There are different opinions as to the origin of this surname. One connects it to a placename near Duns in Berwickshire, another suggests that it is derived from the old Scots word ‘gowk’ meaning cuckoo and that it is connected to Cukooburn in Roxburghshire. It would seem strange then that the crest is indeed a cockerel but this can be put down to ‘canting’ where a crest image is a sometimes pun of the persons surname.
There are a few Cockburns’ signatures on the Ragman Roll of 1296, one was Peres de Cockburne and the other was Thomas de Cockburn of Roxburgshire.
Sir Alexander de Cockburn married the daughter of Sir William de Vipont who fought at the battle of Bannockburn but was killed, and as a result his lands at Langton in Berwickshire moved into the Cockburn family. ‘Alexander Cockburn de Langton’ was made keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland in 1390. His son and namesake was made Hereditary Great Usher of Scotland. A charter by James IV in 1504 confirmed this upon the Barony of Langton. According to Balfour’s Annals the position was usurped by John, Earl of Wigtown. The dispute was taken to a committee of parliament but Langton’s outrage led to him making a direct protest towards the King on his arrival at parliament and this led to his imprisonment for a day in Edinburgh Castle (pictured top).
Sir Alexander’s descendant Sir William Cockburn of Langton, was one of the nobles killed at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The family continued to support the Stuart cause and sided with Mary Queen of Scots resulting in the loss of Stirling Castle. The chiefly line sold their estates to a cousin who was made a Baronet of Nova Scotia in 1671.
Notable Cockburns have included Lord Cockburn (1779-1854), a central figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and nephew of the famous Lord Melville. Alison Cockburn (1713-94) was famous for writing the words to the lament ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ and Admiral Sir George Cockburn (1772-1853) who escorted Napoleon into exile on the island of St Helena.