COCKBURN, John (c.1679-1758), of Ormiston, Haddington.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1707 - 1708

Family and Education

b. c.1679, 1st s. of Adam Cockburn, MP [S], of Ormiston, Ld. Ormiston SCJ and lord justice clerk, by his 1st w. Lady Susan Hamilton, da. of John, 4th Earl of Haddington [S].  educ. Glasgow Univ. 1695.  m. (1) 1700, Lady Beatrice (d. 1702), da. of John Carmichael, 1st Earl of Hyndford [S], s.p.; (2) Arabella, 3rd da. and coh. of Anthony Rowe*, 1s.  suc. fa. 16 Apr. 1735.1

Offices Held

Burgess, Glasgow 1694, Ayr 1706, Edinburgh 1708, Dunbar 1710.2

MP [S] Haddingtonshire 1703–7.

PC [S] 1704, 1707; commr. exchequer [S] 1704, 1707; ld. of Trade 1714–17, of Admiralty 1717–32, 1742–4.3


Better known as the ‘father of Scottish husbandry’, Cockburn also pursued a long and successful career both in the Scottish and British Parliaments. Like his father he was a Presbyterian, staunch to the Revolution interest, though predisposed to look towards the court for rewards. At the Scottish general election of 1702 Cockburn was doubly returned as the fourth commissioner for Haddingtonshire, but succeeded in carrying the consequent by-election in June 1703. He immediately joined the Country party’s attack on the ministry from which his father had recently been purged. On his own initiative, he joined the ‘New Party’ in 1704, seceding from the opposition with his future Squadrone colleagues. Ormiston had taken care to be abroad during this uncertain period, but upon his return successfully manoeuvred his way back into office as lord justice clerk, a return to favour which was unaffected by the subsequent collapse of the ‘New Party’ experiment. Both father and son supported the Union, although Ormiston’s conduct was more Court-orientated than Cockburn’s, which conformed strictly to the Squadrone line. He was therefore included in the Squadrone contingent of representatives to the first Parliament of Great Britain. The contemporary historian Cunningham later stigmatized Cockburn as one of those who ‘made a specious pretence of the public good’ in supporting the Union ‘with an eye, in the midst of the public affairs, to their private interest’. This harsh verdict was not without foundation, but the safety of the succession was a paramount consideration, and Cockburn saw the unification of the Scottish and English Parliaments as the surest means to this end.4

At Westminster Cockburn rapidly established himself as one of the leaders of the Squadrone in the Commons. He was appointed on 4 Dec. 1707 to the drafting committee to repeal the Scottish act of security and on the 11th he spoke ‘very handsomely’ in favour of the abolition of the Scottish privy council, being appointed to the resultant drafting committee for a bill to complete the Union. He also featured among those appointed to prepare a bill to deter disloyal clan chiefs. Although he took a strongly anti-Jacobite stance over the invasion, he supported the idea of a political alliance between the Squadrone and the cavalier leader the Duke of Hamilton. Cockburn’s hostility to the Scottish Court party was also evident on 25 Feb., when he ‘spoke reflectingly and scurvily of the parliament of Scotland’ upon an unsuccessful Squadrone motion to invert the classes of the Equivalent. At the 1708 election Cockburn was returned for Haddingtonshire after an awkward contest. He was praised by the cavalier and Squadrone leaders for his work in co-ordinating their joint electoral efforts and was given responsibility for reporting on these matters to the Junto.5

