Rise of a Coalmaster
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Collier at Garlaff
Capitalist in Training

James McCowan obtained his mining experience at Lord Dumfries' Garlaff Coalworks. In 1797 he was one of several "men Belonging to the work and others imployd therat" who were "reparing the Horse Gin and preparing the Gin Rink and removing and setting up the Horse Gin at the new pit". He was engaged in the repairing of a pit in 1798. A personal statement of account dated 1798 notes that he was, for six days, "repairing the road and banking Mossbackburn". James was also engaged as a hewer (ie underground coalcutter) at Garlaff during this period -- significantly, until the seventeenth week of 1800. James McCowan had essentially been a serf in the Ayrshire coal mines until emancipation in 1799.

This final week of his work at Garlaff seems to correspond nicely with the beginning of his lease on the Auchanbeg Coalworks in Lesmahagow in 1799. We are not certain of his father's involvement in the development of the Auchanbeg Coalworks. There is a little evidence that the family was (perhaps intermittently) in Lesmahagow by November, 1798. Some members of the family may have been engaged in some preparation of the Auchanbeg coalworks at that time.

So why did James McCowan take up coalmining as an occupation? In To Sustene the Personis, we confess that we are not absolutely certain of the precise occupations and social standings of his father, Robert, and grandfather, James McCowan. They may or may not have been involved in coal mining on the Dumfries Estate in some fulltime way after 1767.

So, we cannot be certain as to how and why James came to enter the pit and what factors subsequently influenced him to gamble on starting his own coalworks in 1799. For now, some questions to ponder:

  • Did he start as a coal-bearer for his father as would have many boys on the other side of the Lowlands?
  • Was he attracted to the coal pit by the relatively high wages?
  • Did he deliberately try to obtain experience at Garlaff in all facets of mining and did he have a grand purpose in this?
  • At what point in his life did he decide to operate his own coal mine?
  • Why would he take such an enormous risk when many wealthy landlords prefered to lease out their coal resources rather than take a direct stake in mining operations?
  • How did he finance the startup of the Auchanbeg Coalworks?
  • Did he have any other help -- a mentor perhaps?
  • Was he obsessed with the new capitalism that was changing western civilization?
  • Did he want to regain, for his family, the status of prefered tenant?
  • Did he have even greater ambitions -- to actually own both land and a coalworks?

An analysis of the social, economic, geographic, historical and psychological factors that drove James McCowan -- a mere wage earner -- to start his own coal mine could probably fill another book. In the next few pages we will describe James' return to the land -- on behalf of his forebears -- and the values that he held with respect to the land.

A Newcomer in Lesmahagow
Building a Business

A detailed study of James McCowan's career as an industrialist in Lesmahagow is far beyond the scope of this volume. Here we can but touch upon his relationships with his creditors, his labourers, his landlord, his lawyer, his mentor, and his brothers and sisters -- their needs and wants vis a vis his needs and wants. The relationships between James, mining technology, the land, the geology, the market, the financial system, the legal system, and social reform can be but briefly addressed.

The "Discovery" of Auchanbeg

We must wonder if James McCowan and Lord Dumfries had any communications as to James' ambitions to become a coalmaster. In 1792 the Earl had hired James Taylor on a forty year contract at 100 pounds per year plus commission:

for the management and direction of his Lime Works, Coal Works, Black Lead or Woad Works, Ironstone, Clays, Lead and whole works or operations regarding metals and minerals of every kind already discovered, or which shall hereafter be discovered, within the said Earl his Estate in the Parishes of Old Cumnock and New Cumnock...

Clearly there was little management opportunity for James McCowan on Dumfries Estate for quite some time. The coalmining business in Ayrshire was competitive:

the cause of failure of profits in this work [Garlaff] for two years past is to be stated to the competition with the Garralland work

So, we can only guess that James, and perhaps his father and brothers, spent many months looking for a promising location -- elsewhere -- for a small family coalworks to run.

  • Did the coalowners to whom he spoke take him seriously?
  • Did they doubt that a twenty-six year old collier could pay the rent and surface damages to the land?
  • Did James employ an agent to find a coalworks for him?

Doubtless, it was difficult for a young wage earner to find both a promising location and a willing coalowner in this period of accelerating capitalism and emerging cartels. An obscure upland farm in the relatively undeveloped Douglas / Coalburn coalfield twenty miles northeast of Cumnock finally caught James' attention -- James Corbett of Stockbriggs Estate signed a lease in 1799. Six coal seams, limestone and ironstone gave East Auchanbeg the appearance of a promising start indeed. While the iron smelting industry was relatively young in Scotland, sales of processed limestone to the slowly developing Lanarkshire agricultural improvement industry should be brisk very soon.

Not only did James have to convince the owner of Stockbriggs estate that he was capable of leasing the coalworks, he also had to convince colliers that he could pay their wages. He must have been an influence on fellow workers -- several Cumnock families followed him from Garlaff to Auchanbeg: Sloan, Johnston, Gemmel, Purdie and Gooldie. Two of his brothers also worked at Auchanbeg.

