Dawn of a New Economic Order
To Sustene the Personis: The Agricultural Revolution places the experiences of an extended family, the McCowans of Cumnock, Ayrshire, within the larger context of local social and economic change.
When the Ground Fails: An Economic Watershed, further examines the monumental rural social and economic changes in Lowland Scotland through a focus on the Lesmahagow area of Lanarkshire. On the community level, we also briefly contrasted Lesmahagow with the more agriculturally progressive Parish of Old Cumnock in Ayrshire. We are now somewhat prepared to examine the effects -- negative and positive -- of socio-economic and psychological stresses on families and individuals.
Detailed studies of Lanarkshire families through this period are rare. The History of the Family of the Aitons, written in 1830 by the outspoken Tory and agricultural reporter, William Aiton, chronicles the declining prosperity of a family of former bonnet-lairds and tenant farmers. While some in the Aiton family became professionals, many from the last two generations entered the weaving trade. The agricultural and industrial revolutions affected all -- some for the better and many for the worse.
For the most part, these late eighteenth / early nineteenth century "socio-economic revolutions" were not driven by some overbearing political manifesto or by some otherwise unqualified force. They were -- very significantly -- driven by individuals. A relentless growth of personal "wants" amongst the upper and middle classes put additional stresses on their neighbours and subordinates. And for the lower classes, the luxuries of yesterday soon became the needs of today. Personalities -- as varied, unpredictable, intractable, and (often) mal-directed then as now -- were the vehicle of conflict. The action / reaction relationships between landlord and tenant, miller and labourer, farmer and miner, native and immigrant, and father and son against a background of technological discovery, population growth and periodic food shortage constituted an uncontrollable whirlwind of change. The courts, the church and the government were -- then as now -- "ages" behind the people in the quest for social equilibrium.
The role of the common individual in the turbulent re-ordering of early nineteenth century Scottish society is relatively unknown in comparison with the volumes written about the political and financial heavyweights. The commoner's psyche, his reactions to external influences, his wants and his values were very real and potentially forceful. Unfortunately, they are largely a mystery to us now in this late twentieth century re-run of socio-economic upheaval. Were we to know more about the cause and effect relationships that affected the masses in 1800, we might be better prepared to deal with the chaos that lies ahead....
James McCowan, the coalminer turned Coalmaster, was one of those energetic -- but unrecognized -- Scottish entrepreneurs who ushered in a new economic era. The agriculturally-based subsistence economy that had lasted for well over a thousand years was to be rapidly superseded by a market-driven economy fueled by the great resources, coal and iron -- and ordinary people like James McCowan....
Emigrant Entrepreneurs The national economy was growing. Tenant farmers had their own independent holdings. Colliers were finally emancipated from servility in 1799. British influence was spreading around the world. There was a new spirit of individualism at home and the promise of fortune in the colonies abroad.
Scots carried their enterprise around the world and took advantage of every opportunity. Some of the successful emigrant Scots had been bred of the lowest classes in the Scottish countryside -- the master-servant relationship endured by most of them would be a shock to us today. It should not come as a surprise that some of these Scots might not turn out to be the best of masters by today's standards.
David McCowan sailed from Port Glasgow for Trinidad on December 6 1800. After working as a mason, he became a very busy importer and was evidently an architect by the time he died. On April 4, 1808, he wrote to his brother, James in Lesmahagow, of the great fire in Port of Spain and his plans to profit from it:
Since I wrote to my Mother one of the most dreadfull callamitys that can happen has taken place to the inhabitants of this town. On the night of the 24 of March the town was discovered to be on fire about 10 ocloak at night in the center of the town and the houses being all built of wood created one of the most dismall sights I ever beheld and before daylight next morning more than 5,000 familys had not a house to put their head in. Being near the outside of the town thank God my house was saved by great exertion on my own part you may be sure. The burning of the town of Port of Spain has been attended with eavel concequences to some people and good ones to others. [?] amongst others it is to be a benefit [to] me and all masons as the town is to be built entirely of ston houses again and there will be plenty of work for masons for 6 or 7 years. I have therefor to request of you that you will endeavour to engadge me two masons to come out to me for the space of three years. I will pay a steerage passage for them and give them sixty pounds sterling per year and fund them in bed board and lodgin, pay all doctors charges their wages to be payd in sickness and health and if after they have been one year in this place if they do not like the contry I will send them home free of all expences. I wish likewise to have out a man like you or John that is completely acquainted with boring and blowing stones. I will gave him the same wages as the masons. The stone that we have is all limeston. You must get 6 sets of boring and blowing tools to come out along with him. If you are not in all the better situation than your last letter leads me to believe I would advise you to come yourself. Be pleased to advertise for the men of the description I mention and if you find any apply at the house of Robert Eccels & Co. Glasgow who will furnish you with a passage for them to Trinidad. Answer me by the first packet after you receive this.