Alexander Cowan was an unusually public-spirited papermaker, who conducted his business to spread peace on earth and goodwill amongst men. He demanded that all his business transactions profit the buyer and seller alike, and take no advantage of others misfortune. At least as interesting a character as the more well-known Robert Owen, he was generous and reluctant to criticise, and quietly gave away more than half his income in works of love and kindness. Walking down the Edinburgh Canongate, he was so struck by the poverty and cold of the houses with their cracked, broken and rag-stuffed windows that he instructed a glazier to repair every window from Castle Hill to Holyrood at his own expense.


When Alexander was a boy, his family’s Penicuik house and mill stood together by the river North Esk at Valleyfield.  Much loved by his mother, Marjorie, this place was to be transformed by Alexander and his sons into a great worldwide papermaking company which bore his name and shell trademark worldwide for a hundred and fifty years.  Alexander had studied chemistry and physics at Edinburgh in the 1790s. He married Elizabeth Hall in 1800 and they took up residence at Valleyfield, where the first of their many children were born.  With the European War, trade declined badly and rags from the continent were hard to obtain.  (Rags pounded until they disintegrated were the main ingredient of paper in those days)  With papermaking at a standstill, the Government bought the mills and house and garden in 1810 to serve as a prison camp for captured sailors and kidnapped foreign civilians. They used the house as a prison hospital, and fitted up the rag sorting huts and paper stores as dormitories with double tiers of hammocks suspended from cast iron columns for the thousands of European sailors and other prisoners of war held there. Those prisoners used their time to earn money by making dolls from straw and model ships from chicken and rabbit bones –some made convincing bone stamps to print counterfeit banknotes.  

Overlooking the compound, the Navy Board of Transport who operated the camp commissioned the King's Architect, Robert Reid (who had just finished the Leith Custom House) to build two new houses for the prison chaplain and surgeon on the brae next to the old St Mungo's Well and doocot.  Alexander Cowan continued making paper in a small way on the Esk at Melville Mill and elsewhere. When the war was over, the prisoners left Valleyfield and the mills stood empty, though the Government had ideas to use them for making official paper.  But Alexander Cowan had cannily kept the water power rights and so was able to negotiate repurchase, return to his beloved Penicuik and gradually restart papermaking with some of the original workforce after 1820. The mills were fitted out with new machinery by Bryan, Donkin & Company and the two Robert Reid houses were expanded to form a new Valleyfield House for Alexander and Elizabeth Cowan and their big family.

The family on holiday in Moffat in 1820 were described in letters from Mrs Grant of Laggan who was also staying there.  She writes: "Did you ever hear Mrs. Brunton speak of a family of the name of Cowan, who possess a great paper manufactory, and once lived beside her in Edinburgh, and afterwards were her country neighbours at Lasswade?  She knew them well, and esteemed them much.  Mr. Cowan is a man possessed of much general information, derived from a more extensive library than one usually finds in the possession of a private individual: his wife shares mentally in the treasures of her husband's knowledge, though personally devoted to the care and education of eleven promising and well-trained children.  I must tell you a great deal about them when I see you: I shall only tell you now that they are spending the summer here, and are one of the most rational, comfortable and happy families I know.  They have the most admirable cart imaginable, with seats slung in it, that makes it a most desirable vehicle.  They call for me every day I can go, and take me to see all the old castles and Hopes and strange places in the neighbourhood; and their conversation is a treat, such as one does not often meet with.  But I will tell you much of them hereafter."

"MOFFAT, 26th July, 1820: I continue my cart-excursions here with no small satisfaction.  My companions are delightful--the happiest, best, and most intelligent people imaginable.  Their cart has such seats and slings and springs as make it quite the king of carts, and the very horse is a sensible, well-behaved animal, worthy of your acquaintance."


Alex Cowan receives the manuscript of Heart of Midlothian from Sir Walter Scott. Drawn by Heber Thompson R.E.   c. 1944

Alex. Cowan receiving the manuscript of “Heart of Midlothian” from Sir Walter Scott.  Drawn by Heber Thompson R.E.


