Grandpa Gilrye and the Kirk Session

It’s not often that new information about figures significant in the life (and shaping) of John Muir becomes freely available. We’ve always known that John’s grandfather became an elder in Dunbar Parish Church but the records of the Church have until now been relatively difficult to access as they’re stored with the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.


Things changed a couple of weeks ago when these wonderful folks at Scotlandspeople made more than a million pages of Scotland’s Kirk Session records available in digital format on their website. The Kirk Sessions were the local courts of each parish under the established Presbyterian Church in Scotland. The members, the minister, his assistants (if any), and the elders decided the business of the parish, debated the role and doctrine of the Church in Synod and Assembly, and saw to the morals and care of their own congregation.


David Gilrye became an elder at the start of 1822, when Dunbar had both a new minister (John Jaffray, who had been assistant to the previous minister) and a new church building. Gilrye was one of several men ordained on the same day, as the new minister brought his Session up to strength. The power of the Session was a shadow of what it had been in previous centuries, but it was still considerable and quite intrusive to modern sensibilities.


Many cases involved irregular marriage (marriages contracted by members of the community at other places without banns being read in the parish church) and illegitimacy, both of which impinged on its major remaining function, the distribution of ‘relief’ or ‘ailment’ and the question of entitlement to such aid. In these days, before social security and universal pensions, the Kirk Session was the last port of call for those in need. Only a fortunate few could retire with an annuity, have support through membership of a friendly society, or had the capital to support themselves through illness.  But the parish’s funds were limited, so hard decisions had to be made about eligibility: only those born within the parish or resident there for a proven period were eligible. David Gilrye was now one of those that had to make these descisions.


Each claimant was acutely questioned; many were refused, being told to turn to other family members or another parish for help. Two of the ways the Session raised money was by charging fees (to record births and marriages, hence the emphasis on irregular marriages) and by ‘renting’ seats within the church. Before the end of his first year as elder, David and his colleagues were enmeshed in a legal battle with the Town Council when the latter unilaterally boarded up access to a number of pews. An exchange of letters escalated via the Sherriff Court in Haddington to the Court of Session in Edinburgh. There, in July 1824, the Magistrates and Council ‘dropt all further proceedings’ and the Court ‘allowed the Kirk Session their expenses’. No further information is available in the minutes, but that looks as if David and his colleagues made their case!


Turning now to the Muir family, we quickly found a notice of the irregular marriage of Hamilton Blakley and Mary Muir in the Session Minutes of Crawfordjohn. Mary Muir was John Muir’s aunt, the sister of his father Daniel. Further back, on 20 September 1761, a Nathaniel Muire and his family were allowed a ‘testimonial’ – a certificate showing that they were in good standing with the church and issued if a person or family moved parish. Between these dates there may be unknown Muir genealogy to be found – but reading the record will take a while!

(Photo – Ordination of David Gilrye as elder in Dunbar Parish Church. Extracted from Dunbar Kirk Session Records (CH2/647/6) by courtesy of the National Records of Scotland and the Church of Scotland.)

What next for Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace

What Next for the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace?

Today at 7pm!  Register here on eventbrite.

Duncan Smeed, Convener of Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace said, ‘This is a public event and not just for the members of the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace. Indeed, it is hoped that as many people as possible can join in the Zoom call and contribute their ideas and thoughts about What Next?’

A ‘What If?’ event organised by the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace in conjunction with Sustaining Dunbar.

Join us to discuss:

• What role does John Muir’s Birthplace play in the life of the town and the High Street?

• What can we learn from John Muir’s life and legacy to support and inspire us?

• What role for the Birthplace in supporting the transition to a better future for all of us?

Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace is a local charity that supports the ongoing work of the John Muir Birthplace Charitable Trust and the staff of John Muir’s Birthplace.

Learn about the work and achievements of the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace (founded in 1994 as Dunbar’s John Muir Association) in advancing its aims of:

• educating the public concerning John Muir and his belief in the unique and irreplaceable value of wild places and wild creatures

• implementing John Muir’s philosophy practically by conserving, restoring and enhancing landscape and wildlife in East Lothian and Scotland

and discuss ‘What Next?’.

Following the discussion and conclusion to the main event there will be a very short Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace AGM to conduct the formal business of the charity in order to comply with the requirements of OSCR.

Happy Mothers’ Day – Ann Gilrye Muir

For those reading this in the UK, Happy Mothers’ Day. Today seemed like an appropriate time to find out more about John’s mother, Ann Gilrye Muir.

