Lothian village of Ormiston is noted for having been rebuilt as a model
community by John Cockburn of Ormiston in the 1730's. Having established
an agricultural society for landowners and tenants to discuss improvements
in farming and promoting linen manufacture, bringing skilled foreign
craftsmen into Scotland to train his estate workers, John was a man ahead
of his time making social changes for the benefit of the whole community
rather than selfish financial gain. Unfortunately he went bankrupt selling
his estate to the Earl of Hopetown in 1747. This was 199 years after his
ancestor's equally dramatic fall in 1548 when Ormiston castle was slighted
and the lands around destroyed.
have given much attention to John, who granted was an admirable character,
but have neglected to highlight Ormiston's earlier history with its castle
and more ancient Lords who were equally colourful though much less
admirable in their dealings with their fellowman.
miles south west of the present day village of Ormiston, close to the
famous yew tree where the reformer preacher John Knox delivered his
volatile sermons, sits the basement vaults of a late 15th/early 16th
century L-plan keep of Ormiston castle, almost unrecognisable since it's
decapitation, absorbtion and cannibalisation by other later 17th and 18th
century buildings nearby, including the ruined Ormiston Hall (1748),which
is often mistaken to be the site of the original castle.
was perched on a high ridge above the river valley on one side with the
possibility of ditches on the three other vulnerable sides. The site
consisted of an L-plan keep with a 16th century lean-to addition and an
enclosing barmkin wall with a gatehouse probably facing east towards the
prosperous market town of Haddington. The lands of Ormiston were
associated with two noble families, first the Dunbars who owned the land
then the Cockburns who built the castle. It also had links to the
reformers George Wishart and John Knox.
Cockburns were originally vassal Lairds to the powerful Dunbar family,who
held vast tracks of lands and castles throughout the Lothian and borders,
including Ormiston, Luffness, Byres, Hailes and Dunbar castle the family's
principal seat, right down to Billie castle near Chirnside. The forefather
of the Dunbars was Gospatrick who's descendants changed their name to
Dunbar after their castle 'Dun' tower on the 'bar' hence Dunbar. So too
the Cockburns forefathers took their name from the location of Cocks-burn
near Duns. The family had three main branches the Cockburns of Ormiston,
Langton and Clerkington. It wasn't unusual for families to name themselves
after locations. The Dunbars also had great political power having a claim
to the Scots throne through Aba the illegitimate daughter of King William
'the Lion' (1165-1214). But in the troubled times of the wars of
Independence they repeatedly switched sides at one point swearing
allegiance to King Edward I of England (1272-1307) forfeiting their claim
to the Scots throne.
grip on power was further loosened when they sided with King Henry IV of
England (1399-1413) in 1400,resulting in Dunbar castle being seized by
their arch rivals the 'Black' Douglases. Also various ex-Dunbar vassal
Lairds such as the Hepburns of Hailes joined in the feeding frenzy of
seizing Dunbar lands.
King Henry, the Dunbars and 'Hotspur' Percy made an abortive assault on
Edinburgh castle which was defended by the 'Black' Douglases
castle, held by the Ramsays, before rushing down to Wales to stop the
Welsh revolt under Owen of Glendower. After dealing with the Welsh, Dunbar
and Percy made another abortive raid into the Lothians in 1401 besieging Hailes castle, before again fleeing when their siege camp was attacked by
the 'Black' Douglases.
Dunbar and 'Hotspur' defeated the Hepburns, Halyburtons, Lauders and
Cockburns at the 2nd battle of Nisbet. Dunbar then executed the Hepburn
contingent despite their honorable surrender, and kept Halyburton of
Dirleton castle and his kinsman Halyburton of Dalcove in such detestable
conditions before being ransomed that they both died of 'loosening of the
bowels' on returning to their respective families. Dunbar's treatment of
the Lauders and Cockburns isn't recorded but likely they didn't fair any
better. A few months later the Dunbars and Percies also defeated and
captured the 'Red' and 'Black' Douglases with a large Scots army at the
battle of Homildon Hill, near Wooler.
'Red' Douglas later died of a plague contracted during his detention,
while the 'Black' Douglas joined forces with 'Hotspur' Percy and Owen of
Glendower in revolt against Henry IV. Where once again the Dunbars were
victorious helping the English King rout the rebels at the battle of
Shrewsbury in 1403.
Prince James later King James I of Scots (1406-1437) was captured by the
English en route to France and held in England for 18 years. In 1409 the
Dunbars returned to the Scots side and were given back their castle of
Dunbar and most of their lands by the Stewarts Dukes of Albany who were
ruling as Governors during the King's captivity.
King James returned to Scotland and set about killing his political rivals
and those he though were untrustworthy, including the MacDonalds, the
Campbells and the Stewarts of Albany. Having the Duchess of Albany held at
Tantallon castle, by the 'Red' Douglas, while the heads of her husband,
her son and her father were thrown down into the dungeon beside her in an
effort to drive her insane. In 1434 the 'Red' Douglas with Hepburn and Halyburton met secretly at Luffness castle, near Aberlady, conspiring to
break the power of the Dunbars. These lords were delighted when King James
declared the Dunbars outlaws and their lands forfeit, as they had been
reinstated without his permission while captive in England.
