The Cowans and McCowan septs of Colquhoun

By James Pearson,CCIS Historian

SalineAs most bearing the name Colquhoun will have found, it poses a pronunciation problem to those not familiar with it. It has always been so through the ages, but more so in a time when people could not read nor write, and had to rely on others to record the written name. In the region where the name is familiar it caused less problem, but once beyond the 'Colquhoun' lands the variations became numerous.

The Cowan name is believed to be another corruption of Colquhoun, and an attempt at phonetic spelling. We know of one recorded instance of a prominent Colquhoun family deliberately changing the spelling to Cowan, Sir John Cowan of Beeslack whose paternal great grandfather bore the name Colquhoun. We find Cowans are more numerous in certain areas, such as Ayrshire and Fifeshire. The Colquhoun family held lands in Fife for many years at Saline granted by the king. Those who occupied those properties and their families settled into the Fife population. The Cowane family left their mark on history and were well known in Stirling area during the 16th to 18th century.

No one explanation can ever cover every instance and another origin of the name is ' a dry stone' dyke builder, or an unskilled builder, though 'Dr. George Black' in his book on Scottish surnames thinks this less likely. Another possible origin suggested it a corruption of, the Scots word 'Gowan', a smith. No doubt it will account for some occurrences but Cowan is accepted as a Sept of Colquhoun. McCowan is of course a derivation of Cowan and the above applies to their name too. In the 18th century as the industrial revolution spread , in Scotland, industry spread across the central belt and south west. People in those regions became much more mobile with families leaving their traditional homes and settling near centres of work. Previously the variation of a surname could usually be identified in its locale, however away from their own vicinity, among those less familiar, the spellings and pronunciations altered.

In the northern half of Britain the pronunciation name remained 'Cow-an' (as in 'cow'), but in the southern part it became Co-wan (as in 'go'). In the 19th century one prominent paper manufacturer named Cowan, returning from London, remarked on it unhappily. Clan Colquhoun believe Cowans are part of our families wherever they settled.