John Cowane still keeps an eye on the almshouse that bears his name – his statue, known as Auld Staneybreaks, looks down on the courtyard from a niche in its tower.
Stirling’s most generous benefactor was born around 1570 in the family home at the foot of St Mary’s Wynd which is now known as John Cowane’s House. The ruin of the house can still be seen. John Cowane was descended from a family of Stirling merchants who had been trading with the Dutch since the early 16th century. His grandfather supplied the royal court of James V at Stirling Castle. He was well educated, attending the grammar school (now the Portcullis Hotel) and started his apprenticeship in his father’s booth on Broad Street. He became a successful and wealthy merchant, served on the town council, was a commissioner to the convention of royal burghs, was elected Dean of Guild and sat in the Parliament of Scotland. He also ventured into money lending, invested in shipping and was a substantial landlord in the burgh. Some say he indulged in a little piracy.
Although John Cowane never married, the Kirk of Session of the Holy Rude Kirk recorded that in 1611 he was fined £6 for fathering an illegitimate son. The mother was also fined and forced to do public penance – an indignity John bought himself out of. Little else is known of his personal life, except that he lived in the family home with his sister Agnes.
On his deathbed in 1633, John Cowane left sums of money to numerous charitable causes, including 500 merks to the Church of the Holy Rude. The largest bequest was the 40,000 merks left for the building of ‘ane hospital or almshous’ within the burgh of Stirling to provide for ‘twelve decayed (elderly) guild brethren’ allowing them to live rent free in their old age.