Hepburn by royal command seized Dunbar castle and with the aid of Ramsay
of Dalhousie and lord Elphinstone of Elphinstone Tower they repelled an
English attempt to recapture Dunbar castle for the Dunbar family in 1435
at the battle of Piperdean, near Cockburnspath. In 1446 while the Hepburns
and 'Red' Douglases were feuding with the 'Black' Douglases over
possession of Dunbar castle. Lord Dunbar's son Archibald attacked Hailes
castle at night killing the entire garrison. This was an easy victory
since the majority of Hepburns forces were based at Dunbar castle
resisting the 'Black' Douglases attempts to enter my political and
military means. As soon as Archibald heard that William 8th Earl of
Douglas was on his way to seize Hailes he and his English supporters fled
back over the border.
continued absences of the Dunbars, the Cockburns appear to have taken
possession of Ormiston in their own right, building their castle between
1450 and 1530 in a typical L-plan style, perhaps drawing inspiration from
the L-plan of Lethington (Lennoxlove) or Winton though on a much less
to 1549 the English resorted to castle burning throughout the Lothians to
force the marriage of the infant Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1567) to the
English Prince Edward, hence the time was called the 'Rough Wooing'.
Several Scots Lairds who favoured this marriage and had Protestant
leanings sided with the English being known as 'assured Scots'. These
included Cockburn of Ormiston, Douglas of Longniddry,
Douglas of Whittinghame and for a short time the 'Red' Douglas who used Tantallon as
a base to distribute English bribes, before being arrested and imprisoned
in Blackness castle, near Boness.
both the Protestant reformers George Wishart and John Knox were hospitably
entertained and protected by Cockburn and Douglas of Londniddry during
Wishart's inflammatory sermons. Wishart attacked the auld religion and
denounced Cardinal Beaton of St Andrews as corrupt. During one of his
sermons at St Mary's church in Haddington, word came that Hepburn Earl of
Bothwell was nearby with a pro-Catholic army. Wishart sent Knox and
Douglas back to the safety of
Longniddry castle, while he and Cockburn
returned to Ormiston castle.
night Ormiston was besieged by Hepburn's army. Cockburn was ready to make
a fight of it but had his doubts on hearing Cardinal Beaton was nearby
with an even larger army at Elphinstone Tower. So who would they rather
face Hepburn or the wrath of Beaton? Wishart insisted that they surrender
to Hepburn's 'protection' on condition they were not handed over to Beaton.
Hepburn agreed to these terms but quickly broke his word having Cockburn
arrested and held at Elphinstone (but he soon escaped) while Wishart was
taken to Beaton then on to St Andrews castle where he was burnt at the
stake. As he was being burnt alive Wishart continued to denounce Beaton so
a chain was pulled round his neck by Beaton's men so that Wishart was
silenced once and for all.
news of his sermons and death spread like wildfire. Pro-Protestant Lords
stormed St Andrews castle killing Beaton as he lay in bed with his
mistress. His naked body was then hung from the window where he had
watched Wishart burn. These Lords were soon joined by John Knox and the
sons of Cockburn and Douglas, just in time to helped resist a lengthy
siege by Pro-Catholic Scots. Who tried to tunnel into the castle's
courtyard. But were met and defeated by Knox's men tunneling out. The
Pro-Catholic Scots then called for French help. While Knox's supporters
called for an English fleet to evacuate them. Eventually a French fleet
arrived, having evaded English ships en route. The fleet's 'great guns'
were used to bombard the castle both by sea and land. Even the roof of the
Cathedral was used by French sharp shooters to attack the castle. Knox was
arrested and served as a galley slave on one of the French ships. It's
claimed that at one point Knox was positioned off Aberlady bay opposite
Luffness castle with the French fleet blockading the English fort of
Haddington in 1548.Though other accounts say he was imprisoned in France
during the siege of Haddington.
English were building their earth and timber fort at Haddington, units
were sent to slight the castles of Luffness and Byres. It seems likely
they were used as quarries by the English since vast amounts of rubble and
timber were required for their fort's construction. Other castles in the
area were also seized by local 'assured Scots' and token English garrisons
to ensure the fort's security while the construction work continued.
Douglas of Longniddry held Hailes castle. But this was soon recaptured on
the orders of Hamilton Earl of Arran. Douglas of Whittinghame
tower. This was also retaken and occupied by French troops. While Cockburn
had seized Salton castle which was attacked in person by Hamilton Earl of
Arran. Cockburn fled back to his home of Ormiston castle. But this too was
besieged and slighted ,even the trees around were cut down and dragged
away. Though this may have been Hamilton's way of depriving the English of
building materail for their fort.
something remains of Ormiston castle today. Unlike poor Douglas of Longniddry his castle was totally destroyed for his sin of helping the
English and is entombed in a railway embankment opposite 'John Knox Road'
to the south of present day Longniddry. Which is slightly ironic since it
was the association of Douglas and Cockburn to the reformation movement
that sparked their down fall and the destruction of their homes.