'Auld Staney Breeks'

A smug stone figure, capably crafted by 17th-century Master Mason John Mill, peers proudly down from the plinth above the entrance to John Cowane’s Hospital – an almshouse of sorts, built to provide shelter for members of the Merchants’ Guild who had fallen on hard times. The statue itself – an effigy of the Hospital’s founder, Master John Cowane – is said to be haunted: possessed by his spirit upon the stroke of midnight each Hogmanay, tradition insists, it leaps from it’s ledge as the New Year begins, and dances through the streets in search of female.John Cowane, Auld Staney Breeks

Town Councillor (or Baillie), a merchant, a banker, Dean of Guild, Commissioner to the Scots Parliament – most of what we know of Cowane relates, first and foremost, to his working life. His brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all active in local politics: a distinguished merchant family, known for its unorthodox business practices – John, himself, funding a number of his more speculative ventures by hiring pirates to plundered booty from foreign ships. ‘Hostile take-overs’ were a little more literal, back then.

What little we do know about his private life we discover by ‘following the money’. His family was very well connected; his father leasing his home, the now ruinous Cowane’s House in St Mary’s Wynd, to the Regent Morton, grandfather to the infant James VI, when he was resident in the Burgh. That John was, himself, a friend to King James in later life is clear from the private entrance the King had constructed, at his own expense, allowing the Merchant access to the neighbouring Royal Stables from his home.

And then there are fines paid to the ‘Buttock Mail’ – fines, levied by the Kirk Session for sexual indiscretions. A ‘Buttock’ in 17th-century Scots slang was a woman of easy virtue, and ‘Mail’ is simply monies to be paid (as in ‘Blackmail’). In Cowane’s case – twice in Stirling (that we can confirm), and several times elsewhere – the fines were made for seducing and leaving pregnant servant girl in the employ of other Merchants!

His first (recorded) fine for fornication was £6 Scots - and an appointment to sit upon the Penance Stool in the Holy Rude Church upon the ‘nixt sex [6] sermon days’, that the whole Burgh might see his shame and show him scorn. Three sittings was the standard penalty, so at twice that tariff this was probably not John’s ‘first offence’.

The girls were also fined...and banished from the Burgh on pain of death, should they ever be so foolish as to return! Politicians really don't change much over the years!Cowane's Hospital, Auld Staney Breeks

Cowane never married, and, having no heirs – legitimate ones, anyway - bequeathed the bulk of his estate - 40,000 Scots Merks (around £2222 Sterling – a huge sum for that era) - to endow an almshouse for the ‘succour of 12 decayed Gildbrothers’ – Cowane’s Hospital, constructed between 1637 and 1649. The long delay in completing this tiny building being explained by two ‘visitations’ of the Plague, though it was not to serve it’s intended purpose for almost another decade after that. In 1651 Cromwell’s Roundhead army occupied the Burgh – ensuring Scotland’s loyalty to their cause at the barrel of a gun – and seized the Hospital as quarters for its officers.

Much of the stonework having been fashioned from the ruins of the long-abandoned Cambuskenneth Abbey, later local gossips sneered that this blasphemous desecration was the cause of delays in construction, visitation and English occupation.

Pensioners of the Hospital were provided with 40 Scots Shillings, shelter, a bed to sleep in and a daily shovel-full of coal to keep them warm, but were forbidden female company – an ironic requirement, given their great benefactor’s reputation with the fair sex.

The statue and the 'party spirit' said to inhabit it each Hogmanay are both known locally as ‘Auld Staney Breeks’ . In the polite parlance of Victorian Stirling this – of course – referred to the dirty state of the paintwork on Cowane’s old stone trousers (‘breeks’). More couthy locals, though, have never been in any doubt as to the true meaning of the nickname: a reminder to all that (if they are not careful how they conduct themselves in this world they may well still be washing their dirty laundry in the next.


The Cowane Trust, which continues to manage its benefactor’s estate, is still based within the building.

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