Morham – the Birthplace of John Knox?


from The History of Morham by David Louden FEIS
pub: Wm Sinclair, Edinburgh 1889
In the very heart of East Lothian lies a small parish — much
the smallest in the county — measuring only three miles in length
by one and a half in breadth. It is situated between three and
four miles south-east of Haddington, the county town, and its
name in all probability is unknown to the bulk of Scotsmen. It
is called Morham, and, like most other names of East Lothian
parishes, is derived from the Saxon, and signifies the village on
or near the moor. Although there are at present (1882) only a
kirk and manse and school and schoolhouse appertaining to the
parish, there was in former times a pretty considerable village
therein, huddled, according to use and wont, around the castle or
peel of the lord of the manor, and chiefly inhabited by weavers.
The name is variously spelt Moram, Morham, Moreham, Mor-
hame, and Morehame, but the oldest, commonest, and most
correct spelling is Morham. It is not till the sixteenth century
that the parish emerges into any notoriety historically. At that
period Archibald Douglas, brother to James, Earl of Morton
(then proprietor of Whittinghame, in the adjoining parish), and
James, Earl of Bothwell, third husband to the unfortunate Mary,
Queen of Scots, frequently resided within its bounds. George
Binning of Morham ” was hanged and demeaned as a traitor,” as
being the person who murdered Darnley. For three generations
prior to this, however, there resided in Morham the relatives of
one whom Sir Walter Scott characterises as a man ” of great
courage, zeal, and talents,” and whose name is enshrined in the
affections of the majority of Scotsmen — to wit, John Knox — and
we can picture the young and raw-boned Scottish student — after-
wards to develop into the eloquent divine who ” in his lifetime
never feared the face of man,” and whose indelible mark was to
be stamped on the future history of his country — frequently
withdrawing while on a visit to his friends to the quiet seclusion
of Morham Glen, a sweet little spot, and there, lulled by the
gentle ripple of Morham Burn, holding under the very canopy of
Heaven itself sweet fellowship with the Divine Being who had
destined him to play such a prominent’ part in the, stirring and
troublous times in which he flourished.

The youthful McCrie, of Dunse, who at an early age had to
become a rural schoolmaster in order to train himself for his
future labours in historical and antiquarian research, and who
subsequently became the eminent minister of the Associate
Congregation in the Potterrow of Edinburgh, has bequeathed us
a “Life of Knox,” at once fully, ably, and felicitously written,
and which must link his memory to that of the illustrious
Reformer so long as it obtains a place in Scottish libraries.
Before entering on his arduous task, however, McCrie had multi-
farious duties to perform to his working-class congregation, and,
as a consequence, had neither the time nor the opportunity for
collecting the traditions of the country, nor of becoming per-
sonally acquainted with the different localities laying claim to
the honour of being the Reformer’s birthplace. He therefore
very prudently leaves the matter a disputed point, but appends
some notes to show wherein the diversity of opinion consists.

It has long been the custom for one set of controversialists
(the Giffordians) to refer to the Frenchman, Theodore Beze or
Beza, as proof that Knox was born in Gifford — a comparatively
modern village — because he and Knox chanced to be under
another Frenchman, John Cauvin (Latinised Calvin), at Geneva
— the mother and seminary of all the Reformed Churches. Beza,
one of the pillars of the Church of Geneva, and a literary man of
considerable ability, styles the Scottish Reformer in his ” Icones ”
(1580) “Joannes Cnoxus Scotus Giffordiensis.” Now, the only
conceivable way in which Beza could have got his information
was from hearing his colleague, Knox, talking of Sir John de
Gifford of Yester, who married Euphemia, daughter of Sir
Thomas Malherb, otherwise Sir Thomas de Morham — the last
heir-male of the Manor of Morham. This Euphemia, on her
marriage with Sir John de Gifford, transferred to him the Manor
of Morham along with other estates, and henceforth, as was the
comimon practice then (and in some districts still), the name of
the estate and the name of the proprietor became synonymous
terms, so that it would as frequently be called “Gifford” as

Beza, an utter stranger to the manner in which Scotch
parishes were divided, had evidently caught the name of the
Lord of the Manor and Latinised it, never dreaming the while
that there were other proprietors in a parish in addition to him,
and little suspecting that in so naming Knox he was giving rise
to a controversy which has embittered the feelings of many of the
Reformer’s most intelligent countrymen.

Doubtless in their quiet saunters or over a social cup Knox
and Beza would often refer to the distractions which then rent
both their countries, and the Reformer’s thoughts would. Scots-
manlike, frequently revert to the quiet and secluded little parish
where all who were near and dear to him resided, and where
John, Lord Hay of Yester, as Superior of the Estate of Gifford,
held chief sway, and in that way Beza would become familiarised
with Gifford.

