Burnfoot and the Malcolms

Towering over Langholm, in the Scottish border country, stands Whita Hill. On top of Whita Hill stands an obelisk, 100 feet high and visible for many miles around. Every summer at the Langholm Common Riding festival, a hundred horsemen ride up the hill from Langholm, circle the obelisk three times, and slip and slide down the steep incline back to Langholm.

Not many Langholmites, however, and even fewer visitors, are aware that the obelisk was erected in 1835 in honour of one of Eskdale’s most famous sons – Major General Sir John Malcolm GCB (1769-1833). But it also serves as a memorial to the whole remarkable Malcolm family of Burnfoot.

On the North bank of the Esk river, four miles upstream from Langholm, lies the house and sheep farm of Burnfoot. In the 18th century it belonged to the Dukes of Buccleuch, as did (and still does) much of the land in Eskdale. In 1730 the “tack” (lease at nominal rental) of Burnfoot was given to the Reverend Robert Malcolm, to supplement his stipend as Minister of the neighbouring parish of Ewes. Robert Malcolm had been born in Fife, and had come to Ewes in 1717. He may well have gained the tack through the influence of his brother-in-law John Campbell, the Duchess of Buccleuch’s factor at Langholm.

The Reverend Robert brought his family over to Eskdale from Ewes and placed them in a small rented cottage on Douglen farm, about 200 yards north of the present site of Burnfoot House. (‘Douglen’ and ‘Burnfoot’ are names of some antiquity; Douglen being mentioned in a charter of lands in Eskdale dated 1342, and Burnfoot appearing, as ‘Bourfoote’, in the Blaeu map of Dumfriesshire dated 1654). So, besides riding over the hills to take services at the Ewes church, Robert began to “run a flock of ewes on Douglen hill”. Across the river from Burnfoot lay the farm of Craig, belonging to the Pasley family, whose eldest son was the same age as Robert’s son George (1729-1803). There was no bridge across the river, but it was easily fordable at most times of the year. The children of the two families would have swum and frolicked on the sandbank where the river bends from north to east opposite Burnfoot. George would have had plenty of opportunities to meet Margaret Pasley (1742-1811) – “Bonnie Peggy Pasley” – the second youngest of the Pasley children. And shortly after his father’s death in 1761, he married her.

They began their married life at Douglen. George had intended to follow his father into the church, but a slight speech defect precluded this. So he took up farming. He had been included in the ‘tack’ of Burnfoot in 1758, and must have fancied himself as a sheep farmer, for he wrote a treatise on the subject which was included in Thomas Tennant’s ‘Tour of Scotland’, published in 1762. But George and Margaret’s main claim to enduring fame was their astonishing fecundity. Over the next twenty years they produced 17 children – ten sons and seven daughters, all but one of them surviving to maturity. Unfortunately George’s farming income did not increase with the number of his progeny, and his financial straits were exacerbated by an unsuccessful foray into the wine trade, which bankrupted him in 1780, and left him in debt for the rest of his life. He was forced to “place” his sons in careers when they were still very young. Fortunately he was a man of considerable charm – his portrait by Raeburn suggests a “ladies’ man” – and he had plenty of influential patrons. Chief among these were the Johnstone family, who owned the neighbouring property of Westerhall. Sir William Johnstone, the 5th baronet, a long serving MP and later a director of the East India Company, had the good sense to marry Frances Pulteney, the niece of Lord Bath, who was said to have inherited over one million pounds. His younger brother George (‘Governor’) Johnstone, had been Governor of West Florida before the American War. Through them and through the good offices of Margaret’s brother John Pasley, a London merchant, the sons were well “placed”. Four of them went into the Navy, two into the East India Company, two became independent merchants in India, one an Anglican priest in England, and only one took up local employment in Scotland. Four of them, furthermore, achieved knighthoods, but that is another story (see ‘The four Malcolm Knights of Eskdale’).

Then there was the problem of accommodation. Douglen became more and more inadequate to house George and Margaret’s burgeoning family. So in 1768 they built and moved into a house on the site of the present Burnfoot House – slightly larger than Douglen but still little more than a cottage. Here they lived with their surviving daughters (one of the seven had died in infancy, another aged seventeen; one later married, but soon returned to Burnfoot a childless widow). Gentry they may have been, and infinitely better off than many in Eskdale, but they were impoverished, and must have led a Spartan life by the standards of to-day.

Still, some of the ten sons prospered, and sent home money to pay off George’s debts and ease the lives of the family at Burnfoot. In 1800, when George was becoming frail, Margaret’s brother John Pasley tried unsuccessfully to negotiate the purchase of Douglen farm from the neighbouring Johnstone family, fearing that on George’s death the Duke of Buccleuch might not renew the tack of Burnfoot Farm. But when George died in 1803, the Duke extended the tack for another ten years.

In 1807 Margaret and her daughters were joined at Burnfoot by her eldest son Robert, back from India after a career in the East India Company. As eldest son he might have been expected to take over the running of Burnfoot and Douglen farms from his eldest sister Agnes. But Robert was a sick man, and Agnes was a much stronger character. She continued to control affairs at Burnfoot with considerable efficiency for more than twenty. In 1810 her sister Mina, a charming and generous character, moved out to a cottage specially built for her on the side of the hill about 100 yards to the west of the main Burnfoot house (the ruins of this cottage still stand, though covered in undergrowth). There she started a tutorial establishment for several of her nephews – sons of brothers who were living, or had died, in the East.

After Margaret died in 1811, and Robert in 1813, there was further concern that the tack of Burnfoot might be lost, but once again it was extended, in the name of Agnes and Mina, though Agnes remained in charge of the farms. She was assisted in running the property by the Nichol family (shepherds who later became stewards at Burnfoot and Craig farms).

Margaret’s second son, James, was still serving in the Marines at the time of her death. When he eventually retired in 1832, he took the nearby Eskdale farm of Milnholm, and lived there as a widower until his death, aged 82, in 1849.

Her third son, Pulteney, leased Irvine, a property about three miles south of Langholm on the right bank of the Esk, in 1811, while he was still a serving naval officer. He would stay at Irvine on his visits to Scotland, and on his retirement in 1834, he came to live there – also as a widower, his wife Clementina having died in 1830. But he was also interested in acquiring Burnfoot and Douglen. In 1822 he purchased Douglen farm from the Johnstone family for 2900 pounds, inclusive of wood valued at 600 pounds, rent 100 pounds, with “29 years purchase” terms (i.e. 29 times the estimated annual income). At some point he also took over the tack of Burnfoot farm from Agnes and Mina. In the 1830s he negotiated the purchase of Burnfoot from the Duke of Buccleuch, for 4500 pounds, plus interest, but the deal was not completed until November 1838, shortly after his death.

Pulteney’s only surviving son and heir, William Elphinstone Malcolm, then an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge, had ambitious plans for the property. He purchased Craig farm from his cousin, Colonel Dirom (a son of General Alexander Dirom, who had married Magdalene Pasley) to add to Burnfoot and Douglen, and made some immediate extensions to the Burnfoot building and stables, perhaps shrewdly going to Europe in 1840 for a grand tour while the builders were at work. He persuaded his uncle Charles (Admiral Sir Charles Malcolm 1782-1851), recently back from India and a widower, to house-sit for him while he was away. Throughout the second half of the 19th century W E Malcolm gradually extended the house and gardens to the form we see to-day (see ‘The History of Burnfoot House’), and generally became a pillar of the Langholm community. He married Mary Douglas of Cavers in 1857, who produced a daughter, Mary, in 1859, but died tragically in childbirth. He married again in 1866, but had no more children.

When W E Malcolm died in 1907, a few days after his 90th birthday, the fortunes of the Malcolms of Burnfoot had reached their apogee. The farming area covered Burnfoot, Douglen and Craig. In addition to her Burnfoot property, Mary had inherited from her mother the great estate of Cavers near Hawick. To cap all, she had produced a son and heir to both properties – Archibald Palmer Douglas.

Unfortunately, these hopeful prospects were short lived. Already, in 1881, as W E Malcolm had grown old, the three farms had been leased to J. C. Little (who also farmed Burnfoot on Ewes). Two World Wars and a depression greatly reduced the resources of the family, and when Mary died in 1949, aged 90, the death duties payable on her estate were fatal to the family’s fortunes. Her son had pre-deceased her, so her eldest grandson, James, took over Cavers, and her youngest, John, Burnfoot .

John found Burnfoot House in a dilapidated state. The museum was a mess, and dry rot was found in the northern wing. John pulled it down, and used the rubble to fill the cellar. In 1951 he sold Craig to J.C. Little’s son James. In 1961 he married and moved with his wife to Pink cottage (100 yards to the west of the main house). Finally, in March 1962 John sold the main house to Colonel Robertson McIsaac. In May of the same year he sold the Burnfoot farm to the owners of the neighbouring Westerhall estate, and moved with his wife to the South of England. The original Douglen building had been pulled down in 1950/51, and was replaced in 1962 by a modern cottage (which still stands) for John’s mother to live in – she died in 1967.

So ended the Malcolm family’s 232 year connection with Burnfoot – and Eskdale.