May 1633


John Cowane dies. A wealthy man, he leaves 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 which he leaves for the establishment of a hospital/almshouse to provide for twelve decayed (elderly) guild brethren.

May 1637


John Cowane’s brother Alexander acts as his executor and signs the Hospital’s Deed of Foundation. The royal master mason John Mylne is appointed to design the Hospital and master-mason John Rynd begins the construction. Building proceeds throughout the troubled period of the mid -17th century when a series of conflicts affected Scotland and work is halted at various times notably by an outbreak of plague in 1645. The Hospital may not have been fully completed until 1661.
The Hospital occupies a key site in the historic heart of Stirling, close to the castle and adjacent to the Church of the Holy Rude, the Old Town Jail and the Mercat Cross. Over the years, the building has many uses including a barracks, a school and a lawyers’ library. In 1650, it is commandeered by Cromwell’s troops besieging the castle.

May 1650


The statue of John Cowane sculpted by Mylne and William Ayton is added to the niche in the building’s tower. The statue is affectionately known as ‘Auld Staneybreeks’ and is said to come to life and dance in the courtyard at Hogmanay. The statue has recently been removed from the niche for the first time since 1650 to undergo conservation work. It will return to the Hospital in September/October, 2019.

May 1712


Improvements to the gardens are ordered and Thomas Harlaw, gardener to the Earl of Mar, is appointed to draw up plans for the site. A bowling green is subsequently laid out, surrounded by a balustrade, terraces and Dutch-style parterres of box hedging with herbs and flowers.

May 1724


The strict Hospital rules discourage pensioners from taking up residency and the Trust starts to support pensioners in their own home. At this time and until the present day, the building becomes the principal meeting place for Stirling’s Merchant Guild.

May 1832



The building is pressed into service as an isolation hospital during a cholera epidemic which killed around one-third of Stirling’s population. This is one of the few times in its history that the building is actually used as a hospital.

May 1852


The architect Francis Mackison transforms the interior of the Hospital into a grand Guild Hall with a gothic ceiling, timber galleries and panelling and stained glass windows. The exterior of the building remains largely unchanged.

May 1965


Cowane’s Hospital including the lamp stands, terraces and boundary walls are granted Category A listed status. The Hospital is considered by Historic Scotland to be a “a rare survival of 17th century burgh architecture and one of the finest buildings of its kind in Scotland”.

May 1996


The bowling green ceases to be used.
In recent years, the Hospital has been available for hosting local and national events, community hires, artists’ studios and a vibrant café.

May 2000


The Hospital building begins to deteriorate.

May 2012


The terrace, Dutch parterre and bowling green are added to the Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes. The gardens are considered a “rare survival” of an institutional garden of the 17th century.

April 2019

April 2019

A major conservation project to restore the Hospital to its former glory begins.

Help maintain our historic building for generations to come


Additional Information

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.

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The Merchant Guildry of Stirling officially began in 1226 when King Alexander II granted a charter to the Guildry of the town. There had been an association of men of commerce for over a hundred years before this which had attributed to the laws of King David I for the four burghs of Edinburgh, Roxburgh, Berwick and Stirling. The Scottish Merchant Guilds consider a charter granted by David II (son of Robert the Bruce) in 1364 as the foundation of their privileges:

“…. granted to our well-beloved Burgesses of Scotland the free liberty of buying and selling within the Privelledges of their own Burghs, and to prevent any other from buying or selling within the said Privelledges without leave asked and given….”

By 1699, the Guildry allowed unfreemen (non-burgesses) to trade within the burgh or to merchandise upon payment of either a capital sum as a life payment or an annual sum.

A merchant was someone who bought and sold goods. A craftsman both manufactured and sold goods having bought the raw materials. The merchant was considered a more aristocratic class as he did not work with his hands even though craftsmen were often wealthier. The leading trade incorporations of Stirling were the Hammermen, Skinners, Bakers, Weavers, Tailors, Fleshers and Shoemakers. They bound themselves together in a body know as the Seven Incorporated Trades. The  discord between the merchants and craftsmen was the chief feature of burgh life in the 15th and 16th centuries. All of these disputes ended with the Burgh Trading Act of 1846 which abolished all of the privileges and restrictions of both the gild brethren and the craftsmen.

The Guildry Oath

You will heir promeis and swear

  1. That you sall in all tyme cuming during your lyftyme be ane faithfull gildbrither to the deane of gild an hail brethren within this burgh present and to come.
  2. And that you sall not pack nor peill with unfriemen in prejudice of the trade in any time heireftir.
  3. And that you sall not conqueis, buy or purches any lordschip over the deane of gild and brethren or against them in na tyme coming to yr prejudice.

The Stirling Guildry had a well organised system of apprenticeship and apprentices had a recognised place in the Guild. On expiry of an attested Indenture to which they were bound, they had the privilege of entry into the Guild on reduced terms.

