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.
Historians 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.
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, absorption 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.
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 Dunbar’s who owned the land then the Cockburn’s who built the castle. It also had links to the reformers George Wishart and John Knox.
The Cockburn’s 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.
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 King’s captivity.
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 England.
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 tunnelling 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.
Fortunately 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.
Special thanks to Andrew Spratt in allowing this information to be added to this site.