Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 1: Edinburgh 1910-1913

Something inside brings out the interest track

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

Ian McTaggart Cowan was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. This elegant university city was built around an extinct volcano with remnants of temperate rainforest that had been left untamed by virtue of a thousand years of monarchs wanting an exclusive place to hunt. Ironically, this wild heart of the city became an inspiration for a scientific/humanist renaissance inspiring the likes of Charles Darwin, pioneer geologists James Hutton and Charles Lyell, botanists Joseph Hooker, John Hutton Balfour and David Douglas (namesake of Douglas-fir) naturalist and early environmentalist John Muir. 

Teeming with naturalists and pioneering scientists, Edinburgh was the habitat of the Scottish Enlightenment beginning in the 18th century. Its inhabitants had a profound impact on western science and thought, as they, their progeny and their ideas disseminated around the world like the down of the ubiquitous Scottish thistle. Cowan’s ancestors included both Hutton and Balfour and he was part of the great diaspora of the Scottish enlightenment arriving in North Vancouver with his parents in 1913. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan as a baby and his grandfather (1911)

Scotland was also a place of huge social and landownership inequities with its brand of ecological impoverishment. Most predators including the last wolf in Scotland had been shot dead by the 18th century gamekeepers of the elite, while introduced species like broom, gorse, bracken and European rabbits dominated the hills. Cowan attributed the impoverishment to “the land-grabbing aristocracy of Britain, who had already taken to themselves one acre of every seven in the nation.” Scotland in 1913 was, in modern terms, a wildly unbalanced ecosystem that was most memorable to a child for its plague of rabbits. It was this introduced species that captured Ian McTaggart Cowan’s imagination as a 3-year old prior to his own “introduction” into North America. 

Two feral populations of the European Rabbit (brought to British Columbia by early colonists) have persisted and were curiously linked to Cowan until the end of his life. One feral colony introduced by lighthouse keepers survived on remote Triangle Island (now an ecological reserve) in competition with a native subspecies of Townsend’s Vole, Microtus townsendii cowani, unique to the island and named after Cowan by his student Charles Guiguet. The other feral colony reached plague proportions on the campus of the University of Victoria, where Cowan as chancellor, in his last academic appointment, would trip over them on the walk to his office, not unlike his childhood memories from Holyrood Park.

European rabbit

The cycles of small prey mammals were to feature strongly in his scientific understanding of prey–predator relationships, whether it was eagles, lynx or wolves. The continuing survival of many predator species in British Columbia has a great deal to do with Cowan’s early observations of boom/bust cycles of rodents. It was a topic that connected into his successful national campaign to stop the bounty system in Canada. The campaign wouldn’t start until the 1940s but the groundwork was being laid in his childhood.

His early boyhood experiences in Canada, which were far from his comfortable upper-middle-class roots, were also laying down his later commitment to protect traditional subsistence lifestyles with scientific wildlife management. Poverty made hunting a necessity to supplement the family income. Consequently, he fought against elitist interests and upheld the humanist principles of a public right of access to land and wildlife, like his ancestor John Hutton Balfour, until the day he died. Cowan identified with the inquiring scientist/naturalist prototype with a duty to teach and lead. It was to this cultural and early “interest track” in nature that Cowan attributes his vocation. It was also an opportune mindset to be bringing to a far-flung colonial outpost – “I brought my parents out at the age of three” – a land brimming with wild animals and the possibility of adventure.

Townsend's vole specimens
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