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Shairp, Sir John, of Houstonfree

(d. 1607)
  • Margaret H. B. Sanderson

Shairp, Sir John, of Houston (d. 1607), advocate, was the eldest son of James Shairp, baxter (baker), burgess of Edinburgh, and, probably, his wife, Janet Morys. He matriculated at St Leonard's College at the University of St Andrews in 1553, and graduated MA, probably in the late 1550s. Having accepted protestantism, Shairp was one of those recommended for the ministry to the general assembly of the church in December 1560, but had changed to the law by 8 January 1562, on which date he was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. His career coincided with a time of increasing numbers and professionalism in those practising at the Scottish bar. He was referred to as dean of the faculty in 1582. Throughout his practice he acted for, and gave legal advice to, the town council of Edinburgh, who on 16 October 1590 made him a burgess and guild-brother free, for his services to the town and in right of his late father.

Shairp had private clients in the professional, mercantile, and landowning community all over Scotland, for whom he not only appeared as an advocate in the courts, but also provided legal advice, drafted legal documents, and initiated legal proceedings. Like many other lawyers, and merchants, he loaned money at interest, taking land in security. About a hundred letters to him from clients and others have survived, forming a unique archive of a sixteenth-century Scottish advocate (NA Scot., Shairp of Houston muniments, GD30). His appearances as advocate in the court of session may be documented in the record of the decisions of that court, over 200 volumes for his working lifetime (NA Scot., registers of acts and decreets, CS7). He became a substantial landowner, purchasing property as far away as the Isle of Whithorn, and in Forfarshire (Angus) where he settled the lands of Ballindoch on a younger son. In 1569 he purchased the estate of Houston in Uphall parish, Linlithgowshire, where, about 1600, he began building a tower house (described as a 'fortalice' in the land transfer to his son).

Shairp was married three times. In his will of 1607 he refers to the children of his first two marriages. He and his first wife, Agnes Moffat (whom he had married by 25 March 1561), had three sons and two daughters, and he and his second wife, Euphemia, daughter of the Edinburgh merchant Alexander Acheson of Gosford, whom he married by a contract dated 14 December 1574, also had three sons and two daughters. In 1591 he married Margaret Collace, the widow of his second wife's cousin Walter Reid, commendator of Kinloss. His eldest son, James, developed a mental illness which prevented his succeeding to the estates, which passed to the second son, John, an advocate. Shairp's favourite son, Alexander, died in France in 1604 while studying at Poitiers. His eldest daughter, Anna, married William Little, 'a man baith honest and civil', but Shairp expressed himself 'somewhat disappointit' in the choice of his second daughter, Agnes. He did, however, accept the love match between his youngest daughter, Isobel, and Robert Dunbar, a relative of her stepmother, 'in respect of the honestie and trewth of the gentilman. I hoip … for ane happie success' (NA Scot., Shairp of Houston muniments, GD30/786). In 1604, while in London as a commissioner for discussions on the abortive parliamentary union between Scotland and England, Shairp was knighted by King James VI and I. He took ill in September 1607 and died at Houston on 10 October. His wife survived him. The burial aisle erected by his family at Uphall church still stands, as does Houston House, converted into a hotel. He left an estate valued at £57,305 Scots.


  • M. H. B. Sanderson, ‘John Shairp, advocate and laird of Houston’, Mary Stewart's people: life in Mary Stewart's Scotland (1987), 22–33
  • NA Scot., Shairp of Houston muniments, GD30
  • F. J. Grant, ed., The Faculty of Advocates in Scotland, 1532–1943, Scottish RS, 145 (1944), 189
  • registers of acts and decreets, NA Scot., CS7
  • John Knox's History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. W. C. Dickinson, 2 (1949), 47
  • The works of John Knox, ed. D. Laing, 6 vols., Bannatyne Club, 112 (1846–64), vol. 4, p. 337, n. 2
  • holograph will and settlement, NA Scot., Shairp of Houston muniments, GD 30/787
  • protocol book of Alexander Guthrie, 1557–61, NA Scot., B22/1/20, fol. 225


  • NA Scot., Shairp of Houston muniments

Wealth at Death

£57,305 3s. 4d. Scots, c. £4775 sterling: will and settlement, NA Scot., Shairp of Houston muniments, GD30/787

National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh