By Dave Berry, former council leader

BOTH residents of and visitors to our county wax lyrical about unspoiled countryside, pretty villages and ritual peace.

Perhaps because nobody is old enough to remember, there is an unspoken assumption it always looked this way. But in the 18th century, it changed beyond all recognition and the man who led the way was a native son – John Cockburn of Ormiston.

The Cockburns had been Lairds of Ormiston since medieval times, when ancestors built an L-shaped keep several miles southwest of the present village near the ruined Ormiston Hall and the yew tree where John Knox preached. This was destroyed, as so many others were, during the Earl of Somerset’s ‘Rough Wooing’ in 1548.

Back then, the land was worked by a feudal system known as ‘run-rig’. This involved different qualities of land being parcelled out for villages to work in strips, known as rigs. This was inefficient, as few peasants owned oxen, let alone horses to farm intensively. The ensuing crops might feed a family but produced little surplus.

Known as the ‘father of Scottish husbandry’, John succeeded a long line of Cockburns and, from 1703, first pursued a long and successful career, first in the Scottish, then the British Parliament.

Though he followed a high-profile Parliamentary career until 1741, by the 1730s he was spending much more time on agricultural improvements on his estate.

He did away with run-rig, creating larger fields worked by teams of tenants. This made it possible for efficient gangs of oxen to draw multi-shared ploughs that dug up nutrients and gave larger, uniform areas for machines to do harrowing, planting and harvesting.

Crop rotation let nutrients regenerate in the soil and natural dung and newly invented chemical fertilisers augmented this.

As a result, crop yields multiplied many-fold in the fertile Lothian soil and a ready market was found in the growth of cities in the early stages of industrialisation. Local landowners soon followed suit, which drove the impetus for improved and paved roads, as well as coastal ports through which the burgeoning produce could be shipped.

Encouraged by this success, Cockburn invested heavily in other projects, including a linen factory, a brewery and a distillery. These initiatives proved financially ruinous, resulting in the sale of his estates to the Earl of Hopeton in 1747.

Cockburn died in 1758 and the direct line ended with his only son George, who had no heir.