Thursday, 29 August 2013

James Spreul of Cowden - Making Sense of the Sale

The early Sproules believed that James Spreul, Laird of Cowden in Scotland, was the father of all Tyrone Sproules. The story was that James had sold his estates in Renfrewshire in 1622, moved to Ireland and settled in the townland of Tullymoan, County Tyrone.  The question has to be asked, does this make any sense? Why would a successful Laird, James of Cowden, suddenly sell up and move to an uncertain future in Ireland?

And yet James Spreul definitely sold all of his lands and estates in 1622, and signed away the inheritance of his heirs.1 The sale itself was a total mystery. The Spreuls had been Lairds for hundreds of years, and had expanded their land holdings through Renfrewshire and Dunbartonshire. Selling all of this made no sense! Fred Sproule carefully documented the events leading up to the sale but could find no logical explanation. I believe there is one way to explain this, and that is to accept that James was not the one who wanted to sell at all!

The Customs of the Lairds of Cowden

James Spreul of Cowden was born about 1564, and had inherited his lands in 1589 from his father, John. James Spreul then became Laird of the Cowden estates in Renfrewshire, and also held the lands of Dalchurne and Dalmure in Dunbartonshire. His father had not died, John Spreul was alive and well at the time. There seems to have been an odd custom of Lairds retiring here. James Spreul's father, John, had retired when James got married. The father in turn had also become Laird when his father,Thomas Spreul, had retired.

Renfrewshire, Blaeu Atlas of Scotland 1654

The Role of the Laird

It would seem that the role of Laird was quite arduous! It was the feudal system and the role  involved managing the tenants and ensuring there was sufficient money generated to pay the overlord, the Duke of Lennox. The Laird had to supply arms and men when the Duke of Lennox, went to war.  He also had to raise additional money for the Crown when England and Scotland had one of their many disagreements. There were constant political shifts at this time, and it must have been extremely difficult to keep on the winning side! The Laird had no security of tenure, and could be thrown off the land at a whim by the Lord Duke, or by the Crown.

James of Cowden, however, seemed to have fared well in the role. He had even taken steps to make his situation more secure. In 1597, James had entered into a new landholding arrangement which gave him the title of ‘Fiar’. 3   This meant that he was now a life tenant and had a series of protections. As a Fiar, he was not now obliged to raise armies for the overlord, and he was even more secure than his forefathers.

Why Sell - Why Not Retire?

Why then did he sell? Some suggested that James may have been in dire financial straits. However, when he sold, there appeared to be no others involved – no debtors or mortgages. Equally, he did not sell everything, he gave away the Dalchurne lands to his son-in-law:

“Instruments of sasine on a precept from Ludovick, Duke of Lennox, on a resignation from James Spreull, fiar of Coldoun, of Dalchurne, in favour of John Dennestoun in Kirkmichael, 1st December, 1620” 4   

This was an overly generous gift for the husband of his daughter Margaret. It was not the action of a bankrupt man. It was obviously part of the plan, for just three days after this James began the process of selling all of his remaining estates.

Why did he not retire?  James of Cowden was in his late 50s. James' father had retired a lot younger and his grandfather had also retired.  Why did James sell, rather than hand over to his son, James the Younger?

Making Sense of the Sale

The only way to make sense of the sale,  is to turn our focus from the father to the son, to James Spreul the Younger.

His parents had married in roughly 1588, so by 1620 James the Younger should have been in his late 20s and ready to take on the role of Laird. Was there something amiss with young James? Could James the Elder have doubted his ability? Or is there a very different explanation?  Perhaps James the Younger did not want to take on the challenging role of Laird at all, and he may have had other plans for his future.

The overlord of the Renfrewshire estates was Ludovick Stewart, Duke of Lennox. In the early 1600s Stewart had been allocated some lands in the Plantation areas of Ulster. These were in Portlough, in County Donegal. Stewart held  a comparatively small amount of land here, but other overlords nearby had plenty of land available. For the new leaseholders of this land it was a fresh start, and for someone with money to buy leases, it was a good opportunity.

