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Outline for a Historical Drama

With I Hope a New Face
The Story of a Newcomer to a New Land

James McCowan, 1773-1834


James McCowan's story is fascinating. Some of the events in his life that could make for interesting and entertaining drama are listed below in the suggested "scenes". The central theme should be "entrepreneurial values brought into Canada by immigrants". James McCowan had essentially been a serf in Ayrshire coal mines until emancipation in 1799. He then started his own coal operation as a "Coalmaster" in Lanarkshire. He was bankrupted two decades later, due partly to the efforts of a Glasgow coal cartel. He then farmed full-time and was involved in cattle-breeding. Another bankruptcy in 1831 and social turmoil in Scotland sent him to Scarborough, Canada, in 1833. Along with his wife, Margaret Porteous, and eight children aged 3 to 19 years, he brought to Canada his values -- including profound respect for freedom, order, individuality, faith, family, honest toil and material wealth.


Immigration is an important issue today. Immigrants can and do bring valuable non-tangible assets to the Canadian mosaic. The McCowan family immigrated to Scarborough in 1833. Their experience as new Canadians, although different in many ways, has some striking similarities to the experience of new Canadians today. The James McCowan Memorial Social History Society has published several books and booklets about the social history of Scarborough.

Additional Educational Component -- Information Processing:

Ewart Young was a next-door neighbour and a classmate of Ashley McCowan (both born in 1886). They lived on adjacent farms at McCowan Road and Kingston Road. Many Scarborough residents including two of Ashley's great uncles, James W. and William P. McCowan,  were interviewed by David Boyle in 1896 during preparation of The History of Scarboro. Ewart Young later co-founded the brokerage firm, McLeod Young and Weir. Ashley aspired to a corporate "new economy" career but he was convinced by his father to stay on the farm (details in Neigh the Front.)

One evening, Ewart was visiting his friend, Ashley. David Boyle arrived at the house to interview Ashley's great-uncles, James W. McCowan (82 years of age) and William P. McCowan (76) and Ashley's father, Robert McCowan (later Reeve or Mayor of Scarborough). (Robert's father, the eldest brother, had died in 1886.) The boys were thrilled by the early development of the market economy in Lowland Scotland as experienced by the father of James W. and William P. McCowan.

The story could be "told" through the interviews that David Boyle held with William P. and James W. McCowan. More importantly, the attentive youths, Ewart and Ashley, could engage in the interpretive and analysis process as the seniors relate the story of entrepreneurial and social challenges. The drama could periodically flash forward to the kitchen table discussion in 1896.

Some sample dialogue here...

Historical Bibliography:

A detailed historical bibliography is available from Bruce McCowan, Co-Chairman, The James McCowan Memorial Social History Society, 19 Monarchwood Cres., Don Mills, Ontario, M3A 1H3, 416-447-4895 ( Personal letters, account books and receipts, Church records, court papers, James' personal library of religious and history books and many secondary sources are available. Family statistics associated with radical economic change are on this web site.

Act One
The Collier-Serf
(Old Cumnock, Ayrshire, 1793-1799)

  1. Ewart Young visiting his friend, Ashley McCowan. David Boyle arrives at the house to interview Ashley's great-uncles, James W. McCowan and William P. McCowan and Ashley's father. The stories begin...

  2. James McCowan hewing at the coalface of the Earl of Dumfries' Garlaff Coalworks, 1793, with his fourteen year old brother, William, "drawing" the coal away on a sled.

  3. Family mealtime discussions of the impending legislation that was to grant emancipation to all "bound" Scottish coalminers in 1799. Followed by the usual family evening bible reading.

  4. Argument with the Earl of Dumfries' Factor (property manager) regarding limited opportunities to manage coalworks in Old Cumnock Parish, Ayrshire, 1798.

  5. Negotiations with James Corbett, Proprietor of Stockbriggs in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, for the lease of Auchanbeg Coalworks, 1799.

Act Two
The Coalmaster
(Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, 1799-1812)

  1. Departure of his brother, David, to Trinidad, 1800. Also evidently emancipated in 1799, David later married a native of Trinidad.

  2. Death of James' first wife, 1804, at the age of 20.

  3. Installing the steam engine in about 1810, not the first in Lanarkshire, but certainly one of the earliest in that part of the County.

  4. Delivering coal and lime on a lonely road: ("highway robbery" was common).

  5. An accident in the coalmine: (accidents were common-place).

Act Three
The Ladies' Man
(Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, 1813)

  1. "Marriage Negotiations" with two young ladies, both of whom were pregnant by him (August 1813).

  2. "Compearing" before the Kirk Session for certain wrong-doings with one of these young ladies, 1813. A few minutes later, finalizing upcoming wedding plans with the other young lady (Margaret Porteous).

Act Four
The Bankrupt
(Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, 1815-1820)

  1. Baptism of his nephew visiting with parents from Trinidad, 1815. Argument over money that brother David McCowan owes to James.

  2. Meeting with creditors and the "Judicial Factor", 1817. Discussions of the "squeeze-play" by a cartel of wealthy Glasgow Coalmasters.

  3. Contracting the embankment of the River Nethan after floods, 1817.

  4. Installing iron rails in the mine, perhaps one of the early underground iron tracks in that part of Lanarkshire (1817).

  5. Meeting with Judicial Factor and the other offerors regarding the renewal of the lease on the Coalworks, 1818.

  6. Argument with his brother, John, over some finances at the end of the family coalworks era.

  7. Served with bankruptcy papers, 1820. Followed by discussion with wife, Margaret, of what to do next.

Act Five
The Farmer
(Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, 1829-1832)

  1. Argument with the Landlord regarding large farm rent increase, 1829 and meeting with an arbitrator.

  2. Taking bull to neighbouring farms, 1830, for breeding purposes.

  3. Baptism of his daughter, Jean, and Alexander Muir at the same time, 1830. (Alex Muir later wrote "The Maple Leaf Forever".)

  4. Confrontation with the Sheriff's Officer, 1831, regarding petition for bankruptcy -- taking inventory of James' farm and personal property.

  5. Great Reform Bill parade in the village of Lesmahagow, 1832. (Some tenants were granted the right to vote at this time.) Argument on the subject of politics and reform.

Act Six
The Emigrant
(Springbank, Scarborough, 1833

  1. On the sailing ship to Canada, May 1833, with several other Scarborough families including the Weirs, Muirs, Tackets and Gibsons. Discussion of what to expect in Canada. Martha Weir flirts with James' son, James W. These two eventually marry.

  2. Arrival in Scarborough -- meeting with John Torrance to arrange a lease of an isolated farm beside the Scarborough Bluffs. (The trail through Gates Gully to get to the farm is, more or less, part of the Toronto Waterfront Trail.)

  3. Building the first log cabin at "Springbank".

  4. Confrontation with American smugglers carrying goods up Gates Gully, fall 1833.

Act Seven
The Father
(Scarborough, 1834)

  1. Argument on a religious subject with an elder following a Service at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church.

  2. Death of daughter, Mary Ann, of typhus fever, July 1834.

  3. At bedside of son, William, who was "very ill of cholera", August 20, 1834. Writing his last letter -- sets it aside.

  4. Death of son, David, followed a few minutes later by death of James McCowan himself, of cholera (Aug. 28, 1834): James' last words to his children. One of the children notices the letter that had not been mailed. They decide to treasure it, rather than mail it.

The McCowans' Who's Who Vol 8
The Scarboro Heights Record  V9 #9

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