The Penycukes of that Ilk
Medieval forefathers of the Pennycuick family




Other sources

  1. Penicuik's History and Attractions, by Roger Kelly (30-page .pdf booklet, previously contained in the now defunct 'Penicuik First' website)
  2. 'Pennycook History Booklet', information on many Pennycook ancestors, compiled by Colin Pennycook of Glasgow
  3. Correspondence with Dr. Roger Hipkin, Secretary of the Penicuik Community Development Trust

Family tree

Penycuke Family Tree
Family tree of the Penycukes of that Ilk


The Penycuke-Creichtoune connection

The Creichtounes are important in the history of this family, in that they link the Penycukes of that Ilk (in Midlothian) with the Pennycuicks who later settled in Perthshire. (There is also a connection with the Pennecuiks of Newhall.) This linkage has been recently researched by Colin Pennycook in Glasgow,ii using information from the registers of the Great Seal of Scotland and of the Privy Council.

To do this subject justice would delay (still further!) the launch of this website and the accompanying printout, so it will have to wait until a special page can be added, probably in an Appendix.

The Annals of Penicuik


The Annals of Penicuik by John J. Wilson

(The source for most of the information here)

This page is about the earliest generations of the Pennycuick family, those who lived in the Barony of Penicuik, along the Esk valley in the shadow of the Pentland Hills south-west of Edinburgh. The expression 'of that ilk' means 'of the place of that name', so in this case, the Penycukes of Penicuik. See the map of Midlothian for the locations of various places mentioned here.

The family1

It seems likely that the family arrived in Scotland from Northumberland in the 12th century as part of a wave of Saxon colonisation, and took their name from the place they settled in. The name Penicuik is from 'pen y cog' in the Brythonic language (the forerunner of modern Welsh) which was spoken in the Borders region until the 14th century.2 (It was originally thought to be from the Gaelic 'beann na cuaig'.3) Both derivations mean 'Hill of the Cuckoo'. Another sourcei suggests the name could also mean 'hill of broom'. The Penycukes at that time were probably rangers or foresters to the Scottish kings. Their coat of arms and motto "Free for a blast" tie in with this, as does the first appearance of one of them: William de Penicok is mentioned in a missive from Alexander II (r. 1214-1249) relating to pasture land in Lethanhope in Tweeddale.

From the 13th century to the 17th century the line can be pieced together from snippets relating to the deeds (and misdeeds) of various family members, as set out in the excellent Annals of Penicuik by John J. Wilson.1 The result of this jigsaw puzzle work is a tentative Family Tree (left). Almost all the dates are 'plausible speculation', and many family members, and importantly, female members, are missing.

When the family is first mentioned, conflict with the English was raging, and the family were caught up in it. Once these disputes had settled down, the Penycukes (initially written as Penicok, later Penycuke) also settled down to become upstanding landowners of the area. In the 16th century Penycukes were members of the Scottish Parliament, and involved in the justice system, although Wilson does not go into details. It might not have helped much in any case, as for many generations the head of the family was called John. (This tradition was re-started in the 19th century by 'the Big Laird of Soilzarie', John Pennycook, going through to the 20th century (see the page on Soilzarie for details). A few salient episodes of the five centuries of this Borders family are given below.

Medieval Penicoks

Sir Nigel de Penicok, probably the son of the aforementioned William de Penicok, stood against the English king Edward I (the 'hammer of the Scots', r. 1272-1307), and had his estates in Northumberland confiscated. He died some time before 1303. His estates were restored to the family in 1303 after petitioning by his widow Margaret and their son Hugh, who both signed the Ragman Rolls in 1296. (This was a large collection of parchment rolls on which Scottish nobles swore allegiance to the English king.) Hugh's sons Nigel and John later served in the English garrison at Dundee. A certain David de Penicok (perhaps the grandson of Hugh) gave the lands of Brunstane and Welshtoune to his cousin William de Crichtoune in 1373. (The Crichtoune family are a probable link between the Penycukes of that Ilk, the Pennecuiks of Newhall and Romanno and the Pennycuicks of Perthshire - see side note for details.) A few other Penicoks from the 15th century are mentioned on a website dealing with the meanings of surnames.4