Two other authorities — viz., Spottiswood (1627) and David
Buchanan — are also quoted as proving that Knox was born ” in
Gifford, within Lothian ;” but to show how little reliance can be
placed on these we quote an extract from Buchanan’s “Life of
Knox” in his “History of the Reformation of the Church of
Scotland ” (London, 1644). He says : — ” John Knox was borne,
in Gifford, neer Haddington, in Lothian, the year of Christ 1505,
of honest parentage.” …” He died Anno Dom. 1572, and
of his age 62.” . . . Now, any schoolboy who can pass
Standard I. can easily deduct 62 from 72 and leave 10, thus
proving Buchanan’s statements to be very inaccurate.

There was a proprietor in Morham parish at this time very
closely connected with Knox, for the infamous James, Earl of
Bothwell, was then Laird of Mainshill ; and in October 1559
granted to Cockbum of Sandybed in Haddington ” a perpetual
ground-annual of four bolls of wheat, four bolls of barley, and
four bolls of oats, out of his lands of Mainshill, in the county of
Haddington, parish of Morham,” for having given him timeous
shelter under circumstances which need not here be detailed.

Knox, when pleading for some favour from the said James,
Earl of Bothwell, gives the following account of himself : — ” My
Lord,” says he, “my greatgrandfather, gudeschir, and father
have served your Lordship’s predecessors, and some of them have
died under their standards, and this is part of the obligation of
our Scottish kindness.” Now, as seems to me, the only way in
which Knox’s forebears could have served Bothwell’s predecessors
was as tenants of his farm of Mainshill (and this accounts for his
superior education) ; and these silent monitors, the tombstones,
in Morham Churchyard belonging to the Knoxes, nine in number,
one of which was only unearthed in June last, and dates as far
back as 1660* together with the Kirk-Session Records, which
throw ” long trails of light descending down,” clearly
show that the Knoxes continued to be “fermers in Mains-
hill ” for well-nigh two centuries after his birth.

It is to me almost inconceivable that the forebears and
descendants of Knox for so many generations were all born and
bred in Mainshill — not the present steading — and John was the
only one who was not \ and the more so when I reflect that the
only means of locomotion in those days was either on foot or
horseback, and the state of the roads — a specimen of which still
remains in the parish under the suggestive name of ” The Clarty ”
— rendered them almost impassible. The traditions of Morham
parish point to these tombstones as belonging to the relatives of
Knox, and although no great weight can be attached to traditions,
still they generally contain inklings of the truth, or, as the
Reformer’s bucolic kinsmen would probably have put it, ” there’s
aye some water whaur the stirkie’s drooned.”

I have attempted to recover the old Session Minutes —
referred to in the Records — by advertisement and otherwise, but
I fear they are irrecoverably lost, else, I have no doubt I would
have found Knox’s birth duly registered and witnessed, for among
the earliest entries in the Records of date 1712 are the marriages
of the Knoxes of Mainshill.

Another set of controversialists (the Haddingtonians) who
have gained much in connection with the name of Knox, cannot
possibly have any claim as his birthplace, for it was not till 18th
February 1598 — 26 years after Knox’s death — that ** William
Knox in Morhame and Elizabeth Shortes, his wife, were infeft in
subjects in Nungate of Haddington,” in virtue of a Crown
charter (now in the possession of the Earl of Wemyss). These
subjects were long known as ” Knox’s Croft,” and are situated in

* The epitaph on this tombstone is as follows : — ** Heir layeth Patrick,
son to William Knox younger.” and underneath are the initials W. K., I. H.
(William Knox, Isabella Hogg).

a portion of the Nungate called Giffordgate. The said ” William
Knox in Morhame ” must have been a nephew of the Reformer’s
— probably his eldest brother’s son — the Christian name for
generations being William, following the old Scottish custom of
naming the eldest grandson after the grandfather — a custom
prevailing among the Scotch to the present day.* We know from
one of Knox’s letters that he had a brother named William, and
we further know from the ” Geneva Register ” that his father’s
name was William. That the Knoxes clung tenaciously to their
” calf-ground ” is evidenced by the tablets in the Churchyard.
Some of them were brought from other parishes to be interred in

Those conversant with the state of educational matters in
Haddington at the passing of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872,
need not be reminded to what extremities the Burgh School was
reduced. A local journal, in giving the number present at one
of the last examinations under the old system, facetiously re-
marked that it consisted of a cipher, but whether the tail was
turned up or down the editor courteously allowed his readers to
find out. The Burgh School buildings were also next to ruinous,
and quite inadequate for the purposes required by the Act ;
consequently some scheme must be fallen on to save the already
excessive taxes on the ratepayers. The Committee of Manage-
ment were equal to the occasion, and knowing that Knox was a
name to conjure with, they pawkily set forth that as Haddington
was the birthplace of the great Reformer, it would be a generous
and becoming thing in this educational age to erect a monument
to his memory in the form of an institute in his native town !
So absurd did the proposal appear to a certain M.P. (A. J.
Balfour, Esq. of Whittinghame), having a large estate in the
county, and who has all along taken a deep interest in secondary
education, that he promised £500 as soon as £IOOO had been
raised. Funds came pouring in from all quarters, and the £1000
was soon realised, and the £500 as promptly forthcoming, and
in this way about £3000 was amassed, and a fine building erected
on a most appropriate site in the county town to the memory of
Knox — the Knox Institute. A ” memorial oak ” was also pre-
sented by the lineal descendant of Sir John de Giflford — the
present Marquis of Tweeddale — to be planted on the site supposed
to have been occupied by the house in which Knox first saw the
light . So much for Scotch credulity ! I heartily wish the new
seminary in Haddington every success, and think the money
raised has been well spent, but as Morham has certainly the
strongest claim on the Reformer, the committee might make
another ” Scotch Appeal Case ” and purchase the statue of Knox,
executed by a native of Haddington, but rejected, and have it
erected in front of the new school and schoolhouse of Morham,
where it would not only commemorate his connection with the
tiny parish, but form a pleasing and conspicuous object on the
public road leading to Dunbar. The late Rev. Dr Barclay, of
Haddington, gets credit for having (in 1785) first pointed out
Giffordgate as being the place of Knox’s nativity.* Moreover,
the old tablets belonging to the Knoxes and others were quite
illegible till I took the trouble to decipher them in January last

