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A MEDIAEVAL ARCHITECT. Part 1. – HIS MELROSE INSCRIPTIONS., P. MacGregor Chalmers (Jan., 1895), pp.3-15.

“Who builds a Church to God, and not to Fame,
Will never mark the marble with his Name.” – Pope.

“It is true that the subject of the following sketch did “mark the marble with his name.” And all who are conscious of, and delight in, that human interest which seems to animate our beautiful shrines are the richer for it.

In the work of the earlier days, when the Church was sovereign over the minds and consciences of men, we search walls and pillars and vaults in vain for a record of the builders or the founders. Their spirit seems to have been the spirit of the devotee. As the centuries passed, the art of the mediaeval period developed, until it attained its most perfect expression in the works of the fourteenth century. The inspiring influence gradually waned. Coincident with the growth of Lollardry we may trace the steady decline of the religious sentiment in ecclesiastical art, and see the uprising of the new Spirit of Individualism in the custom – soon to become common – of graving names or arms on the walls of the sacred buildings.

Of the founders of later days we have many records in stone: of the builders in Scotland we have but one. Four centuries ago a great artist carved his name on the walls of Melrose Abbey. He added a list of his many works, and a sentiment or two. His record was very simple and very clear. It remains so to this day. And he has had his wish – in a way. It would be impossible almost to find a volume devoted to Scots mediaeval antiquities, published since the beginning of last century, which does not contain some reference to him. Yet he is not truly known, and his works have never been described.

It is written, “A certain Frenchman named John Murdo was employed as architect at St. Andrews, Glasgow (&c.) about the close of the fourteenth century, but what other portions of the buildings referred to were erected under his superintendence it is difficult to say, and needless to conjecture.”1 To shew that this architect was French only in the most restricted sense, that he was not named John Murdo, that he did not live at the close of the fourteenth century, and that the difficulties in the way of presenting a record of his works have not been insurmountable, is the task before us.

The name. – There are two inscriptions, of different dates, on the interior of the west wall of the south transept of Melrose Abbey. In both of them the name of the architect appears, and in letters which are still sharp and clear. Imperfect power of observation is responsible for the fact that the name has been rendered in such various forms as Morw, Murw, Morow, Morvo, Mordo, Murdo, and Murdoch. In the later inscription, carved on a small panel let into the wall, the name is “JOHN MOROW.” An illustration of the earlier inscription is given… It is reproduced from a drawing which the writer made to a large scale on the spot, and revised by the aid of a photograph taken at the same time. This inscription is carved on the lintel of the small doorway which gives access to the turret staircase.

It will be seen that a final “e” is added to the christian name John, and that the surname differs from that in the later inscription. One attempt only has been made to explain this difference. The late Dr. Smith discovered that the fourth letter is identical in form with the letter “v” in the word “evyn.”2 This is not apparent in the illustration, because the sloping upward stroke of the letter “v” in “evyn” has been broken away, and only the faintest trace of it remains. The further suggestion was made that the final letter was also the letter “v,” and that the spelling of the name was Morvv, or Morw. But the final letter is an unmistakeable “o,” similar in form to the second letter. The name is John Morvo. As the letter “v” was frequently used instead of “w,” Morvo was doubtless pronounced Morwo, or Morow.

… In many parts of Scotland – in Roxburghshire, in Perthshire, and elsewhere – Morow is still the local pronunciation for Murray or Moray. Many ways of spelling the name are preserved in old documents. It appears as Mwrray, Murrai, Murra, Murry, Murrave, Murref, Muref, Murreff, Murrefe, Morye,3 Mowrrey,4 or Murrafe…5

It is evident that John Morow or Murray was a Scotsman. That he was born in Paris does not alter that fact.6

The date. – It may be sufficient to note, at the present stage, that the character of the letters in the inscriptions and the style of the architecture in the building on which they are carved indicate the very end of the fifteenth century as the period when John Morow lived and wrought.

