The Covenanter in the Cave: Traditions of Alexander Brown in Lesmahagow and Douglas
John Graham of Claverhouse is said to have attempted to capture him three times. However, Alexander Brown escaped by hiding in a dugout cave by a river bank. At least, according to tradition…
As has been stressed many times before, later traditions are not a reliable guide to the history of the Covenanters. They record how the Covenanters were recalled over a 150 years later, usually for religious and pedagogical purposes. The following tradition was published in Greenshields’ Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow in 1864. (See Appendix, p29.)
The Tradition of Alexander Brown
‘The following notice of Alexander Brown, a native of Muirkirk in Ayrshire, is taken from old manuscript papers and reports collected by friends and relations of the Covenanters of Lesmahagow. We give it nearly in the words of the original:—
Alexander Brown was a native of Muirkirk parish, and a farmer. He was cousin to John Brown of Priesthill. Their places of abode were contiguous and their intercourse great, and they often talked about the afflictions of the bleeding Church, which oppressors were trampling in the dust.
Brown was not recorded on the Fugitive Roll of 1684.
John Brown of Priesthill was summarily executed on the orders of John Graham of Claverhouse on 1 May, 1685. John Brown was a founding member of the United Societies. The Societies’ second convention was held at Priesthill.
‘Tradition has not named the year the following incident took place.
[John Graham of] Claverhouse and his troopers were scouring the muirland districts of Ayr and Lanark; but [Alexander] Brown had hitherto eluded their vigilance, notwithstanding Clavers’ determination to have him caught. One day Brown was a short distance from his own house when he saw the dragoons approaching. He was fully aware of their design; he knew that they saw him where he stood, and found that he could neither flee nor conceal himself. As he was not personally known to his enemies, he concluded that he might escape detection by assuming a cool and careless demeanour, so he walked deliberately towards the advancing troopers, as if anxious to see the military parade. This movement on his part completely lulled the suspicion of his foes.’
A common feature of traditions of the Covenanters were fugitives boldly approaching their pursuers to outwit them.
‘“Know you if Alexander Brown be within?” asked the leader of the party.
“Not at present,” replied Brown, with the air of indifference.
“He went out lately, and I have not seen him return.”
“He is surely in the house,” replied they, “and you want to conceal the fact.”
“What I tell you is truth,” replied the Covenanter. “I know that he is not in the house at present.”
Claverhouse ordered his men instantly to dash forward and surround the house, and not mind the stupid fellow. In an instant the soldiers were at work, and made a strict search in every corner. Claverhouse enraged at the disappointment, ordered his troops to set fire to the whole steading, and in a short time the flames were seen darting through the roof. At length the whole range of buildings was in a blaze; whilst the troopers were sent to watch in case Brown should escape to the mountains under cover of the smoke. In this, however, they were disappointed. The persecuted man witnessed from the hill the entire destruction of his humble dwelling. After this he wandered from place to place for many months, till his enemies abandoned the search as hopeless.’
A later tradition is not a reliable guide to history, but if the preceding events took place at all, then they probably took place either before, or at that same time as, the death of John Brown of Priesthill on 1 May, 1685.
‘After this he engaged himself as a shepherd at Carmacoup, a few miles from Douglas.’
A testament of Sarah Braidfoot, spouse to James Haddow, in Carmacope’ dates to 16 November, 1687.
Carmacoup lies in Douglas parish, Lanarkshire.
A Second Encounter with Claverhouse
‘How long he remained there is not recorded in this scrip. There were enemies, treacherous men, who, for a sum of money, were willing to betray him. Claverhouse being apprised of his retreat, marched with great secrecy and expedition to Carmacoup. Brown seeing him coming rushing along the hill towards the house, which he had only left a few minutes before, threw himself in their way, as he had done on a former occasion, and quite composedly answered their questions respecting the man they were in search of, and the likelihood of his being found at Camacoup. Claverhouse hasted on his way, followed by his men, and thus Brown was again favoured with a deliverance when within the very grasp of his enemies.’
‘Finding the Carmacoup was no longer a safe retreat, he fled to the Hawkshaw hills, where he hid himself for a few days in the wild morasses.’
The area of Hackshaw, or Hagshaw, lies around Hagshaw Hill and the Hagshaw Burn, which runs north to join the Poniel Burn at South Bankend.
Brown at Cleuchbrae
‘He then removed to Cleughbrae, a farmhouse in the parish of Lesmahagow, two or three miles west from the Hawkshaw hills, on the Nethan water, the banks of which on either side are steep and clothed with wood of different kinds.’
‘Cleughbrae, at the time to which our narrative refers, was possessed by a very worthy family of the name Lean [or Linn] whose door was always open to the lonely wanderer, who for Christ’s sake had lost all that was dear to them on earth.’
Cleuchbrae was not a significant farm in the Lesmahagow parish. The 1695 Poll Tax records for Lesmahagow lists only a ‘William Lean, elder, in Cleuchbrae’. He may have been the father of Beatrix Lean and her sisters. (Greenshields, Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow, 169.)
‘Here Brown met with a cordial reception. Lean’s family consisted of four daughters, one of them [Beatrix Lean?] being the sweetheart of Alexander Brown; but the precarious times prevented them from marrying.’
If the story of Brown and his sweetheart is true, it would have been their adherence to the Covenanted cause and his possible fugitive status that inhibited their marriage by Alexander Douglas, the “curate” of Lesmahagow parish. (Fasti, III, 314.)
‘It was agreed between them that he should retire to some secluded spot not far off, as Cleughbrae was a suspected house, being in the neighbourhood of Skellyhill, Waterside, Yondertoun, and Over Stockbriggs, places which Claverhouse had often visited, and where parties of his dragoons for weeks resided.
