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Expansion of the British Empire

How did the British Empire reach the pinnacle of power at the dawn of the twentieth century? Certainly a number of factors contributed to the success of the British around the world, not the least of which was the management of their international trading concerns. For a while, the buccaneers and pirates seemed to rule the high seas and certainly during wartime there was much additional risk in transporting goods around the world. In the late eighteenth century Scottish insurance companies began to underwrite some of that risk. For several decades in the mid nineteenth century, one of the leaders in this area of risk management was William Euing. His firm, William Euing and Company, was involved primarily in marine insurance. And one of the leaders of this firm was later David McCowan (1826-1908).

Risk Management
Holding the Social Safety Net

A risk manager by profession, David McCowan fully understood that socio-economic change also entailed risks. His own grandfather and other relatives had lost their place on the land due to a massive re-organization of the economy. Some were thrust into poverty, a risk that late 18th century leaders deemed acceptable. The clearances in the Lowlands were now being applied more forcefully in the highlands. The urbanization of Scotland had some horrific health and welfare consequences.  What Glasgow society needed were people capable and energetic enough to manage the risks of socio-economic change. David McCowan was one of those who built, held -- and financed -- the social safety net.   

The Late David McCowan, LL.D.

Nowhere will the death of this large-hearted philanthropist (which took place on Sabbath last) be more lamented than in Cumnock, his native parish, although for more than sixty years Glasgow has been  the home of his adoption, of his business activities, and of his unnumbered philanthropic deeds. Never robust, though wiry and agile, Mr. McCowan had for years been in a very precarious state of health, although he nevertheless lived to pass by fully a couple of years the fourscore.

Mr. McCowan was born at the farm house of Caponacre, about half a mile south of the town of Cumnock, in the notable year of 1826, long -- and by a few still -- remembered as "the drothy year", or as "the year of the short corn". His father, besides cultivating the farm, for years acted as a carrier between Ayr and Dumfries. A man of energy and enterprise, he was able to put two of his sons into much larger farms on the Dumfries Estate. Like the others, David, the subject of our sketch, was partly educated at the parochial school and partly at one of the several adventure schools which had been set up in the town, completing his excellent commercial education by a three years' course at the even then famous Ayr Academy. At the age of fifteen, sixty-seven years ago, Mr. McCowan entered a writer's office in the great commercial city of the west, where we need not follow his business course further than to say that he did not follow the law, but turned aside to, and entered upon that of Insurance Broker and Underwriter, the business of which he was first a partner and then the head, prospering greatly in their hands; and for half a century, Mr. McCowan's name has been synonymous for all that was liberal in action and lofty and pure in motive. Outside his business he was ever on the alert how he might best benefit his fellowman, and if ever a man "did good by stealth, and blushed to find it fame", it was Mr. McCowan, for his great aim was to do the action for the action's sake, and not that the breath of popular applause might waft his name and his good deeds abroad. But it is well known that his donations to the great public charities and other excellent institutions of the city were princely and that his more private gifts were as frequent as they were unstinted and frankly given. Verily, like the patriarch Job of old, Mr. McCowan might in truth and verity have said -- "When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, then it gave witness to me: because I delivered the poor that cried, and him that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor, and the cause which I knew not I searched out."

Many were the honours which the city which he had benefited so much wished to heap upon him, but these he all refused. Until at last, he was induced to receive that of Doctor of Laws from the University of the city in which he had long dwelt, but the honour came too late in life to be enjoyed for almost any length of time; for the curtain was just about to drop on all sublunary things when the honour came and which we believe, he accepted more as a compliment to those who proffered it than out of any desire upon   his part, so great was his modesty and so beautified his humility.

Latterly Mr. McCowan visited the place and parish of his birth but seldom. The last occasion -- that we know of -- was a good many years ago, when he was here performing some public function in the town. When it was over he asked the writer of this notice to accompany him out to the place of his birth and the home of his youth. We did so, and can well remember with what intense earnestness and in silence he stood and gazed upon the altered home of his ancestors, his lips quivering with emotion, and only saying with a shake of the head  as he turned his back upon the scene, "Ay the burnie still is here"; and in a deeply contemplative mood we walked back together to the town, we refraining to break in upon his heart-full reverie.

Mr. McCowan was married to a daughter of the late Rev. John Walker, of the Secession (formerly the Burghal) Church of Mauchline, who pre-deceased him a period of some seventeen years, and it showed the kindness of his nature, that in that church (now the United Free) but bearing the name of "The Walker Church," Mr. McCowan took a deep interest to the last.

But why say more. Mr. McCowan was not only a model man of the world, but  a sincere christian, and we only add regarding him: --

"Thy race is run, thy warfare's o'er, Enter thy Master's joy."

                A news clipping in the John McCowan Hill scrapbook

The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #2
The McCowans' Who's Who Vol. 7

PS:  David McCowan's beautiful writing slope, ca 1850, was recently donated to the museum in Cumnock.