The East 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.
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 colorful though much less admirable in their
dealings with their fellowman.
Several 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
The 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.
The 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
The Dunbars 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.
In reply King
Henry, the Dunbars and 'Hotspur' Percy made an abortive assault on Edinburgh
castle which was defended by the 'Black' Douglases and Dalhousie 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.
In 1402 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.
The captive '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.
In 1406 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
In 1424 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
Douglas and 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,n ear 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.
With the 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 grand scale.
From 1544 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.
In 1546 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.
Later that 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.
However 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.
While the 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 held Nunraw 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.