Alexander Cowan was the trustee who helped Walter Scott out of bankruptcy.  Scott (who gave Alexander his manuscript of The Heart of Midlothian and whose novels were printed on Cowan paper, like so much else in those days) was a regular visitor to the Cowans at Valleyfield.  But when Alexander’s wife Elizabeth Hall became ill in 1828, the family left Valleyfield and went to live at the firms Edinburgh sales headquarters at Moray House in the Canongate, which Alexander’s older brother Duncan had vacated.

Valleyfield was now used as a holiday house by Alexander's friend and cousin Thomas Chalmers (later to lead the Disruption of the Church of Scotland).  In the gardens behind the papermill at the foot of the hill Alexander commissioned the architect Thomas Hamilton (designer of the Edinburgh High School on Calton Hill) to design a monument to international brotherhood and the memory of over 300 of the prisoners who had died during their Penicuik captivity. Walter Scott helped to choose the inscription.  The monument still stands today.

Alexander Cowan was a generous man, reluctant to speak ill of any human being, and is said to have given away more than half his income in works of love and kindness. As early as 1796 he helped to set up a parish library in Penicuik. With his brother Duncan, he arranged a new water supply. Walking down the Canongate, he was so struck by the poverty and cold of the houses with their cracked, broken and rag-stuffed windows that he gave his glazier instructions to repair every window from the Castle Hill to Holyrood at his own expense. In the Canongate cholera outbreak of 1832, when the sick were shunned by their neighbours, he did all he could to provide practical help and avoid panic. As soon as he heard of a case, he would visit the patient, and even lie down beside them to show their friends there was nothing to fear.  In 1851 he started a Penicuik village museum at the mills with the help of his friends. [believed to have been spirited away to Kent 125 years later when the mills were closed and demolished by the Reed Paper Group].

In business, Alexander Cowan’s high standards demanded that all transactions must profit buyer and seller alike, no advantage must be taken of misfortune. Writing to his son Charles in July 1836 he said “I think that business is a delightful employment, when we can say that it is well managed, and when we feel that it is not carried on for personal exultation but for the advancement of human virtue and happiness.  When in fact we are Fellow workers with God."

His son in law Tom Constable, referring to Alexander Cowan’s “long life of love and cheerful labour” wrote that “Though never seen upon a public platform, or in any place of concourse save the house of God, he was always ready to lend a helping hand to every worthy object. His voice was not heard in the streets, yet he went about continually doing good. His life was a long and happy one ; and the secret of his happiness was this, that he desired to be "one with God in all the conclusions of his mind and understanding, and one with Him in all the affections and desires of his heart."  It was his rare lot to enjoy, for upwards of fifty-seven years, the companionship of two loving partners, and to see their families grown up as one around him. ; but he was not unvisited by sorrow, for he was called to watch over the wife of his youth through years of failing health, and to see sons and daughters of the fairest promise drop into their graves.  Yet he was happy; for it was his heart's desire to be "at one" with God ; and his experience gave a signal testimony to the truth of that assurance, that he who will do God's will shall be brought to the knowledge of His doctrine. In every relation of life his conduct was most exemplary, winning the respect and affection of all who came in contact with him, while he was as the apple of their eye to all within his home.”

One of his daughters wrote that "I always felt him to be the embodiment of what God means when he says, 'I will be a Father to you.'  I do not know whether our feelings of love or reverence preponderated. They were both boundless-the reverence quite unmixed with fear, and united to a delight in doing anything for him.

