Martyred at Mauchline: The Secret History of John Browning or John Binning, Covenanter
John Browning or Binning (d.6 May 1685)
Browning’s identity is a matter of some confusion as he is known in different sources as either John Browning in Lanfine or John Brounen, Brouning, Bruning, Buiening or Binning, although all the sources may refer to the same individual.
Two naming conventions probably created the confusion. The first naming convention, drawn from Alexander Shields and Patrick Walker, who was probably using Shields as a source, refers to a John Buiening/Binning as the name of a martyr. The second naming convention, which draws on the documentary evidence of the Fugitive Roll, Claverhouse and a will, and on local tradition and the inscription of the original gravestone, refer to a John Browning, Brouning, Bruning or Brounen as a Covenanter and in one case, as the later martyr. Those naming conventions have often led to the identification of Browning/Buiening as separate individuals, when the naming conventions clearly converge at key points and appear to refer to the same man.
He was probably the John Browning, ‘younger of Riccarton’, in Galston parish, Ayrshire, who was listed on the published Fugitive Roll in May, 1684. The implication of the evidence of the Fugitive Roll is that Browning was the son of a tenant farmer. His father, another John Browning, ‘elder in Riccarton’ was also listed on the Roll. A James Browning in Richardton was also apprehended after one of Renwick’s preachings in 1686.
Riccarton, now Richardton, lies adjacent to Lanfine (NS 551 366). It also lies right next to the farm of John Richmond, younger of Knowe, a Societies’ martyr executed in Glasgow on 19 March 1684. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 207; Thomson (ed.), CW, 339.)
Both John Brownings were part of an extensive Cameronian kin network which connects the Society people around Lesmahagow parish with those in Galston and Fenwick parishes. The younger John Browning is said to be the nephew of John Brown of Priesthill, the Societies’ activist who was infamously shot by John Graham of Claverhouse and his dragoons on 1 May, 1685. If he was his nephew, as seems likely, then it must have been through his father’s marriage to a younger sister of Brown of Priesthill. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 45.)
In the will of Brown of Priesthill’s first wife, Jonet Richart (d. June 1678), a ‘herd laddie’ known as ‘John Brouning’ is mentioned as owed a fee and Patrick Walker, who knew John Brown’s second wife, Isobel Weir, also described the John Binning later executed at Mauchline as a herd lad. (Hewison, Covenanters, II, 471; Walker, BP,I, 260.)
John Brown of Priesthill was one of the founding fathers of the United Societies and his farm at Priesthill, on the border of Muirkirk parish in Ayrshire with Lesmahagow parish in Lanarkshire, was the location for the Societies’ second convention in March 1682. Wodrow’s claim that Brown of Priesthill was ‘in no way obnoxious to the government, except for not hearing the episcopal ministers’ is laughable. Throughout his account he makes no mention of Brown’s involvement in the United Societies who were certainly obnoxious to the government. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 45; Wodrow, History, IV, 245.)
John Browning from Galston parish and John Binning the martyr.
In March 1685, ‘John Browning of Lanfine’ was involved in the rescue of Society people taken prisoner after a raid on a prayer meeting at James Paton’s farm at Little Blackwood in Fenwick parish. Of the twelve members of a society seized in the raid, one, James White, was shot dead and later decapitated with an axe, John Gemmel and two others escaped, James Finlay, who had been wounded in the raid, Paton and six others were imprisoned in Newmilns Tower, also known as the Ducat Tower. (Pictured at the top of this post.)
A few weeks later, Browning led a force of close to sixty local Society people to attack the Newmilns tower, probably on Saturday 25 April. After raiding a blacksmiths at Darvel, the Covenanters forced entry into the tower and rescued the prisoners. One of the attackers, John Law, was shot dead as they forced their way in. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 147-51; NSA, V, 838; Archibald M’Kay, The History of Kilmarnock, I, 63-5; James Paterson, History of the County of Ayr, II, 318.)
After the attack on the Ducat tower, it appears that Browning fled straight to Priesthill, as John Graham of Claverhouse records that John Brounen arrived there on Sunday morning, i.e. probably 26 April, 1685.
On the morning of Friday 1 May, John Brown of Priesthill had parted from Alexander Peden and perhaps James Nisbet, the son of John Nisbet of Hardhill, although the latter appears to have left a few days earlier. Later that same morning, Claverhouse, who was possibly operating with Highland troops, came across John Brown and John Brounen in the moss between Plewands and Douglas and pursued them until they were captured. They were then taken to Priesthill where Brown was shot by Claverhouse for refusing to take the Abjuration oath and denying the king.
Claverhouse’s letter to William Douglas, duke of Queensberry, regarding ‘John Brounen’ of Sunday 3 May offers a rare insight into the United Societies in the area and John Browning or Brounen. It is worth quoting at length:
‘John Brounen, offered to take the [Abjuration] oath; but would not swear that he had not been at Neumilles [Newmilns] in armes at the rescuing the prisoners. So I did not knou what to doe with him. I was convinced that he was guilty, but saw not hou to proceed against him; wherfor after he had said his prayers and carabins presented to shoot him, i offered to him that if he would make ane ingeneous confession and make a discoverie that might be of importance for the King’s service, I should delay puting him to death, and plead for him; upon which he confessed that he was at that attack at Neumilles, and that he had com straight to this house of his uncles on Sunday morning.
In the mean time he was making the souldiers found out a house in the hille under ground, that could hold a dusen men, and there were swords and pistolles in it; and this fellu declaired that they belonged to his uncle, and that he had lurked in that place ever since Bothwell, where he was in armes.
He confessed that he had ane halbart and told who gave him it about a month agoe, and we have the feleou prisoner.
He gave account of the names of the most pairt of those that wer there. They were not above sixty, and they wer all Gaston and Neumilles men, saive a feu of Streven parish.
He gave also acount of a conventicle keeped by Renek at the bak of Carantable, where there wer threttin scor  of men in armes mustered and exercised, of which number he was with his hallard.
He tells of ane other conventicle about three moneths agoe keeped near Loudon Hille, and gives acount of the persons wer at both and what childring wer baptised, particularly that at Carntable, which was about the time that Leiv: Muray and Crichton should have laiten them eskeap.
He also gives acount of those who gave any assistance to his uncle, and we have seized there upon the good man of the upmost Plewlands and ane tenant about a mile belou, that is flaid upon it. I dout not but if we had time to stay, good use might be made of his confession’. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 207-8.)
Having seen his uncle shot, Brounen offered to take the Abjuration, but was faced with the firing squad in a ruthless piece of interrogation technique until he confessed to attending Renwick’s conventicles at Loudoun Hill, the mustering behind Cairntable and the attack at Newmilns.
The conventicle ‘near’ Loudoun Hill, was probably Renwick’s preaching to a ‘great company’ at the Moor of Evandale ‘a short time before the accession of James’ VII and II in early February, 1685. It appears to have taken place immediately prior to the meeting of eighteenth convention at Auchengilloch on 12 February, probably on 11 February. Auchengilloch, lies east of Loudoun Hill in Lanarkshire. (Simpson, Traditions, 29.)
The mustering and conventicle held by Renwick at the back of Cairntable that Brounen attended with his halberd appears to have been held in the weeks prior to the Newmilns attack.
Quite clearly, Wodrow’s image of Brown of Priesthill innocently cutting peats when Claverhouse descended is quite ridiculous. He may have been cutting peats, but he was hiding Brounen. (Wodrow, History, IV, 245.)
Claverhouse was in no doubt that if he had time to stay in the area ‘good use might be made’ of Brounen’s confession. Plainly, Brounen had turned intelligencer and provided useful information to government forces that directly led to the apprehension of two men and betrayed a large number other local Society people who were involved in conventicles, the attack at Newmilns and had aided his uncle.
Brounen’s comprehensive betrayal of the Societies would have been a major breakthrough for the government forces in the locality. However, in doing so, he had brought himself under the terms of the Societies’ Apologetical Declaration against Intelligencers which threatened intelligencers with death. This left Brounen in the near-impossible position of potentially being killed by either government forces or by his brethern in the Societies. However, his fate was not in his hands.
In his letter, Claverhouse, reveals that he had delivered Brounen to Lieutenant General William Drummond of Cromlix for further questioning and trial. He probably passed Brouning on to Drummond at Mauchline on 2 or 3 May. He also went on to plead for Brounen with Queensberry – saying he had only been a month or two with his halberd – but in a noncommittal fashion, as he left the decision on Brounen’s fate entirely to Queensberry. (Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 207-8; Hewison, Covenanters, II, 472-4.)
Claverhouse probably played no part in Brounen’s trial, as he states on 3 May that he did not have ‘time to stay’ to deal with Brounen and by 10 May he was operating in Annandale.
At some point in May, Queensberry must have given Drummond instructions as to how to deal with Brounen/Binning, as Brounen and four others – John Brice, Peter Gillies, William Finneson and Thomas Young, who had been brought to Mauchline by the Highlanders – were executed.
According to Defoe, the five men had not been gathered up by Claverhouse, but were summarily tried and executed at Claverhouse’s head quarters at Mauchline. (Defoe, History of the Church of Scotland, 250.)
However, Defoe’s version of events is flatly contradicted by Claverhouse’s letter which states that Brounen had been delivered to Drummond and the decision left to Queensberry.
According to Walker, a ‘John Binning waiting upon cattle, without stocking or shoe’ was apprehended by the Highlanders making their way west in early May 1685 and hanged at Mauchline with Brice, Gillies, Finneson and Young. (Walker, BP,I, 260.)
Walker claims to have known the four others executed, but did not claim to know Binning. He may not have realised that John Binning was the same individual as John Brounen, the nephew of Brown of Priesthill, although his description of him as a herd lad is similar to the description of ‘John Brouning’ in the will.
Walker makes no connection between Binning and Brouning, and curiously makes no mention of him in his version of the shooting of Brown of Priesthill, when it is clear from Claverhouse’s letter that Brounen was involved. (Walker, BP, I, 72-5.)
Walker either failed to make the connection between them or was being evasive on the identity of Binning/Brounen, perhaps because Binning had turned intelligencer. The former explanation is entirely possible, as Walker may well have been using Alexander Shields’ A Short Memorial (1690) as a source for Binning’s martyrdom and would not have known about the contents of Claverhouse’s letter. According to Alexander Shields, ‘John Buiening’ and four others were hanged by Highlanders at Mauchline in May 1685. (Shields, A Short Memorial, 34. Is ‘Buiening’ a typesetting error for Brouning?)
However, the latter explanation for Walker’s failure to make the connection between Binning/Brounen is worthy of consideration. By betraying the Societies, Binning/Brounen may have damned his memory. For some, Brounen/Binning may have sat very uneasily among the other martyrs, as intelligencers were often named and shamed by presbyterian sources and on martyrs’ gravestones. It was perhaps easier for Walker, not to connect the evidence between the two names and record Binning as the poor herd lad he may have been in 1678.
The final piece of naming evidence comes from the inscription of the original gravestone marking their deaths, as recorded by Gibson and Cloud of Witnesses. Their record of a ‘John Bruning’ as one of the five martyrs connects Walker’s ‘Binning’ to the Brounen/Browning trail of evidence.
In summary, John Bruning was Claverhouse’s John Brounen, Walker’s John Binning and Shields’ John Buiening. John Bruning/Brounen/Binning/Buiening was John Browning, the nephew of John Brown of Priesthill. In short, John Bruning/Brounen/Binning/Buiening/Browning all refer to the same individual.
The gravestone of the martyrs in Mauchline also gives some indication of the legal process that Binning/Bruning faced, but it also adds to the confusion over of who was responsible for their execution and when it happened. According to Cloud, the original inscription read:
‘Here lies the bodies of Peter Gillies, John Bryce, Thomas Young, William Fiddison, and John Bruning who were Apprehended and Hanged Without Trial at Mauchline, Anno 1685, according to the then Wicked’s Laws for their Adhearance to the Covenanted Work of Reformation Rev xii II. [Revelations 12.11: ‘And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death.’]’
‘Bloody Dumbarton, Douglas and Dundee
Moved by the Devil and the Laird of Lee,
Dragged these five men to Death with gun and suord,
Not Suffering them to Pray nor Read God’s Word.
Ouning the Work of God was all their Crime.
The Eighty Five Was a Saint Killing Time.’
(Thomson (ed.), CW, 588; Thomson, MGoS, 161-2; Campbell, Standing Witnesses, 140.)
At least in Bruning’s case, the inscription probably overstates why he was executed. He was probably not executed for refusing the Abjuration oath, unless he had changed his mind. In all likelihood he was executed for the treasonable offence of attacking the King’s forces.
Wodrow states that they were hanged on 6 May, 1685. Neither A Short Memorial nor the inscription on the gravestone in Mauchline give a precise date; Shields’ only states that it was in ‘May’ and the gravestone dates their execution to ‘1685’. (Shields, A Short Memorial, 34; Thomson (ed.), CW, 588; Wodrow, History, IV, 245.)
There is also the problem of who sentenced them to death, if Wodrow’s date of execution is correct. As Claverhouse makes plain, the fate of at least Brounen was passed into the hands of Queensberry and Drummond, but the poem on the gravestone lists the names of others held responsible. Claverhouse and Cromwell Lockhart of Lee were certainly involved in the apprehension of the prisoners, but probably not in their execution if it was on 6 May.
Long ago, Hewison also pointed out that the involvement of George Douglas, earl of Dumbarton, in any trial on 6 May was impossible, as the newly commissioned Dumbarton was expected to arrive (in Edinburgh?) from London on 13 May. Hewison suggested that 16 May was a more likely date for their execution. (Hewison, Covenanters, II, 478.)
The basis for Wodrow’s date appears to be the indictment of Peter Gillies for his treasonable crimes at Mauchline tolbooth on 5 May, 1685. Gillies and the others may have been tried and found guilty on 5 May, but that does not mean that they were immediately put to death, either on 5 May or the next day. They could, especially given Brounen’s known willingness to cooperate, have been held in prison after their initial hearing before Drummond while the judgement was sent up upstairs to Queensberry or Dumbarton for further instruction or judgement. (Wodrow, History, IV, 246.)
If we set Wodrow’s date to one side, things may become clearer. From the evidence of Claverhouse’s letter and the indictment, their executions must have been after 5 May and probably before c.20 May, when the government forces in the West turned their efforts towards dealing with the Argyll Rising. It is worth noting that all of those executed were already prisoners. On 6 May, emergency legislation was passed by parliament ordering all prisoners indicted for treason to be dealt with within two days. If they were executed in mid May, say c.10 May, it would fit with a pattern of government forces quickly executing prisoners accused of treason in the immediate aftermath of the emergency legislation passed to deal with the Argyll Rising. However, in my own view, the most likely date for the executions remains Wodrow’s date of 6 May. (Jardine, ‘United Societies’, I, 128, 138, 251-2.)
For a discussion of Drummond’s entry into the West and the other Mauchline martyrs, see here.
According to the inscription and tradition, they were swiftly executed with no time for prayers, bible reading or speeches. No martyrs’ testimonies from Binning or any of the others executed has survived. All five were buried below the gallows.
In 1830 the original gravestone was replaced by new gravestone measuring 12′ by 6′ erected by public subscription on what was then still ‘a small common on the outskirts of Mauchline’. In 1885 an obelisk was placed on the burial site and the gravestone removed thirteen metres and inserted into the wall of a primary school shed. Recently, the monuments’ setting has changed again with the refurbishment of Mauchline Primary School. Streetview provides the evidence and lets you wander round the site.
Text © Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.