Ann was born on 17 March 1813, the 9th of 10 children to David Gilrye and Margaret Hay. Her older sister, Ann died a few days after she was born, therefore Ann was christened with her sister’s name. We think the sampler on display in John Muir’s Birthplace was actually completed by the older Ann.

Sampler completed by Ann Gilrye's older sister

Licensor University of the Pacific Muir Hanna Trust

Ann lost eight brothers and sisters in her youth, mainly to tuberculosis, only Ann and her sister Margaret remained by the time John was born.

David Gilrye was a town councillor and a well respected member of the Church Community. The Gilrye’s owned a butchers’ shop at 113 High Street, where Lothian Printers is now located, and proximity to Daniel Muir’s grain business at 128 High Street is probably why Ann caught Daniel’s eye.

Ann and Daniel were married in 1833, and their first child, Margaret, was born in 1834, followed by Sarah in 1836, John was their first son, born in 1838, followed by David in 1840.  Ann went on to have 4 more children, and unlike in her own family, they all lived to be adults.

When the family emigrated in 1849, Daniel went ahead with John, Sarah and David, while Ann stayed in Dunbar with Margaret, Daniel and Annie and Mary until a home had been established, they followed some 6 months later.  Her eighth and last child, Joanna was born the following year in Wisconsin. Today we can only imagine what it must have taken for her to leave her family and all she know in Dunbar to follow her husband to the new world, knowing she would never return.

It may have been due to losing her own brothers and sisters at an early age, or it may have been her natural disposition, but Ann was the antithesis of her husband’s strictness with the children. She was always loving with them, although she was not beyond giving them a telling off when needed. Even when John had left home and was teaching during a break from University, she wrote to him in January 1862 sending him news from home, but also admonishing him for not writing home enough:

John It seems a long time since we had a letter from you, I would like to know how you like to be a teacher I hope you have a comfortable boarding place.

There are many letters from Ann to her children and their spouses in the collections of the University of the Pacific. In all of them she is, as most mothers, concerned with their health, and more often than not to John, giving him into trouble for not writing more often!  On his 52nd birthday in 1890 she wrote:

Time is ever on the wing, and has again brought us to see another of your birthdays. May heavens best blessings be showered upon you more and more abundantly each year of your life. I expect you are now enjoying warm pleasant weather after the wet muddy time you had in winter. We have had a very mild pleasant winter with very few real cold days.

As she got older, Ann got used to spending time alone while her husband travelled and preached, enjoying the times her children visited, often more than one at a time, and she particularly enjoyed spending time with her grandchildren. After the death of her husband in 1885, Ann lived with her daughter, Annie, who remained unmarried throughout her life.

As with his father eleven years earlier, John had a premonition about his mother’s death and travelled to be with her when she died on 23 June 1896. Ann is buried at Silver Lake Cemetery, Portage, Wisconsin.

New Access Guide

We are delighted to introduce our new access guide for John Muir’s Birthplace. A link can be found at the bottom of this page or on our  Access Page .  This comprehensive new guide gives all the information you will need to decide if our exhibition meets your access requirements. We would also always encourage you to call us on 01368 865899 with your specific requirements and we will endeavour to make any necessary adjustments to make your visit as simple as possible.

We are passionate about John Muir’s message and are keen that there are no barriers to anyone who would like to find out more.


Half Term Activities

As half-term starts in various parts of the country you might be looking for something to occupy your little darlings, especially if the weather remains foul!  Why not check out our ‘Home Activities‘ section, which has 100 days of activities developed during our lockdown earlier in 2020?  Some of our favourites would be making a Marble Run Part 1 and Marble Run Part 2.  or why not have a go at some old fashioned fairground games such as Tin Can Alley  or Coconut Shy.

If you would like to complete something more nature-based, try Preserve Nature or take a few days to build up your own Wildlife Mobile:

Wildlife mobile – nest

Wildlife Mobile – Music

Wildlife Mobile – Wasps nest

Wildlife Mobile – Kingfisher

Wildlife mobile – assemble

With 100 days of activities, there will be something to occupy anyone who has has enough of snowman making!


Have fun!

WWF competition asks creatives to reimagine Earth’s future

competition launched by WWF asks artists and creative practitioners to imagine a future where people and nature can thrive in harmony.

The initiative, titled Just Imagine, takes inspiration from David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, a 2020 film from the broadcaster in which he reflects on environmental changes during his lifetime and presents his hopeful vision for the future. WWF, one of the world’s largest independent conservation organisations, co-produced the film.