Alexander Cowan with the children of his first family

"The chief characteristic of our home from my earliest recollection was its happiness -everybody was happy in it- a full unchecked happiness, reaching even to the 'stranger within the gates.'  I never remember one of us thinking for a moment of disobeying our father. His commands were few, and we were never troubled about trifles. In thinking over his life, I admire him at no point more than when, by my mother's illness, she was no longer the companion to him that she once had been, how he kept up the unity of the family circle, supplying a mother's place to us, and devoting himself to our education ; our readings with him from six to eight every winter morning, with blazing fire and drawn curtains ; how he made everything so charming --arithmetic, geometry, history, and mechanics (with the experiments from Joyce's Dialogues) ; how he superintended everything, and knew at least what we ought to be doing at every hour of the day.  Then his coming in so punctually at three o'clock, to take us out for a walk, with 'I'll give you two minutes and a half to get ready', and this in all weathers ; --none of us take longer to this day, I believe. Then the evening reading aloud, when we all worked, none of us daring to move or say a word ; we knew the book would instantly be laid down with 'Well! tell me when you have done talking.' Then the finishing with a rubber at whist to amuse mamma and grandmamma.  Every hour had its occupation, its regularity, and pleasant variety ; and so the house was kept in a constant serenity.  I believe this power of diffusing happiness is the greatest and divinest of talents, and just what our Christianity still wants.

"Many lectures we all had on the meanness and wretchedness of display, and the preference for a full and kind hospitality.  Well do I remember his love for the weak, the helpless, the poor, and miserable ; his delight in seeking them out ; his tinge of romance united to his love of simplicity ; his advices to us, 'I hope, my dears, none of you will do anything so miserable as marry rich men.'"

In his later years he spent as much in works of love and kindness as in all other personal or family expenses, and this was independently of the £16,000 which he presented in two donations to five Charitable Institutions in Edinburgh, and of the many thousands expended in establishing persons in business, and in aiding those who had been unfortunate. He had no sectarian views, and gave to churches and schools of many denominations, while in his own -the Established Church of Scotland- “he was ever ready to respond to every call, and zealous in devising schemes of usefulness.”


One of the many he encouraged in business was the outstanding Edinburgh-based lithographer Frederick Schenck (1811-1885). Schenck’s magnificent 1848 “Pictorial Giftbook or Lays and Lithographs” was inscribed to Alexander Cowan. Schenck’s lithographs were accompanied with verses by his wife’s father David Vedder; the book was sold by John Menzies in Edinburgh and the letterpress printed by Alexander Cowan’s son-in-law Tom Constable, the Queen’s printer.  Cowan’s encouragement and Schenck’s practical example helped lay the foundation for over a century of high quality printing and mapmaking in Edinburgh.


Alexander Cowan's gardens at Valleyfield and Moray House were well known, and he was a regular contributor to Horticultural, Philosophical and Astronomical Societies, as well as to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Like Walter Scott he took an interest in gas supply. The Valleyfield Mills were lit by gas from 1830, and Messrs Cowan supplied the village of Penicuik for over 30 years from 1845. On his death in 1859, Alexander left money for the common good of Penicuik people, from which the Cowan Institute (Town Hall) was later built and endowed with 5,000 (sadly vanished) books.

Shortly before his death, Alexander Cowan had given instructions to his wife and family to use what was left of his fortune for the benefit of communities where his business had been carried on. Funds were used to improve Penicuik water supplies further: the 1864 plaque on the new Town Well commemorates the name of the Cowan's engineer who supervised the laying of a conduit carrying clean drinking water from the Pentlands. By the early 1890s, enough interest had accrued on the funds to begin building the Cowan Institute.

design for the Cowan Institute by Campbell Douglas & Morrison, Architects

Alexander's many sons had followed him into the business and some of his extended family became Trustees in the Cowan Institute. The architect chosen to design it, Archibald Campbell Douglas was the husband of Alexander's granddaughter; he was also the architect of Her Majesty's Theatre Glasgow (now Glasgow Citizens Theatre), St Michaels Inveresk and the church at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire. The Institute was built of red sandstone from the Moat Quarry near Canonbie on the North British railway's Waverley route, half a mile from Alexander Cowan's favourite sister's house at Woodhouselees.

Many of the architectural features of the Cowan Institute match those on Moray House and the Canongate Tollbooth in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.  Moray House had been the Cowan family’s long-term rented residence and business headquarters in the city.


Canongate Tollbooth clock & the Moray House three-window balcony


Cowan Institute before and after the Trust installed the 1901 clock


The Institute was extended within a few years of first opening and the projecting clock was added in 1901. It offered a large public hall with gallery, a library with many thousands of books, billiard tables, and fitted gymnasium, all endowed for the good of the people of Penicuik.


