Architect. Born in Blackness (Falkirk), the son of mason and builder Walter Gowans (1759 - 1858), James Gowans was educated in Edinburgh. He became a pupil of noted architect David Bryce (1803-76). Staying with Bryce until 1846, his work included mounting Sir John Steell's bronze of the Duke of Wellington in front of Register House.
He owned and managed several quarries and this gave him a fascination, some say obsession, with stone. He is noted for building several villas in Edinburgh, including a home for himself, Rockville on Napier Road, although this was demolished in 1965. Gowans was also an early pioneer of good housing for workers, building model worker's cottages and tenement blocks. Outside Edinburgh, he extended and remodelled Gowanbank (which had originally been built by his father), near Armadale as his country 'seat'. He gained lucrative railway contracts, laying new branch lines and building stations at Creetown (1859) and Lochee (1861), and constructed lines between Edinburgh and Leith for the Edinburgh Street Tramways Company in 1871.
Gowans was married twice; to Elizabeth, daughter of a railway contractor, who died in 1858 and Mary, the daughter of sculptor William Brodie (1815 - 81).
Gowans suffered financial problems in his later years, brought on by a bad investment in the New Edinburgh Theatre which he designed. He became Lord Dean of Guild in 1885 and was a prime mover in mounting the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1886. He was knighted the following year in recognition of his efforts as the Chairman of this successful event. He designed at least two exhibits which are still extant; the unusual Brass-founder's Column (now in Nicholson Square), which was made by local craftsmen, and the impressive pillars at either end of the Meadows, which contain specimen stone from many Scottish quarries. These pillars were paid for by publishers William and Thomas Nelson (1816-86 and 1822-92 respectively), who were grateful to the City for its help when their Hope Park Works was burned to the ground in 1878.
He is buried in Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh.