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Cosmo, Cuthbert and Cudbear

My 5th great granduncle, Cosmo Gordon was born in 1748 in Clashdow, Morayshire, Scotland.  A descendant of the Gordon, Stewart, Grant, MacWilliam and O’Laggan families / clans in northern Scotland, Cosmo was the oldest son in the family.  As such, much was expected of him.

A Gordon Arms Living in the Gordon Castle and surrounding properties presented opportunities for education that weren’t enjoyed by all of the residents in the area.  Eventually, his education and desire to succeed in life were rewarded with wealth and notoriety.

Cosmo met beautiful young lass named Magdalen Gordon and fell in love.  I haven’t been able to trace Magdalen’s lineage beyond her father yet, but have little doubt that they were related to some extent.

Two of Magdalen’s brothers were entrepreneurs by nature, a trait that matched Cosmo’s own inclination.

George Gordon was a coppersmith from Banffshire and his brother Dr. Cuthbert Gordon was a dye merchant from Leith.

One day, while mending a copper boiler in a dye house in London, George noticed the orchil (reds) dye being used was similar to the dye used in his native highland home.

The sight sparked an idea in George’s mind.  Talking it over with his brother, Cuthbert, who had training as a doctor and chemist, the pair knew the red and purple dyes used at home were made from lichen that grew on rocks and old wood ruins.

After some experimentation, the pair discovered a secret formula to extract a permanent, non-fading dye from the lichen.

Telling their brother-in-law, Cosmo, about their discovery, the trio decided to go into business with Cosmo providing the financial expertise and many of the contacts in the marketing world.

The dye became famous because unlike other dyes on the market, it didn’t fade in the light.  The trio patented their process in 1758 under British patent no. 727 and named it “Cudbear”.  The name was unique because it was named after Cuthbert.

An entry on Wikipedia details the extraction process:

“The lichen is first boiled in a solution of ammonium carbonate. The mixture is then cooled and ammonia is added and the mixture is kept damp for 3-4 weeks. Then the lichen is dried and ground to powder. The manufacture details were carefully protected, with a ten-feet high wall being built around the manufacturing facility, and staff consisting of Highlanders sworn to secrecy. The lichen consumption soon reached 250 tons per year and import from Norway and Sweden had to be arranged.”

Eventually, Cosmo became a Deputy King’s Waiter of the Customs of the Port of  London.  In that position, he found huge errors in accounting and theft in the tobacco warehouses.  Presenting his evidence and recommendations to Prime Minister, William Pitt, on January 6, 1786.  He was subsequently appointed Comptrolling Surveyor of the Warehouse in London.

London Custom HouseCosmo’s recommendations were introduced into a new law to stop this type of theft and accounting manipulation resulting in huge increases in tax revenues to the governments coffers.

Passage of the new law was not easy because so many well connected people had benefited from the graft.  Mr. Pitt instructed Cosmo to be in attendance to all discussions of the law in the House of Lords to explain the proposal, illuminate the graft and address the opposing statements and efforts by the Lords who opposed the law.  After a long and arduous period of time, Mr. Pitt was satisfied that Cosmo had represented the proposal so well that he pushed for approval.  The law was subsequently passed in the Act of the 29th George III cap. 69.

Cosmo was promoted to Principal Surveyor of the Tobacco Warehouse, at the desire of the Commissioners of the Customs.  He traveled throughout England and Scotland arranging import agreements, procedures and documentation for several years thereafter.  As he had expected, graft and mismanagement was rampant throughout the the import activities in every port.

The Commissioners of Customs moved on his recommendations and much of the corruption was stopped.  Of course, not everyone in government, or even among the Commissioners were happy with these actions.  They had benefitted from them and thus, Cosmo accrued numerous well-placed enemies in government.

Eventually, the acrimony in their hearts moved them to action.  Cosmo was forced out of his prestigious position in London to a lesser assignment in Liverpool where he lived the rest of his life.

Magdalen Gordon died on 24 Oct 1796 in London.

Cosmo eventually remarried. On 12 Jan 1808, he and Mrs. Sarah Butler were joined as husband and wife.

Cosmo and Magdalen had two children:

Thomas Gordon of whom it was said that he “seemed to possess rather more than common abilities, and never was sent to any school except to learn French, having acquired all the knowledge he had under his father.  Indeed he was almost self-taught, for he used to say that what one had heard and seen and could not teach himself to do, it was not worth being taught.  He prided himself in his penmanship and accuracy in accounts, and at the time of his death he kept as elegant a set of mercantile books as any in London.”  He died October 1798, in his 19th year.

Robert Henry Butler Gordon, who was third mate in the Albion East Indiaman and died the preceding year at Bencoolan, on his voyage to China, in the 24th year of his age.

With his death, his branch of the Gordon family surname ended although the Gordon name was carried in the names of many generations of the descendants of his only sister, Elizabeth Gordon, who married Major James Logie.

24 July 2009 Posted by | Genealogy | , , | 3 Comments

The Kindness of Alexander Duff

Not all of the life of my 8th great grandmother, Jane O’Laggan, was perfect.  Born near the Glenlivet River in Laggan, Morayshire, Scotland to James O’Laggan, she married David MacWilliam of the Stewart Clan when she was eighteen.   The young couple were not rich, but David was able to make their lives comfortable with the earnings from his mill and a home at Pittyvaich, Morayshire

The land produced few crops but there was enough feed for the family to own some sheep and several cows.  Winters were especially hard but the residents of Dufftown were Pittyvaich Morayshire Scotland Mapresilient and hundreds of generations had passed down the skills to survive in the ofttimes difficult climate.

The MacWilliam’s had a growing family of young children when disaster struck.  David became ill and died, leaving Jane with little income and in debt.

After struggling for a short time, David’s cousin, Alexander Duff, turned his eye to the family.  

Cousin Alexander was a rotter, according to a rare document that I found on a shelf in the basement of the Banffshire Field Club, titled “The Gordon’s of Laggan” written by John Malcolm Bulloch.

The document covers my Gordon ancestry and associated lineages.  The ancestral research was commissioned by my 5th great granduncle, Cosmo Gordon.  The MacWilliam branch of our family notes that there were two David MacWilliam’s in succession.  Reading from the entry for David MacWilliam Sr., a sad commentary spills off the page.

“David, his son, married Jane, daughter of James O’Laggan, and died while a young man, leaving her a widow with several children.  She was prevailed upon to dispose of Pittyvaich and the mill to Alexander Duff of Braco, her husband’s cousin, in terms as little creditable to him as disreputable to herself, it being constantly reported in that part of the country that she sat down in the mill dam to stop the mill that he might take infeftment of it, the miller refusing to do it.  Be this as it may, her children were reduced to great distress, for which Braco appeared perfectly indifferent, being a man callous to humanity, as well as natural affection, if he could by any means gratify his thirst for the acquirement of lands.  The daughter (Jane O’Laggan) then married John Forbes of Keithack, son to Gordon Arthur Forbes, and left several children.”

With no thanks to Alexander Duff, the MacWilliam children survived these deep impacts on their lives.  One of the daughters, Anne MacWilliam, is my seventh great grandmother.  Anne married James Gordon of the Gordon family in about 1712.   James was born in Achlochrach, Morayshire and the couple were the grandparents the above mentioned Cosmo Gordon and my fifth great grandmother, Elizabeth Gordon.

Once again, history has recorded the bad deeds and avarice of man.  He couldn’t take any of his lands and properties with him when he passed but in their place left a sad story that will ne’r be forgotten.



4 April 2009 Posted by | Histories | , , , , , | Leave a comment