It being necessary that he should leave the house of his kind friends, the Leans, for fear of discovery, the next thing was to find a hiding place as near them as possible. Brown, assisted chiefly by his sweetheart, dug a cave in the opposite bank of the Nethan, among the bushes, and in full view of the house, where a signal hung in some particular spot when danger was apprehended, would warn him to conceal himself more closely. The operation was carried out very quietly during the night; Brown digging out the earth, which his sweetheart carried to some distance and buried up with leaves, so that no trace might be found that might lead to any suspicion.’
The location sounds like it lay on the farm of Over Stockbriggs, rather than at Cleuchbrae. One wonders if anything remains to substantiate the location of the dugout.
‘At last the cell was finished, and the entrance so completely concealed by the branches of the thickly tangled wood, that it baffled the strictest search of the soldiery. In this cave he remained for two years, and she, his companion, visited nightly this lonely abode with a supply of provisions, when they had many an hour of sweet counsel together; and in the long dark nights he frequently visited the hearth of his friends at Cleughbrae; and in case of surprise he had a way of escape from the back of the house into the hollow of the Nethan, where he could creep quietly into his den without being observed. However, he was tolerably secure at Cleughbrae, as none ever saw him, or had any suspicion of his being there, except a few in whom confidence could be placed.’
The time span of Brown’s hiding at Cleuchbrae suggests that he may have hidden there between 1685 and 1687, i.e., until James VII introduced toleration and the pace fo presession slacked.
‘John Black of the Redshaw, in the parish of Douglas, wished to engage Brown for his shepherd, but could not prevail on him to leave his place of security and peace, and expose himself again to his enemies. Mr Black paid him another visit six months afterwards, and succeeded in persuading him to leave his retirement. With much regret he took leave of his friends and sweetheart at Cleughbrae.’
Brown at Redshaw
‘He had not long been at Redshaw when his troubles began, for Claverhouse was again in search of him.’
After Claverhouse was promoted to ‘Brigadier of Horse and Foot in Scotland’ on 18 May, 1685, he does not appear to have been active in the hunt for fugitives after that date. (Dalton, Scots Army, 165.)
Redshaw was not the best of hiding places, as roads to Douglas and Edinburgh lay on each side of it.
‘One Sabbath morning, when he was going out to look after his sheep, he saw a company of dragoons coming over the hills from Douglas. Seeing no chance of escape, he committed himself to Him who had hitherto protected him; and summoning up all his courage, he whistled up his dog, set his gude bluie bonnet firm on his head, and threw his plaid over his shoulder, then with a jovial air began to sing a cheerful Scotch tune at the top of his voice, which lively strain attracted the notice of the dragoons, who at once concluded that this could not be the man they were in search of, as no sober Covenanter could profane the Sabbath in such a way. When they came up to him they scarcely slacked their speed, but one of them cried “That at least is not Alexander Brown; he would not be going on in that kind of way on the Sabbath morning.” The whole company passed by without taking any further notice of him, when he betook himself to a deep hag in the neighbouring hill and hid himself. The dragoons soon arrived at Redshaw in pursuit of him, and after ransacking every corner of the steading they returned to Douglas. This was the last time our worthy was in danger, as the Revolution [of 1688] took place soon after, which at once emancipated the country from bondage.
After the Revolution
After the danger was over, Brown returned to sympathise with his friend at Redshaw, who had sustained much loss on his account by the spoilers, being reckoned a suspicious character for harbouring such men as Brown in house. Shortly after this, when the times became more quiet, the lovely companion of Brown’s solitude became his wife, as they had been already united both in affection and principle. They took up at a place called the “Wee Redshaw”, had a large family, and both died at a good old age, and were buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Douglas. Their descendents are numerous in the parishes of Douglas and Lesmahagow.’
An Alexander Brown married a Beatrix Lean in Lesmahagow parish on 16 December, 1692. The minister involved was Thomas Linning, who had been hurriedly ordained after Renwick’s death. Linning reunited with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in late 1690 and took up the vacant charge at Lesmahagow in May, 1691. (Fasti, III, 314.)
Thomas Linning, his wife, Margaret Kerr, and two of their children, Robert and Barbara, all appear on the Poll Tax Roll for Lesmahagow parish. Margaret Ker was the sister of Daniel Ker of Kersland. Listed with them are Linning’s sister, Joan Linning, and a Marion Kerr, possibly a sister of Margaret, and a third servant, Archibald Campbell. (Greenshields, Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow, 172.)
Neither Alexander Brown, nor Beatrix Lean, appear on the 1695 Poll Tax record for Lesmahagow parish.
Redshaw and Cleughbrae?
The farm of Wee, or Little, Redshaw may be the ruins of a rig and furrow farm which lies in the moor above Douglas close to the head of the Long Burn. It appears on Roy’s map of the 1750s as ‘Hirdshouse’, i.e., the home of shepherd, but had disappeared by the nineteenth century. Roy’s map also shows two sets of buildings at Redshaw, one of which may be Wee, or Little, Redshaw.
Redshaw and the ruins of ‘Hirdshouse’ also lie to the east of the Arnesalloch Burn beside which lay another farm, and possibly a mill, called either Cleughbrae, or Cleuchbrae. The site of that Cleughbrae is now shrouded in Weston Wood. It lies between Carmacoup and Redshaw.
It may, or may not, be a coincidence, but according to another tradition recorded by Simpson, a Covenanter called James Gavin hid in a well-concealed cave by the side of the Arnesalloch Burn. Images of the cave can be found here. (Simpson, Traditions, 168-74.)
Simpson’s version of the tradition about Alexander Brown can be found here.
Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved.