Category Archives: Jock Tamson

Jock Tamson

A bit more information on John Thomson – better known as Jock Tamson in his native tongue.

Jock Tamson
Portrait of The Reverend John Thomson, Minister of Duddingston (oil on canvas) by Raeburn, Sir Henry (1756-1823) oil on canvas 75.5×63.5 Private Collection © Christie’s Images Scottish, out of copyright.

John was born to a minister, Rev. Thomas Thomson, in Dailly, a small village in Ayrshire. Early on his father decided that John should follow him into the ministry. However, John was not of a mind to do this and much preferred drawing and wanted to become an artist. This desire fell on deaf ears and therefore he started studying for the ministry at Edinburgh University. This turned out to be an advantage as the city provided an opportunity to gain more knowledge of the arts. One of the leading artists then was Alexander Nasmyth with whom John became acquainted and studied under for a while. Examples of both their works can be seen in Roslyn Chapel and the National Galleries of Scotland.

John’s father died in 1800 when John was only 21 and he returned to Dailly to succeed his father as minister. This turned out to be a big mistake as neither John or his parishioners were happy with the situation as it was obvious that he preferred painting to the ministry and this secluded village in Ayrshire wasn’t the place for him. His artistic leanings also meant that he had a sense of humour which did not go down well when leading his congregation. By 1805 things had reached a stage where it was better for him to leave Dailly and he headed to Edinburgh to continue his ministry at Duddingston Kirk. It was noted, however, that at no time did he neglect parish in either location. At Duddingston he was able to fulfil both his pastoral duties but also indulge his love of painting in the beautiful location of the manse looking out across the loch.

There is the famous tale of him converting the upper floor of the tower on the loch shore into an artist’s studio which he named ‘Edinburgh’ – that meant, with a clear conscience, he could leave a note for his housekeeper to tell any visiting parishioner that he had gone to Edinburgh, meaning he was undisturbed!

Over the next years he became an established artist and his sales of painting brought him an income well beyond his stipend. He was also an accomplished musician and entertained many celebrities of the day at the manse.

He died in 1840 at a manse window overlooking the loch.

Thomson's Tower
A view of Duddingston Loch from the Manse

Since then, Duddingston Kirk has been blessed with a long list of able clergymen continuing John’s good work.

How ‘Jock’ got his name.

On the first of September 2020, OSCR awarded charitable status to Jock Tamson’s Gairden;  two hundred and forty two years before that,  on the very same day,  Mary Hay of Dailly in Ayrshire gave birth to her fourth son, one John Thomson. 

Jock Tamson
John Thomson (Jock Tamson)

When John grew up he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a Church of Scotland minister and later Duddingston’s most famous resident. He served here for thirty-five years as a greatly respected parish minister, much beloved of his congregation.  One story exemplifies his kindness:  upon apprehending a thief making off with a quantity of linen which had been laid out to bleach on the Glebe, Thomson took the unfortunate man back to the Manse for interrogation.  After delivering  a stern lecture on the error of the man’s ways, Thomson gave him a  hearty meal and sent him on his way with money in his pockets.

Thomson learned the rudiments of painting from the village carpenter when he was a child and later took lessons under Alexander Naysmith, the celebrated Scottish landscapist.  His love of painting led  him to spend hours in his studio which later became the Playfair-designed building known as the Thomson Tower – it stands next to the Loch in Dr Neil’s Garden.  As well as a studio, it became an emotional refuge for him when his wife, Isabella Ramsay died.  The story I was told was that Thomson’s friends took one of his paintings to a gallery in the town and that it was purchased by a widow called Frances Ingram Spence.  When he and Spence later married they each brought  five children from their first marriages to live in the Manse, then went on to have four offspringof their own.  When the second Mrs Thomson introduced the children to visitors, she’d say, “Those are my family, and those are John’s, but these are ours.”  Then Thomson would say, “they’re a’ Jock Tamson’s Bains”.  I’d love to believe that story was the origin of the saying and that we could truly lay claim to the original Jock Tamson, but several other parts of Scotland claim him and to argue would be to go against the egalitarian spirit of the expression,  we’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns.  By the way, if you’re unfamiliar with the phrase it means:   we are all the same under the skin….if that still doesn’t clear it up, ask your mammy to explain.

It took the interpretative boards in the present-day Thomson tower before the connection dawned on me and it was a real revelation.  That’s when I decided that the Glebe must have a garden to commemorate Duddingston’s most famous resident and to honour the egalitarian spirit of the saying.  That’s how Jock Tamson’s Gairden began, and how, four years on you can actually go and sit it in it.   I hope you do – take a flask and a picnic, take your pals, take your bairns – enjoy the gorgeous view out over the Loch. 

Wee Jock Tamsons Gairden
Wee Jock Tamsons Gairden

From the wee gairden by the loch, came the big JOCK TAMSON’S GAIRDEN which is the name chosen by the Trustees when they came to form the charity to take forward the work done by the Glebe Project.  They thought it said a lot about what we’re about here:  Jock Tamson’s Gairden – a garden for everyone to enjoy.

Lizz Spence, Jock Tamson’s Gairden Manager
January 2021

Lizz Spence

P.S. lots of planning, heavy-lifting, digging, sawing and sweating went into our lovely wee garden, so check back here soon for stories and photographs telling that tale.

JTG sign