The Killing of John Brown of Preisthill on 1 May, 1685: Walker’s Version

In his life of Alexander Peden published in 1724, Patrick Walker recounts the killing of John Brown. Walker’s version of events appears to be based on the testimony of Brown’s second wife and widow, Isobel Weir, who he met at Priesthill at some point after Brown’s gravestone was erected between 1702 and 1714, i.e., at least around twenty years after the event. Isobel was far younger than her husband when they were married by Peden in 1682.

Map of Priesthill

Isobel WeirIsobel Weir

His account, based on Weir’s testimony, does have the ring of truth about it, as there are some telling traumatic details in it. That does not mean that what Walker recorded is the definitive version of what took place. It certainly is not. John Graham of Claverhouse also recorded the capture and killing of Brown in a letter. What Walker’s account records is what he recalled, or chose to recall. from his conversation with Isobel Weir. For example, Walker’s account does not mention at all that John Brounen, or Browning, was captured with Brown and suffered a mock execution immediately after Brown was executed. Isobel Weir could not have failed to witness that.

In 1724, James Erskine, Lord Grange, who infamously had his wife kidnapped and held captive on St Kilda, gave a balanced assessment of Walker’s Life of Peden:

‘I have talked about it with some who were personally acquainted with Mr. Peden, and were often in his company, and from whom I have heard several uncommon things about him. They say the author is mistaken as to several circumstances; but as to the main, in all the passages, or most of them, whereof they had particular knowledge (and were eye and ear witnesses of diverse), they say he tells the truth; but missing of circumstances, and a wrong way and manner of narrating, in matters so delicate, gives them a very different form and appearance.’

Walker’s version of events begins with the minister, Alexander Peden, visiting Priesthill on the night of 29 April, 1685:

‘37. In the Beginning of May 1685, he came to the House of John Brown and Isabel Weir [at Priesthill], whom he married before he went last to Ireland [in 1682], where he stayed all Night; and in the Morning, when he took his Farewel, he came out at the Door, saying to himself, Poor Woman, a fearful Morning, twice over, a dark misty Morning.’

Peden appears to have been at Priesthill on the night of 29 to 30 April, as the morning he left on was not the ‘next’ morning of 1 May when John Graham of Claverhouse arrived and shot Brown.

‘The next Morning [i.e., 1 May] between Five and Six Hours, the said John Brown, having performed the Worship of God in his Family, was going with a Spade in his Hand, to make ready some Peat-Ground; the Mist being very dark, knew not until bloody, cruel Claverhouse compassed him with three Troops of Horses, brought him to his House, and there examined him; who, tho’ he was a Man of a stammering Speech, yet answered him distinctly and solidly; which made Claverhouse to examine these whom he had taken to be his Guides thorow the Muirs, if ever they heard him preach: They answered, No, no, he was never a Preacher. He said. If he has never preached, meikle has he prayed in his Time.

He said to John, Go to your Prayers, for you shall immediately die. When he was praying, Claverhouse interrupted him three Times. One Time that he stopt him, he was pleading that the Lord would spare a Remnant, and not make a full End in the Day of his Anger.

Claverhouse said, I gave you Time to pray, and ye’re begun to preach; he turned about upon his Knees, and said, Sir, you know neither the Nature of preaching nor praying, that calls this preaching; then continued without Confusion.

When ended, Claverhouse said, Take Goodnight of your Wife and Children; his Wife standing by, with her Child in her Arms, that she had brought forth to him [i.e., the child was under three], and another Child of his first Wife’s [Janet Brown], he came to her, and said, Now Isabel, the Day is come, that I told you would come, when I spake first to you of marrying me;

she said, Indeed, John, I can willingly part with you;

then he said. That’s all I desire, I have no more to do but die, I have been in Case to meet with Death for so many Years.

He kissed his Wife and Bairns, and wished purchased and promised Blessings to be multiplied upon them, and his Blessing.

Claverhouse ordered Six Soldiers to shoot him; the most part of the Bullets came upon his Head, which scattered his Brains upon the Ground.

Claverhouse said to his Wife, What thinkest thou of thy Husband now; Woman?

