Obituary: Mary cowan, translator/campaigner, 99

Mary Cowan

Mary Cowan

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MARY Cowan, translator and campaigner, has died, aged 99.

Mary was born on May 25, 1914, at 14 Moray Place, Edinburgh, the eldest child of John Gordon Jameson – sheriff and advocate and later Conservative MP for Edinburgh West – and Lucy Margaret née Smith, one of the nine children of AL Smith, master of Balliol College, Oxford.

Her first school was St Anne’s in Manor Place, run by a spinster cousin, Marjorie Jameson. Later, she had instruction from a tutor at home, Henry Johnston, who kindled a love of poetry and encouraged her talent in drawing and painting. Mary spent a year or so at Bedgebury School in Kent and then a period at Edinburgh College of Art.

She also spent time in social work in London’s Bethnal Green, where she was appalled by the poverty she saw, including large families living in huts with only an earth floor.

Back in Edinburgh, the family moved to 34 Great King Street, where Mary recalled a momentous day when she gave her pocket money to the housemaid to elope to London with a married man. The sheriff, a well-known eccentric, was heard shouting in Dundas Street: “Infamous daughter, aiding an act of adultery!” On the same day, at a party, Mary met the man who would become her husband.

Anthony Cowan and Mary went into professional acting for a short while, before realising his dream of living aboard a sailing vessel. The vessel was the gunpowder Thames sailing barge, Guy Fawkes. They sailed it from the Thames to Suffolk and lived aboard it until the vessel was requisitioned by the War ­Department and reportedly sunk during bombing target practice.

Mary then bought a Regency house in Chelsea, where she and her young family spent many of the war years.

After the war, Anthony bought his childhood home, an old country house just outside Edinburgh, which was a virtual ruin following neglect by troops.

Once her four children were off her hands, Mary was able to devote time to her philanthropic and radical interests. With the rise of fascism and the war, Mary had joined the Communist Party, and later, during the Vietnam War period, she was tireless in raising money for Medical Aid for Vietnam. She went out to Vietnam to teach English, mostly to doctors, and translate from French into English a book of Vietnamese poetry – a ­remarkable commitment for a lady who was then 62. She spent a busy two years there and was much honoured by the Vietnamese.

Before devolution, Mary was honorary secretary of the Convention for Scotland in 1972 and later supported the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. Her globetrotting travels continued into her eighties with visits to many countries, including Cuba and Nicaragua.

She died on November 11 and is survived by her two sons, two daughters, grandchildren and
great-grandchildren.