Plantation Donegal, The Seven Precincts  

The Seller - James the Younger?

My theory is that James the Younger had planned to leave the country and go to Ireland. It was he who wanted the family lands in Scotland to be sold. If this were the case, I am sure that James Spreul of Cowden would have fought the decision. And sure enough, even after the documents were signed, there is plenty of evidence that  James of Cowden regretted the sale. During 1622 he was engaged in many disagreements with the new owner which ended in several court battles.5 He and his brother John even marshalled the tennents to take protest actions against the new laird. James of Cowden was not happy!

But if James the Younger did not want the job of Laird, surely there were other brothers who could have stepped in? Well, no other brother came forward during the sales process and the subsequent disagreements. I would suggest that there are two possible reasons for this:
  1. Either James Spreul the Younger was an only son or
  2. There were other brothers, and they had agreed to share the proceeds of the sale. With shares in the sale, they too could set off to the new world in Ireland with money in their pockets.

The Most Logical Explanation

I believe the “James Spreul went to Ireland” story is the most feasible explanation for the sale of the Cowden estates. It all fits. However, it was not the Fiar who went, for James the Elder simply wanted to retire. It was his son, James Spreul former heir to the Cowden estates, who ventured to Ireland, possibly accompanied by his brothers. They went initially to the estates of their overlord, Ludovick Stewart, the Lord Duke of Lennox in Donegal.

And it is there that we will find them!


For More Information:

  1. The First Sproules in Ulster
  2. The Original Version of the Tyrone Sproules, Back on the Table!
  3. James Spreul of Cowden - Making Sense of the Sale
  4. James of Cowden - and Tullymoan?
  5. Three Scottish Brothers Moving East to Tyrone
  6. Sproules in the Hearth Money Rolls of 1665


Thanks to the great work of Fred Sproule on the Spreuls of Renfrewshire which was recorded in his unpublished book “A Sproule Family of Ireland and Canada”. Thanks again to Ryan Sproule for forwarding this Fred's work.

1  Sproule Charters – Dundonald, p. 5, Section VI, Item 54.
2 Sproule Charters – Dundonald, p. 5, Section VI, Item 52.
3 Pitcairn, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 438.
Sproule Charters – Smollett, p. 188, Items 13 & 14.
5 Sproule Charters – Dundonald, p. 5, Sec. VII, Items 63, 64 and 65 

Ulster Plantation Map from Donegal Plantation 400 Years, by Ulster Scots Community Network

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The Original Version of the Tyrone Sproules, Back on the Table!

The Sproules of the 1700s had a story about the origin of the family in Tyrone. It had nothing to do with the Robert Spreul who is buried in Castlederg. It was a very precise, and a very definite story, with a name, a place and a date. It was handed down by word-of-mouth in the first few generations of settlers and was, thankfully, recorded by John Inch in the 1820s. John Inch's mother was a Sproule, he was born in 1795 and he left Ireland in 1818. All of his information came directly from family members prior to the 1820s. His version was:

“In 1622 James Spreul (last of the Spreuls of Cowden) sold his estate to the father of the first Lord Cowden and Earl of Dundonald, went to Ireland and settled at Tullymoan, County Tyrone.” 1

Tullymoan, Home of the First Sproules?

The early Sproules believed that the first settler was James Spreul, a fiar from Cowden in Renfrewshire in Scotland, and that he settled in the townland of Tullymoan, Urney, County Tyrone in 1622. Tullymoan is the home of my line of Sproules, and this is the family I am researching. 

The Tullymoan story was still the popular version of the Sproule origin right through to the end of the 1800s. Jack Elder, who did amazing work recording the different branches of the Sproules, also believed this version and put it in the introduction of his Sproule family history of 1890:

“James Spreul [Sproule?] sold his estate of Cowdon in 1622, crossed over to Ireland and settled at Tullymoan, Co. Tyrone.  It was said that he was the ancestor of all the County Tyrone Sproules, good, bad and indifferent.” 