East Auchanbeg Farm:
Improvement, Beautification and Public Image

Coal was important to the agricultural improvement industry: coal was used to burn the limestone that was, in turn, used to fertilize the soil. But land was also important to the coal and lime master. The cost of keeping gin horses was as great or greater than the wages of the gin keepers. The needs for horse feed and pasture and a source for a meal allowance for the colliers meant that land was indeed important to the Auchanbeg Coalworks. Hence, James McCowan also secured the lease on East Auchanbeg farm.

East Auchanbeg was unimproved agriculturally when James arrived in 1799. This is understandable, since, as a farm, East Auchanbeg was marginal. Moreover, as explained in When the Ground Fails, the entire Parish had made little progress in agricultural improvement.

But then, in January 1803, the Lesmahagow Farmers Club was founded "to promote improvements in agriculture" by Alexander Scott, James Corbett of Stockbriggs and other local landowners. Corbett had drawn up an inventory of the fields on Stockbriggs Estate the previous year. Finally, and not insignificantly, an ambitious man bred to the land improvement strategies of the Earl of Dumfries in Ayrshire (see To Sustene the Personis) had arrived at Stockbriggs. The stage was now set for improvements to begin.

Some arable land was indeed important to the coalworks, but a good public image for the coal and lime entrepreneur -- as expressed in the appearance of the land -- was vital. Lord Dumfries had been advised in April, 1774:

NB as Beautifying the Country is a material object - to begin improving farms nearest the High roads and Build Houses and plant Trees where the view of them will have the best effect...

At East Auchanbeg, James McCowan paid particular attention to this "beautification" aspect of the agricultural revolution. He planted a stand of beech trees to the immediate northwest of East Auchanbeg house -- doubtless, he felt that the coalmaster needed "policies" or ornamental grounds for his home. The trees were planted along a stone and turf bank: the total area so enclosed was 0.652 acres. A semi-circular indent (surrounding a pond) in the enclosure on the side facing the coalmaster's house seems to be particularly ornamental. There was also an enclosed quarter-acre garden on the south side of the house. Further,

The approach to the steading from the east has been enhanced by an avenue of beech trees, planted in a bank, on each side of a 9m wide roadway. Five of these beeches remain at the farm end of the avenue, some 30-40 m in height and of 2.5-3m girth; the felled stumps of several others nearby.

This avenue of majestic trees running from the farmhouse toward the coalworks seems to proclaim the early dawn arrival at the pit of a proud coalmaster -- and is perhaps also symbolic of this unique marriage of the coal and the farm during the infancy of Lanarkshire's industrial revolution.

Finally one cannot refrain from speculating whether the brief re-titling of the property [East Auchanbeg] as "Clatterring Hall", on Forrest's 1813 survey, represents the deliberate renaming of his embryonic "estate" by an ambitious, if unsophisticated, early 19th century entrepreneur; or was it a shared impulse of humour between the hopefully upwardly mobile artisan farmer and the Edinburgh trained surveyor, as they bent over the map one hot summers’ day amid the racket of the gin engines and the hammering from the lime quarries?

The Value of the Land

Clearly, James McCowan was proud of his property. He had to be. Any ambitious entrepreneur would be more successful if he had impressive headquarters. The new capitalism had probably taught James that showmanship and flair were vital in the arena of intensely competitive sales.

James' property represented opportunity for personal material and spiritual growth. With the land and its resources, he could perhaps "retire" early in financial independence. He could then spend his days writing -- as opposed to only reading -- religious philosophy, his greatest passion. Or perhaps he could write Scottish history, another of his interests. Perhaps thus he could contribute to Scotland's cultural enlightenment. James’ profound interest in religion and history seems to indicate that James saw a greater purpose in life than making money.

A close connection to the land also meant a good education for James' children. As long as he earned a decent profit, his children would have the benefit of a Lowland education. He did not want to leave Scotland and deprive his children of a good education. He had profited immensely from the Lowland system of learning -- and so would his offspring.

James' status as a middle class tenant in a world of rapidly diverging fortunes -- a class structure with the few very rich on one side and masses of destitute on the other -- would be a personal triumph. His earlier forebears had been relatively preferred tenants: a status that escaped the family for several generations. But he would regain it through honest toil and conviction and a mindset that recognized the true value of an association with land.

Capital Expenditure and Risk

In his detailed History of the Scottish Coal Industry, Vol. 1: 1700-1815, Baron F. Duckham provides a list of "Known Colliery Steam Engines Fitted c 1800. In our own study of economic progress in Lesmahagow, it is not insignificant that this Parish was evidently without steam power at its various coalworks at the end of the eighteenth century. William Forrest's 1813 survey of Lanarkshire shows many "coal pits" and "coal works" at such Lesmahagow locales as South Bankend, Brockly, Coalburn, West Town, Garlewood, Auchinheath, and Woodses. Coalworking in the Parish went back over a hundred years well into the seventeenth century, so the Lesmahagow folk were familiar with its conventional technical requirements. Notably, however, Forrest's graphic symbol for a steam engine house appears only at the McCowan "Coal Work" at Auchanbeg in 1813. So, James McCowan appears to have been Lesmahagow's steam power pioneer.

