well, but I leave every man to judge for himself in his own affairs without censuring of them for not thinking in their own concerns as I do. If my advices are not liked the trouble that is lost is mine, and I shall always be glad they do better, without taking ill their not being of my opinion. As an employer he was painfully alive to the weak points in the undeveloped industrialism of his country. To Bell he writes (p. 48): 'You know I have frequently complained of triflers and all being Idle, and that you take excuses not at all sufficient for their making little advance.' To similar purpose another letter says (p. 77): 'Attend you the Men close and make them work or discharge them. It is picking my pocket to make me pay Men that can't or won't work.' Evidently a century of the Catechism as the mainstay of education had not taught the peasant labourer to do justly. The real reason for such idling, however, was not lack of intelligence, for the people were shrewd enough. 6 Our people,' he justly observes, 6 proceed as half asleep without any lively spirit in contriving or executing, and I really believe much of this proceeds from our low diet both in eating and drinking. Our common food gives little strength to either body or mind, and our malt drink is the most stupifying stuff ever was contrived.' As a well-drilled official he would hustle the jog-trot peasant, who seems to have acted upon the Spanish maxim, ' Never do to-day what you can put off till to-morrow.' ' Delays,' he says,« are the delight of people in Scotland . . . being punctual is a great sin in our country . . . doing things by halfs.' He shrewdly sees that all these defects are great hindrances to business. The country was sadly in need of a substantial increase in the circulation of money, then both scarce and debased. One home industry—gardening—was practicable, but had to be created. The business views of his age, however, stood in the way. 'If you propose to follow your father's narrow, vastly mistaken notion of raiseing ten cabbages and not disposing of them tho' in danger of rotting, unless he gets the price of 30 for them, you 'l be in the right, provided nobody will raise cabbages but yourself, but this wont hold long, for the dearer you keep your price the more others will be encouraged to take up the business, which is the constant consequence of those foolish, narrow, low notions.' Here we have, in a nutshell, the soundest and most enduring business creed.

He must have been a considerable employer of labour. Directly, by his example and his favourable leases, he stimulated the farmers, and by his building and public works he made village life more comfortable. He secured for the community a trained joiner and trained gardeners. In his own dealings he is upright. His grazing must have been a novelty and his advertisements quite modern. These he insists on keeping to, not always realised now, 'making no particular promises about taking care of one man's Horse or the like, for I will have no distinctions, every poor man's horse to have the same fare with the greatest,' a rebuke for Blundering as last year about Ld Oxford's stirks,' evidently a case of favouritism. Indirectly he runs counter to modern social propriety when he encourages Ramsay to set up 'a good publick House.' The type of the time he sketches sarcastically (p. 18): ' Our comon dirty Hog stays where nothing is to be gott but nasty Barm which we call Tuppenny and by accident ane Oat or pease Cake.' The success of the scheme was not great. In 1743 we find him reporting the complaint of a member of the club about the malt drink supplied by the Poosie Nancy of Ormiston. 'I suppose,' he says, 'she wd be glad of more custom, and yet she won't keep drink which wd bring her customers.' Evidently he thought the drink traffic ought to be encouraged, but, it must be remembered, with the view of stimulating the market for barley ' in so fine a Barley Country.'

So far we have seen this remarkable man mainly as most of his contemporaries regarded such as he—a lucky placeman indulging in the luxury of an expensive and impracticable hobby. In justice to those contemporaries it must be remembered that he enjoyed opportunities denied to most of them in the matter of a safe income, the training in affairs on a large scale, the experience of a capital, relatively as great a school of enlightenment as now, and the general progress of a country that was a century ahead of Scotland. But his enthusiasm embraced wider interests than the care of his estate. He saw that the only stimulant to dispel the prevailing sloth, or rather apathy, lay in the creation of incentives to effort in local industries, new markets, and the healthy play of supply and demand. In his own fashion this correspondence reveals in him a phenomenal anticipation of Adam Smith. His views are far in advance of his day. No writer of the century gives so luminous and incisive a criticism of the Scottish peasant farmer before modern progress overtook him. Unfortunately he is in such deadly earnest that he can see nothing of the farmer's merits. In farming practice Cockburn had little to learn from us moderns, though our implements, our fencing, and our deep draining were beyond him. In forestry and gardening he is ingeniously suggestive. He has such unusual trees as silver and spruce firs, sweet chesnuts, oriental planes, evergreen oaks, and maples. He gets seed from France, Turkey, and Scandinavia. He says nothing of flowers, or of a greenhouse, but he has wall, standard, and espalier fruit trees; bell shades and hot beds; and uses mats to protect from wind and frost. He has the usual fruits, including even mulberries and quinces, but he has no strawberries. On points in which Scotland was long notably far behind he is stimulating to a degree, such as the entertainment for travellers in inns, the absence of fruits and vegetables, the low diet of the people and its want of variety, their underfed animals, their neglect of manure, and their mean and unsightly houses.

My obligations to Mr. John Hamilton I have already acknowledged; but I must add here that I have derived much help from his professional skill and local knowledge. The gardener, Mr. Bannerman, who takes an intelligent pride in his interesting surroundings, drew out a plan of the estate and garden, which has been of the greatest service to me in following the topography of the correspondence. For useful information about the Cockburn family I have to thank Mr. Robert Cockburn, 17 Great King Street, Edinburgh, descended from the Langton branch, and Mr. Harry A. Cockburn, of Lower Grosvenor Place, London, a grandson of the well-known Lord Cockburn of the delightful Memoirs and Circuit Journeys, and tracing descent from the Ormistoun branch. He contributes a new fact to John Cockburn's family history, to wit, that ' his second wife was Arabella Rowe, daughter of a gentleman in Oxfordshire. Her two sisters were respectively Viscountess Hillsboro' and Charlotte, wife of George, Lord Forrester, so that George Cockburn (John^s only son) in marrying Baroness (in her own right) Forrester married his first cousin.' Arabella Rowe's father, Anthony Rowe, is described as of Muswell Hill, now within the grounds of the Alexandra Palace; which gives plausibility to Mr. Cockburn's shrewd conjecture that John Cockburn got to know the family while he resided at Tottenham, in the neighbourhood. His first wife was Beatrice Carmichael, daughter of the first Earl of Hyndford, by whom he had no children.

In the annotations I have endeavoured to deal with the great variety of topics raised, and their relationship to the social progress of the age. The difficulties of interpretation at this distance of time, involved in the character and occasion of the correspondence, may have led to errors both of omission and of commission. The Letters of course take no notice of the wider interests of the day except the phenomenal winter of 1739-40. But there are curious references to seed shops like Switser's in Westminster Hall and that of the dilatory Lowther; to the enterprising market gardeners and the higlers or costermongers; to the wheat-fields of Herefordshire and the well-planted lanes of Herts; to the clannish interests in the comings and goings of canny Scots; to the primitive arrangement of a foot-post that waited till a letter was ready; and of Craig, the waterman, letting Cockburn know when the 'Glasgow Packett' found the river open for the adventurous voyage to Leith; and to a commercial intercourse that could boast of Bills of Lading and Bills of Exchange.

A melancholy interest attaches to the following extract from The House of Cockburn : c On the 10th Dec. 1747 was signed the disposition "by George Cockburn of Ormiston, whereby for the sum of o£  15612,000 sterling he sells to John, Earl of Hopetoun, heritably and irredeemably, All and Whole the parts of the barony of Ormiston on the north side of the Tyne, comprehending the town of Ormiston, with right of weekly market, as granted to the late John Cockburn, his grand-uncle" (1649), "and an infeftment upon the whole barony—granted by John Cockburn, father of said George, to the late Charles, Earl of Hopetoun, for £10,000, of date 14th May 1739." By a second disposition, dated 8th September 1749, "the said George Cockburn sold to the said Earl All and Whole " the remaining portions of the barony, with the manor-place of Ormiston, for £10,200. George Cockburn, made a Comptroller of the Navy in 1750, was survived by two daughters, who both died childless. This document shows that, while John Cockburnv was at the height of his improving zeal, the estate was carrying a debt of ten thousand pounds.

I am under deep obligation to Dr. Underhill, Coates Crescent, Edinburgh, for his courtesy in enabling me to read the letters of Cockburn to Alex. Wight, of whom Mrs. Underhill is a descendant. Though my work had been by this time virtually finished, they have been of very great service in confirming or modifying conjectures, and especially in establishing such essential points as Cockburn's birth, his visits to Scotland, when, by the way, he lived, not at the Hall, but in the village with Wight, and family differences, which bring out the fact that the 'Mrs. Cockburn' here was the wife of his brother Charles, and that both of them did much to thwart his schemes. J. C.

Return to the Book Index page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus