John Gray's life story

John Gray (1646–1717)

John Gray was an Episcopalian minister of the Church of Scotland who lived during some of the most dramatic times in the history of the Scottish Crown and Church. At the end of his life he was able to leave a substantial Trust fund to the poor people of Haddington, his home town, along with a valuable and extensive library. The Trust still exists, and so does his library, though this is now at the National Library of Scotland. Although the John Gray Centre is not about John Gray himself, it has been named after him since his gift helped establish one of the first public lending libraries in the country.

Shortly before the John Gray Centre opened, secondary schools around East Lothian created their own animations about the life of John Gray. You can seem them here.

You can download John Gray’s life story, or read on.

1646–63: John Gray’s beginnings

Haddington 1693, etching by John Slezer

Etching of Haddington in 1693, by John Slezer

John Gray was born in Haddington on 23 February 1646. We have found his certificate of baptism, dated 24 February, in the Old Parish Records in our Local History Centre! His mother’s brother, John Dyit, and his father’s brother, John Gray, are named on the document – maybe they were his godfathers.

John’s father, Andrew, was a wealthy merchant and had a large family. John was the eldest child in his family, and had at least two brothers (Walter, five years younger, and James, ten years younger) and one sister (Elspith – named after her mother – and eleven years younger than John).

1663–67: University and training to be a minister

When they were older, the two eldest sons, John and Walter, were able to go to university instead of having to start earning money at a young age.

John went to Edinburgh University to study Theology and trained to be a minister of the Church of Scotland. He was only 18 when he graduated with his degree, and he became a minister in 1667, when he was just 21!

1667–84: Tulliallan and Glasgow

John’s first parish was in Tulliallan, in Fife, and he stayed there for five years before moving to Glasgow, where his younger brother, Walter, was at university. Perhaps they stayed together during Walter’s last year at uni, while John settled in to his new parish in the east end of the city, at St Mungo’s Church.

John stayed at St Mungo’s for 12 years. He made a lot of friends while he was there, including the chair of Theology at the university, Gilbert Burnet, who was later to become chaplain to William and Mary. Gilbert had been a popular minister at East Saltoun, so he knew John’s home of East Lothian very well.

1684–89: Minister of Aberlady

Aberlady_section from Adair's Map, 1683

Aberlady in 1683, from Adair’s Map

In 1684, when he was 38, John must have decided it was time to move closer to home. He became minister of Aberlady that summer.

Aberlady at that time was a very wealthy port, the official port of Haddington, and also home to a thriving weaving industry. The church there was quite rich, and it would have been a comfortable and busy place for John. Aberlady Church is still in the same place as it was then, but it was changed a lot in the 1800s, so it looks quite different from John’s time, though parts of it do date back to the 1400s.

There was a lot of smuggling around Aberlady port at this time – there was even, it is said, a smugglers’ cave! Did Reverend John Gray preach about the evils of smuggling? It seems unlikely that he was in favour of smuggling, given the strength of his principles in other areas.

Have a look here to see some some pictures of old Aberlady, and a map of the smugglers’ cave.

It was around this time that John started to build up his important library – he had a real love of books, and in fact anything that was printed, and over his lifetime collected about a thousand rare and valuable books, including some of the earliest ever printed. He also wrote a lot of pamphlets – the newsletters and blogs of his times. If he’d been alive now, it’s easy to imagine he would have been writing a lot on blogs and Twitter, and getting involved in lots of arguments about current events!

John left his collection of books to the people of Haddington when he died. The most precious book was probably the beautiful Latin missal, printed in 1497 – not long after printing was first invented. Have a look here if you’d like to see one in detail.

A year after John came to Aberlady, his brother Walter became a minister too – at Garvald, not far away. Walter stayed there for a long time, married a wealthy heiress (Jean Adair) and had some children. We haven’t found out much yet about John’s other brother and sister, James and Elspith, but perhaps they stayed in the area too.

John got married too, to Mary Blair. Mary’s father was a minister at Rutherglen, in South Lanarkshire. We don’t know how they met, but it looks as though they must have got married before John moved to Aberlady, as we haven’t found their marriage certificate in the local records. We do know that they didn’t have any children of their own though. When they died, they both left most of their money and possessions to their nieces and nephews, so they probably saw a lot of them and were quite close to the whole family.

John’s brother Walter had a peaceful time in Garvald. He retired from the parish church when he was 53, but continued to minister to Episcopalians in the area till he died in 1719, just two years after his older brother. He was granted a large pension when he retired from the Church, so he was obviously well-regarded.

1689: Dramatic times in Scotland – and for John

During the time that John was growing up and starting out as a minister, there were dramatic things happening all over Scotland and England, and the official Church had a lot to do with it.

When John became a minister, he had to swear an oath of loyalty to the king, James VII of Scotland and II of England. He ruled from 1685 to 1688 – just around the time that John was in Aberlady.

James fell out with Parliament, and escaped to France. Parliament invited James’s daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange, to rule instead. John Gray, like most of his Episcopalian colleagues, was unable to renounce his oath of loyalty to James, and so was ‘deposed’, and lost his official ministry.

John had to leave Aberlady. However, he continued to call himself ‘minister of Aberlady’ for the rest of his long life, and thanks to the support of the Presbyterian minister of Haddington, was able to continue to pursue his vocation.

1689–1717: Home to Haddington

John and Mary went back home to Haddington, where he was allowed to hold services at the Presbyterian church every other week. John did this for over 20 years, until 1713, when the Presbyterian minister died. John then set up a meeting-house in a house in Poldrate, near the river in Haddington, for regular Episcopalian services.

He died four years later though, in 1717, at the age of 71. He was working right up to the end of his life.

When John died, he left behind him a very long and detailed will, leaving a lot of money and possessions to his brother Walter and Walter’s children – for them to get after his wife Mary died.

He also left his precious library to the people of Haddington, along with a large sum of money ‘for the use and behoofe of the poor of the Toun’: 3,000 merks. According to online historic currency converters, this was over £200,000 in today’s money, and you could do a lot more with it back then!

John was very practical in how he wanted his gift to Haddington spent. First of all, it was to be invested in a Trust, and the income from it was to be divided up like this:

  • 1,000 merks to be spent on training up an apprentice in a trade every two years. Some of this money was to be used on heating the library through the winter though, so that twice a week people could go and use it comfortably.
  • 1,000 merks was to be distributed among the poor on his birthday every year (he says in his will that his birthday was the last day in February). And if anyone related to him was amongst the poor, they were to be given ‘a larger share’.
  •  500 merks was to pay a librarian to look after the books – he wanted his brother and uncle to choose the best person for this job.
  • 500 merks was to pay for the repair of the books, to make sure they stayed in good condition, and to buy more once they were all ‘in good Case’.

This Trust still exists today! Though there’s not much money left in it now …

John Gray's life story




2 thoughts on “John Gray (1646–1717)”

  1. HelenB says:

    That sounds like an adventurous life (and family). Our John Gray didn’t have any children, but he did have brothers and nephews, so it would be interesting to speculate that there may be a link. Do you know when your family left Scotland, and whereabouts in Scotland they originally hailed from?

  2. I originally came from South Africa to Australia, living in Sydney now. My great grandfather, John Gray came from Scotland & England. He was the son of a Ships Captain. The captain died at sea and my great grandfather was left in Cape Town. He struck it rich at the goldfields of the Witwatersrand and bought farms in Eastern Transvaal.

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