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The Watsons of Saughton

To understand the Watsons as a family, we need to learn about the Watsons of Saughton, the only family of Watsons for whom we have documented evidence that they held the chiefship.

Where is Saughton?

Saughton is an area in the west of Edinburgh. The area was planted with willows by generations of highland drovers; as they came into the city to sell their animals, the accompanying women would use the willows to make baskets, creels, fencing and other goods for sale. The name Saughton itself is derived from Saileach, the Gaelic for willow, and was historically pronounced Soch-ton, with the hard “ch” sound as found in “loch”, rather than Saw-ton as might be assumed. The spelling seems to have evolved from the early Salechtune via Slachton and Sauchton to the Saughton that is still in use today.

The first recorded mentions of Saughton are found in association with the formation of Holyrood Abbey in 1128.

What of the Watsons?

The Watsons are first mentioned in association with Saughton in 1524, when John Watson, his wife Marion Mason and their eldest son, William, got a tack on six oxgates (approximately 90 acres) of land from the Abbey of the Holy Cross. In 1545, this tack was renewed by Richard Watson, his wife Janet Stenhope and their sons James, John and David. We do not know how the earlier John is related to Richard but we are reasonably certain that they came from the same family. Richard's wife Janet came from a family that had tack on the nearby Stenhope mills. We have an account stating that these Watsons were descended from some earlier Watsons who had been living in Cranstoun Riddel, to the southeast of Edinburgh, since at least the 14th century [Ref. 1]. From the earliest accounts and for several hundred years thereafter, we see that many of the Watsons were prominent merchants in Edinburgh, so it may be that the original Walter from whom they drew their name was a Flemish trader who set up business in the city.

Richard Watson, upon acquiring the lands, became the 1st Laird of Saughton, a title that was to carry through the next ten generations of his family from father to son. James Watson, 3rd of Saughton and Richard’s grandson, was buried in the kirk at Corstophine. The large flat stone that originally covered the Watson burial place in the floor of the kirk is nowadays mounted in one of the walls, and still bears the initials of James and his wife, Jean Douglas. The Watsons of Saughton continued to bury their deceased in the kirk until the close of the 18th century, despite interment in churches being forbidden by the post-Reformation church, a clear sign of their local influence.

The Watsons mixed with nobility in the region, as is evidenced by many of their marriages. James Watson, 6th of Saughton, married Margaret Dalmahoy, daughter of Sir John Dalmahoy, a baronet. Their son, also James (the name James is a recurring theme!) married Bethia Baird of the noble Baird family of Saughtonhall. Their son, James, 8th of Saughton, married Helen Hope, the daughter of Charles Hope, 1st Earl of Hopetoun. Their son, Charles, married Margaret Carnegie, daughter of George Carnegie, 6th Earl of Northesk, and their son, James, 10th of Saughton, married Janet Ramsay, daughter of the prominent George Ramsay of Barnton. James and Margaret’s sons died before they could produce heirs, but their daughter, Helen, married the 18th Earl of Morton, bringing the hereditary lands and titles of the Watsons of Saughton into the Douglas family.

The Watsons added to their land holdings over the centuries. Throughout the 17th century, they added the adjoining lands of Broomhouse, Lairdship, Redheughs, Saughton Loanend, Sighthill and Stenhouse. In 1741, James, 8th of Saughton, bought Cammo House and changed its name to New Saughton. Charles, 9th of Saughton, was still using it as his main residence in 1794 when John Philip Wood wrote The Antient and Modern State of the Parish of Cramond [Ref. 2], in which he noted that New Saughton was “the property and residence of Charles Watson, of Saughton in the parish of Corstophine, chief of the name in Scotland. New Saughton is a commodious mansion, built in 1693 by John Menzies of Cammo, commanding a remarkably fine view of the windings of the Amon, among steep and woody banks, as also of the Firth of Forth. Extensive tracts of valuable and well grown timber adorn this estate, particularly on the side of the river; and the grounds about the house are laid out in a very ornamental style by the present proprietor, a gentleman not more respectable for his extensive possessions and splendid connections, than for unaffected kindness and hospitality to his friends”.

The Watsons owning land in and around Saughton is not what makes them so interesting to Watson family historians; rather, the more that we research this particular family, the more we see their influence spreading throughout Scotland and beyond. Perhaps the clue is in the term “chief of the name [Watson] in Scotland”, a title held by at least Charles and his son James, 10th of Saughton, but what we see is clusters of influential Watsons popping up in various places, many of whom seem to have links back to the Saughtons.

We see the Watson name, and the family arms, cropping up in Muirhouse, Dundee, Glasgow and Aberdeen in Scotland, in Oxford and in the area of London in England, and as far away as Jamaica. Often, the Watsons in these places are referred to as merchants, and sometimes as other prominent figures such as ballies, provosts and bankers. Although we have not yet proven all links, it does appear that the Watsons built a political and trading power base in key locations of what would become the British Empire. How many of today’s Watsons owe their name to this key family of Saughton is currently unknown, and is likely to remain so unless a significant number take a DNA test!


  1. Cowper, A. S. (1984) Watsons of Saughton: Tombstone in the South Aisle (obtained through The Corstorphine Trust).

  2. Wood, John Philip (1794) Antient and Modern State of the Parish of Cramond: Biographical and Geneological Collections, Respecting Some of the Most Considerable Families and Individuals Connected with that District, Edinburgh: John Paterson (available on

The Ring Stone of Burial Place of The Watsons of Saughton

The Ring Stone of the Burial Place of the Watsons of Saughton in Corstorphine Church

New Saughton, the Seat of Charles Watson Esquire of Saughton

New Saughton, the Seat of Charles Watson Esquire of Saughton

Ref 2
Ref 1
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