To Sustene The Personis: The Agricultural Revolution
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Cumnock, Ayrshire
A Focused Look at Cumnock History
Through the McCowan Family


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In this booklet (49 pages), we illustrate how the experiences of an extended family, the McCowans of Cumnock, Ayrshire, may be placed within the larger context of local social and economic change. To Sustene the Personis is a modest study of the changing relationship between people and land in Old Cumnock Parish. The period under study includes the so-called "agricultural revolution", a time of intense economic and social upheaval. The capacity of the land to sustain the population -- and human responses to radical economic change -- are key notions in any study of eighteenth century Scottish agriculture.

This work provides some of the background to the fascinating story of James McCowan (1773-1834), for whom the McCowan Society is named.

To James' rural predecessors, a non-agricultural occupation would have been almost unthinkable. James was born during the agricultural revolution when large numbers, including many of his kin, were suddenly displaced from their plots of ground and their traditional means of subsistence. So, when still a young man, James turned to another land-based resource -- coal. He was to soon to become an entrepreneur -- a Coalmaster -- in the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century.

James McCowan emigrated to Scarborough, Canada, in 1833 with his wife and eight children. But he also brought with him his values -- including profound respect for freedom, individuality, security and material wealth. James' personal experiences as a risk-taker had fundamentally shaped his values. But, as an avid reader of Scottish history, James' mindset was doubtless also influenced by the historical background to the agricultural revolution. The impact of economic and social change on his forebears, cousins and friends must have also figured in the development of his value system -- and in the attitudes and aspirations that he and his family carried to Canada.

And so, this study is as much an investigation of immigrants to Canada as it is of lowland Scottish agriculture. The more we know about the values of immigrants, the better we can plan the future of Canada.

The log home of James' son, William Porteous McCowan, is a public museum in Scarborough. This story of immigrants' values is just one of many lessons that may be taught in the McCowan Log House Museum.



To a large extent, the present and the future are written by the past. What becomes a tangible historical past is merely a manifestation of the metaphysical: the mind devising strategies for dealing with other strategies and events. To Sustene the Personis is a work which delves into the past for clues to an emergent present. The past in question is the Agricultural Revolution in the Scottish Lowlands, woven about the histories of the McCowans, some of whom ended up in Scarborough. The journey of the McCowans from Scotland to Scarborough might well be a mirror to many of us who have made the journey to Scarborough by way of other countries and continents.

But the contemporary is not static -- nor the history of Histories which often plays queer tricks. If in this work, we now read Scotland for an understanding of a fragment of Canada, today Scotland reads India for an understanding of a fragment of itself. In many major Scots cities, Indian immigrants and their cuisine have become as familiar as pizza in North America; so much so that this enters into the lively, contemporary linguistic debate among Scots poets. What Spenser, Marlowe and Shakespeare did in extending the English language, Bill Herbert, a poet at Oxford claims he is doing for Scots in producing "linguistic currie". Herbert quotes his local (Scottish) Indian restaurant in light verse:

...Enjoy our curries and Take Some Hame,
Remember, Anarkalie is Oor Name

and goes on to end his piece, "Yours wi Nan Breid" -- nan bread is an Indian roti. To Sustene the Personis reminds us that there are migrations and migrations. The world turns. An exotic past becomes an exciting present. And so, it is with a great deal of delight that I read and recommend To Sustene the Personis where:

the familiar is unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.

Sasenarine Persaud
Poet and Author of two novels
including The Ghost of Bellows Man



To Sustene the Personis is a study of family history. In this work, the author takes us back to the early seventeenth century. Using the events surrounding the lives of the McCowans of Cumnock Parish, he uses the thread of continuity of that family's accounts to describe the changes in the economic infrastructure and the relationships between the people and the land in this ancestral agricultural society. We travel from the late feudal organization of the production of the land through the changes of the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution and the particular way in which it took place in Scotland. This voyage is illustrated by reference to the life and tribulations of real people, their failures and success, and the legacy of entrepreneurial ideals they brought to the new world.

Victor Sztainbok, Vice President
Canadian Operations
International Approval Services


Comments and Reviews

Mr. D.B. McCowan presents an in-depth study of early life in Scotland by following the true-life accounts of his forebears. The discussion is fascinating as he relates the "McCowan" experiences during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and shows how typical they were of the times. It is an "eye-opener" for anyone interested in what life was like in Scotland three hundred years ago.

Ann Wakelin, B.B.M.


I read with interest this very enlightening booklet about Britain's agricultural revolution and its connection with Scottish migration to the New World. I commend the author and the Society for this contribution to our understanding of our heritage, and I look forward to their future publications in this important area of historical research.

John S. Moir, M.A., Ph.D., D.D.
Emeritus Professor of History,
University of Toronto
Past President of the Canadian Society
for Scottish Studies


The Scarboro Heights Record   V9 #6


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For this history of Cumnock, Ayrshire

Sample Excerpts
Burns, Robert Taxation
To Sustene the Personis What does it mean?
Coal Fueling the Industrial Revolution
Inventions Bicycle, Gas Lighting, Steam Navigation
Glossary of Terms Rural Scottish to early 19th century
Dependence on the Land A tradition of land-holding security
Progressive Tenants Dawn of the Agricultural Revolution
Farm Improvements Lease on a farm
Over-Population Sustainable Growth