In the 1708 Parliament Cockburn continued to take a leading role in parliamentary affairs, though surviving reports of his contributions to debate are few. He was assiduous in his attendance, reporting to Lord Tweeddale on 22 Jan. that, since the recess, he had been ‘almost every night’ in the Commons, where some sittings had lasted into the early hours of the morning. He also reported that there was ‘a project on foot here for erecting an African Company, which if it takes will really prove a West Indian Company too; how prejudicial these companies are to us [in Scotland] every unbiased thinking man must easily see’. He recommended that petitions be started locally both on this topic and on another of purely local interest, namely a harbour bill in favour of William Morison*. Cockburn’s successful neutralization of this measure demonstrated a keen eye for the details of parliamentary procedure. Having obtained amendments which considerably reduced the bill’s impact, he gave this account of his motives to Lord Tweeddale, the hereditary sheriff of Haddington: ‘I hope while I represent the county I shall always be able to answer that I do to the best of my knowledge to serve them [sic] in all their concerns from such as Mr Morison’s bill to those of greater consequence.’ He also courted favour with the town of Dunbar, writing to the council in late 1709, ‘representing that he had been instrumental in getting all the coals brought to the port and harbour of Dunbar exempted from that duty laid on coal waterborne’, for which service he was made a hereditary burgess of the town. Cockburn spoke and voted on 10 Mar. against the ministry’s conduct during the recent Jacobite invasion attempt, thereby keeping faith with the Hamilton pact; and on 5 Apr. spoke on behalf of ‘the dying laws of Scotland’, during a debate on the treason bill. He voted for the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell in 1710. In the wake of the trial, as the balance of power shifted strongly towards the Tories, Cockburn’s father was dismissed as lord justice clerk and replaced by a nominee of Robert Harley*.6

Cockburn was re-elected for Haddingtonshire without a contest in 1710, receiving support from his friend Hon. William Kerr*, who deemed him ‘as good a friend and as honest a man as is in the world and I am sure loves my brother [the Duke of Roxburghe] and me to a degree, and also respects my lord Marquess [of Tweeddale] with very much sincerity’. Listed as a Whig both in the ‘Hanover list’ of 1710 and in the analysis of Scottish elections by the episcopal chaplain Richard Dongworth, Cockburn voted on that side over the Bewdley election on 19 Dec. After the recess he continued to be active on election cases, opposing George Lockhart’s motion regarding the sheriff of Wigtown on 20 Jan. 1711, and told in support of Mungo Graham* over the disputed return for Kinross-shire on 10 Feb. Although no doubts should be entertained about Cockburn’s loyalty to the Hanoverian succession, he continued to maintain communication with Hamilton and the cavaliers.7

On 7 Dec. 1711 Cockburn voted with the Whigs on the motion for ‘No Peace without Spain’. In February 1712 he was convinced that the conduct of foreign policy was being mismanaged by Lord Oxford (Harley), who ‘seems to divert himself with bamboozling all Europe’. Oxford’s policy threatened to increase the power of France and the danger from Jacobitism. Cockburn argued that

things are gone so far and the interest of the one [France] seems by the measures taken to be so strengthened abroad, and the friends of the other [the Pretender] so encouraged and strengthened at home that he will appear an able minister indeed if he keeps all out of their hands.

The increasing pressure on the ministry from the High Tories was evident in their successful promotion of measures favouring Scottish episcopalians during this session. Cockburn naturally opposed these, voting against the Scottish toleration bill on 7 Feb. 1712 and telling on a procedural motion against the patronages bill on 13 Mar. The following year, he nevertheless found sufficient common ground to unite with the Scottish Tories, albeit temporarily, during the malt tax crisis. Participating fully in the united Scottish opposition, he was one of the four deputies who informed the Queen on 26 May 1713 that the Scots would move for a dissolution of the Union unless their grievances were redressed. Lord Balmerino somewhat grudgingly admitted that Cockburn ‘seemed hearty enough’, comparing him with George Baillie*, who was ‘full of shifts’. Indeed, their divergent reaction to the crisis created some tension. But Baillie, as the senior figure within the Squadrone, appears to have overborne his colleague’s enthusiasm. Cockburn was probably the unnamed friend whom Baillie reported to his wife as having ‘talked so wildly’ about dissolving the Union that he had been ‘forced to check him’. The readiness with which Cockburn fell into line indicated that there was no fundamental disagreement: neither expected the motion to succeed in the first instance, nor intended inadvertently to assist the Jacobite cause. After the Hanoverian succession, when both Cockburn and his father were restored to favour at Court, the family was active in suppressing attempts to dissolve the Union. In 1713 Cockburn had also opposed, on Whig principles, the commercial aspects of the peace with France, as a teller against the suspension of duty on French wine on 6 May and by voting against the French commerce bill on 4 and 18 June.8

