Monumental Brass Society

Alexander Cokburn

Date of Brass:
Edinburgh, National Museum of Scotland, ex Ormiston
East Lothian
James Gray, Edinburgh


June 2022

Scotland retains very few monumental brasses from the medieval and early=modern periods. Before the Reformation of 1560, brasses were imported from the Low Countries, some of them rectangular plates in Tournai marble indents but some separately inlaid figures. The reverse of a post-Reformation brass was made from a plate from the middle of a rectangular brass of around 1495. It has the figures of a man called Thomas in civilian clothes with his wife and the two sections of the Scots inscription. It may be that imported to commemorate the merchant Thomas Yar and his wife. Shipped in November 1496, it had been bought in Bruges by a Scottish consul, Andrew Halyburton, stationed at the port of Veere on the island of Walcheren. The obverse of the plate commemorates the James Stewart, earl of Moray, regent of Scotland, who was assassinated in January 1569/70. It was placed in the Murray chapel of St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh as part of a larger monument to the Regent. The accounts survive and read:

Item to James Gray goldsmyth for engraving of ane platt of bras vpoun my Lordis sepulteur, £20;

Item to David Rowane for the same platt of bras, £7.

Another £4 covered varnishing the plate and installing it. James Gray was based in Canongate in Edinburgh and various examples of his work survive. David Rowan was a master gunfounder who had served his apprenticeship in France. He also made other objects in both brass and bronze such as weights and bells. The price he charged for the earl’s plate shows how expensive brass was at this time in Scotland. As in England at this time, brass objects were not made from raw materials but from imported metal and from the re-use of old pieces. The Latin epitaph was composed by George Buchanan.

In the National Museum of Scotland is a brass that is in the same style as that of the earl and has an epitaph also composed by Buchanan. It was once in the ruined church at Ormiston but had been transferred to the museum on loan by the mid-1950s. It commemorates Alexander Cockburn, a pupil and friend of John Knox, the major figure behind the Scottish Reformation. Cockburn was the eldest son of John Cockburn, laird of Ormiston, and Alison Sandilands. John Cockburn was a staunch protestant who engaged John Knox to tutor his eldest son. John was exiled in 1548 for communicating with the English in favour of a proposed marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to Edward VI. His Scottish lands were confiscated but Edward VI rewarded him in 1552 with a grant of extensive lands in Northumberland and Durham. By October 1559 he had returned to Scotland but still had formidable enemies there. He was attacked and robbed by the earl of Bothwell and his men, receiving a sword cut to his face. In March 1562, Bothwell laid in wait when John, Alison and Alexander Cockburn were out hunting. Alexander fired at Bothwell. He was seized but then rescued. Alexander had been travelling abroad a few years earlier and was in Bourges in May 1560 when his father wanted him to return home. He was regarded as a well-educated young man of great potential but died at the age of twenty-eight. The brass gives his birth date as 13 January 1535 without specifying the exact date of his death. Either side of the bottom of the plate are shields of arms, designated by initials AC for Alexander and AS for Sandilands, the latter with the motto AB.STEN.AND.SVFFER. The plate is larger than the regent’s brass and is in a moulded stone frame.The foliage engraving is very like that on Gray’s work as a goldsmith.


The inscription reads:

Omnia quæ longa indulget mortalibus ætas,

Hæc tibi, Alexander, prima juventa dedit.

Cum genere et forma generoso sanguine digna,

Ingenium velox, ingenuumque animum.

Excoluit virtus animum ingeniumque Camena

Successu, studio, consilioque pari.

His ducibus primum peragrata Britannia, deinde

Gallia ad armiferos qua patet Helvetios :

Doctus ibi linguas, quas Roma, Sion, et Athenæ,

Quas cum Germano Gallia docta sonat.

Te licet in prima rapuerunt fata juventa

Non immaturo funere raptus obis.

Omnibus officiis vitæ qui functus obivit,

Non fas hunc vitæ est de brevitate queri.


Hic conditur Mr Alexander Cokburn

primogenitus Joannis Domini Ormiston

et Alisonæ Sandilands ex preclara

familia Calder, qui natus 13 Januarii 1535.

Post insignem linguarum professionem

Obiit, anno ætatis suæ 28, Calen. Septe.


The translation, as given on page 48 of The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany, Volume 71 (1809) under the heading Poetry, is:


ALL, Cockburn! all thy shortened span can show,

of which lengthened years on other men bestow,

A noble birth, and manly beauty joined,

A rapid genius, and a generous mind,

With every gift that mind, that genius stored,

Which study, prudence, and success afford

In Britain first, then, guided still by these,

Where Gallia courts the cool Helvetic breeze,

Wast taught Germania's, learned Gallia's tongue,

What Sion, Rome, and polish'd Athens sung.

Though young in years thou quit'st this mortal state,

Thou meet'st an early, not untimely fate :

Nor short his life, nor call his fates unkind,

Who leaves no duty unfulfilled behind.


Here lies Mr Alexander Cockburn,

eldest son of John, Master of Ormiston,

and of Alison Sandilands, of the illustrious

family of Calder, born 13th January 1535,

having been remarkable for his proficiency of languages,

died 1st September, in the 28th year of his age.


Copyright:Jon Bayliss


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