Reformation Penycukes

There is then a long knowledge-gap until the 16th century. The lairds and their brothers and sons were law makers and occasionally law breakers. The various incidents (see the Family Tree for details) were mostly not very significant until Alexander Penycuke is reached, but they help to 'fix' the lines of descendancy. During this century the Reformation was going through its turbulent course in Scotland, and was eventually settled by acts of parliament in 1560. A certain William Penycuke, son of the laird John (I), was rector at Penicuik from 1556 to 1567.5,6 As was not uncommon with Catholic clergy at the time, who saw church possessions about to be taken from them, he granted a lease on some church land to his nephew William in 1565. This William then gave the lease to his brother Gilbert, who sold it on a few years later. The rector's son James was later partner-in-crime of Alexander Penycuke.

Alexander, last of that Ilk

For whatever reason, the blood of the Penycuke family had become less noble as the 16th century drew to a close. The laird at that time was Andrew (confirmed in a deed of succession dated 1591), but he died in 1603 leaving his brother Alexander as the heir. This "wild and dissolute man" (as Wilson puts it) was involved soon afterwards in three violent assaults, one together with the Rector's son James. Following the last of these, in 1612 this "unworthy representative of a good old family" (Wilson) was banished from the kingdom by the Privy Council, after which no more is heard of him. Before this however, scarcely a year after his brother's death, he had sold the lands and barony of Penicuik to Mr. John Prestoun of Fentonbarns on March 29th 1604, after which he entered the King's Guard. "Thus passed away from them for ever the ancient heritage of the Penycukes."


The estate was purchased in 1604 by John Prestoun of Fentonbarns in East Lothian. He may also have purchased the Brunstane estate from the Creichtoune family at that time. A member of the Scottish parliament and Privy Council, he died in 1616 and was succeeded by his son John. The son became Solicitor General, a member of the Scottish parliament, and in 1628 a baronet. He sold the estate, greatly expanded by inheritances, to Lady Margaret Scot, the Countess of Eglintoune, in 1646. She died in 1653, and in 1654 the Penicuik estate was bought by John Clerk (1611-1674). See the page on the Clerk family for the continuation of this story.

Some 40 years after Alexander Penycuke sold the Penicuik estate, Dr. Alexander Pennecuik of Newhall (ca. 1600-1690) bought the nearby Newhall estate from the Creichtoune family (cousins of the Penycukes - see above). Dr. Pennecuik is described in the Annals of Penicuik as a "lineal descendant of the Penycukes of that Ilk",1 but the exact lineage is not explained. He was about a generation younger than the last lairds, Andrew and Alexander, although probably not the son of either.

Map of Midlotian by John Adair


Map of Midlothian by John Adair, 1682

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland


The area where the family settled is the Barony of Penicuik, which constitutes most of the parish, at the centre of which is the town of Penicuik.7 Mentioned as a place in 1595,1 and shown on a map from 1682 by John Adair,8 Penicuik was first properly established in the 18th century by the Clerk family, when Sir James Clerk, the 3rd Baronet, drew up plans in 1770 to develop the village, modelled on Edinburgh New Town. It sits above the north bank of the River Esk, which cuts a deep, winding valley roughly parallel with the Pentland Hills. See the map of Midlothian for the locations of most of the places mentioned.

Penicuik churchyard


Penicuik churchyard

Showing (top L to bottom R) the Clerk mausoleum, the old bell tower and the new church

Penicuik has three churches relevant to the Pennycuick family. The original parish church, St Kentigern, was built before the Reformation, probably in the early 17th or late 16th century, and now stands ruined in the centre of the churchyard. (It seems there are no Penycukes buried here.) This is perhaps where the Rev. William Penycuke was rector, but the history of this first building is surprisingly sketchy.1,9 (There must have been a church of some sort on the Penycuke estate, as one was mentioned in the 'grant' of 1507 from James IV quoted below.10) A Romanesque bell-tower was added in 1743 by Sir John Clerk (the 2nd Baronet), and there is a mausoleum to the Clerk family covered by a square stone obelisk. The present church, St Mungo's, a handsome neo-classical building, was erected in 1771 as part of the development of the town by Sir James Clerk. Lastly, there is the Episcopal church of St James the Less, on Broomhill Road at the foot of Broom Hill (see below). This was built in 1882 at the instigation of the Clerk family: Jane Calvert Mercer Clerk, wife of the 7th Baronet Sir James Clerk, was an Episcopalian (effectively the Anglican church in Scotland), and the family have kept a close connection with the church, including burial rights in the churchyard.

The town of Penicuik has been immortalised in verse by the incomparable William McGonagall (1825-1902), who has become notorious as 'Britain's worst poet'.11

...Then ye tourists to the village of Penicuik haste away,
And there spend the lovely summer day...

(I'll save you the rest of the six stanzas - they can be found online...)


The area around Penicuik contained several castles along the River Esk, most of them now ruined or no longer there at all. For details see Canmore, Wikipedia or the excellent 'Stravaiging' website. See the map of Midlothian for locations.


This obscure and enigmatically-named castle was probably the main residence of the lairds of Penicuik. It was situated near Broom Hill to the west of the village, and is now scarcely even a ruin. It is mentioned in two important sources:

A history of Penicuik by Roger Kelly,i refers to a "tumbledown Penicuik Castle by Broom Hill" - this is presumably Rikillis.

Broom Hill


Broom Hill, Penicuik, in 2017

Broom Hill is a flat-topped hill south-west of the town, beyond the church of St James the Less. At the top is a field with a small depression (probably a bomb crater) and a radio mast, and just SE of the SE corner of the field is the (probable) location of the castle. At the site there is a slight mound to the NW, and a large platform to the E and SE. Where the 'thirty steps' are or were is not known. The above map by John Adair from 1682 shows a castle in that spot. At some stage there was a farm, Tower Mains, on the site. Stones from the tower (and the farm) were subsequently used to build walls around the Penicuik estate. I am very grateful to Dr. Roger Hipkin, formerly of Edinburgh University, for most of the above information.iii

The meaning of the word Rikillis is discussed by Norman Dixon,2 who suggests that Terregles may be a corruption of Turre Rikillis, possibly meaning 'rule tower'. In other places1 the name 'Royal Town' seems to refer to this tower or castle. Watson's History of Celtic place-names in Scotland mentions the 'Maynes of Penicuik with their tower called Reglis'.13 Dr. Hipkin says the name 'rikillis' is more likely to derive from Brythonic, the forerunner of modern Welsh, meaning bailiff (i.e. a Norman baron imposed upon the local people), and 'terreglas' is a corruption of 'terre eglise' - church land.iii

Newbiggin House


Newbiggin House, ca. 1750, by John Clerk of Eldin


The other main residence on the estate was the castle of Newbiggin (or Newbigging), which was part of the estate sold by John Prestoun to the Countess of Eglintoun in 1646, and subsequently to John Clerk in 1654. It was a "handsome, turreted mansion", thought to be the "finest house in the shire of Edinburgh" at the time.1 It is not however certain when the castle was built, or by whom: Wilson suggests John Prestoun in the 1600s, but the 18th century drawing by John Clerk of Eldin (see left) suggests a tall, square keep which had been much extended over the centuries.14 This would suggest the castle was in fact medieval in origin, and that the Penycukes used it as one of their residences. The reference to it in the 1507 'grant' from James IV (see Rikklis, above) would seem to clinch its probable age and usage. Documents in the Clerk family archive15,16 describe Newbiggin as follows: "House of Newbigging consisted of a round stair and 3 or 4 rooms. Additions. A square building containing dining room and drawing room. A row of unequal buildings on N side. Offices" (1654). In 1674 some vaults were removed, and a "building of communication" was added. The house was demolished in 1761 to be replaced by the present Penicuik House.