The History of John Brown of Priesthill

The story of the killing of John Brown in Priesthill was a staple of traditions of the Covenanters. In 1839, James Brydone, who published a series of chapbooks, printed The History of John Brown of Priesthill, commonly called the Christian Carrier, who was Murdered by the Bloody Claverhouse (Edinburgh, 1839).

As history, the chapbook on Brown leaves a lot to be desired. It is biassed, idealised and lacking in accuracy, but it does contain a number of traditions about John Brown, the Steel family and James Renwick, which are not recorded elsewhere.

The author of the chapbook is not identified, however, the text does contain several references to traditions and locations both in, and around, Lesmahagow parish. Some of the information it contains about local martyrs appears to have come from Charles Thomson’s unpublished ‘Notices etc’ of 1832.

John Brown

‘HISTORY OF JOHN BROWN.

John Brown of Priesthill was only a boy when upwards of three hundred ministers were deposed, in one day [after the Restoration], by Charles II.; because they, in conscience, could not submit that the Church should be lorded over by bishops. Often did he describe the distress that prevailed in the country on that occasion; and the anguish and weeping throughout the churches, on the Sabbath their ministers preached their farewell sermons. It was heart-rending to part with such men, so remarkable for grace, eminent for gifts, many of them learned, and all of them singularly dear to their people. “None of them were scandalous, insufficient, or negligent, and the fruits of their ministry were everywhere conspicuous. You might have travelled many miles without hearing an oath. You scarce could lodge in a house where God was not worshipped. But that a dreadful reverse was felt when Prelacy was introduced by arbitrary means. It was like King Saul’s change — a bad spirit after a good.”

“It is something remarkable, that every time that Prelacy was established in Scotland, it was accompanied with persecution of the Church, taking away the rights of the people, and degeneracy in the moral character of the nation. The discipline of the Presbyterians was too strict for the king and his councillors. The bishops were ambitious, and attained power and riches, by flattering the great, and passing over their sins. They justified the wicked for reward; and their curates were the dregs of society, ignorant and wicked. Many of the bishops had sworn, along with the king and his nobles, to support the Church they had overturned. It was no wonder though they were regarded as coming in with perjury written on their foreheads; where holiness to the Lord had formerly been.” The consequence was, that the churches were deserted; and the ministers, still bound by God’s laws to their people, taught them from house to house. This the bishops could not bear, and fell to their former practice of making laws against them. The laws against non-conformity, says Defoe, were so extraordinary, and savoured so much of a spirit of persecution, were in themselves so unjust, and in some things so unnatural, that none can wonder though they sometimes drove the poor people to desperation. “They suffered extremities that cannot be described, and which the heart can hardly conceive of, from hunger, nakedness, and the severity of the weather; where it is known how unsufferable the cold is, lying in damp caves, without covering, fire, or food. None durst harbour, speak to them, or relieve them, but upon the pain of death.”

The whirlwind of persecution carried the seeds of salvation where the influence of the Reformation had not reached. The Scottish border, proverbial for freebooters or robbers, felt the divine effects of the banished ministers. They were there harboured without fear or dread of laws, and kindly entertained. The inhabitants of the heath-covered moors, and the distant isles of the sea, were made glad, and blossomed as the rose. Thus, the scattering of the ministers made new inroads upon Satan’s kingdom. The gospel flourished, though driven from temples made with hands. Many date their conversion from the glad tidings they heard in these wilds, saying with the Psalmist, Lo! we heard of thee at Ephratah, we found thee in the field of the wood.

John Brown of PriesthillAn imagined image of John Brown of Priesthill

It was from these banished ministers that John Brown received his superior education. He was intended for the Church, had not an uncommon difficulty of expressing his sentiments to strangers prevented him from prosecuting his studies. But what was strange, in prayer he was gifted in an extraordinary measure. In such scriptural language did he pour forth his soul, and at the same time with such variety, fluency, and affection, that he appeared like one superhuman. Many have a gift of prayer, whose lives bespeak them far from the kingdom of heaven. Such was not Priesthill. His actions with men were just and judicious; so much so, that he was intrusted, when a very young man, with the produce of the neighbouring shepherds, to carry to market and dispose of, and bring back what they required in return. In this capacity he got the name of the Christian Carrier; and was often the first that brought them tidings of the mischief that was framed by law against the Presbyterians.

