"A Cowie by any other Name"

Mother was a COWIE, born in Wiltshire, in the south of England. A forthright name, but vaguely distasteful to a young child, with its whiff of farmyard activities. Her parents' families were originally from County Durham: grandfather Richard COWIE was raised in a place with the strange name of Hetton-le-Hole. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, mother used to insist that her family had once been Scots. As evidence, there was the village of Cowie in Scotland, just a few miles north of ours; and a river in Kincardine-shire of the same name. Proof enough, to our young minds, that we were on her home turf.

Hetton-le-Hole was not a place we ever visited on our family trips south of the border. The reason is plain enough: it was dedicated to the winning of coal, with all its grime and attendant human misery. Living as we were close to the Lanarkshire coalfield, there would have been little appeal in exchanging one set of pit-head spoil-heaps for another. "Hetton" remained a closed book, and so did the COWIE family's story.

A couple of years ago, we started to gather together the family papers. The first thing I noticed was Richard COWIE's baptism certificate -- his name was spelled "COWEY". I knew that spelling variations were common in 18th century records, when there was more illiteracy. The year (1881) seemed rather late for this sort of thing, but I assumed that it was just a whim of the minister or parish clerk.

Via the Northumberland & Durham Surname Interest pages, I made contact with Jim Wallace of the local Family History Society (NDFHS), who located my family in the Hetton records. Through him, I then made contact with Raymond Cowey, who lives in Scotland, and traces his surname back to the same part of the Durham coalfield. His web page shows that the surname has been common in the area around Hetton for at least 200 years. Significantly, the usual spelling is "COWEY".

What's in a couple of letters? As the generations began to emerge from the Durham records (every one a coal miner), I didn't see much consistency in the choice of spelling:

First Name Name on Birth/ Baptism Certificate Name on Marriage Certificate
Richard 1881 COWIE 1910 COWIE
Edward 1862 COWIE 1880 COWIE
Nicholas (#1) 1839 COWEY 1860 COWEY
Nicholas (#2) ???? 1825 COWEY

Another researcher joined our "team" -- Pamela Huddleston, who is descended from the same Nicholas as myself (#2). For months, names and dates flashed back and forth across the Internet, as we all studied one parish after another, looking for the next generation. But Nicholas #2 was nowhere to be found.

The breakthrough came in a roundabout way. A letter, written by Richard COWIE about 1934, speaks of a certain Obadiah COWIE, colliery manager. Such an uncommon name might be a helpful link, but we could find no birth record. Then, casting around for any Obadiah born in Durham, I stumbled on Obadiah STOREY, baptized 27 October 1811 at Chester-le-Street. The parish register reports him as the first, illegitimate, son of Mary STOREY of Urpeth, parish of Washington. Since we knew that she had married Robert COWEY in Washington on 7 February 1814, it was fair to conclude that Obadiah had grown up using Robert's surname.

The 1841 and 1851 census returns show Obadiah living with his father Robert: the interesting part is that Robert was recorded as being born in Scotland. Living nearby was John COWIE, one year younger than Robert, also born in Scotland. The 1851 census is more precise: both men were born in "Fifeshire" -- surely brothers. The time had come to search the Scottish records.

Click! John, son of Nicholas COWIE and Mary LITTLEJOHN, was baptized 9 January 1791 at Dunfermline, Fife. Having no luck with his brother Robert's baptism, it occurred to me to search by his mother's name. Click! Robert, son of Nicol COWAN and Mary LITTLEJOHN, baptized 25 April 1789 at Dunfermline. Up too came the parents' marriage: Nicholas COWEN and Mary LITTLEJOHN, 12 September 1788, also at Dunfermline. There was confirmation, too, that Nicholas/Nicol was a coal miner. However, the best news of all came from an unexpected location -- Muirkirk, in Ayrshire. Nicholas, son of Nicholas COWAN and Marion LITTLEJOHN, was baptized 6 September 1801 at the Irondale Inn, Hillhead of Glenbuck. Here were the missing ancestors.

So the question now is: "Are we COWIE or COWAN? (or, should I say "COWEY or COWEN"?). Does it matter? Hardly. But, if we knew the answer, it might just help us climb the next rung on the family tree. Because it's starting to look as if this family may have lived previously in County Durham ... But that will be a later story.

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