Broun of Colstoun
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The history of old families offers an interesting study. Like the individual members of which they are composed, they have their alternations of good or evil fortune, at one time basking in the sunshine of prosperity, at another occupying, it may be, the lower spokes on the fortune’s ever-varying wheel. Occasionally it happens, however, that the family tree, firmly planted in a congenial soil, and not so much exposed as others of its more ostentations or ambitious neighbours to the rude shocks and blasts of the outer world, lives on in its unpretending seclusion, and attains a vigorous old age amid the wrecks and ruins of its kindred saplings. The metaphor may not inaptly express the position which the old family of the Brouns of Colstoun have occupied in East Lothian for the last six centuries or more. When the name of Broun begins to appear in the county annals, we are carried back at a bound almost to the beginnings of Scottish history. Nearly a century before the first English Edward began to meditate his conquest of the northern kingdom – long before “Wallace wight” had stricken a blow for the liberty of his country, or Bruce had shaken his “Carrick spear” – when the rude habits of the Picts had but recently given place to the more advanced civilization of the Saxons or their Norman conquerors – there was a Broun of Colstoun.
This designation no longer applies to any male descendant of the house, but the property is still in the hands of a granddaughter of the last inheritor of the name and of the estates, so that it is sober fact to state that for the long period of at least six hundred years one of our country families, amidst the vicissitudes and changes of a stormy national history, has remained in the undisturbed enjoyment of its patrimonial possessions. In the reign of Alexander III, we find that Sir David Broun, a free baron and proprietor of the lands of Cumber Colstoun, had the honour of knighthood conferred on him, though history is silent as to the nature of the transaction, whether civic or military, for which the distinction was given. This much, however, is known of the free baron of Colstoun that he was a good friend of the Church, for it is recorded that in the year 1276 he granted a charter of donation to the Abbey of Holyrood, no doubt in acknowledgement of some pious service rendered by the monks. His successor, John was one of the nobles who were compelled to submit to Edward I when that unscrupulous monarch over-ran Scotland at the close of the thirteenth century.
The family possessions were enlarged in 1358 by a grant, under the Great Seal, of the adjacent lands of Seggarsdean, which have ever since then remained an integral portion of the Colstoun property. At the disastrous fight of Hamildon Hill, in 1412, where the English inflicted a severe defeat on the army of Scots, Sir William Broun bore his part, and won his spurs, but had the misfortune to be taken prisoner, and carried to England, where he remained till exchanges or ransomed. This is the last notable appearance of the Brouns of Colstoun on the page of Scottish history, so far as its military annals are concerned. The successors of the warlike race who first made a name for themselves appear, in the course of the centuries that have elapsed, to have devoted themselves more to the pursuits of peace than of war. More than once their name occurs in the list of Scottish lawyers who helped to shed a lustre on the College of Justice, and at least one of the family, George Broun wore the ermine about the middle of last century, under the title Lord Colstoun.
The last male inheritor of the name was Charles Broun, Esq., whose daughter Christian, his only child and heiress, was married in 1805 to George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie. By this alliance, the estates of Colstoun passed, through his wife, into the possession of the noble earl. Earl George was succeeded by his son, the late Marquis of Dalhousie, Governor-General of India. At his demise, the Marquis left the old family possessions of the Brouns to his daughter, Lady Susan Broun Ramsay, a lady who, in graciousness of manner and simple dignity of character, worthily maintains the name and bearing of the ancient race from which she is descended.
The old house, now modernised, of Colstoun occupies a picturesque position, on the banks of one of the tributaries of the Tyne, about two miles south of Haddington. In all probability the site has never been changed since the time when Philip de Broun, in the reign of Alexander II., held the lands of Colstoun. The older portions of the present mansion, in the massive thickness of their walls, which seem to have been built when hostile assault was to be dreaded, give room for conjecture as to the great age of the building. Though tradition is silent as to the part Colstoun Tower, for such was its old name, may have played in the history of the past, there seems little reason for doubting that is was originally built for defence in those stormy times when thick walls and stout hearts were needed to ensure any reasonable prospect of domestic safety. The present aspect of the, mansion is as far as possible removed from anything warlike in character. All is quiet and peaceful – a spot in which the lover of nature may find himself at home amid the cooling shades of the stately trees that spread their foliage all around, and with nothing more noisy falling on his ears than the wimpling of the silver streamlet close at hand, which
“Winds about, and in and out”
and at length finds its way to the Tyne. Though Colstoun House may have shared in days of yore in the fierce tug of border warfare, there is nothing now in or about it to conjure up the vision of an enemy at the gate. The transforming hand of the modern builder has effaced all or nearly al the traces of the past. It has now much the appearance of a mansion that may have been erected at any time within the last century for the country habitation of a squire of homely tastes, and with nothing external to indicate that it had ever been anything else. Within the last year or two, a few addition have been made to the north wing of the building, an oriel has here and there been broken out, and the front of the house has been furnished with plate glass windows, but with these exceptions, the old residence of the Brouns of Colstoun presents on a first view pretty much the same aspect as it has done for the last century or more. In the interior, however, the changes have been many and extensive. Old partitions have been taken down, small rooms have given place to large ones, and a splendid inner vestibule, stretching from end to end of the house gives entrance to all the apartments on the first floor. These alterations, it is unnecessary to say, have been effected subsequent to the marriage of Lady Susan Ramsay with the Right Hon. R. Bourke, M.P., at the present writing (1879) Her Majesty’s Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Mr Bourke, in all these changes, has shown, however, a commendable desire to preserve intact the outer walls of Colstoun, which have been kept up in their entirety.
The largest addition made to the house consists of a fine range of kitchen offices, with spacious and elegant dining-room above. In the latter, the principal ornaments are three full length portraits, one by Herdsman, of Lady Susan, in full evening dress – a very effective work of Art, and an excellent likeness. The others are portraits of the late Marquis of Dalhousie, and of the late Earl of Mayo, both attired in the gorgeous robes of office worn by the Viceroys of India. It is singular to think that the whirligig of time should have brought such a revolution as is involved in the circumstance that the old residence of the Brouns of Colstoun should have become a natural resting place for the “counterfeit presentment” of two such men as James Andrew Broun Ramsay, first Marquis of Dalhousie, and Richard Southwell Bourke, Earl of Mayo – whose names are imperishably linked with the marvellous history of our Indian Empire. Plain as Coalstoun mansion is externally, it may be questioned if there is a nobleman’s house which in its internal fitting can boast of so much that is rare and curious. Lady Susan, as the heiress of her noble father, came into possession of most, if not all, of the magnificent Indian furniture, military equipments, and articles of native manufacture collected by him when Governor-General of our Eastern Empire. These comprise an immense variety of beautiful and costly specimens of the ingenious and elaborate workmanship of the Hindoo artizan; carvings in wood and ivory that must have consumed years of patient toil; splendid trophies of the chase and of the battle-field; armour, inlaid with gold, that may have shielded the breast of Runjeet Singh, the Lion of the Punjaub; swords and daggers, glittering with gems, that no doubt adorned the persons of renowned Asiatic warriors, and that may have drunk the blood of the infidel; all, in short, of barbaric gold and glitter that we associate with the Empire of India are here collected in quantity sufficiently large to stock an ordinary museum, and of value enough to furnish a prince’s ransom.
But the old house of Colstoun contains a curiosity still more rare and still more precious than any of the jewelled arms that come from the East. Who in East Lothian has not heard of the famous Colstoun pear, the charter of the ancient family, and on the possession of which hangs it destinies and its fortunes? It is not every one who has seen and handled this wondrous product of the vegetable growth of the eleventh century. The pear, let us inform our readers, is kept under strict lock and key, and the days in the year are but few on which it is permitted to see the light. Such a day there was, however, recently, when through the courtesy of the noble lord and lady of the manor we were permitted to inspect the family treasure. The story of the pear, as recorded in printed page and in tradition, reads like a brief chapter from the Arabian Nights, and thus it runs:- The famous wizard, Hugo de Gifford of Yester, the same who fabricated the “Goblin Ha’,” familiar to the readers of “Marmion,” cast his spell over one of the pears in his garden, and endowed it with marvellous properties. One of his daughters was about the be married, and as the bridal party were proceeding to the church he halted beneath a pear tree, and plucking one of the pears gave it to the bride telling her that as long as that gift was kept good fortune would never desert her or her descendants. This precious pear was given to his daughter on her marriage to George Broun of Colstoun, by the third Lord Yester, who then informed his son-in-law that, good as the lass might be, her tocher was still better, for while she could only be of use in her own day and generation, the pear, so long as it continued in the family, would cause it to flourish till the end of time. This pear was accordingly preserved with great care in a silver case by the fortunate recipient of the gift and by his descendants. About the beginning of the 17th century, however, it is said that the wife of one of the lairds, on becoming enceite, felt a longing for the forbidden fruit, and took a bite of it. According to another version of the story, it was maiden lady of the family who, out of curiosity, chose to try her teeth upon the pear, and in consequence of the injury thus done to the palladium of the house, two of the best farms on the estate had soon afterwards to be sold, Another and more probable account of the incident in question, which is related by Crawford in his Peerage, is that Lady Elizabeth Mackenzie, daughter of George, first Earl of Cromarty, the first night of her marriage to Sir George Broun, when she slept at Colstoun, dreamed that she had eaten the pear. Her father –in-law regarded this dream as a bad omen, and expressed great fears that the new-married lady would be an instrument in the destruction of the house of Colstoun.
Her husband and she dies in 1718, leaving an only daughter, who inherited the estate, and married George Broun of Eastfield, while the baronetcy descended to George Broun of Thornydyke, the male heir of the family. Such is the tradition, firmly believed in, we may be sure, by the members of the family, and receiving a curious confirmation in the singular circumstance that throughout such a long course of years the estates have remained in the unbroken possession of the descendants of Dame Jean Hay of Yester. The pear, as mentioned above, is enclosed in a silver box, which has en-graven on its lid the arms of the burgh of Haddington – the goat. Under what circumstances a box of this character came into the possession of the family cannot be ascertained with any certainty, but there is a presumption that it may have been one of the silver trophies given by the royal burgh some two hundred years ago for the winner in the equestrian races that were wont to be run in the neighbourhood of the county town, and which were patronized by the gentry and nobility round about. Be this as it may, the box which encloses the magic pear bears by no means a modern appearance, and may very well have been manufactured by no less a person than “Jingling Geordie” himself, better known as George Heriot, the court jeweller to King James the Sixth, of pious memory. The pear, from its value, is at all events worth the setting, even though it had been in diamonds, for more precious fruit than that which is now so carefully preserved within the silver box never hung out to summer sun in any age or clime. The pear itself, which has now become quite fossilized, is shrunk to the dimensions of a plum, but still bears very distinctly the tooth marks of the Lady Fatima of the family, whose fatal curiosity caused the loss, as it is recorded, of two goodly farms to the estate. The tradition is altogether a curious one. It takes rank with any of the legends of the past, and is superior to most of them in this, that there is still in existence a connecting link between sober fact and the superstitious fancies of our ancestors.
Sketches of East Lothian – by D. Croal.
Second Edition – July 1879
pp 192 – 198