The competition is open to the whole creative arts sector, spanning disciplines from photography to fashion, and there will be a special category for international submissions in collaboration with the British Council.

Twelve winning entrants will work with the WWF and a leading curator to plan and deliver a virtual exhibition of their pieces. The exhibition will aim to encourage positive change among leaders and communities by demonstrating the power of creativity.

The judging panel includes artist and environmentalist Judy Ling Wong, Greg Bunbury, graphic designer at the helm of social initiative the Black Outdoor Arts Project, and anthropological future designer Stacie Woolsey.

Kate Norgrove, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, said: “This year has shown the incredible strength and influence that public pressure can have on shaping our collective direction and driving positive change. 2021 is critical for environmental action and now more than ever, it’s important to raise conversations and public demand for the protection of nature.”

“By launching this competition, we hope to provide a platform for artists throughout the UK to create a new narrative on nature in a way that brings people together and educates and inspires their communities to protect our planet.”

Entries will close at 1700 on Sunday 7 February. More information can be found at Just Imagine | WWF.

A Walk around John’s Dunbar

Have you found our new blog series on our Facebook Page yet? You might not be able to visit our building at the moment, so we thought we would highlight some of the places around Dunbar  that have a connection to John Muir.  He may only have lived in the town for the first 10.5 years of his life, but there are several places around the town that left such a vivid imprint in his memory, he found them easily on his return visit in 1893.  Indeed his book ‘The story of my Boyhood and Youth’ published in 1913 still evokes the smells and sounds of the North Sea familiar to those of us who live and work here today.  The first 2 instalments are published, with more on the way in the next few weeks. Make sure ou are following us on Facebook  to make sure you don’t miss a post. Enjoy!

A snowy ride

Waking up to a winter wonderland this morning made us think of one of John’s wildest adventures riding an avalanche!  This is his description taken from ‘The Yosemite’ (1912)


“One fine Yosemite morning after a heavy snowfall, being
eager to see as many avalanches as possible and wide views of the forest and
summit peaks in their new white robes before the sunshine had time to change
them, I set out early to climb by a side cañon to the top of a commanding ridge a
little over three thousand feet above the Valley. On account of the looseness of
the snow that blocked the cañon I knew the climb would require a long time,
some three or four hours as I estimated; but it proved far more difficult than I
had anticipated. Most of the way I sank waist deep, almost out of sight in some
places. After spending the whole day to within half an hour or so of sundown, I
was still several hundred feet below the summit. Then my hopes were reduced to
getting up in time to see the sunset. But I was not to get summit views of any
sort that day, for deep trampling near the cañon head, where the snow was
strained, started an avalanche, and I was swished down to the foot of the cañon
as if by enchantment. The wallowing ascent had taken nearly all day, the
descent only about a minute. When the avalanche started I threw myself on my
back and spread my arms to try to keep from sinking. Fortunately, though the
grade of the cañon is very steep, it is not interrupted by precipices large enough
to cause outbounding or free plunging. On no part of the rush was I buried. I was
only moderately imbedded on the surface or at times a little below it, and covered
with a veil of back-streaming dust particles; and as the whole mass beneath and
about me joined in the flight there was no friction, though I was tossed here and
there and lurched from side to side. When the avalanche came to rest I found
myself on top of the crumpled pile without bruise or scar. This was a fine
experience. Hawthorne says somewhere that steam has spiritualized travel;
though unspiritual smells, smoke, etc., still attend steam travel. This flight in what
might be called a milky way of snow-stars was the most spiritual and exhilarating
of all the modes of motion I have ever experienced. Elijah’s flight in a chariot of
fire could hardly have been more gloriously exciting. “

Enjoy your sledging!

A Glimpse Inside

Once again we have had to close our doors, hopefully it won’t be long before we are able to welcome you back into John Muir’s Birthplace. In the meantime, we still have lots of ways to help you explore the life and legacy of John Muir.

  • You can see some of our temporary exhibitions by visiting our  Exhibitions page. Look out for some new additions soon.
  • Check out our Home Activities page for lots of ideas to support home learning.
  • Have a look on on Facebook or Twitter @JM_Birthplace for all the latest info on what we are up to!
  • Watch the short tour below of Duncan Smeed, Chair of John Muir’s Birthplace Charitable Trust on a short tour of the building. Brought to you with thanks to Michael Conti.