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1797 acct of work done at Garlaff Coalwork Reparing the Horse gin and preparing the gin Rink and Removing and Setting up the Horse Gin at the new pit By the men Belonging to the work and others imployed thereat.

By the late eighteenth century, the transformation of the lowland economy from isolationism to capitalism was accelerating. While the emancipation of the Scottish colliers in 1799 is regarded by some historians as having had little impact on the labour supply in the mines, it did apparently unleash two ambitious young entrepreneurs into the new capitalist world. These two brothers were passionate about pursuing exciting opportunities.

James McCowan was one of those men listed in the above 1797 account. That he started his own coalmine in precisely the year of collier emancipation and that his equally ambitious younger brother, David, emigrated to Trinidad only a year later is unlikely to be a mere coincidence. The story of their sudden transformation from collier-serf to capitalist may not be unique in that era of radical economic change. What is special perhaps is the relative abundance of information which describes at least portions of the fascinating careers of these ordinary but ambitious men.

Here are some of the Ayrshire McCowans who entered the new business and professional world in the early-mid 19th century:

Writer (lawyer), Inspector of the Poor in Cumnock. Died in Cumnock in 1866.

Mason, living near Paisley, Renfrewshire, by 1800. Probably employed in building the factories of the industrial revolution, as were his McCowan cousins, the millwrights, in nearby Neilston. Emigrated to Trinidad, Dec. 1800. Married Sarah Thomas Packwood. Importer of goods from Britain. An architect in later years, quoting on public buildings. At least two sons: Robert Thomas McCowan and James Anderson McCowan.

Highly successful in the new capitalist economy. Philanthropist and Marine Insurance Broker. Married Margaret Walker and died in 1908.

Sir David McCowan, Baronet:
Knighted in 1928 for his philanthropic work in Scotland. 

Although not yet proven, two medical doctors, Francis da Cruz McCowan and Alexander George McCowan, are believed to be grandsons of George McCowan_1754_512. Their father was George_McCowan_1790, Surgeon to His Majesty's Police of Calcutta (born 1790, MRCS 1814).

Died 1863; Banker in Ayr; Married twice (Agnes Crook; Joanna McCall). Father of Sir David McCowan, Baronet, Insurance Executive.

Died 1834 in Scarborough, Upper Canada. This entrepreneur moved to Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, and became Coalmaster of the Auchanbeg Coalworks. Married Margaret Porteous and emigrated to Scarborough, Upper Canada, in 1833.

Died 1880, Stockbroker and Chartered Accountant in Glasgow: Married twice (Christina Murdoch Graham and Elizabeth Jamieson); son Robert William also an Accountant and Stockbroker. One of Robert William's cousins was Robert Collins, son of William Collins, the renowned Printer and Publisher in Glasgow.

Banker in Strathaven, Lanarkshire: "During his years of activity he took a special interest in the agricultural affairs of the district, being recognised as a friend of the farmers in all their business affairs, and it was largely due to his energy that the district cattle show attained its poularity."

Eldest son of David McCowan and Sarah Packwood, born in Trinidad. A military surgeon,  medical doctor and onculist, he returned to the McCowan ancestral Parish of Cumnock and was one of the heroes in stemming the cholera outbreak of the late 1840s. A family story is that this dark complexioned "ship's doctor" once visited his McCowan cousins in Scarborough, Canada. His wife was born in Montreal.

"Iron Master". Died 1900. Successful executive industrialist in Whitehaven, Cumberland, England. Early career experience in Ricarton and Kilmarnock, Ayrshire. Married Mary Jane Brown. Eldest son, James Crichton McCowan, was Factor and Agent to the Marquis of Salisbury. Second son, John Marshall Bunten McCowan, was a barrister in London.

The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #2
The McCowans' Who's Who Vol. 5



A short biography of scientist John McCowan (1863-1900) appears in Hydraulicians in Europe, 1800-2000. This biographical dictionary of leaders in hydraulic engineering and fluid mechanics was a labour of love for Professor Willi Hager. To order, please go to or contact the IAHR Secretariat at, phone 34 91 335 7919.