She said, I thought ever much good of him, and as much now as ever:

He said, It were but Justice to lay thee beside him;

she said, If ye were permitted, I doubt not but your Cruelty would go that Length; but how will ye make Answer for this Morning’s Work?

He said, To Man I can be answerable; and for God, I will take him in my own Hand.

Claverhouse mounted his Horse, and marched, and left her with the Corps of her dead Husband lying there; she set the Bairn upon the Ground, and gathered his Brains, and tied up his Head, and straighted his Body, and covered him with her Plaid, and sat down and wept over him; it being a very desert Place, where never Victual grew, and far from Neighbours.

It was some Time before any Friends came to her; the first that came, was a very fit Hand, that old singular Christian Woman in the Cummerhead, named Jean Brown, three Miles distant, who had been tried with the violent Death of her Husband at Pentland [in 1666], afterwards of Two worthy Sons, Thomas Weir, who was killed at Drumclog [in 1679], and David Steil, who was suddenly shot afterwards, when taken [in 1686].

The said Isabel Weir, sitting upon her Husband’s Gravestone, told me, that before that, she could see no Blood, but she was in Danger to faint, and yet was helped to be a Witness to all this, without either Fainting or Confusion, except when the Shotts were let off, her Eyes dazled.

His Corps were buried at the End of his House where he was slain, with this Inscription on his Gravestone;

In Earth’s cold Bed the dusty Part here lies
Of one who did the Earth as Dust despise.
Here in that Place from Earth he took Departure,
Now he has got the Garland of the Martyr.’ (Walker, BP. I, 72-4.)

Walker also recounts the story of Peden’s vision of the death of John Brown.

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

~ by drmarkjardine on June 9, 2014.

7 Responses to “The Killing of John Brown of Preisthill on 1 May, 1685: Walker’s Version”

  1. Hi Mark,

    Although you correctly state that “John Graham of Claverhouse also recorded the capture and killing of Brown in a letter.” You then state – as if it is an established fact – that “Walker’s account does not mention at all that John Brounen, or Browning, was captured with Brown and suffered a mock execution immediately after Brown was executed.” If – as I hope you will – you reproduce the aforementioned letter, it will be clear to readers that John Brounen, or Browning was actually passed on by Claverhouse with an appeal for clemency.

    May I respectfully suggest that given that the only known contemporary historical document is the Claverhouse letter, we would be better served having that to read with Walker et al. contrasted against it.

    Evidence also suggests that Claverhouse was himself a most pious man. The suggestion that he would interrupt ‘religious devotions’ is almost laughable and would appear to be clear evidence of the usual ignorant, poorly researched Covenanter propaganda.

    • Hi David,
      Thought that might tempt you out!

      As Claverhouse wrote:
      “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”

      Is that an enhanced interrogation technique?


      • Hi Mark,

        Good move – to draw me out… I’ve spent far too long in the early 19th Century Australian Outback recently!

        “an enhanced interrogation technique” is certainly one interpretation. Another may be an incredibly humane reprieve in violent times? A further one might even be an act of disobedience by Claverhouse. He and others were under pretty clear order to execute dissenters; by 1685 he no longer held a Judicial Commission to be this flexible.

        As you are already aware, my issue has always been the most convenient and unchanging interpretations of this and other events by one particularly dominant group of voices.

        Too often interpretation of the evidence has been presented to us as evidence itself. Not (often!) by you I might add…

        Keep up the good work.


  2. […] gentleman’s house may have been in the vicinity of Muirkirk parish, as Peden was at Priesthill, just a couple of days later on the night of 29 to 30 […]

  3. […] After the thirty mile pursuit through the hills, muirs and bogs, Peden went to the house of John Brown at Priesthill in Muirkirk parish on the night of 29 to 30 April. […]

  4. […] of Peden and James Nisbet’s escape from a house in Ayrshire on c.27 April and comes before Peden’s visit to the house at Priesthill in Muirkirk parish on 29 to 30 […]

  5. […] an’ Geordie’s Review of Politics; an Eclogue’ and paraphrases the Life of Peden’s account of the killing of John Brown of Priesthill in the ‘A Lay of the Martyrs’ in The Amulet. (Hogg, Contributions to Annuals and Giftbooks, […]

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