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


  1. Interesting post! We also have some Scots that went to Ireland, but later than yours - around 1725. They came from the Dumfriesshire area of Scotland and my "branch" had land in Kirkmichael, which you mention in your quote. I'm trying to connect my line that came to the U.S. via Ireland with the Kirkmichael Kirkpatricks (Kirkpatrick is my maiden name) and it is not easy! Good luck with your search.

  2. Hi Dawn, Thanks for your comment. Our ancestors were neighbours it seems! Do you know where in Ireland your folks were? Good luck with your search too!

  3. Just wondering if you've discounted Kirsty Wilkinson's speculation that Cowden was seized for non-payment of debts, and along with being declared rebels and charged with witchcraft the Sproules were obliged to leave Scotland? (See

    1. Hi Philip,
      Thanks for contacting. No I had not seen Kirsty's summary of the researh. I believe the arguments that James of Cowdon had occurred after the sale of his lands. Other researchers speculate that he regretted the sale and was making life difficult for the new owner!