Discipline – the Guildry enforced discipline among the members and any disobedience to the Dean was severely punished. There was also a close connection between the Guild and the church. The Guild assisted in enforcing church attendance with contraveners being fined. Members of the Guild were part of the defensive force of the town and part of the national military organisation although they often made a pecuniary contribution rather than be called up for military service.

The Guildry Ring – Tradition says that the ring was given to the Guild circa 1365 by King David II when the Charter granted by King Alexander II was confirmed. It was first recorded in 1630 when John Cowane, Dean of Guild passed it to his successor. The ring is kept in an Edinburgh bank for safekeeping and is gold set with five jewels in the form of a cross. It is inscribed “YIS FOR YE DEINE OF GEILD OF STIRLING”.  A replica of the ring is attached to the Dean’s Chain of Office.

The Reverse 4 Symbol – The Stirling Guildry adopted the old merchant’s mark of a reversed figure 4 as their emblem in the mid 19th century as a symbol of honesty and fair dealing between merchants. The symbol itself is of great antiquity but it has no particular association with Stirling and has had much wider use than merely a merchant’s mark and can be seen on a wide range of objects including the walls and fonts of churches; stained glass windows; carved panels on buildings and gravestones. In the old churchyard in Stirling it can be seen on 25 tombstones, the oldest dating from 1511.

In 1661 the Hospital Masters “caus level the yaird of the said hospital and make a walking green thereof and plant it about with plain trees and the like, and to pavement the close and outwalke (terrace) with hewin stones” A gardener was appointed in 1667 and flowers and fruit trees flourished. A hedge of “300 thornes” was planted in 1670 on the north and east sides. Visible traces of rectangular plots can be seen on an1997 aerial photograph suggesting that beds typical of the late 17th century may lie under the present bowling green. In 1673 a sundial was set up.

In 1701 the ballasters in the high walk (upper terrace) were erected and trees and plants including walnut, apricots, peaches and double yellow roses were brought from Holland. Little regard was given to the growing conditions in Scotland which meant that some of the plants were planted in baskets that could be moved indoors over the winter months. In 1707, Sir Robert Sibbald testified that Cowane’s Hospital had a “very fine garden adjoining to it.” In 1712, Thomas Harlaw, gardener to the Earl of Mar, was paid £25 to design the garden and in 1713 was paid for directing the levelling of the Hospital yards for a bowling green. The formal layout of the garden dates from this time and may be compared to the plans for the Earl of Mar’s “Great Garden” at Alloa. Work also involved re-siting the sundial and making up new borders and the new parterre garden.

A parterre meaning “on the ground” was fashionable in the 16th and 17th century and is designed to create compartments or beds surrounded by box hedging similar to the pattern of a Persian carpet. It is infilled with colourful bedding plants and coloured gravels or sands. Over time the plantings at Cowane’s changed from purely medicinal herbs such as thyme, hyssop, wormwood, chamomile, rue, sage and lavender to garden flowers such as marigolds, gilly flowers (pinks), hellebores, anemone blanda, forget-me-nots, pansies, stocks, hardy geraniums and mixed hardy annuals. Later in the 18th century, standard roses, small topiary trees of holly or yew clipped into ornamental shapes gave height and interest as a central focus to the parterre beds. In 1746 features of the parterre garden can be seen on a Board of Ordnance map by Dougal Campbell.

In 1779 stringent rules had to be drawn up to prevent “all and sundry” (boys and maidservants) from making a thoroughfare of the garden.

In 1842 (and 1936), the Guildry gathered on the green with clergy, magistrates and town councillors for royal visits. When Cowane’s Hospital was transformed into a Guildhall in 1852, the garden reflected this change. With the terrace for viewing, it offered a quiet place
for the public to enjoy a game of bowls, the military band, or the Highland Society dancing festivals. A fine setting for a civic ceremony, civic pride led to the installation of further garden furnishings including two Crimean cannons exhibited in the garden, a fountain and a flagpole to attract tourists. At this time, the garden provided cultural and recreational activities where “numbers of the beauty and the fashion of the town and neighbourhood are to be found promenading”.

In 1946 Cowane’s parterre garden came under threat as the bowling club sought to enlarge the green for its official games. The Ministry of Works objected that any encroachment would cause the sundial to be removed and “adversely affect the historic features of the buildings and the amenity of the garden”. Finally, in 1986, after prolonged pressure from the bowling club, the bowling green was allowed to extend into the parterre. Thankfully, not all of the parterre was lost.

In 2012, the garden was recognised as a rare example of a 17th century Dutch influenced garden in Scotland and was added to the Inventory of Gardens and Designated Landscapes.

The bowling green is thought to be the one of the oldest in Scotland and the garden is the sole remaining connection with a major 18th century landscape project in Scotland – the great garden of the Earl of Mar at Alloa. That garden has disappeared but Cowane’s Hospital Garden survives commemorating both Thomas Harlaw, its landscape gardener and John Cowane.

The Gardens have recently been listed by Historic Scotland in their Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland.  To view the Historic Scotland listings follow these links:

Inventory of Gardens and Designated Landscapes 2012
Cowane’s Hospital Sundial

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