MARJORIE FIDLER
The first Mrs Cowan of Penicuik

The early success of the Cowan paper business owed a lot to the outstanding business skill of Marjorie Fidler. Born in 1734, she was the daughter of William Fidler, native of Trieste (and/or Orkney) and clerk in the Scots Exchequer, and Jean Johnston whose parents had an Edinburgh druggists shop. When Marjorie was eleven Prince Charlie came to Edinburgh, and her father joined the cause with all the Exchequer money he could lay his hands on. She was present at the ball in Holyrood Palace, where the young prince kissed her on the cheek. After the Stuart defeat at Culloden the Fidler family fled to France, but Marjorie returned to Edinburgh in the 1750s where she began trading in tea and lace among a few wealthy families. She soon became recognised as "a first rate man of business". In 1757 she married Charles Cowan, a Crail-born grocer with a shop in Tolbooth Wynd, Leith. The Cowan business prospered, thanks to Marjorie's good management and personal attention, and the couple moved from their flat above the shop to James Court, Lawnmarket. They began to supply families and businesses with paper and in 1779 Charles Cowan took ownership of the well established paper mills at Penicuik which he named Valleyfield Mills.

The Penicuik Mills had been established some time before 1700, and Penicuik Blue Paper is supposed to have been among the trading supplies sent on the Darien expedition in 1698. The mills came into the hands of Lady Roseburn, the widow Anderson, in the early 1700s. She succeeded to her husband's role as King's Printer, and thus to the rights to print Bibles and Prayer Books, a powerful monopoly in those days. The mills passed to Watkins, a later King's Printer, "who was struck dead by lightning in the middle of a blasphemous outburst" while walking along the Esk. For some time before Charles Cowan arrived at the mills, they had been under the control of Thomas Boswell an Edinburgh lawyer and relative of Dr Johnson's biographer.



Marjorie Cowan quickly applied herself to the business of making and selling paper. In 1787 the Edinburgh business address for tea and paper was "at the cross" and five years later moved to Moray House, Canongate which had been the headquarters of the British Linen Company. The Cowans were to stay on at Moray House for fifty years, and the design of Penicuik Town Hall, and the similarity of the Canongate and Penicuik clocks, were a later generation's recognition of that early association. In her widowhood from 1805 to 1819, when her sons Alexander and Duncan had taken over the business, Marjorie Cowan lived in Regent House, the small eastern part of Moray House, with Duncan and the paper sales offices next door. "She used to wear gowns of dark print, with a shawl pinned down at the sides, and on dress occasions, a cap with a very full border of fine lace, so disposed as to show all her forehead, a nicely starched neckerchief, a silk gown that might stand alone, and an embroidered muslin apron; over all this a better sort of shawl was worn..For going out she had two short cloaks, made of mode silk, and lined with fur…she always called her son Dunky ringing a bell out of the window when she wanted him…she frequently went into his house in the evening to play at cards, and generally ended by calling it a bungling business. After the rubber was over, they had supper, and her modicum was a glass of rum with two or three spoonfuls of marmalade mixed in a drinking jug…" Marjorie Cowan kept her Jacobite loyalties to the end, often asking if there was "any hope or prospect of the Chairlies coming back again". In 1817 when she was 83 her son Sandy introduced her to Prince Rochenstadt, a visiting Swedish nobleman who was one of the Stuart line. Marjorie was moved to kneel in tears before him.


But all this was towards the end of her long life. Before that she had experienced the birth of her fourteen children and settled down in the village of Penicuik. "She had received an excellent education in a French convent, and was an indefatigable worker in house, garden and business, but it was in part due to her French education that she sent each of her fourteen children as infants to be brought up at Crail, under the supervision of her husband's relatives, till they were about five years old. When living at Valleyfield, of which she was very fond, she paid great attention to her dairy, poultry and garden, selling with her own hands her spare milk to the poor who wanted it, and keeping cans set in order, each labelled for its own customer. Every egg laid was marked with the date and the hen's name. Her husband was somewhat severe, though a really good man, and liked to be a gentleman on all occasions. But she had a great contempt for grand ways and would-be grand people. One day she was in the garden with a large lapful of cabbages &c., which she had been cutting for the kail, when her husband came in with a strange gentleman. She walked past him, dropping a curtsey, and saying 'your servant, Mr Charles', thus saving his blushes for a wife so employed. She had a keen sense of humour and a high spirit of honour, and she detested deceit. She knew Allan Ramsay's works almost by heart, and was well read."


In these years, Charles Cowan was often occupied with the business in Edinburgh, while Marjorie remained at Penicuik. Until 1812 the family house at Valleyfield stood next to the papermills on the River Esk, and Marjorie's ease with French language would have been useful in the paper-making craft where French expertise was so important. Charles kept a carriage for travelling to and fro, but his wife greatly preferred her white pony. "On one occasion, when engaged to dine with Sir John Dunbar at Auchendinny, such a snowfall occurred that her host could scarce believe she could come, till he saw her riding up the avenue looking more like a snowball than anything else."


Marjorie is said to have had a wonderful gift for swearing, both in French and Scots. She used to look from a window to see who her visitors were, and if they were unwelcome, she simply refused to see them. But if they were welcome, she would call "Come awa' ye de'il, come awa' ye de'il, I'm real glad tae see ye." Once she was found by her husband in a silk dress gathering peas. He took her to task, saying that he certainly thought she of all people would have put on an apron. "Well," she replied, "if you like me in an apron, I'll always wear one," and so she did, however unsuitable. Like Moray House, her storerooms at Valleyfield in those days might have been stocked not just with paper, but with barrels of American apples, a barrel or two of salted beef from Shetland (the delicately flavoured small cattle were stored each Michaelmas), and huge American cheeses as big as cartwheels.