The Demise of the First Version

Renfrewshire in Scotland 1600s
How did this version get lost? As it happens, it was down to Jack Elder himself! Elder researched James Spreul of Cowden, and was initially happy that the story must be true. There was indeed a James Spreul of Cowden (or Coldoun) in Renfrewshire in Scotland. James Spreul had come from a long line of Spreuls going back to the thirteenth century. It is also true that James sold all of his leases and properties in 1622, the same year that was identified in the family story.  

However, Jack Elder later found evidence against the theory that James Spreul had come to Ireland and was the origin of the Tyrone Sproules. He had found a quotation in a book entitled "History of Renfrewshire" (1710) regarding James Spreul that said, "in his person this family failed."  Elder interpreted this to mean that James of Cowden had no children, and therefore the story that he was the father of all the Tyrone Sproules had to be untrue. 

Robert - The Alternative Version

The Tullymoan story then lost favour, and was replaced by the alternative version. This said that Robert Spreul came from Renfrewshire in the 1650s and that all Tryone Sproules came from him. This version has one major flaw, they spread too quickly! There were an awful lot of Sproules leasing an awful lot of land in very different parts of West Tyrone in the early 1700s. Robert would have to produced a multitude of very affluent sons who didn't want to live anywhere near each other!

Sproules in Tullymoan in the 1600s

There were two things that struck me when I first read the ‘James of Cowden coming to Tullymoan’ version. I am researching the Tullymoan Sproules, so of course this story was very exciting for me. True or not, I felt that the story had given me some good clues!  

Firstly, the Tullymoan Sproules must have been living there on the farm in the 1600s. They didn't appear on records that I have found so far, but they had to have been there. John Inch had this version of the story in 1818, and it was passed from his parents and grandparents. John Inch’s grandparents must have been certain that there were Sproules in Tullymoan in the 1600s in order to support the James Spreul family story. If the Sproules were more recent arrivals in Tullymoan, the local folk of the late 1700s would certainly have killed the story dead!

Equally, if the Tullymoan Sproules were just a branch of another Sproule family, the local folk would have been quick to identify them. Both John Inch and Jack Elder agreed that the Tullymoan Sproules did not fit with any other family.

Could there be truth in the James Spreul of Cowden story?

The Fact that Re-ingnites the Story

To re-open the original version and put it back on the table as a possible theory, we simply need to prove that James of Cowden had children. This is where another of my fellow Sproule family historians comes into the limelight!  

Scottish Lowland Farm 1690
Fred Sproule in the1900s made it his life’s work to find the origin of the Sproules.3 He actually believed the Robert version, and went to find Robert’s family in Renfrewshire.  Armed with the information from the gravestone in Castlederg, Robert’s death in 1869 and his wife Jean Denniston's in 1712, Fred ploughed through the documents in Scotland. Despite amazingly thorough research tracing the entire family of Spreuls in Cowden and others in Renfrewshire, Fred Sproule failed to find Robert’s origin. There was no family history into which this Robert Spreul nor his wife Jean Denniston could fit. I believe there is a very good reason for that! 

What Fred did find, however, was proof that James Spreul of Cowden definitely had at least one son! 

James Spreul son of James of Cowden

On the very day James Spreul signed away his Cowden estates, there were several other documents that were also signed. Each of these were to ensure that the sale would go through without objection. The heir, if there was one, would have definite grounds to object as his inheritance was being sold. Therefore, it was important to get the heir to sign his agreement to the sale, which he did!

“Ratification by James Spreule, son and apparent heir of James Spreule, fiar of Coldoune, of his father’s disposition and alienation of the said five pound land of Coldoune to Sir George Elphistoun; dated 2nd April 1622”.

James of Cowden had a son also called James. Fred Sproule states that this “should put to rest the claim of some secondary sources that James Spreule, Sr., was the last male of the Sproule family of Coldoun.”

There was one more important finding by Fred Sproule. Despite continuing to research the Spreul families of Renfrewshire into the 1800s, Fred could find no record of James of Cowden, nor of his son James, after the date of signing. They were gone.

This puts the Tullymoan version right back on the table!

For More Information:

  1. The Grave of Robert Spreull (1628 -1689)
  2. James Spreul of Cowden - Making Sense of the Sale
  3. James of Cowden - and Tullymoan?
  4. Three Scottish Brothers Moving East to Tyrone
  5. Sproules in the Hearth Money Rolls of 1665


1  The Inch family of Ulster, Ireland, and New Brunswick, Canada,  James Robert Inch, b. 1835, Family History Books on FamilySearch
2  Extract of Letter from Jack Elder, Ont., Canada to J.F. Caldwell, Belfast, Sunday, April 1, 1928; PRONI T1264/3; CMSIED 9804826 

3  “A Sproule Family of Ireland and Canada” unpublished book by Albert Frederick Sproule, thanks to Ryan Sproule for forwarding Fred’s great work.

4   Sproule Charters – Dundonald, p. 6, Section VII, Item 67.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The First Sproules in Ulster

Was Robert Spreull, who was buried in the Castlederg Cemetery in 1689, the first Sproule settler in Ireland? This was certainly the belief of some early family historians. They said that Robert came from Renfrewshire in Scotland in the 1650s with his wife and sons, he settled in Tyrone and the Sproules spread from there.  These Sproule family historians were, coincidentally, all from Tyrone themselves, so they were understandably a little biased!

Now, thanks to the great work of transcribers and the wonders of the internet, we have much more data available. We can see clearly that Robert was far from the first, and that there were many more families of Sproule settlers than any of these early family historians had imagined.

The Earliest Sproule Records

The earliest records of Sproules in Ireland are in the Muster Rolls of 1630. The Muster Roll was a list of all able bodied men who were fit to fight in a war.  There was one Sproule in the Muster of Donegal in 1630:
·    James Spreull in the Barony of Raphoe on the land of  “The Lord Duke of Lynox”. James had one sword.
Raphoe parish is very near to County Tyrone. However, there was another Sproule recorded in a quite different part of Ulster:
·    Claudius Sprowell in The Barony of Keenaght on the land of Thomas Phillips, of Limavady

Twelve years later in 1642, there was another Muster in Donegal, and now we have two Sproules there. They were both in the same parish of Raphoe:
·     In Sir Robert Stewart's Company mustered at Raphoe is Private Robert Sprowle.
·     In James Hamilton's Company also mustered at Raphoe, Private James Sprule.

The Sproules in the Hearth Money Rolls

The Hearth Money Rolls was a tax in 1665  based on the number of hearths in a household. It gives us a much better picture than the Muster Rolls and it reveals a very surprising pattern of Sproules in Ulster!

In 1665 there were already at least 15 households of Sproules, and they are spread across the northern counties of Ulster in the following clusters:

Sproule Family Groups in Ulster 1665
1.     Clondermot Parish in the townland of Gortin, four households. The Sproules have obviously been here for some time.  This is the New Buildings area of County Derry / Londonderry. 

2.     The Town of Belfast, four households, again a well established group

3.     Ballymoney Parish in Antrim, the townland of Bravallen – there are two households

4.     Raphoe Parish – two households. Archibold  in Lismontigly  and John Sproul in Stranorlughan

5.     Mevagh Parish, this is round the town of Carrigart in the north of Donegal. John Spruel of Glanree and Jennett Spruel, widow, of Glanree

6.     Kirkinriola Parish in Antrim, on the Ballymena Estate, one household

7.     Ardstraw Parish in Tyrone, in the townland of Lissaleen, now Lisleen, we have one household, that of one Robert Spreull.

Non-paying Sproules

Even this is not a complete picture, as many folk were successful in avoiding paying the Hearth tax. A good example of this is when we look at Limavady, where there was a Sproule in the first Muster of 1630. This Sproule family does not appear on the Hearth tax, and yet there is good evidence that they were still there.  There was a will recorded in 1705 for a Margaret Sproull, from Rafad in the Parish of Aghanloe. Aghanloe is a townland on the outskirts of Limavady.

