It was a Norman convention of taking territorial-based surnames. As landowners became known by the name of the lands that they held, tenants living on the land would then also assume the name.
The name has variously appeared as: Moirheid, Moorehead, Moorhead, Mored, Morehead, Morheid, Mourheid, Muirhed, Muirheid, Muirheyd, Murehed, Murehede, Mureheide, Murhed, Murhede, Murheed, Murheid, Muyrheid, Mwirheid, Mwreheid, Mwrhed, Mwrheid, Mwrheyd and Mwrhied. As the branches of the family moved the spelling and pronunciation evolved.
The origin of the word Muirhead can not be said to be purely gaelic origin or Norman but most likely a combination. In gaelic ‘muir’ refers to the sea. Irish is also muir and Welsh is Mor. The second half of the name is not gaelic but English, so saying the head of the sea would not be correct in gaelic. So is Muir really from gaelic or did it come from Moor? There is also the suggestion that Mhuir us the gaelic word for the Mediterranean Sea, could it have merged with the Norman word then shortened? Also muirgheadh is the word for fishing spear in gaelic and symbols of fishing can be seen in some of the Muirhead heraldry.
In Scotland you will find quite a few places called Muirhead; there is the hamlet of Muirhead in the parish of Kettle, district of Cupar, Fife. There is also a hamlet of Muirhead in the parish of Liff, Benvie and Invergowrie, Forfar. Then another one in the parish of Cadder in the northern tip of the county or shire of Lanark. It is in the vicinity of the latter village that this family is believed to have originated on the Southern border of the Scottish Highlands.
These are the lands of Lauchope which is really seen as the starting point of the surname and we can find historical references pointing to this.
The Barony of Bothwell and Launchope
The first public record (according to Alexander Nisbet ) of anyone named Muirhead was a deed of Land granted by “Archibaldus Comes de Douglas, Dominus Galovidiæ & Bothwel, dicto ƒcutifero ƒuo Willielmo de Muirhead” dated 1393.
Sir William de Muirhead was said to have a reputation of being a man of great integrity. By being granted land he became laird of Muirhead of that-ilk, de Muirhead. The honour of Knighthood was also conferred on him by King Robert III.
Muirhead was a village located in The Barony of Bothwell which history shows was under the rule of the Norman, David de Oliphard (variously Oliphant) during the mid-12th Century. Nisbet says that the Moorhead family were ‘fixed’ in Bothwell before the Oliphants gained the Barony. The fact that the Muirheads didn’t take the Oliphants arms points to them being very well-to-do and indeed fixed. This was also the case with the Murrays who also held land nearby. Or even the Douglases when they succeeded to the Barony of Bothwell. The Muirheads remained constant and self defined.
It was in the Parish of Bothwell, that the lands of Lauchope and Lauchope House were located. And it was Lauchope that was first associated with the name of Muirhead.
The story of how the Muirheads then gained the land of Lauchope which lay just to the south of Muirhead is an interesting one, part of family legend.
The laird of Muirhead fought off and killed the infamous robber and killer Bartram de Shotts . Bartram had terrorized the region for years, to the point the government issued a proclamation saying whomever finds this man and kills him would be rewarded with land. The story goes … Muirhead set a trap for Bartram by stacking a big pile of heather at the spot this notorious villian used to you and get a drink. Bertram was initially wary of this big pile and checked it over but as time went by he became used to the pile and stopped checking it.
William Muirhead saw his chance and hid in the pile armed with his sword, as Bertram lay on the bank of the stream to get a drink of water, Muirhead quickly attacked him, slashing Bertram’s hamstrings – just behind his knees, Bertram was helpless.
Bertram is said to have laughed at Muirhead, who is reported to have said to him before he beheaded him with his sword, “Lauch up, for its yer last laugh!” . This is thought to be where the name Lauchope came from – well legend has it.
The laird carried the severed head to the king, who in the terms of the proclamation, ordered him a charter and interment of the lands that were later to be called Lachop. He also gained the additional honour to his arms, the three acorns in the ƒeed, on the bend dexter; for crest, two hands supporting a sword in pale, proper; and the motto, Auxilio Dei, which is born by the family to this day.
The arms of James Murehead of Lawchope
Lauchope House and the Muirheads
The Muirhead family possessed Lauchope House prior to 1570 when it was destroyed and was later owned by the Roberton family. The house, and all the family charters were burned by English dragoons because James Muirhead of Lauchope provided shelter to his brother-in-law, Hamilton of Bothellwelhaugh, the assassin of James, Earl of Moray and Regent of Scotland in January 1570.
Ruins of Lauchope House
Sir William Muirhead’s descendants retained Lauchope (variously spelt Lachop, Lauchop and Lauchope) until 1738 when this, the senior, branch of the Muirheads died out. Cadet branches emerged at Bredisholme and Herbertshire.
The Muirheads and The Battle of Flodden. September 9, 1513
The Muirheads were close to being wiped out because of the battle of Flooden where the Muirhead Laird/Clan Chief and over 200 of his name were killed, the adult male population of the Muirheads was decimated.
The Following Scottish ballad John Muirhead, Laird of Muirhead who fell at the Battle of Flodden (1513), and two hundred in his own name, while defending King James IV of Scotland against the England. Odly clashing with the legend of Bartram de Shotts it says Bertram was killed at Flodden?
The ballad, quoted by Sir Walter Scott in his “Minstreley of the Scottish Border”, is a Fragment of an ancient ballad related to the Battle of Flodden in which King James IV (1488-1513) of Scotland was Slain. The ballad was rescued from oblivion in Portugal by J. Grosset Muirhead, Builder of Bredisholm House in Glasgow, and is now on display at the oldest house in Glasgow, Built in 1471 by Bishop Grosset Muirhead, the First Provands Lordship of Glasgow.
THE LAIRD OF MUIRHEAD
Afore the king in order stude
The stout Laird o’ Muirhead
Wi’ that same twa-handed muckle sword
That Bartram fell’d stark dead.
He sware he widna lose his right
To field in ilka field;
Nor budge him frae his liege’s right
Till his last gasp should yield.
Twa hundred mair o’ his ain name,
Frae Torwood tae the Clyde,
Sware they would ne,er gang go hame
But a’ dee by his syde.
And wondrous sell they kept their troth;
This sturdy royal band
Rush’d doon the brae wi’sic a pith
That nane could them withstand.
Mony a bloody blow they dealt
The like was ne’er seen
And hadna’ that braw leader fall’n
They ne’er had slain the King.”
The Muirheads of Windyhills
Windyhills is a village located in the district of Closeburn in Dumfriesshire. It has been generally assumed that the Muirheads of Windyhills were not directly related to the Muirheads of Lauchope, Bredisholm and so forth. But there is evidence that various individuals who are known to have been members of the family of the Muirheads of Lauchope, over the years, purchased and owned lands not only in Lanarkshire, but also in Dumfriesshire. John Muirhead of Lauchope and Bullis is known to have acquired lands throughout Galloway, including lands at Wigtown. Also there is no village called ‘Muirhead’. The family called themselces ‘Muirhead of Windyhills’.
On 15 October, 1490 a charter was recorded at Edinburgh which transferred lands in the sheriffdom of Roxburgh from Robert Murehed of Le Wyndehillis to his son, George ‘servant’ of the King. Witnesses to this charter included Bishop Robert Murehede of Glasgow and Dean Richard Murehede of Glasgow, Clerk of the Rollo and Register of the Council. A George de Murhede had also been recorded as a witness to another charter four years prior, on 14 February, 1486.
On 29 March, 1502 John Murehede of Bulleis received a charter for lands at Wigtoun.
The Herbitshire Branch
The Herbertshire branch changed it’s name to Morehead, and the first person recorded to use the name was Thomas (or possibly William) Morehead, a descendant of the Muirheads of Lauchope in Lanarkshire (his grandfather had been factor at Lauchope) and a successful London merchant. He was one of the first residents of Cavendish Square in London and died without issue.
Mr and Mrs Thomas Morehead of Cavendish Square
His heir was his great nephew William Morehead who acquired the Herbertshire Castle estate in Lanarkshire in 1768 and married Isabella, daughter of John Lockhart of Castlehill (another prominent Lanarkshire family – see Lockhart) and great grand-daughter of Sir John Lockhart, Lord Castlehill. William Morehead was a founder member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was closely connected by kin, marriage and association with much of lowland Scottish society. The Herbertshire estate remained in the family hands until 1835.
William Morehead is described in the DNB entry for Francis, Lord Jeffrey, the scottish critic and lawyer (he was editor of the Edinburgh Review) as his “genial” uncle who provided a welcome home for the young Francis Jeffrey at Herbertshire Castle. “One charm of the house was a good library where Jeffrey extended his reading and self culture”.
The Muirheads of Bredisholme
The Muirhead of Bredisholme Arms were recorded as “argent, on a bend azure, three acorns or, a crescent for difference”. The crescent being the standard cadency mark for a second son. Although Paul does not record the Arms of the Muirheads of Lauchope (the senior branch of family).
The Muirheads of Lachop/Logie
Walter Grosset, of Logie, a large estate, owned by the Grosset family from 1711 to 1760, in the village of Crossford, near Dunfermline, in his volume, ‘An Account of the Family of the Muirheads of Lachop..” n/d., circa 1740, in similar fashion, outlined the Muirhead family history and the inter-familial connections with the Grosset family of Logie.
Walter’s mother, Euphemia Muirhead,also known as Lady Logie, the eldest of the six children born to James Muirhead and Helen Stewart, of Bredisholm, married Archibald Grosset, of Logie, circa 1707. When her four brothers failed to produce any heirs, the Muirhead line of descent then followed the female line, and one of her sons, James Grosset, a merchant prince of Lisbon, Portugal, in 1754 purchased the Bredisholm estate from his uncle, John Muirhead of Bredisholm [1676-1762] , and assumed the Muirhead surname and its coat of arms, for himself ‘and his posterity’. Among the descendants of John Grosset Muirhead is Dr. James Steuart Muirhead-Gould, one of the current elders of the clan. Logie has been in the possession of the Hunt family since 1788.
Other Notable Muirheads
The spelling is more common as Morehea in the US.
Bishop Andrew Muirhead (1455-1473) affixed a representation of his heraldic arms to the northside of the Nave of the Cathedral of Glasgow (which he adorned during his tenure as Bishop) which consisted primarily of the accepted heraldic devices of the Murihead family: three acorns on a bend; but it also included the image of salmon fishing.
Bishop Andrew Muirhead’s Coat of Arms can still be seen. John Muirhead, who hailed from Cambusnethan or Shotts parish in Lanarkshire and was a follower of Peden, is where a lot of the stories of Profit Peden come from. It was with Muirhead’s family that Pedan prayed with right at the end of his life, he and John were close friends. This was around the 1680s. Read more about Profit Peden >
James and John Muirhead were banished, in 1685, to the English colonies in North America because they refused to swear allegiance to King Charles II, an avowed Papist, and had fought against the British crown for their religious freedom as Covenanters at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.
John Motley Morehead – The Father of North Carolina
Engraving of John Motley Morehead. Image from the North Carolina Museum of History.
John Motley Morehead (July 4, 1796 – August 27, 1866) was the 29th Governor of the U.S. state of North Carolina from 1841 to 1845. He is known as “the Father of Modern North Carolina.”
A System Of Heraldry, by Nisbet (1742) Volume II: Appendix, pages 258-268; An Account Of The Muirheads Of Lachop, by Walter Grosett of Logie Burke’s Landed Gentry, (1846) The Morehead Family Of North Carolina And Virginia, by John Motley Morehead (1921) The Henry Muirheid/Muirhead Family Of Virginia & Mississippi, by Ray Jerome Muirhead (1989) Tree Top Baby: A Family Tree Of Moorhead And Strong, by Susan Moorhead / Nunes, Volume I (1984).