He wan merely a youth at the rising of Pentland [in 1666]; and not having been either at the battle of Drumclog or Bothwell [in 1679], he could evade with ease the ensnaring questions that every traveller was required to answer; by which means he passed to and fro unmolested.

John Brown’s good education was not lost; besides being a source of enjoyment to himself, it was a benefit to the youth for miles around him, who were then much neglected. No faithful minister was left to instruct them. The fathers who used to tell the children what great things the Lord had done for Scotland, were either banished or had suffered death. To counteract the bad example of the wicked, who now walked on every side, since vile men were high in place, every Monday night he met with these young persons, and instructed them from the Bible and the Confession of Faith. In summer they assembled in a sheep-bught, and in winter they formed a circle wide around a large fire of peats and cannel-coal, that blazed in the middle of the spence-floor. The effects of the substantial information these rustics got, is felt to this day in that neighbourhood. John Brown was not alone in this good work; David [Steel in Cumberhead] and William Steel [son of John in Rogerhill] were helpmates.

It was about the year 1680, that Priesthill got acquainted with Isabell Weir, in the parish of Sorn. She was a very superior woman, though her disposition was the very reverse of his: she was lively and humorous, and could cheer up his grave countenance till he was as animated as herself; at other times she would sit and listen to the good sense of his conversation with the simplicity of a child. She saw him often, for he had frequently business to transact with her father, when he passed to and from Ayr. They often talked of Zion’s trouble; and what was remarkable, when he sought her in marriage, he told her he felt a foreboding in his mind that he would one day be called to seal the Church’s testimony with his blood. If it should be so, she nobly answered, through affliction and death I will be your comfort. The Lord has promised me grace, and he will give you glory.

After this, the indulged ministers had gone so far in the course of defection, that the more conscientious sufferers had none they could hear after the death of Cameron and Cargil. They resolved to form themselves into societies, to meet quarterly, of members delegated from their weekly prayer-meetings. The second of these quarterly meetings took place at Priesthill, February 1682, [actually March, 1682] where they made a contribution to send a young man to Holland, to be licensed as preacher to them. The fruits of this brought forward Mr [James] Renwick, of glorious memory. And these meetings, for no other end than to enjoy the liberty of serving God, free from the impositions of men, were counted seditious, and the members punished with death. What a dreadful state was Scotland in then, when God’s people were counted her enemies!

Marriage of the Covenanter

About two months after this [in June], Priesthill was married by Mr [Alexander] Peden, who happened to be in Kyle baptizing children. The marriage took place in a glen near the house. When Isabell [Weir] and her company arrived at the spot, they were surprised at the assembly gathered. Mr Peden welcomed her, and said, these are to be witnesses of your vows; they are all friends, and have come at the risk of their lives to hear God’s Word, and to countenance his ordinance of marriage. After all was over, Mr Peden took Isabell aside, and said, “You have got a good husband, value him highly, keep linen for a winding-sheet beside you, for in a day when you least expect it, thy master will be taken from thy head. In him the image of our Lord and Saviour is too visible to pass unnoticed by those who drive the chariot wheels of persecution through the breadth and length of bleeding Scotland. But fear not, thou shalt be comforted.”

There is something in the human heart that puts the evil day far away. She could not think it possible that one so blameless as her husband could be considered an enemy to any. However, the kind warning had this good effect on them both, that none of the trifles that make such havoc upon domestic peace were regarded by them.