Conclusion - The Early Sproules

What we can definitely say is that there were at least seven separate families of Sproule settlers who established themselves in the early 1600s. They were spread across the northern counties of Ulster and they were a much more diverse group that was previously thought. They were not just leasing or owning land, they were also moving into towns.

In Tyrone, where my family originated, the first Sproule who appeared on record was indeed Robert Spreull in 1665. Robert lived at that time in Lissaleen, now Lisleen, in the parish of Ardstraw. 

Where did Robert of Lisleen come from? Was it directly from Scotland or was it possible that he came from one of the more established Ulster family groups? Was he the only Tyrone Sproule in 1665 or were there others who did not appear on the Hearth Tax?  Robert was certainly my ancestor, on one side of my family. On the other side are the Tullymoan Sproules, when did they arrive? These are some of the questions which I will explore in the next posts.

Thanks to:

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The Grave of Robert Spreull (1628 -1689)

Robert Spreull, who died in 1689, is thought by many Sproule family historians to be the original Sproule settler in Tyrone. His gravestone in Castlederg was recorded in old family histories but the stone itself was thought to be long gone.  Last week the great folk of the Castlederg & District Family History Society assured me that the grave still existed, and guided me straight to it.

The Importance of Robert's Grave

The gravestone of Robert Spreull was for a long time the earliest record of a Sproule presence in County Tyrone. Because of this, most Sproule family historians believed that all branches of the Sproules in Tyrone were descended from this single ancestor. I am not so sure about that, but I will go into this in a later post. 

Indeed, some stories have gone as far as suggesting that this Robert and his brother Captain John Sproule were the ancestors of all of the Sproules in Ireland. This is definitely not the case, as there is plenty of evidence of earlier Sproules, and of several different Sproule families rather than just one. However, Robert Spreull is certainly a vital part of the Tyrone Sproule story.

The Gravestone in Castlederg

The grave lies in a beautiful old churchyard in Castlederg, County Tyrone. The first thing that is striking is that it is a double grave. The stone to the right is Robert, but the stone to the left is also a Sproule grave. The wording on the second stone seems to be gone, but it is worth further visits to explore this.

The Wording on the Gravestone

The gravestone of Robert Spreull is crumbling in places and the wording is fading or missing. It has been recorded in the past as:

Another version was taken thirty years ago when all of the gravestones in this churchyard were recorded in order to preserve the information. The wording was then noted as:

Here lyeth the body of Robert Sproule departed this life …day of September DM 1689 in the year of his age 61 Here also lyeth the body of Jean Deniston wife of the said Robert who departed this life the 8 Day of September D.M. 1712 in the year of her age 81.

On the day we visited, only the last line became much clearer:


This line was actually very easy to read, and looked as if it had been added much later. It is interesting also that this line has the more accepted spelling of the name, whereas the main text has the Spreull spelling. This supports the idea that the last line was written at a different time period. It is likely that two unmarried sons were interred in this grave, possibly named Andrew and Alexander, and that their names were added after the death of Jean.

Key Facts

The key facts gleaned from this stone are:
·         Robert Spreull was born in 1628 and he died in September 1689 aged 61
·         Jean Deniston was born in 1631 and died on 8th September 1712 aged 81

Thanks to:

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Mystery of the Children - A Sign of the Times?

I had discovered that my great grandfather, James Sproule of Tullymoan, had an older brother, William John Sproule. On researching William John, one of the first things I learnt about him was that he had died in 1839, aged approximately 28 years.1  Now this gave me a bit of a jolt because this was now the fourth adult child of my great, great grandparents who had died between 1833 and 1839! What could have happened?

These were not young children. The other three were girls, aged between twenty and thirty.  The girls had all died at home on the farm in Tullymoan, Urney, County Tyrone.1 This land was rich and productive, and it should have been a healthy environment.  The generation before this, and the generation following this, were all raised on the same farm and most of them lived long and healthy lives.  Was there something in Ireland of the 1830s that might have contributed to the deaths of Catherine, Margaret, Matilda and William John Sproule?

