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Smail Family History

Once or twice a year we got approached by people with links to SMAILs who emigrated from the Borders.  This page as an attempt to provide some basic information about the SMAIL Diaspora and its links to New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.  It is based on information gleaned from the fairly extensive private correspondence that came to the National Trust for Scotland when they acquired the property.  In addition I’ve done a little cursory genealogical research allowing to construct an outline of a family tree which is attached.  It is probably best considered a rough draft.  Over time I hope that we can provide more information about the relatives that Robert Cowan SMAIL corresponded with.

Robert SMAIL the founder of the printing business was born in Jedburgh and came to Innerleithen in 1857.  He was the son of James & Janet and born in Jedburgh in 1826.  Robert's death certificate indicates that James was an army pensioner who had served in the 14th Regiment of Foot and was a master shoemaker.  Robert had three brothers - John, Thomas & James.  He married Sarah COWAN and had a daughter, Janet Scott, and three sons James Scot, Robert Cowan & Adam Cowan.  After his father died in 1891, Robert Cowan ran the business until he died in 1951.  What exactly James, who died in 1914, contributed is not yet clear.  However in his obituary in the local paper printed & published by Smail’s it says that James spent 2 years in New Zealand in 1895. Adam was struck by lightening and died whilst fishing in the Tweed; he acted as the firm’s travelling representative.  in his turn Robert Cowan had 2 sons (Watson & Cowan)  and a daughter (Janet) that I know of.  Janet died young, Watson spent much of his life in a home in Larbet and Cowan never married.  Thus there are no living descendants of Robert Smail.

Amongst the business records we have found many letters that Robert Cowan received from friends and family.  Tantalisingly there is only half the correspondence as he did not keep copies of his own letters.  Robert Cowan was also an avid collector of newspaper cuttings.  From these sources and a few key records I've established a probable family tree for the branch of the family in New Zealand.


John married Jane TURNER (from Peebles) and had 4 children - Catherine, Janet (or Jennet),James & Elizabeth although Janet died before she was 10.  In 1861 he was the manager at Wilson's Mill in Innerleithen.   James married Isabel DOBSON in Innerleithen in 1870 and sometime in the next year John, James and possibly the girls emigrated to New Zealand where John became the first manager of Mosgiel Mill in East Taieri, Otago.  James and Isabel had three children - Alice, Will and John.  Will was probably the only one who came back to Scotland - courtesy of the New Zealand Army.  Alice married Leslie CHANEY but had no children.  Will had a daughter, Shirley and John married Sybil and had a son Edward.


Thomas was a bookseller, stationer and printer in Jedburgh before Robert started the printing works in Innerleithen.  He married Margaret WATSON and had 7 children - James, William, Thomas, David, Euphemia (known as Phemie), Robert and Adam.  All helped in the family business either as compositor/printers or in the bookshop.  In due course Thomas took over the business at 16 High Street, Jedburgh.  Thomas married Georgina HARVEY in 1985 at Jedburgh Railway Station where her father was the station-master.  They had four children that survived to adulthood although the 1911 Census that there were another three that died as infants.  The survivors were Margaret (Maggie), Mary, Georgina (Ina) and Thomas (Tom).  Maggie and Tom joined their father's business but Mary was a miliner.  In March 1913 Thomas snr, Georgina, Margaret, Mary, Ina and Tom sailed from Glasgow to Boston on the Scotian and settled there. Maggie married Walter OLIVER towards the end of or just after WW1 and lived in Cambridge MA. She wrote regularly to Robert Cowan Smail until after WWII  There are regular references to children and grand-children but no details that I've found apart from a mention of Jeb in connection with Iwo Jima.  There's also frequent references to Maggie & Nelllie SCOTT.


Thomas's brother David also assisted in the bookshop and at some point probably in the 1890s departed for South Africa.  He married Jessie SCOTT and the letters in the archive indicate that there were children but I've yet to sort out the details.  Between 1881 and 1891 Phemie married someone called FRAIN, had a daughter called Daisy and was widowed.  Phemie & Daisy also went to South Africa and lived in Cape Town.

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