The emblem of life. – … The words of the inscription are grouped round a small delicately cusped panel, inclosing a shield, which occupies the centre of the lintel. The shield bears two compasses slightly opened and crossed in the manner of a saltire. There is a fleur-de-lis on each side and one at the base. It might be said that there is some indication of a fleur-de-lis in chief, but it is very slight. The shield is very much weather-worn.7 The device cannot be considered as heraldic. The compasses and fleurs-de-lis are used as symbols, – the compasses of the builder’s trade, – the fleurs-de-lis f France, the place of his birth.

The earliest, and also the most accurate,8 reference to the inscription which has been found is in Monteith’s Theater of Mortality, published in the year 1713 –

Sa gays the cumpas evyn about,

Sa trouth and laute – do but duite.

Behald to ye hende q. Johne Morvo.9

A few years later it appeared as –

Sa gays the Compaſs ev’n about.

So Truth and Laute do but doubt.

Behald to the End. John Murdo.10

It was not until the year 1832 that the following paraphrase of this later version was published: “as the compass goes round without deviating from the circumference, so, doubtless, truth and loyalty never deviate. Look well to the end, quoth John Murdo.”11 The compass is evidently understood here to mean the mathematical instrument with which circles are drawn. But the compass, so interpreted, is not a very appropriate emblem of constancy.

… It is possible that the inscription stood for some time in this fashion –

This, however, lacks the poetical form, which was almost universal in sayings of this kind, at the end of the fifteenth century, and there is considerable difficulty in presenting an interpretation. Although the carving of the phrase “do but dwte” presents many difficulties, it is almost certain that it was originally designed to form part of the inscription –


As the compass goes round, true and loyal to its centre, so, without doubt, truth and loyalty shall be maintained steadfastly. Have regard to the end in all things…

An autobiography. – The later inscription is carved on a small panel, 2 feet 4½ inches broad by 2 feet 1 inch high…

… St. John is the masons’ patron saint.12 Whilst it is impossible to determine whether the tablet was executed before or after Morow’s death, some grounds will be adduced for the belief that the inscription was his own composition.

It is important to observe that the inscription is in rhyme –


The statement is plain that John Morow was born in Paris. It would be wrong to assume that the phrase – “Ye hye Kyrk” – which is applied to St. Andrew’s, referred to the fact that St. Andrew’s was the sole metropolitan see in Scotland from the year 1471 until the year 1492,13 in which year Glasgow was raised to a similar dignity. The title might be applied to any cathedral church. The sentence with which the inscription closes is the expression of a personal prayer on the part of the author… Few architects of his day can have been so extensively employed as John Morow. He was engaged at St. Andrews, Glasgow, Melrose, Paisley, Nithsdale, and Galloway…


1 The age of Glasgow Cathedral, p.16, John Honeyman.
2 Proceedings of Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 166. 1856.
3 Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, index.
4 Rotuli Scotiae, vol. ii. p. 516.
5 Calendar of Documents relating to Scotland, by Joseph Bain, vol. iv. 1229.
6 Dr. Cameron Lees says he was of French descent. History of Paisley Abbey, p. 222.
7 There is a coloured drawing of this shield in the old masonic minute book of Melrose. It shews a fleur-de-lis in chief, but none at the base. The drawing was made about 1674… King Charles V. of France fixed the number of fleurs-de-lis on his shield at three, by an edict in the year 1376. (Woodward and Burnett’s Heraldry, p.329.) Many Scotsmen were granted the title to bear the three lilies of France for their valour during the wars of the fifteenth century.
8 Perhaps the most inaccurate is the latest. See the Master Masons to the Crown of Scotland, Rev. R. S. Mylne, 1893, p.7.
9 Taken from reprint of 1834, p.269.
10 A description of the parish of Melrose, Rev. Adam Milne, 1st ed. 1743; 2nd ed. 1748.
11 The Monastic Annals of Teviotdale, p.251, Rev. James Morton.
12 “The institution of St. John’s Lodge of Freemasons, Melrose, is said to be as far back as the building of Melrose Abbey in 1136 – one John Mordo… having been the first Grand Master.” Wade’s History of Melrose Abbey, p.106. 1841.
13 Hist. Scot., vol. iii. p.16 & 41, Hill Burton.
[Further information regarding this article and its associated notes can be found on pp.85-94, 170-171, 307-316, 341-364 & 364-374.]
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