Life in Pre-famine Ireland

The 1830s was just before the famine in Ireland and life had changed dramatically. The population had exploded. In 1754 the population of Ireland was a tiny 2.3 million. Fifty years later in 1800, it had more than doubled to between 4.5 and 5 million. In the 1821 census it was recorded as 6.8 million and by 1841 it was 8.1 million. It had quadrupled in less than one hundred years! The vast majority of people still lived in abject poverty, and with this population explosion came hunger and the rapid spread of disease. 2

The Cholera Pandemic

At the end of 1832 there came an epidemic that hit rich and poor alike. The cholera pandemic had started in India, it spread across Europe and it first appeared in Ireland in mid 1832. The effect here was devastating. By 1833, it had spread to every corner of the country and had claimed some 60,000 lives. Catherine Sproule, aged 30, died on the 4th January 1833 at her home in Tullymoan, right in the middle of this cholera epidemic. 3 

The Contribution of Irish Traditions

Ireland had its own endemic diseases that could spread easily in this overpopulated country. People were on the move, there were transient workers who were both adults and children.  The Sproule farm in County Tyrone would certainly have employed people to work on the land and in the kitchen. We also had the tradition in rural Ireland of visiting with neighbours in the evenings, attending the sick, and of course the whole townland came to the wake of the departed.  Disease spread easily.

All classes became vulnerable to outbreaks of cholera, whooping-cough, typhus, dysentery, influenza, small pox and measles. Any one of these diseases might have caused the death of Margaret Sproule in February 1835 and Matilda who died in April 1838.

William John and the Dispensary

William John, son of Andrew and Rebecca Sproule, had gone to Glasgow University where he qualified as a doctor in 1834. Doctor William John immediately got a position in the dispensary at Dunfanaghy, County Donegal.  These local dispensaries had been set up to help the poor in Ireland at that time.  They were funded by local subscriptions, so occurred only in areas that could afford them and they were generally badly run.4 By the mid 1830s some of these local dispensaries were staffed by qualified doctors, and Doctor William John Sproule was one of these.

Two years after leaving college in 1836 William John married Ellen Ramsay of Letterkenny, and just over two years after that, Doctor William John Sproule had died. On the 8th January 1839, William John became the fourth of these Sproule children to die.

The Result of Disease – or the Cause?

William John was at the coal face, working with people with highly contagious diseases and it is not really surprising that he died at such a young age.  Indeed, there were many priests, ministers and doctors of that time who suffered a similar fate.

The other problem was that those tending to the sick were carrying the diseases home to their families. William John’s two older sisters had both died after he had begun working in the Dunfanaghy dispensary.  Could his efforts to help the sick have been the cause of this family’s grief? That is a sad thought, and I hope it is not so. 

The Big Wind

Indeed, William John may not have died in that way at all, he might have been injured in the Big Wind. On January 6th 1839 a hurricane swept across Ireland causing devastation throughout the country. It is famous in Irish lore, many of the old ones talked in terms of before the Big Wind or after the Big Wind. Dunfanaghy, where William John was doctor, is a wild coastal place in the far north of Ireland, and it would have been very exposed on the night of January 6th when the hurricane struck. William John died just two days later in the home of his father-in-law in Letterkenny.

I have no definite answers, but what I do know is that Andrew and Rebecca Sproule had suffered great loss. They had seen these four children survive childhood, only to lose them all as young adults. There were many in Ireland in the same position at that time, and it was indeed a sign of those times - and of worse times to come.

1 From entries in The Strabane Morning Post 1812 – 1837 and The Londonderry Sentinel 1829 – 1869
2 Pre-famine Emmigration, Irish Ancestors, Irish Times
3 The Cholera Epidemic in Ireland, 1832-3: Priests, Ministers, Doctors; Hugh Fenning;  Archivium Hibernicum, Vol. 57, (2003), pp. 77-125
4 The Sick in Pre-Famine Ireland: Charity and the State, Laurence M. Geary, University College Cork