Winners and Losers?
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It is Not That Simple!

After you've digested the argument below, "The Lowland Clearances: A New Angle", you'll be asking:

  • What was it that triggered some ordinary Lowland Scots to take charge of their socio-economic environment -- locally and regionally?
  • What types of people took these leadership roles?
  • What help did they receive and from whom?
  • What other factors came together to establish ordinary Lowland Scots as leaders around the world?
  • In the final analysis -- was the Scottish Enlightenment driven by Top-Down (upper class) or Bottom-Up (lower/middle class) forces or a combination of both?

This page in our "Lowland Clearances" section is your starting point for finding some evidence that will support your "answers". This evidence is within the relevant portions of our web site. We won't list all of the clues here however...

What Triggered Ordinary Lowland Scots to
Lead the Scottish Enlightenment?
Some Clues
Full Partnership in Society Leadership roles in new Institutions
Age of Englightenment Literacy and Cultural Progress
A Farmer's Modest Library Religion and Scottish History
The Evolution of Values Lanarkshire Emigrants
To leave or not to leave Debating their future in Scotland
An Ambitious Emigrant Mason Capitalism Takes Hold
Pedlars Unlikely Heroes of the New Economy
Inventions and Taxation Brilliant Minds
Values with Respect to the Land A Fundamental Notion in the study of the Lowland Clearances
Education Leads to business success
Individuality and Democracy The religious rural Scots
Agricultural Revolution Overview
Progressive Tenants Expanding their farms
Dawn of a New Economic Order Entrepreneurism
Capitalist in Training Rise of a Coalmaster
Emigration The value of a connection to Land
Before the Sheep ...there were sheep
Initiative From Unsung Factors


The Scarboro Heights Record V12 #2

The Lowland Clearances
A New Angle

Three cheers for Andrew and Peter for introducing the Lowland Clearances to a general audience through their Radio series.

I look forward to publication of the new book, "The Lowland Clearances". I was interviewed for the BBC Radio Scotland series this year (of the same name.) It was an incredible program -- very professional, and, for the most part, very complete. However, in my opinion, one very important aspect of that era did not come out quite strongly enough in the series.

But, first, I want to express an opinion on the notion that those who were "cleared" from the land were all "losers". Certainly they came out on the "losing end" of a massive economic transformation, but they were not "losers". "Loser" has a very negative connotation, at least in Canadian jargon. In my opinion, "loser" is not the right word to describe these people. Some were outright victims, others were simply unlucky and a few just didn't "keep up with the times".

But for the sake of my argument and rationale for a "Volume Two" of The Lowland Clearances, I'll use the words "Loser" and "Winner" liberally...

Let's take some snapshots of James McCowan, 1773-1834, the central figure in the McCowan portion of the Lowland Clearances series:

  • 1797, Loser, a veritable serf -- "belonging to the works" -- toiling at the coal-face in Cumnock, Ayrshire
  • 1799, Winner, emancipation of Scottish Colliers
  • 1799, Winner, serf-turned-capitalist secures the lease of his very own coalworks in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire -- he is now a Coalmaster
  • 1813, Winner, erects one of the first steam engines in that part of the Lanarkshire coalfield
  • 1813, Loser, has two women pregnant at the same time -- must choose which one to marry
  • 1816, Loser, all tenants dragged into estate litigation through no fault of their own -- financial woes for all, including the Coalmaster
  • 1817, Winner, installs an underground railway and, convincing others of his abilities, he secures more financial backing
  • 1818, Loser, competition for renewal of the Auchanbeg Coalworks lease is too fierce, but he carries on as coalmaster at his other coal and limeworks in Blackwood
  • 1821, Loser, bankrupted as a coalmaster and must continue as a farmer on only marginal land
  • 1829, Loser, four-fold increase in rent of the farm of East Auchanbeg
  • 1831, Loser, bankrupted again but somehow carries on as a cattle breeder
  • 1833, Loser, boards the emigrant ship at Greenock
  • 1834, Loser, barely a year after arriving in Canada to start a new life, he dies of cholera.

Notwithstanding these snapshots at particular points in time, the story of James McCowan is not the story of a loser. It is the story of an ambitious and industrious man of very humble rank who took risks that even the landed gentry would not take. At the dawn of the modern market economy, the story of this collier, coalmaster, grocer, general contractor, lime merchant, farmer and cattle breeder is the story of hundreds of lowland Scots who came, oh so close, to great success. Perhaps James McCowan did not become a successful industrialist because the cartel of big coal owners down the Clyde prevented him. Yes, there was such a cartel, with enormous political and financial clout.

I was indeed thrilled to tell a few bits and pieces of the James McCowan story in the excellent BBC Radio Scotland series, "The Lowland Clearances". As may be seen from the snapshots above, his story is complex -- I could write several books just about James McCowan and his working and social environment.

The Lowland Clearances was somewhat of a silent land-use revolution during which thousands were displaced -- including James McCowan. But this land-use revolution had a side effect. At the same time, displaced common people were instrumental in another silent revolution that permeated every weave of the socio-economic fabric. This is my one criticism of the BBC series -- there should have been more emphasis on how common lowland Scots led the Scottish enlightenment. The wealthy may have endorsed these efforts in literature, science, industry, democracy and other socio-economic endeavours -- but it was ordinary folk who took much of the risk and did a huge percentage of the actual work. James McCowan was one of those people, at least in industry.

Now for the very crucial bit of new information... Let's think now, was this other broader cultural revolution really a "side-effect" of the land-use revolution? What if some of those progressive lower and middle class thinkers in culture and science had also been thinking about the science of farming? Indeed, there is very solid evidence in McCowan agricultural history in Cumnock, Ayrshire, that it was definitely NOT the landlord who first "clued in" to the economic benefits of farm consolidation. Through the first half of the 18th century, Robert, William, David, Hugh and Andrew McCowan all tenanted pairs of adjacent farms. Who best to know how to maximize return from the land than those who actually worked it? The McCowans' landlord did not begin his own initiatives to consolidate farms until after mid-century.

So, even the land-use aspect of agricultural improvement was conceived and effected first by ordinary -- but progressive -- people. The wealthy landowners finally "caught on" to a good idea and took it to the huge -- and very disruptive -- extreme that we now call the Lowland Clearances. (See

This is a very significant observation which should be strongly exposed in  Volume Two of The Lowland Clearances.

Volume Two should also include discussion of how James McCowan's six surviving children became "Winners" in Canada. His three sons, Robert, James and William, eventually owned about 800 acres of the best farmland in southern Ontario, a true measure of the success of a winner at that time. Descendants of James McCowan include grandson, Alex McCowan, the 1892 founder of the milk marketing board movement in Ontario (which, I dare say, makes him the father of modern agricultural marketing in Canada) and great-grandson, Clark Young, 1983 inductee into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame.

Volume Two should also include chapters on other Lanarkshire families who came to Scarborough, Canada, between 1825 and 1850.

Volume Two -- Contents in Brief:

  • Who were the McCowans of Ayrshire?
  • Where did they live and what did they do there in the mid-18th century?
  • What socio-economic forces were at work around them -- local, regional, international?
  • What were their responses to these forces?
  • What was the net effect of that web of action-reaction?
  • Where did they go and what did they do when they got there?
  • Why did they leave rural Scotland?
  • What values did they pass on to the next generation?
  • Emigration to Scarborough, Canada, of the James McCowan family and some of their old neighbours in Scotland
  • How were the first few years in Canada?
  • What were their aspirations?
  • What were their accomplishments?

Bruce McCowan, P.Eng.
James McCowan Memorial Social History Society

The Scarboro Heights Record V11 #10