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I am Dear Sir, your Sincair old friend with I hope a new face,

James McCowan


In 1831, the landlord, on seemingly questionable grounds, petitioned for the sequestration (bankruptcy) of James McCowan and his farm. James' visions for financial independence in Scotland had vanished. Indeed, the "writing was on the wall" in December, 1820, when his mining operations collapsed and he was left with a farm of no more than 20 arable acres and 150 acres of "braes and pasture". That James McCowan did not leave Scotland in 1821 is, on the surface, a little surprising perhaps. One of his principal reasons for staying another dozen years was to provide a good lowland education for his children.

In the meantime, in the following section, we can discuss how James McCowan's values with respect to land took him to Canada in the spring of 1833.

With I Hope a New Face
Emigration to the New World

We cannot imagine James' disappointment in 1833 after he apparently lost the last of his possessions including his lease on East Auchanbeg farm. That the "system" had, to a degree, failed him, does not come across in these words from his new home -- Christened "Springbank" -- in Scarborough, Canada on August 20, 1834. He seems to be saying that he is starting a new life in a new land. Although he himself was dying of cholera as he wrote this letter, his main concern was for his family:

We have in the course of God's Providence lost one of our famlie, our Dear daughter Mary Ann Hunter McC. is no more. She departed this life on Saturday morning the 26th of July of Typhus fiver and Elizabeth and Jean have both had it but thank God they are both better but Willm is just now very ill of Collera and wither he will get better or not is known to God only ... this letter I have penned Sittin at my son Willm's bedhead just waiting on him ... the cholera is again very sore. God grant that we may all escape it ... Mrs. McCowan is not well and has lain the most part of this day, what the consequences will be God only knows, may it be favourable for us all is my humble wish and prayer. I hope you will excuse bad write and also bad dite for I am so confused and wuried that I hardly know what I do, not having got much rest for three days and two nights.

James McCowan was fifty nine years old in the spring of 1833: his eldest son was nineteen and his youngest daughter, three. Eight children depended on him in varying degrees for guidance, practical and spiritual education, care, nutrition, shelter, warmth and support. He had responsibilities to his family. In the Scotland of 1799, he had trusted the land and its resources at Auchanbeg to satisfy his own needs and wants. But could the Scotland of 1833 satisfy the needs and wants of his eight children?

Land to rent was now at a premium and available only to those with capital -- could his children ever come even close to land possession again? While circumstances -- some beyond his control -- prevented Auchanbeg from delivering to him the freedom for which he had worked so hard, perhaps land somewhere else could give his children the degree of security that they might need and want.

James's values with respect to land had been evolving over time. Land was in his blood. To the sixteenth century McCowan, to keep the rented land in the family under the prevailing customary law was just as important as keeping the family together: indeed the survival of the family unit depended largely on the retention of possession of the land. Thus, to his great-grandfather's grandfather, land possession meant security and survival. James knew only too well the stories of his grandfather's struggles to survive as a farm and coalworks labourer -- and his grandfather was one of the luckier of those who had fallen out of land possession.

During his many business trips to Glasgow with coal and to Edinburgh with legal papers, James witnessed the worsening plight of those former proud tenants and owners of small holdings: their farms amalgamated into larger units, they had little choice but to take labouring jobs in the urban filth. Would it be disastrous for James' children should they lose their connection with the land? To James himself, in his anxiety to keep pace with the new capitalistic economy, land meant opportunity for material growth, and, indirectly, to enhanced moral and spiritual growth. The land was not just a symbol of potential progress -- the land was progress. A well-manicured property was a source of pride. Land gave one a profound sense of identity: his children could give their properties -- and they would have properties one day -- names, as he had given Auchanbeg a new name (Clattering Hall). And in Canada, they could be landowners -- not just tenants.

From The Rise and Fall of A Coal Entrepreneur: James McCowan 1773-1834.
The Scarboro Heights Record V11 #11