At the time of King Edward's coronation 1902

The Institute was locally managed and organised under the supervision of trustees for over 60 years. Then after negotiations with the trustees, the Institute and the Trust Fund were handed over to Penicuik Burgh Council who then moved their Municipal Offices into the building from Craigiebield House. Much of the building's recreational space was given over to the Magistrates Courts. In March 1960 the Burgh Council formally accepted the gift of the Cowan Institute building and the funds of the Cowan Trust for and on behalf of the people of Penicuik, on giving a binding undertaking to provide for its future as recreational and hall facilities for Penicuik in the spirit of the trust. In the early 1960s, after rot was found, the galleried hall was split into two smaller units in an internal remodelling by Robert J Naismith of the Sir Frank Mears partnership. Naismith -who acted as Penicuik’s Burgh Architect and Planning Adviser for over 30 years- was the designer of the Coronation Tower and many other Penicuik buildings. He was the perceptive town planner who secured the Radburn layout of Penicuik’s Cornbank Estate.


Naismith's Coronation Tower

After parliament reorganised local government in Scotland in 1974, the assets of Penicuik Burgh Council passed to the new Midlothian District Council based in Dalkeith. The raised stone letters The Cowan Institute above the entrance were chiselled off by the building’s new guardians. Management of the building passed out of Penicuik. The thousands of books had been disposed of long ago. Local organisations continued to use the building, the Court functioned each week, and local services and registration had a point of presence here. But after thirty years, in the face of changing patterns of use and the search for cost savings, Midlothian Council decided to withdraw its permanent staff from the building including the Registrar of births, marriages and deaths at very short notice in spring 2005, with the Court departing in due course.

Cowan Institute

But the Institute lives on. It's been a focal point for Penicuik life for over a century, hosted thousands upon thousands of dances and events, performances from classics to the Bay City Rollers, and many a marriage. At crowded meetings people were determined for that to continue, and in response to the threat of closure the Penicuik Community Development Trust was born. Midlothian Council then refurbished and reopened the Town Hall for community use in 2007. The Trust holds an open house there with exhibitions almost every Saturday and we’re now into our sixth or seventh year of running a well-attended public cinema most Sundays. 

Illustration by Alexander Cowan's great-great-great-grandson Robin Macfarlan

Inspired by the public spirit of Alexander Cowan, and by the practical example of the late great local co-operative association, we aim to save and nurture community assets as green shoots for regeneration.  The Trust takes its chances where it can.  We were determined to maintain the Cowan Institute, Penicuik Town Hall, for community use. So far, so good. Then, with finance in place from people in the town we tried without success to save a much-used and centrally placed Jackson Street community school from heartbreaking destruction.  Our efforts to rescue the last papermill building in our historic papermaking town are currently stalled.  But with a long lease in 2012 our plans to embark on a big long-term food growing initiative to restore the Lost Garden of Penicuik have come off.  And following purchase with our members’ encouragement in 2013 we rescued and now operate and develop Pen-y-Coe Press, the well-loved paper-related business and shop in Penicuik town centre, without a break in service.  Like the old co-op, the Trust’s capacity for action has been built up gradually from the efforts and savings of local people working together.  That’s something we’re proud of.


Find out more about Penicuik Trust projects at the Saturday Open House in Penicuik Town Hall, at the Sunday Cinema, at Pen-y-Coe Press or at The Lost Garden. There are on-the-spot exhibitions, on-the-spot hands-on crafts sessions for kids and adults, onsite visits and more…


We need your help. Working together we can all do more for the people and places we love.






MORE LIVES& fragments

Images of Penicuik  

more Cowans images

The Cowans – a Papermaking Dynasty

The Cowan Advertisements of 1944

Robert J Naismith and Penicuik’s Cornbank Estate












< next one up

NUMBER 4 of the 100

 most visited KOSMOID, LOST GARDEN &  MAKERS webpages

next one down >