* Well, the Rev. Dr’s opinions are not now very highly valued by

in connection with a series of articles entitled “Notes on
Morham,” which ran their course in the Haddingtonshire Adver-
tiser in the early part of 1882. It may be interesting to add
that the first medallist for two years in succession (Mr William
Elder, East Bearford), at “The Knox” received the greater
portion of his education at Morham parish school, so that the
connection between Morham and Knox continues to the present

David Louden.

* (1) In the late Mr John Richardson’s paper, read before the Antiquarian
Society, in 1858, he states : — **This tradition (of Giffordgate) has of late
received remarkable confirmation by the discovery of two instruments of
Sasine among the titles of Mr James Watson, writer, Linlithgow, the
proprietor of a large part of the village, and comprehending the spot
indicated by tradition as the birthplace of Knox. These instruments are
dated 1607 and 1611 respectively” The said William Knox died in October
1607 — the very year in which the first Sasine is dated — and his testament-
dative was prociuced by his widow on behalf of their children, William,
George, James, and Bessie— minors. James Knox, brother of the deceased,
is named as a debtor ; and the personal estate, chiefly in farm-stock is
valued at £1359. Does not this clearly show that the first Knox of Had-
dington came from Morham and that his relatives were ‘* fermers ” ?

(2) On the whole it is my clear opinion that we may not only frequent
the place pointed out (in Morham) with the fond credulity of traaition, bat
that there are sufficient grounds for recognising it on unprejudiced con-

(3) In Knox’s day all the district south of Haddington was known as
Gifford. The ancient fortalice of Lethington (Lennoxlove) was built by the
Gififords and was purchased from Sir John Gifford by Sir Richard Maitland
about the end of the 14th century.— /brc^un, Vol. 7/., p, 105,


Appendix. — It was truly remarked in last General Assembly by one of our most eminent and gifted divines (the late Principal Tulloch), “that business men had not leisure to examine into historical documents, and had to take much of their information at second hand.” No fewer than twenty-one versions of Knox’s birthplace (ancient and modern) have been consulted by me, with the result that twelve are in favour of Gifford (which in Knox’s time meant Morham), eight in favour of Haddington, and one near Haddington. Of ancient authorities five are in favour of Gifford, two in favour of Haddington, and one near Haddington. The five are Beza, Spottiswoode, Buchanan, Crawford, and Wodrow. The two are the Geneva Register and Archibald Hamilton, and the one near Haddington is James Laing (1581). Of modem authorities seven are in favour of Gifford, and six in favour of Haddington. Among these are Dr M*Crie, David Laing (1846), Miller’s “Lamp of Lothian,” and the late Rev. S. Kerr, minister of Tester, for Gifford ; and David Laing (1864), Blackie & Son’s “Eminent Scotsmen,” Chambers’s “Encyclo- paedia,” and ” Encyclopaedia Britannica,” for Haddington. I The question to be decided then is, ” Whether ought we to attach most weight to ancient or modern writers.” For myself, I decidedly follow the old ; although none of them except Beza, Hamilton and James Laing wrote one word until Knox had been in his grave fifty-five years, and in that case they were dependent on the three last-named — viz., Beza and his contemporaries Hamilton and Laing. Hamilton (a Romanist writer) is almost universally discredited, consequently the only two to be depended on are Beza and Laing. Now Laing’s statement “prope Had- dintonam ” (near Haddington) can serve better for Gifford (other- wise Morham) than for Giffordgate, and as I have endeavoured to show how Beza became familiarised with Gifford by Knox himself, it strengthens the claim of Morham very materially. Of course, when Knox was entered as a burgess in the ” Geneva Register,” he gave the name of the town nearest to his birthplace, but that does not necessarily mean that he was born in the town. It is equivalent to our modern system of giving the name of the post town as the last part of our address. When anyone inquires as to where I am now located I invariably answer near Haddington, knowing, as I have stated, that Morham is unknown to most Scotsmen. How much less then to French- men.


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