Killed at Blackwood in 1685: The Other John Brown
The historical sources are remarkably consistent about what happened to the John Brown shot at Blackwood in Lesmahagow parish, Lanarkshire, which is probably a sign that they had little to go on beyond the initial report.
Unlike other local martyrs, for whom a considerable body of evidence exists, such as David Steel and John Brown in Priesthill, there is little evidence recorded about the Blackwood martyr. It is possible that all of the evidence for his death derives from a single source, Alexander Shields.
Brown’s death was first recorded by Alexander Shields in 1690:
‘Liev Murray, now prisoners in Edin[burgh in 1690]. with his party, Shot one John Brown, after quarters were given at Blackwood in Clidsdale, Mar. 1685.’ (Shields, A Short Memorial, 37.)
Cloud of Witnesses recycled Shields’ text. (Thomson (ed.), CW, 549.)
In the early eighteenth century, Wodrow recounted a similar story, although he was less sure about the date due to the faded source material he used:
‘This same month [i.e., March, 1685], as my accounts bear, but perhaps this might fall out at another time, since the figures of the years in some narratives before me are faded, and the ink ill, but the fact is certain, lieutenant Murray was going through the parish of Lesmabago, and met one John Brown in the fields, and promised him quarters at first, he making no resistance, but afterwards changed his mind, and without any process or sentence, shot him in a few minutes near the Blackwood in that parish.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 243.)
Wodrow’s version clarifies that Brown was captured in the fields of Lesmahagow parish, rather than at Blackwood, and adds that Brown offered no resistance and that after he was brought to Blackwood he was shot within a few minutes.
The Lieutenant who had Brown shot was Lieutenant James Murray of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons. The ‘party’ with him were almost certainly his company of dragoons.
Nineteenth Century Versions
In the nineteenth century, Greenshields’ Annals of the Parish of Lesmahagow, which often included local traditions, Thomson’s edition of Cloud of Witnesses and A. B. Todd all recycled Shields and Wodrow’s version of events. However, Thomson and Todd added minor details which are not attested to in the historical sources.
According to Greenshields in 1864:
‘In the month of March following, Lieutenant Murray shot John Brown at Blackwood, and his body was buried under cloud of night in the field where he fell,’ (Greenshields, Annals, 114-5.)
According to Thomson, Brown was buried under cloud of night:
‘[Lieutenant Murray was going through the parish of Lesmahagow, and met him in the fields. He first promised him quarter, as he made no resistance; but in a few minutes, without process or sentence, he shot him near Blackwood, now a residence of W. E. Hope Vere, Esq., and said to be the original of the Milnwood of Sir Walter Scott’s fiction. John Brown lies buried within a hundred yards to the east of the mansion-house. The inscription on his monument is in the Appendix.—Ed.]’ (Thomson (ed.), CW, 549.)
In 1886, A. B. Todd added, without evidence, that Brown and others resorted to Priesthill:
‘The persecuted wanderers often came to Priesthill in those days. John Wilson, John Smith, and another John Brown, of Blackwood, in the parish of Lesmahagow, often met there for conversation and for prayer; but these three godly men were all shot in the spring of 1685 — one of those years then, and for long after, known as “the killing time.” This John Brown, of Blackwood, is often mistaken for his saintly namesake of Priesthill;— it was not Colonel Graham of Claverhouse, but a Lieutenant Murray who was his murderer, commanding him to be shot in the fields after he had received promise of quarter. For fear of such evil men he had to be buried under the cloud of night, and on the tombstone of the butchered saint these lines may still be seen —
“Murray might murder such as godly Brown,
But could not rob him of that glorious crown
He now enjoys. His credit, not his crime,
Was non-compliance with a wicked time.” (Todd, Homes, Haunts and Battlefields of the Covenanters, 10.)
Brown’s Grave at Blackwood
Probably the most usual piece of evidence for Brown is his gravestone. For an image of it, see here.
According to the OS Name Book of the mid nineteenth century for the ‘Martyr’s Tomb’ at Blackwood:
‘This name is given to a stone erected on the spot where a Covenanter named John Brown is said to have been shot and buried. Within the same enclosure there is another tombstone erected over the remains of another individual not a “martyr” Date subsequent to 1688.’
The inscription on the stone is as follows:
‘HERE LYES THE CORPSE
OF • JOHN •
BROUN • VHO • VAS
SHOT • TO • DEATH
VITHOUT • SHADO
OF LAW ANNO DOM
Relettered [date obscure]
MURRAY MIGHT MURDER
SUCH a GODLY BROUN
BUT COULD NOT ROB HIM
OF THAT GLORIOUS CROUN
HE NOU ENJOYES, HIS CREDIT
NOT HIS CRIME
WAS NON COMPLYANCE
WITH A WICKED TIME’ (See also versions in Thomson, Martyr Graves, 280; Thomson (ed.), CW, 574.)