John Brown had, by a former wife, a little girl about five years of age [called Jennie/Janet Brown], who, on the morning after his marriage, lifted the latch of the spence-door, and finding Isabell alone, said, while she covered her face shyly with her arm, “They say ye are my mother.” “What if I should be your mother?” replied Isabell. “Naething; but if I thought ye were my mother, I would like to come in aside you a wee,” said Jennie, with artless simplicity. “I hope I will be your mother, my bairn, and that God will give me grace to be so, and that you will be a comfort to me and your father.” And she proved so. When but a child, she was a help and pleasure to them. She would watch her father’s return, and as soon as she saw his pack-horse (there being no carts in those days) at a distance, coming along the bent, she would announce the joyful tidings. Then the gudewife hasted, and made ready his milk porridge, had them dished, covered with a clean cloth, and warm water to wash his weary feet, a blazing fire, a clean hearth; and she and Janet [Brown] would go out and welcome him home, and help him off with his horse’s load.

The domestic peace and comfort of Priesthill are talked of to this day; and many anecdotes are told, and one among the rest, that illustrates the precept of hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. The second year after his marriage, one night in the beginning of winter [i.e, the Great Frost of 1683 to 1684], John Brown had gone to a neighbour’s house: the family at home were preparing the wool of their flocks for hodden grey cloth, to sell at Lowrie’s fair in Hamilton. The shepherd carded the black and white wool together, for the women to spin; Janet and the herd-boy were teasing for the carder; the gudewife sat nursing her first-born son at one side of the fire; when the dog, which lay at full length at the other, started up, and ran to the door, barking at the approach of a stranger. Isabell thought it would be her husband returned, and was about to rise to meet him. Janet and the herd were almost as soon at the door as the dog, and calling to him, “Whisht, Collie, whisht, ye mu’na speak to the unco man.” The herd caught the dog in his arms, and returned with him into the house, while Janet followed, leading a stranger, first looking to her mother for encouragement, and then to her guest. She led him to her father’s chair with a courtesy that seemed to give rise to strong emotions in his heart.

The stranger was young in years, of a little stature, and fine fair countenance, but he was pale with fatigue and sickness. His shoes were worn out; a shepherd’s plaid hung round him, seemingly for disguise, for by his dress and speech he seemed of a superior rank. While the servants gazed on him, the gudewife did not know whether she should welcome him as a sufferer, or consider him as a spy; so she left Janet to perform the kind offices which the stranger required, while she lulled her boy to sleep, by singing a verse of an old song.

While the gudewife sang, the stranger’s face brightened up, and he more cheerfully accepted the child’s endearing attentions, who placed him in the warmest corner, helped him off with his dreeping plaid, imitating all the kind offices she had seen her mother perform to her father, to the no small amusement of the rest of the family. On the stranger it had a different effect. He burst into tears, and cried, “May the blessing of him that is ready to perish rest upon you, my dear bairn. Surely God has heard my cry, and provided me a place to rest my head for a night. O that I had in the wilderness a lodging-place of wayfaring men, that I might leave my people and go from them; for they be an assembly of treacherous men.”

Just as he had finished, John Brown entered. He gazed at him, and with great deference bade him welcome to his house. “Do you know me,” said the stranger. “I think I do,” said John Brown. “It was in this house that the societies met that contributed to send you to Holland, and now I fear they have not received you (at least some of them) as they ought.” “Their reproach has not broken my heart,” said Mr Renwick, (for it was he, though he was not named before the family.) “but the excessive travelling, night wanderings, unseasonable sleep, frequent preaching in all weathers, especially in the night, has so debilitated me, that I am unfit often for my work. The reproach of those who called me to the ministry, I look upon as the device of the enemy to stop the Lord’s work; but blessed be his grace that has kept me from mixing anger or scorn of them with my sorrow. Some have declared that I will never be honoured of the Lord to do his poor remnant good. But one thing I know, and may say, that the Lord has done me good. Oh! let none fear a suffering lot. Enemies think themselves satisfied that we are put to wander in mosses, and upon mountains; but even amidst the storms of these last two nights, I cannot express what sweet times I have had, when I had no covering but the dark curtains of night. Yet, in the silent watch, my mind was led out to admire the deep and inexpressible ocean of joy, wherein the whole family of heaven swim. Each star led me to wonder what He must be who is the Star of Jacob, of whom all stars borrow their shining. Indeed, if I may term it, I am much obliged to enemies; they have covered me many a table in the wilderness, and have made me friends where I never expected them.”

