McCowan’s tasted sweet success in Stenhousemuir

McCowan's staff pictured outside the firm's Stenhousemuir factory in 1932
McCowan's staff pictured outside the firm's Stenhousemuir factory in 1932

Back in 1989 the late Findlay Russell decided that it would be a good idea to organise a series of afternoon talks in the Age Concern hall in Stenhousemuir given by “some of the old guys” who had run successful local businesses.

He asked me if I would come and record the memories of folk like Robert Barr, George Shaw and Bruce Jones – which I did and I have the cassette tapes still.

Bob McCowan with his wife in 1977

Bob McCowan with his wife in 1977

I had not thought about them for many years until I stumbled on one in the back of a drawer last week.

The voice that boomed out from the speakers was none other than the great Bob McCowan, the Prince of Toffee makers, whose business carried the name of Stenhousemuir to every corner of the world and into the pockets of four generations of children.

One American lady who stayed in Scotland in the 1950s recalled that “we took home a large supply of McCowan’s toffee with us and I rationed it out for weeks. After the last bar was eaten we kept the wrapper and every so often it is taken out and handed round for everyone to sniff.”

It was Bob’s father Andrew who started the business in the early years of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, this is not a story with a happy ending

He came originally from Muthill near Crieff and had started work as a herd boy in the Sma Glen.

At the time cattle were still being driven from there to the Tryst ground at Stenhousemuir and young Andrew must have decided that he would find new opportunities in the Lowlands.

At first he drove a horse and cart delivering parcels which arrived by barge on the canal. Later he delivered lemonade for Reid’s of Bainsford and later still opened his own shop in Church Street selling a variety of goods including sweeties.

According to Bob, his father began experimenting with “his mother’s old jeely pan” over an open fire producing tablet which was the first McCowan’s product.

Despite the lack of sugar during the first war the company prospered and more and more products were developed including rock, snowballs and macaroons and the famous ‘lucky tatties’ with the occasional halfpenny hidden in the middle.

By this time Bob, a trained engineer, was working full time and in 1924 McCowan’s moved to the Tryst Road.

A couple of years later the famous ‘Coo Candy’ with the distinctive Highland cow on the wrapper made its first appearance.

It was an instant success and along with the Penny Dainties became the firm’s great money spinner.

When Andrew McCowan died in 1951 there 200 girls and 40 men employed at the factory.

A decade later Bob decided to sell the business to Keilers of Dundee which later became part of the Nestle group.

Bob stayed on for a while and the McCowan’s name was retained as were the company’s famous products.

There were new things added like Wham Bars, Toffee Twirls, Fizzy Lizzie and Nugi Bar but none ever reached the popularity of McCowan’s Highland Creams.

Unfortunately this is not a story with a happy ending.

The company changed hands several times over the years and was subject to mergers, takeovers and liquidations, finally closing its doors in 2011.

Many attempts were made to revive the business over the years but today the factory stands empty and the specialist sweetie making equipment is long gone.

When Bob spoke to us that day in 1989 McCowan’s were still going strong and one wonders what the old man would think of what happened in the decades since he passed away.