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Issue 72 - Steeped in history

Scotland Magazine Issue 72
December 2013


This article is 4 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Steeped in history

Charles Douglas looks at the fortunes of this East Lothian residence

The de Sayton Family, who became earls of Winton, acquired the lands of Winton and the fishing village of Cockenzie in Haddingtonshire (subsquently East Lothian) as early as the twelfth century. Sir William Seton was created Lord Seton in 1371, and the sixth Lord was created Earl of Winton by James VI.

However, having supported the Old Pretender's claim to the British Throne during the 1715 Jacobite Uprising, the fifth Earl of Winton had all of his possessions confiscated and was forced into exile in Rome. Among his assets were Winton Castle and Seton Castle (both in Haddingtonshire and both currently surviving under private ownership), and the fishing village of Cockenzie, its harbour, salt pans and coal deposits Cockenzie House, which was built in the seventeenth century for George Seton, Salt Master and Baillie of Tranent, also fell under the control of the York Buildings Company London, which had been set up by the Hanovarian Government to manage forfeited properties. In 1732, it was leased to William Cadell who was in the process of launching an immensely successful trading venture with the ports of the Baltic countries such as Russia and Sweden. When the York Buildings Company went into liquidation in 1777, John Cadell, William's youngest son, seized on the opportunity to buy not only Cockenzie House, but Cockenzie Harbour and the barony of Tranent.

The Cadells were to own and occupy this substantial Jacobean mansion for the following 200 years. In 1834, Hew Francis Cadell employed Robert Stevenson, the engineer grandfather of the writer Robert Louise Stevenson, to re-model the Cockenzie Harbour. Ultimately, the family's commercial interests were to include salt manufacturing, mining, shipping, and heavy manufacturing across Scotland's Central Belt, including the Carron Iron Works at Falkirk.

However, not all of the family members joined the family business. For example, Hew Francis Cadell's third son Francis, born at Cockenzie in 1822, sailed for Australia to look for gold in Australia. In 1867, he led an expedition to the Northern Territory, became involved with whaling and pearl fishing but was eventually murdered in the Dutch East Indies in 1879. He is commemorated in Australia by the Cadell Strait and a settlement on the Murray River.

Other distinguished family members included Sir Walter Scott's publisher Robert Cadell, General Sir Robert Cadell KGB, his brother Colonel Thomas Cadell who won a Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and the Scottish colourist Francis Boileau Cadell, born in 1883. Early on in the twentieth century, Cockenzie House was leased to the author and explorer Sir Everard Ferdinand Im Thurn, an eminent plant hunter who had served as Governor of Fiji from 1904-1910. Sir Everard died at Cockenzie House in 1932, and in 1959, on the death of Marion Cadell, the last of the direct Cadell line, Cockenzie House was sold and acquired by the flamboyant Donald Ross, owner of L'Aperatif restaurant in Edinburgh. Afterwards, it was occupied by Michael Murgatroyd, National Treasurer for the Scottish National Party. It was later transformed into a college for overseas students, then an old people's home.

On a balmy summer evening when members of the recently formed Boatie Blest, the Cockenzie and Port Seton Community Rowing Club, were waiting their turn to row, someone mentioned that they had seen a sign in the grounds of Cockenzie House saying 'hostel for rent'. This provoked an immediate reaction from rowers that knew the hidden treasure. A voluntary association was formed and with help from the Big Lottery Fund created a Heritage Group. This enabled them to commission a feasability study and ultimately to take on a 21- year lease of the property with a right to buy from the owners, the McDonald family. The staffing is entirely made up of volunteers from the local community, and on my visit I was shown around by Brian Hickman, Jim Brown and Pauline Brown, the vivacious general manager. Their love of the old house is patently obvious.

The plan is to hold exhibitions, conferences, theatrical and community events, including weddings. In addition, there is roomy self-catering accommodation at the rear available for holiday lets, and studios and offices located in the adjoining fully-refurbished seventeenth century Hanseatic Barn, which once accommodated a salt works, a soap works and a chapel. A recent boost came when Cockenzie House was chosen as the first after the Scottish Parliament venue to showcase The Great Tapestry of Scotland (see seperate article on page 36).

There are currently twenty five tenants, including a Pilates Studio, a Chinese Tuina Therapy consultancy, a bakery and several artist studios. When I visited, for example, I was able to meet the immensely talented portrait artist Ewan McClure, and the equally gifted modernist painter Leo Starrs-Cunningham, both delighted with their sunny surroundings. The Cadell Cafe comes highly recommended.

A half hour drive from Edinburgh, Cockenzie House sits within a mile of the looming de-commissioned Cockenzie Power Station which dates from 1952, and which I have always thought of as being a book-end for the East Lothian Coast, with the similarly imposing Torness Power Station near Dunbar forming the southern boundary. By the main gate there are two ruined Claret Towers and a unique Folly, known as Heckla, a grotto made from clinker and shells with a whale's jaw bone forming the entrance. The region is steeped in history and the story goes that following the Battle of Prestonpans, a ten minute confrontation fought nearby between the British Government army and Highland followers of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, Jacobite soldiers picked apples from the trees on the extensive lawns in front of Cockenzie House. There were certainly plenty of apples both on the trees and on the ground when I visited in October. A sign of the fruitfulness to come for this admirable community initiative.