TENTH child of a small farmer on the Bute estates, the late Mr. McCowan was born in the parish of Old Cumnock in 1826, and received his schooling at an adventure school in the village, and at Ayr Academy. He came to Glasgow in 1841, and after a few months in a writer's office, received, in reply to an advertisement, a place in the office of the late William Euing, marine insurance broker. At the same time, in order to learn French, he attended M. de Wolski's class at seven in the morning. At the age of 19 he joined a friend and started as a stockbroker, and succeeded beyond his expectation, but at the end of a year Mr. Euing induced him to return to his office, and gave him a share in the business. In 1857 the firm became William Euing & Co., and in 1882, his senior partners having died, Mr. McCowan became its head. He performed the duties of secretary and treasurer of the Underwriters' Room from 1846 till 1886, but in 1882 declined the offer of the Association of Insurance Brokers and Underwriters to present him with his portrait. He was, however, much against his will, presented with a magnificent epergne; and four years later was elected to the chairmanship of the Association. On this occasion, and again in 1906. the jubilee of his membership, he was presented privately with an illuminated address.
Dr. McCowan always shrank from appearing prominently before the public, but he took, nevertheless, an active interest in the public institutions of the city, and was known as a liberal supporter of many great religious and charitable enterprises. Among other institutions, he was closely connected with the affairs of the Royal Infirmary for many years, and was its treasurer from 1886, taking an active part in the great reconstruction scheme. He took special interest in raising funds for clinical instruction at the great institution, and, as one of the originators, was a governor and the treasurer of St. Mungo's College from its foundation. He was a prominent member of Claremont U.F. Church, and took a strong interest in the affairs of the church generally. He probably did more than anyone else to raise the endowment of £40,000 for the United Presbyterian College, and on more than one occasion he received the thanks of the Synod. For many years he was chairman of the Home Mission Board, and from 1863 he was an active member of the various committees which finally brought about the union with the Free Church in 1900. On that occasion he was made one of the trustees of the United Free Church, and joint-convener of its Sustentation Fund Committee.
He was also for many years chairman of the governors of the Old Men's and Old Women's Home in Rottenrow, and he took an active part in the management of the Merchants' House, the Savings Bank, the Sailors' Home, the Ferguson Trust, Gartnavel Asylum, and many other public institutions. In recognition of these numerous public services, and despite his exceeding modesty, Glasgow University in 1908 conferred on him the degree of LL.D. The honour, however, had to be conferred in absence, as Mr. McCowan was too ill to attend the graduation ceremony, and he died four days later, on 26th April. By his will a large number of public institutions, as well as numerous relatives, friends, and employees, benefited in most substantial fashion. His wife, who died in 1891, was a daughter of the Rev. John Walker of Mauchline.
Index of Glasgow Men (1909)