Prior to the 1713 election Roxburghe had made it clear that if Cockburn were to be defeated in Haddingtonshire, this would be ‘an affront to all [the] Squa[drone]’. Although there was a contest, Cockburn defeated his Tory challenger, and was classified as a Whig on the electoral analysis sent by Lord Polwarth to Hanover. He opposed the expulsion of Richard Steele on 18 Mar. 1714, speaking in defence of Steele’s request to defend his writings paragraph by paragraph, and rejecting Tory attempts to draw unjust parallels with the Sacheverell case. Cockburn was also active on election cases, recording four tellerships hostile to Tory interests. As the likelihood of the Queen’s death increased, he played a leading role in concerting the Squadrone’s preparations for the succession, and afterwards was rewarded with appointment to an office worth £1,000 p.a., his father also being reappointed lord justice clerk.9

Cockburn supported the government until 1733, when he joined the opposition to Walpole (Robert II*). He continued to represent Haddingtonshire until 1741; but local interests, particularly agricultural improvement, occupied much of his attention in later years. Cockburn also developed other enterprises, including a linen manufactory, a brewery, a distillery, and a bleaching-field. These initiatives proved financially ruinous, resulting in the sale of his estates in 1747 and 1749. Cockburn died on 13 Nov. 1758 and the direct line ended with his only son, George, who died without male issue.10

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: David Wilkinson


  • 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 131–3; R. Cockburn and H. A. Cockburn, Recs. Cockburn Fam. 134–5; Scots Peerage ed. Paul, iv. 593; W. Robinson, Hackney, ii. 10–11.
  • 2. Scot. Rec. Soc. lvi. 232; lxii. 41; Carnegie Lib. Ayr, Ayr burgh recs. B6/18/8, council mins. 23 Apr. 1706; SRO, Dunbar burgh recs. B 18/13/2, f. 269, council mins. 3 Jan. 1710.
  • 3. Hist. Scot. Parl. 131–3; SP 55/27, warrant, 23 June 1707.
  • 4. Hist. Scot. Parl. 131–3; DNB (Cockburn, Adam); info. from Dr P. W. J. Riley on members of Scot. parl.; APS, xi. 102; Crossrigg Diary, 140; Boyer, Anne Annals, iii. app. 43; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 45, 327, 334; Cunningham, Hist. GB, ii. 60.
  • 5. Roxburghe mss at Floors Castle, bdle. 1069, Hon. William Kerr to Countess of Roxburghe, 4 Dec. 1707; bdle. 739, William Bennet* to same, 16 Dec. 1707; Cunningham, 135; HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 428–9; Duchess of Marlborough Corresp. ii. 254, 258, 262; Add. 9102, ff. 72–73; 61629, ff. 120–1.
  • 6. NLS, ms 14415, ff. 174–5, 184; Dunbar burgh recs. B18/13/2, f. 269; Scottish Catholic Archs. Blairs Coll. mss BL2/158/3, James Carnegy to Scots College, n.d. [1709]; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 493; P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 171.
  • 7. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1074, Kerr to his mother, 11 Aug. 1710; SHR, lx. 64; SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1024/11, Sir James Dunbar, 1st Bt.*, to Ld. Grange (Hon. James Erskine†), 5 Dec. 1710; GD124/15/1020/4, 7, same to same, 19 Dec. 1710, 20 Jan. 1711; Scot. Hist. Soc. Misc. xii. 134.
  • 8. Lockhart Pprs. i. 113; Lockhart Letters ed. Szechi, 74–9; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 1215; Aberdeen Univ. Lib. Duff House (Montcoffer) mss 3175/2380, ‘Resolution of the Commons to Call a Meeting of the Lords’, [23] May 1713; Scot. Hist. Soc. Misc. 153; Haddington mss at Mellerstain, 5, Baillie to wife, 28 May 1713 (Jones trans.); SRO, Hamilton mss GD406/1/8806, [?Selkirk] to [?Hamilton], n.d. [aft. Aug. 1714]; Parlty Hist. i. 69.
  • 9. Douglas diary (Hist. of Parl. trans.), 18 Mar. 1714; SRO, Montrose mss GD220/5/32/a, Squadrone circular letter, [aft. 18 Mar. 1714]; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 756, Roxburghe to his mother, 9 Dec. 1714; Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 258.
  • 10. T. H. Cockburn-Hood, House of Cockburn, 158; Scot. Hist. Soc. ser. 1, xlv. pp. xvii–xliv.