When he ceased speaking, every one of the family strove to do him some kindness. The shepherd brought him clean hose and shoes; the herd his new nightcap; the lasses left their wheels and washed his feet; the gudewife prepared him a warm supper; while little Janet, worn out, was fast asleep at his side.

He remained another night with them, and was greatly bettered in his health. It was a time of refreshing to the family from on high.

In those days, hospitality was with many in reality what it ought to be — purely exercised for God’s glory, and without display of grandeur. The motives were like silver tried; it was at the risk of all, even life. Hence, the joy of such pure intercourse was sweet beyond description. As iron sharpeneth iron, so doth the face of man his friend. Renwick and Priesthill talked of the sufferings of the Church, her testimony, her covenanted cause, and her ultimate triumph. Yes, they had more comfort in the faith that Christ would one day be head over all things, King of kings, and Lord of lords, than the wicked have, when corn and wine do most abound.

Soon after Mr Renwick left Priesthill, his followers and he published their Apologetic[al] Declaration [in November, 1684]. Mr Renwick was at first averse to the measure, but at last agreed.

The circumstances of the times were dismal, says Crookshanks’ History. The societies that had made choice of Mr Renwick for their minister were now exposed to the whole vengeance of the government. The sea-ports were shut, that none could leave the kingdom. They were pursued by bloody and merciless soldiery. The whole country was sworn to discover them, and bound from giving them meat, drink, or lodgings. Secret spies were hired to find out their haunts, or any who shewed them the least kindness. They were put from under the protection of the laws of their country. No terms were allowed them but a renouncing of principles, and swallowing those oaths by which thousands were involved in the horrid guilt of perjury. What can we think of that tree which produced such fruit?

It was under such circumstances that the Apologetic Declaration[al] was published. In it may be seen a spirit, still in Scotland, that dared to be free from tyranny; a spirit that animated the first Reformers; that would one day speak terrible things in righteousness.

Although this effort of freedom was like the child threshing the mountain, and its consequence apparently the same, save that the Church on this account suffered much; the court-party making it a pretence for sending more soldiers on the country, particularly about Lanark, vainly thinking that it would never be well with them till the south and west of Scotland were made a hunting-field; and the better to execute this, any soldier in the ranks had liberty to shoot all they thought suspicious, and it was not long till there was scarce a moss or mountain in the west of Scotland but was flowered with martyrs.

The society that met at Priesthill was soon broken up. John Wilson, and John Smith of Lesmahago, were shot by Colonel [Thomas] Buchan and [Cromwell Lockhart,] the Laird of Lee, in February 1685. John Brown of Blackwood, in the same parish [i.e., Lesmahagow parish], was shot in the beginning of March following, by Lieutenant [James] Murray, after the promise of quarter. The pure snow then on the ground was stained with his blood. His corpse was buried, under cloud of night, near to the spot where he was treacherously slain.

After this, John Brown could not continue his business of carrier, though he had no hand in the Apologetic[al] Declaration. His opinion (and his conduct was consistent with it) was, that he ought to live as in an enemy’s country, and without sin. Yet he was often obliged to betake to the high lands of Kyle and of Lanarkshire, and to bear the chilling cold of March and April winds, with the more bitter blast of persecution. Still, however, amidst the storms of nature, and of the political heavens, he had the rainbow of the covenant around his head, and enjoyed a freedom and pleasure that his enemies could not rob him of.

On one of those days, when driven from his home, he fled for refuge to a deep ravine, or moss-hag, that had been formed by the current of a water-spout, carrying shrubs, soil, moss, and all before it, to the dale-land beneath, leaving a frightful chasm, amidst a vast field of heath. Its deep mossy sides made it inaccessible to strangers; only the neighbouring husbandmen knew where the brackens hid the rocks, whose shelvy sides conducted to the bottom. In the sides of this natural alley were dens and caves sufficient to hide a large company. In one of these, Priesthill intended to spend the day in prayer; and had begun to pour out his soul, in the words of Lamentations iii. 40, and downwards, when a sweet sound reached his ear, that seemed to proceed from another part of the moss-hag. At first it was in a soft under voice, as afraid to be heard, but soon rose above all fear, joined with others; and the verses of the Psalm were distinctly sung.

