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The Cockburn Family History & Ancestry

Family Crest Motto: ACCENDIT CANTU (He rouses us with song)

Let me share with you the historical background of your family name, Cockburn. The origins of this distinguished family name are uncertain, but it is believed that it may have come from a land called Cukooburn in Roxburghshire. Although the Scots word for ‘cuckoo’ is ‘gowk’, it is unlikely that this was the derivation of the name. The earliest record of the name dates back to when Peter de Cokburne witnessed a grant of land between 1190 and 1220. In 1269, Robert of Cockburn, referred to as Dominus or Knight, served as the Constable of Roxburgh. Sir Alexander de Cockburn married the daughter of Sir William de Vipont of Langton in Berwickshire, who fell at the Battle of Bannockburn, leading to the lands passing into the Cockburn family. William Cockburn of Henderland, a Borders laird, met his demise when he was executed for theft on the orders of James V in 1530. He was known to supplement his income with blackmail and collusion with the English.

The original chiefly line of your family sold the barony and estate of Langton to a cousin, who was subsequently created a baronet in May 1671. However, the family experienced significant loss of ancestral land in the eighteenth century when Sir James Cockburn was unable to overcome financial difficulties following investments in agricultural improvements. On a different note, Sir George Cockburn, born in 1772, became a prominent naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars. As a Rear Admiral, he played a role in the capture and burning of Washington in August 1814 during the misleadingly named War of 1812. His legacy is commemorated by Cockburn Sound in Western Australia.

Moving forward, the twelfth baronet, Sir Alexander Cockburn, had a remarkable career as a lawyer and senior judge presiding over notable and celebrated cases of nineteenth-century England. Born in 1802, Cockburn had an adventurous youth, often recalling his experiences by stating, ‘whatever happens, I have had my whack.’ At one point, he even had to escape from bailiffs through a window in the robing rooms at Exeter Castle. Despite such setbacks, he pursued an ambitious career, gaining recognition by handling high-profile cases. In 1847, Cockburn became a Member of Parliament and later, in 1859, assumed the position of Lord Chief Justice. One of his most significant cases was presiding over the sensational perjury trial of Arthur Orton, famously known as the ‘Tichborne Claimant,’ in 1874. This trial was marked by hostility between the judge and the defense lawyer, while Cockburn’s summing up lasted an impressive eighteen days and filled two volumes. Sir Alexander Cockburn was also known for his sociability and love for music. He maintained a friendship with the renowned novelist Charles Dickens.

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Family Crest Motto: ACCENDIT CANTU (he rouses us with song)

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