James McCowan evidently began his operations with the "coalheugh" shown on James Whiteford's 1802 "Plan of Stockbriggs in the Parish of Lesmahagoe The Property of James Corbett Esqr". This coalheugh was probably equipped with a horse gin winding house -- noted as "Old Engine Park" on another estate map. Presumably his experience with steam power at Garlaff had convinced the newcomer, McCowan, that drawing off the water would be -- in the long run -- cheaper using a steam engine than a horse gin. The cost of digging new pits at frequent intervals could be avoided with greater water-drawing capacity. (See "Land, Coal and People" in To Sustene the Personis.) The precise date of construction of McCowan's steam engine has not yet been discovered -- circa 1805 is a fair guess. The location of the shaft under the steam engine was called "New Engine Park" on another estate map.

Stockbriggs Estate was in legal turmoil following the death of Mr. Corbett in 1806. It seems unlikely that the several claimants to the estate would invest anything in the erection of a steam engine. In such circumstances, these costs would probably have fallen completely to the tenant (McCowan) as he was the one who was insisting on mining coal. James Corbett would have likely been more interested than his squabbling heirs in working closely with his coal tenant and sharing both risk and gain. If the engine construction had begun during Corbett's life, it is probable that McCowan would still have been responsible for at least some portion of the capital costs and maintenance. In any event, the terms of his lease probably would partially reimburse him at the end of his association with the Coalworks -- but only to the extent that the structures were sound and the machinery in good working order. He would, however, be charged with repairs on the portions that had been financed by the landlord. In the final analysis, the risk associated with capital construction was largely McCowan's and he was the one who "had to make it pay".

While we do not have a list of McCowan's capital costs at Auchanbeg, we can be sure that they were significant. The following notes from an 1821 account of Mssrs. Brown and Tosh to Mr. James Farrie of Farme Colliery in Rutherglen Parish are interesting for the variety of work that must have been involved in setting up a colliery. Brown and Tosh were evidently general contractors: the masons' wages of 3s/2d per day and labourers' wages of 2s per day were probably somewhat "marked-up".

  • To Masons hewing and building drum and fly wheel wall at Wellshott pitt, 24 days @ 3s/2d -- 3/16/- [Additional labour and materials brought the total for this item to 9/11/11 or almost half a year's wages to a labourer]
  • To 5 yards pavement in new pitt for the water to fall on [Total labour and materials -/15/7]
  • To building a boiller at Farme [This appears to be a part-job as the charge was only for some labour -/2/7]
  • To building a dyke on old road to Farme [Total labour and materials 4/4/2]
  • To masons building a support for a traveling road [Total labour and materials 2/7/-]
  • To masons building brick walls for a Smithy [Total labour and materials 3/1/8: "a stone for the hearth and hewing" was 2s]
  • To building a drain from engine to pond [Total labour and materials 2/18/3]
  • To building two supports for the machine drawing water [Total labour and materials 2/16/2]
  • To building new weights and drain from [the Wellshott Boiller] [Total labour and materials 4/10/10]
  • To jobing at Engine, masons cutting pipe holes and building up do, sloping cistrens [Total labour 2/7/6]
  • To masons building brick in new pitt [Total labour and materials 1/4/8]

Of the above figures, materials amounted to about 40%. A major expense somewhat related to the colliery was stone dykes at over 95. The charge for some 12,000 firebricks supplied by Malcom Paterson, John Forsyth and John Bell was 43/6/6 -- cartage and tolls were an additional 5/8/-. The common bricks came in at 19/5/1 or almost a year's wages to a labourer.

James Farrie of Farme Colliery had been one of the principal members of the Glasgow area coalowners' cartel. He could probably easily afford the costs in this account. On the other hand, James McCowan, a mere collier a short decade prior to erecting his own steam engine at Auchanbeg, quite probably took on a very burdensome debt.

From The Rise and Fall of A Coal Entrepreneur: James McCowan 1773-1834.
The Scarboro Heights Record V11 #10


There was keen competition for a new lease on the Auchanbeg Coalworks in 1818, and McCowan was out-bid. He continued operations at his other coal and limeworks at Blackwood and Neuk.

There is a great deal more to James McCowan's career.  For now, his mineral interests were bankrupted in December, 1820, due, at least in part, to money market nervousness and depression that paralleled the decline of the Scottish provincial banking system, which decline began about 1816 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. James was apparently held responsible for some of the debts of his brother, David, a busy importer in Trinidad. Refer also to this page for more links to James McCowan's career.