“It is the hallowed sound of praising God, and by some fellow-sufferers,” said John Brown, as he arose from his knees to search them out. And to his no small joy found out David and William Steel, his neighbours, and Joseph Wilson from Lesmabago, in the cleft of a rock that jutted half-way into the ravine. David Steel had a narrow escape the day before this. When just about to begin the morning worship, one cried out, “There is the enemy coming.” He arose with the Bible under his arm, and, without knowing what he was about, went into the byre, and laid himself down in an empty cow-stall, putting the Bible on his breast. His wife, equally unconscious, turned over him a heap of bedding, just as the soldiers entered the place. They stabbed the straw where he lay, but the Bible received the point of the sword, and they left the house without finding their victim. William Steel’s house was near at hand, and was also searched. His wife had locked him in her clothes-press. After they searched every place without success, and had left the house, a soldier returned, and said to the gudewife, “Mistress, next time you hide, hide better; part of your husband’s coat is locked without your press;” and with these words, he left her, to join his company. After he was gone, to her amazement, she found it as the soldier had said. It was to avoid such harassing scenes that they had all fled to the ravine; and they found, to their sweet experience, this dreary waste a Bethel; and in their harassings and hidings, as it was with Moses on the Mount, nearest God when farthest from creature comforts. All day, they read God’s Word, and prayed by turns; and during the dark and silent watches of the night, by turns they prayed and praised.

The seventy-fourth Psalm was deeply imprinted on their memories, from its being remarkably descriptive of their situation. The whole of it was sung about midnight; and while the wind carried the sound to the dale land below, faith carried the matter up to heaven. It entered the ear of the God of sabaoth [i.e., hosts], through the highly exalted Intercessor for His suffering Church. And though the Lord waited to be gracious, as the cup of wickedness that the Stuart race was to fill had not come to the brim, they were to fill it: but he sent the Comforter to uphold them with peace and joy, in believing that it was Jesus’ cause they were suffering for. And though counted as slaughter-sheep, they were fed in green pastures, and drank of that river of life, whose divine influence refreshed their souls passing all understanding. They felt a peace that made them loath to part. Every one was sensible that the presence of God had been with them. It was in this spirit that these poor haunted saints spent the time till morning dawned; and the lark arose above their heads, joining his notes with theirs in praise to God for the light of another day.

William Steel, who escaped death from the persecutors, and lived many years after the Revolution, said often, if ever there was a time in his life that he would wish to enjoy over again, it was that in which he suffered persecution, especially that day and night he spent in the moss-hag. They all thought it would be their last meeting on earth. He was the first that ascended from the ravine to look if the enemy were in view; and it being a clear morning, and no person in sight, they all followed, and were standing to consult on the separate paths they would take home, to prevent them from being seen, when they were struck silent by a voice, sweeter than anything they had ever heard, passing over the ravine, singing these words:—

Oh! let the prisoners’ sighs ascend
Before thy sight on high;
Preserve those by thy mighty power,
That are ordained to die. [Metrical Psalms (1650), 79, verse 11.]

And again, while they still stood speechless, another voice sung, in tones of exultation:—

Though ye have lain among the pots,
Like doves ye shall appear,
Whose wings with silver, and with gold
Whose feathers covered are. [Metrical Psalms (1650), 68, verse 13.]

After standing for some time looking at one another, some of them thought they had left other worshippers in the moss-hag; others thought that the sound echoed from a greater distance. “Whoever or wherever the words come from, we have little concern,” said John Brown; “one tiling we may take comfort from; they are God’s words to his Church in affliction; and that is our situation. Who lie among the pots? We scullions, black in the opinions of our enemies. But God sees us not as man sees us, but compares us to doves — doves on the wing, whose feathers of gold and silver are best seen when they fly. It may be, we are on the wing to an eternal world, and this Bethel meeting is preparing us to mount up with wings like eagles. If so, let us keep in mind that we have nothing to boast of, but grace, grace; unto it is our acknowledgement.” While he spoke, his countenance beamed the pleasantest ever they had seen; and when he parted from them, they stood and looked after him. It was the last time they saw him in life, and the last time they heard him speak. “He had a most uncommon talent in communicating information and consolation to others, and when he came himself to be tried, he was not left a cast-away.”

Graham of ClaverhouseColonel Claverhouse

Among the last of the needy adventurers of Charles II’s reign, who could swim through the blood of their more conscientious countrymen to favour and emolument, was [John] Graham of Claverhouse. “He was descended from the house of Montrose, and was educated in France, the best school for dissolute manners and cruelty. He fought against the French in the Low Countries, under the Prince of Orange; but being refused the command of one of the Scottish regiments then in the Dutch service, he left it in disgust and came over to England. His dissolute manners and vivacity soon got him notice at court, and the command of a party of Highlanders.” His first appearance on the stage of Scotland’s tragedy was in 1678, taking free quarters for himself and men in the house of Gilbert M’Michen, in New Glenluce; and when they went off, besides what they consumed, they took with them three horses, worth ten pounds each. In every succeeding appearance he may be marked as rising in cruelty and exaction.

“What Bishop Burnet says of [General Thomas] Dalziel, may be affirmed of Claverhouse with equal, or perhaps with greater truth: that he acted the Muscovite too grossly, threatening to spit men and roast them alive. He pleaded, in excuse, that terror was true mercy, if it put an end to, or prevented war.”

Charles being now dead, James Duke of York required such instruments to compel submission to his system of cruelty. Having now thrown off the mask, the suspicion of the Reformers, that Prelacy was to be handmaid to the introduction of Popery in Scotland, was verified. For that purpose, he enlarged the commission of Claverhouse, and created him Viscount of Dundee; and none was better fitted to drive fell Ruin’s ploughshare through everything that could make life desirable.

“The measure of fixing garrisons of soldiers through the south and west counties, as if Scotland had been invaded by a foreign enemy, was the beginning of many cold-blooded murders in the field. One of these garrisons was fixed at Lesmahago.” Claverhouse came unexpectedly there, late on the last night of April 1685, and having heard of John Brown’s piety and non-conformity, by six o’clock next morning he was at Priesthill — a proof how he thirsted after the blood of such men.

John Brown, as usual, had arisen with the dawn, and had offered up the morning sacrifice. His wife often told how remarkably the Psalm, sung that morning, tended to gird up the loins of their minds. It was Psalm xxvii. 1–4. The chapter read was John xvi., equally suitable; and his prayers were like those of one lost to the world, and entered into the holy of holies, through the rent vail of the Redeemer’s death.

Claverhouse and his dragoonsClaverhouse and his Dragoons

How good is it, when the Lord comes, to be found watching in the way of doing our duty, was experienced in no small measure by the family at Priesthill. After worship, the gudeman went to the hill to prepare some peat-ground; the servants were also out, but at some distance, when Claverhouse surrounded the helpless man with three troops of dragoons, and brought him down to his own house. He left his implements of industry with great composure, and walked down before them more like a leader than a captive.

Meanwhile, Janet had alarmed her mother by telling her that a great many horsemen were coming down the hill with her father. “The thing that I feared is come upon me; give me grace for this hour!” said her mother, hastily taking up her boy, and wrapping him in her plaid, and taking Janet by the hand, she went out to meet her foes, praying in secret as she went.

Claverhouse asked John Brown,— Why he did not attend the curate, and if he would pray for King James? It was remarkable, that, though a stammerer in speech to strangers, this morning he answered Claverhouse distinctly. He said he acknowledged only Christ as supreme head of the Church, and could not attend the curates, because they were placed there contrary to His law, and were mere creatures of the bishops, and the bishops were creatures of the king,— and he being a Papist, and himself a Protestant Presbyterian, who, along with all ranks in the nation, had sworn and covenanted to God that no Papist should bear rule over these lands,— so that he neither could nor would pray for him. But if he repented and turned from his wicked way, he would acknowledge, obey, and pray for him.

Upon hearing this, Claverhouse said, Go to your prayers, for you shall immediately die, which he did in such a manner as filled the troops with amazement. On his family it had a different effect. His wife, who was great with child, with another in her arms, and Janet at her side, stood while he prayed “that every covenanted blessing might be poured upon her and her children, born and unborn, as one refreshed by the influence of the Holy Spirit, when he comes down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers upon the earth.”

When Claverhouse could bear his prayers no longer, and had succeeded, after interrupting him twice with the most blasphemous language, to raise him from his knees, John Brown said to his wife, Isabell, this is the day I told you of before we were married; and added, with his usual kindness, you see me summoned to appear in a few minutes before the court of heaven, as a witness in our Redeemer’s cause against the ruler of Scotland; are you willing that I should part from you? Heartily willing, said she, in a voice that spoke her regard for her husband and her submission to the Lord, even when he called her to bow before His terrible things. “That is all I wait for; death, where is thy sting? O grave, where will be thy victory?” said John Brown, while he tenderly laid his arms around her, kissed her and her little boy, and lastly Janet, saying to her, my sweet bairn, give your hand to God as your guide, and be your mother’s comfort: he could add no more, a tide of tenderness overflowed his heart. At last he uttered these words, “Blessed be thou, O Holy Spirit! that speaketh more comfort to my heart than the voice of my oppressors can speak terror to my ears!” Thus, when the Lord brought his witness to be tried, he discovered such a magnanimity, that, as he fell, he conquered his persecutors.

If, in the christian’s life, there is a light that discovers the spots of the wicked; so, in the martyr’s heroic grappling with death, there was a heat that scorched past enduring. It was, doubtless, under this feeling that Claverhouse ordered six of his dragoons to shoot him ere the last words were out of his mouth ; but his prayers and conduct had disarmed them from performing such a savage action. They stood motionless. Fearing for their mutiny, Claverhouse snatched a pistol from his own belt, and shot him through the head. * * * And, while his troops slunk from the awful scene, he, like a beast of prey that tramples and howls over a fallen victim, insulted the tender-hearted wife, while she gathered up the shattered head, by taunting jeers:— “What thinkest thou of thy husband now, woman?” “I ever thought meikle good of him,” said she, “and now more than ever.” He, seeing her courage, said, “It were but justice to lay thee beside him.” She replied, “If ye were permitted, I doubt not your cruelty could go that length; but how will ye answer for this morning’s work.” With a countenance that belied his words, he answered, “To men I can be answerable, and as for God I will take him in my own hands.” Thus saying, he hastily put spurs to his horse, and left her with the corpse. She tied up his head with her napkin, composed his body, covered it with her plaid, and when she had nothing further to do or contend with, she sat down on the ground, drew her children to her, and wept over her mangled husband.

The mourners of Priesthill did not long want friends. The report of the foul deed circulated rapidly, creating dismay and abhorrence. Who now could think themselves safe, when John Brown was thus treated, who was not otherwise obnoxious to Government than in not attending the curate, and he several miles distant? The first who arrived on the spot was David Steel’s wife, [Mary Weir. Walker says it was Steel’s mother, Jean Brown,] one well fitted to comfort in the most trying dispensation. She ran up to the group, and throwing her arms around them, saluted Isabell thus, “Wow, woman! and has your master been taken from your head this day? and has God taken you and your children under his own care, saying, I will be a husband to the widow, and a father to the fatherless? No wonder though ye are overcome and astonished at his doings.” This salutation aroused and strengthened the widow. She remembered the words of Mr Peden [in 1682], and she arose from the ground to search out the linen he had warned her to prepare. About this time, David Steel, and William Steel with his wife, arrived, and assisted Isabell to bring in and wrap up the precious dust. All was done, while the silence of death reigned over the household.

As was said of the proto-martyr Stephen, devout men carried him to his burial: in like manner was John Brown, for literally God’s hidden ones carried him forth, and laid him in his grave, on the very spot where he fell.

