John Cockburn of Ormiston

John Cockburn (1695 – 1758)

John Cockburn of Ormiston

John Cockburn of Ormiston

John Cockburn was the son of Adam Cockburn, Lord Justice Clerk and a commissioner in the Scots Parliament, and Susanna Hamilton, a daughter of John, 4th earl of Haddington. The young John followed his father into politics and also served in the Scots Parliament, where he became one of the strongest supporters of union with England. After that Act was accomplished he seamlessly became the MP for Haddingtonshire in the first Union Parliament (1707) and he served until 1741.

During his tenure in England John became increasingly aware of the poor state of Scottish agriculture and set out to improve matters. He led by example.

He had inherited his ancestral estate of Ormiston in 1714 and, noting the difficulty in even setting the land to lease, examined the causes. John found that Scottish farm tenants were actively discouraged from attempting to increase productivity or improve their farms by the terms under which the land was let. Short leases were the problem. It meant that there was no incentive for a tenant to invest – the chance was that others would gain. Similarly, landowners were equally reluctant to invest as even they did not have the capital to lay out. The Scottish economy had long been living on a wing and a prayer and the disastrous Darien Venture had destroyed the little reserve that had been available. Many estates were mortgaged to the hilt (and beyond) and struggled to even pay interest due.

At Ormiston village, there were 10 tenant farmers and their staff (cottars). But their farms were held in rundale or runrig – arable strips close to the village, divided by lot. The tenants pooled their cattle which were daily driven out to graze in the rough beyond the arable part. The rigs they held were chosen by lot, annually. No-one would risk innovation as they could not anticipate benefiting themselves.

The first stage of the improvement initiated by Cockburn was to abolish the old system and the lands (were) divided into proper sized farms, each having a steading built in a convenient situation. … enclosing by ditch and hedge, with trees on the bank, was instantly set about; and, that those enclosures were the first in Scotland … is supported by all traditionary authority. This process had been tested by John’s father. In 1698 Adam granted Robert Wright a lease of 11 years of the first new model farm (at the time few tenants would commit to as many as 5 years). Wright’s lease was extended in 1713 for a further 9 years. John’s first significant act after taking over the reins of the estate was to offer the Wrights a 38 year lease agreeable to the plan for promoting real and substantial improvements. (The possibility of the death of the tenant was considered: the lease was for three ‘lives’ (or generations)).  The long lease meant that the tenant could invest and in later years recover his costs – and more. In reaping the benefits, the Wrights became John’s local advocates amongst the farming community.

Fieldworkers hoeing turnips (or potatoes)

Fieldworkers hoeing turnips (or potatoes)

With long leases and regular discrete fields instituted, John then addressed the question of cropping and the importance of fallow within a systematic rotation. By including clover with grass and manure from grazing animals the next year yields of wheat thereafter were improved. The Ormiston system included turnips from seed, which provided fodder in field for over-wintering sheep – leading to additional manuring and improved stock. More profit for the tenant; higher rents for the landholder.

In the 1720s, John took the process further. Maltings, a brewery and a distillery were built in Ormiston: pale malt, high-flavoured ale, and excellent whisky were manufactured; all of which contributed much to the promoting of agriculture in the neighbourhood. John next investigated further manufactures. As a preliminary Ormiston village was built anew to a regular feuing plan. Then he induced an Irish expert in the linen industry (and other workers from Holland and Ireland) to settle in Ormiston and he laid out the county’s first bleachfield. Aid for this stage came from the Board for Manufactures in Scotland (forerunner of the British Linen Bank).

Finally, in 1736, he started the Ormiston Society, which brought together owners and tenants to discuss the merits of different aspects of improvement. The full list of members is given in Memoirs of John Cockburn, published in the Farmers Magazine of 1804 (from which all italicized text on this page has been taken).

The landscape of present day East Lothian owes much to John Cockburn – probably more so than any other individual. It reflects the extent to which his innovations were adopted by his neighbours and East Lothian’s reputation as the ‘Garden of Scotland’ owes everything to his energy. However, as the pioneer, John spent more than could be afforded. He died in debt, in 1858, having sold Ormiston to the earl of Hopetoun.

Further Reading

  • Letters to His Gardener, John Cockburn, Scottish History Society, 1888
  • Cockburn Family Records, Sir Robert & Harry A Cockburn, 1913
  • House of Cockburn of that Ilk, Thomas Cockburn-Hood, 1888



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