Marytr's Grave PriesthillJohn Brown’s Grave at Priesthill © Gordon Brown and licensed for reuse.

Renwick writes, on one occasion, to Sir R[obert]. Hamilton, after a field-preaching, “that if ever God could be tied to any place, I think it is to the muirs and mountains of Scotland.” Rutherford many a time declares, “Sweet, sweet is the cross; and no wonder, when Christ bears both us and it.” The sorrow of the righteous is better far than the joys of the wicked, that are only like the crackling of thorns under a pot, and worketh death. Had a miracle opened the eyes of Claverhouse, as it did the eyes of the prophets servant, to have seen John Brown’s soul from “insult springing,” at the moment his body fell a mangled corpse, he would have seen himself changed from a powerful oppressor, like Haman, to a mean servant, only fit, as an instrument, to clothe the humble sitter at the king’s gate in royal robes and a glorious crown, and usher him into the city of Shushan as a man whom the King delights to honour. It was not granted that his eyes should be opened by a miracle, or by faith in God’s written testimony, to see himself as he really was; but God’s vicegerent, conscience, even in this life, speaks out awful things of righteousness and judgment to come. “He afterwards acknowledged that John Brown’s prayer made such an impression on his spirit, that he could never get altogether worn off, when he gave himself liberty to think.” Thus, mischief haunts the violent man, and the “bloody and deceitful man shall not live half his days.” This was eminently exemplified in the lives and death of the persecutors of that age; and in none more than in Graham of Claverhouse.

His maxim, of terror being true mercy, if it prevented or put an end to war, like every other attempt to do evil that good may come out of it, proved fallacious ; and acting up to it was the means of bringing on the Revolution of 1688, and of “banishing James VII. from the throne and hearts of the people of Scotland.” Claverhouse, for various reasons, had no alternative than to follow the fortune of his benefactor. When he found a large majority in the Scots Convention on the side of William, he left Edinburgh with the determination of exerting himself in the cause of James, in the field.

Not long after this, he appeared openly in arms at Inverness, and was successful at the battle of Killicrankie — putting William’s army to flight; but while in the act of raising himself on the saddle, and waving with his arm, pointing to guard the pass of Killicrankie, that his favourite maxim, “no quarter,” might be put into execution, lo! a musket-ball passed into his arm- pit, that proved fatal in a few hours after. His estate was made over to the house of Douglas; and his widow, [Jean Cochrane,] marrying to Lord Kilsyth, and returning to Holland, became, along with her children, the victim of a dreadful misfortune [in 1695]. The house in which she resided at Utrecht falling suddenly in, and overwhelming the whole family, his name and titles became extinct.

[Lady Claverhouse is buried below the Kilsyth Vault in the Howe Street Burial Ground in Kilsyth.]

Aerial View of Burial Ground

About fifty years ago, a gentleman riding to Edinburgh fell into conversation with a respectable-looking countrywoman on the road, and learning that she was a grand-daughter of John Brown, he on that account made her ride behind him into the city. So much was the memory of the Christian Carrier respected. And what was a proof of the harmony of his family, she could not tell whether she was of the first? or the second wife’s children. None of them now reside at Priesthill, but their house stands; and the broad flat stone that covers their father’s grave is shewn, with this inscription:—

In death’s cold bed, the dusty part here lies
Of one who did the earth as dust despise:
Here in this place from earth he took departure;
Now he has got the garland of the martyr.
Butcher’d by Clavers and his bloody band,
Racing most rav’nously o’er all the land,
Only for owning Christ’s supremacy,
Wickedly wrong’d. by encroaching tyranny.
Nothing how near so ever he to good
Esteem’d, nor dear for any truth his blood.

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to or retweet this post, but do not reblog without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

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~ by drmarkjardine on April 20, 2014.

One Response to “The History of John Brown of Priesthill”

  1. […] John Brown (d.1685) at Priesthill, a farm in Muirkirk parish, Ayrshire. It is based on a passage in The History of John Brown of Priesthill (Edinburgh, 1839) in which James Renwick meets Brown and his […]

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