If anyone can offer a complete transcription of the relettering part of the inscription, I would be very grateful.
Brown’s gravestone is different from nearly all the other early martyrs’ headstones for three reasons.
First, it has an usual V-shaped top and inscribed frame. The stone has been relettered at a later date, probably in the early nineteenth century. It is probably the original stone. A stone with the same inscription was in situ before 1794 and from the style of the lettering, especially on the reverse, it probably dates to the early the eighteenth century. (CW, 351.)
Second, the inscription does not mention that he died for the Solemn League and Covenant or Scotland’s Covenanted Reformation.
Third, the inscription does not follow the text found in Shield’s A Short Memorial of 1690 as many others do, which may hint that Brown’s stone drew on local sources of information.
The absence of the key phrases about Covenanted Reformation and the failure to follow Shields’ text suggests that the stone may not have been erected by the continuing Society people who raised nearly all of the other headstones to the martyrs in the early eighteenth century. It may have been erected by local people, perhaps by Lawrie of Blackwood, or his heirs, whose house the stone lay beside.
All that survives of Blackwood Tower/House is the seventeenth-century dovecot, which has recently been renovated and turned into a house.
The grave is located nearby.
New Perspectives on Brown’s Death
One intriguing aspect of the gravestone is that the inscription is the only source that offers any information about Brown, rather than his death: ‘HIS CREDIT, NOT HIS CRIME, WAS NON COMPLYANCE WITH A WICKED TIME’.
What does that mean? ‘Noncomplyance’ probably means that Brown did not take oaths or go to church. It is possible that the inscription simply invented the idea of Brown’s ‘noncomplyance’. However, the context of his summary execution 1685 would suggest that his ‘noncomplyance’ reflects a factual truth about Brown.
The idea that those who died in the Killing Times of 1685 were “innocent” victims of a repressive regime is firmly fixed in Presbyterian tradition. It is a pleasing story, but it deliberately obscures the reality of the Killing Times in which the vast majority of summary executions involved either fugitives, declared traitors, people who had committed acts of violence, or those who had specifically refused to swear the Abjuration oath that renounced the Societies’ ‘war’ against their oppressors.
In the context of late 1684 or early 1685, ‘noncomplyance’ refers to a range of possible crimes against the state, from nonconformity, i.e., refusing to attend church, to refusing the Abjuration oath.
By late 1684, the vast majority moderate presbyterians had conformed, even if they considered the church under episcopacy spiritually bankrupt. Those who continued in their nonconformity were at the militant end of the spectrum of Presbyterian views. Most of the people who held such views were Society people.
In the face of judicial repression from late 1684, it was very difficult for the remaining nonconformists to avoid moderate dissent, i.e., refusing to attend the local church, snowballing into the more serious form without coming before the courts and either complying by taking oaths, or going to prison. The only way to avoid taking oaths was to avoid attending courts and capture. By March, 1685, when Brown was shot, avoiding the courts meant that he would have become a fugitive for failing to take the Abjuration oath. We do not know whether Brown was one of the Society people who deliberately evaded taking the Abjuration, or a nonconformist who had evaded capture and as a result failed to take the Abjuration. However, when he was captured and brought to Blackwood, it is almost certain that he then would have faced taking the oath. Failure to take the oath in such circumstances, was often followed by summary execution. That may be why Brown was shot within ‘a few minutes’ of being brought to Blackwood.
Where was Brown from? The narrative sources do not tell us where Brown was from. As most fugitives hid close to their homes, he may have been from Lesmahagow parish or another parish close to the Lanarkshire/Ayrshire boundary.
It is possible that Brown had been proclaimed a fugitive prior to the Abjuration oath. The presbyterian sources frequently omit mentioning that many of those who were summarily executed in the Killing Times were fugitives.
There are six John Browns on the Fugitive Roll of 1684 who lived in the general area around Lesmahagow parish, but none of them are from the parish. One of them, in Moffathill/Meadowhead in New Monkland pariish probably lived too far from the area where Brown was found to be him. A second cannot be him, as he was John Brown in Priesthill, who was shot on 1 May, 1685.
The remaining four fugitives are more promising, as they resided close to Lesmahagow parish. A ‘John Brown, younger, shoemaker’ appears under Hamilton parish, ‘John Brown in Craeland’, i.e, Crawlaw, under Loudoun parish and a father and son of the same name in Castlehill in Kilmarnock parish also appear.
However, without any indication in the narrative sources as to where Brown was from, it is impossible to connect him to any of the fugitives.
Whether he was proclaimed a fugitive in 1684 or because he became a fugitive after failing to take the Abjuration oath when it was pressed in January or early February, 1685, he probably was a fugitive when he was captured by Lieutenant Murray and his party of troops in March.
It may be because Brown was a fugitive, that he was offered ‘quarters’. The use of the military term “quarters” by both Shields and Wodrow suggests that Brown may have been armed when he was captured. According to Wodrow, it was because he offered ‘no resistance’ at that moment that Murray and his party offered him quarter. We do not know what the terms of his quarter were. When offered it may have guaranteed his safety until he was delivered to the garrison. It could not exempt him from judicial process.
As both Shields and Wodrow state, after Brown was offered quarter, a decision was taken, apparently by Lieutenant Murray, to summarily execute him at Blackwood. We do not know either why, or under what circumstances, Murray changed his mind. According to Wodrow, it was within ‘a few minutes’ of arriving there. That may suggest that reaching Blackwood somehow altered the circumstances. The short time frame between his arrival at Blackwood and his summary execution may indicate that Brown was then proffered the Abjuration oath and that he refused it. Murray was legally empowered both to press the Abjuration in the field and conduct summary executions for those who refused it.
The timing of Brown’s capture and execution may be significant in the light of events in Lesmahagow parish. Both Shields and Wodrow date his killing to March, 1685. In the weeks before that two large-scale meetings of the Society people had taken place either in, or right next to, Lesmahagow parish.
On 12 February, troops under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Buchan and Cromwell Lockhart of Lee killed John Smith on his way to the Societies’ eighteenth convention at Auchengilloch. Smith was shot somewhere in the hills in Lesmahagow parish.
The eighteenth convention, which was held on the same day, was attended by eighty armed Society people. After having encountered the Society people on their way to the convention, there is little doubt that government forces would have conducted intensive search operations through the hills and throughout Lesmahagow parish in pursuit of the Society people.
The search may have been intensive in Lesmahagow parish, as according to later tradition Smith was from the parish.
At around the same time, James Renwick, who attended the convention, is said to have field preached on ‘Evandale Moor’, which presumably lay in the upland western end of Evandale parish which is close to Auchengilloch. Field preachings often took place before conventions.
Brown may, or may not, have been captured in the mopping up phase following those events.
Who was Lieutenant Murray?
Brown was executed on the orders of Lieutenant James Murray of His Majesty’s Regiment of Dragoons. Murray appears to have been based in the area, perhaps for some time.
In August, 1684, Murray had escorted the Campbell’s of Upper Welwood in Muirkirk parish to prison in Edinburgh.
Wedderburn’s troop were garrisoned in different areas. At least some of the troop under Cornet James Dundas were garrisoned at Blairquhan in Straiton parish in Carrick. Dundas executed Edward McKean in February, 1685 and John Semple.
Soon after the death of John Brown, Murray’s captain, John Wedderburn of Gosford, was promoted to the rank of major on 30 March, 1685.
In 1686, Murray operated with Lieutenant John Crichton before the killing of David Steel in Lesmahagow parish. Both Murray and Crichton were imprisoned in Edinburgh for their Jacobite sympathies in 1690.
What was the significance of Blackwood?
The house and estate of Blackwood had belonged to William Lawrie of Blackwood who was forfeited in January to February, 1683. Blackwood’s forfeiture for converse with Bothwell rebels caused considerable unease among the moderate-presbyterian gentry in the West.
He obtained a separate act rescinding his forfeiture in 1690. (RPS, 1690/4/147.)
Blackwood was first used as a temporary garrison, along with Covington Tower, until Strathaven Castle in Evandale parish was made ready. On 22 April, 1684, Captain William Cleland’s troop of dragoons, which had been quartered in the village of Strathaven in October, 1683, was moved into both Blackwood and Covington. On 22 July, Cleland’s troop was ordered into Ayrshire. (Wodrow, History, IV, 12.)
Orders for the reestablishment of a garrison at Blackwood were issued on 26 February, 1685, i.e., within a month of Brown’s execution. Lieutenant Murray’s dragoons presumably established themselves there soon after. (Wodrow, History, IV, 204.)
The farm of Rogerhill, which lies next to Blackwood, was the home of William Steel’s father.
James Nisbet’s John Brown
In his spiritual autobiography, James Nisbet listed the ten members of his family, or kin, who had died as a result of either the battle of Bothwell Bridge or in the repression which followed up to the end of 1685, when his father, John Nisbet of Hardhill was executed. Among those he named were John Brown, senior, and John Brown, junior. It is possible that the John Brown killed at Blackwood was, perhaps, the latter.
Looking again at the John Browns listed on the fugitive roll, two names spring out from the list: ‘John Brown, in Castlehill for reset’, who is listed in the main body of the roll, and ‘——— Brown, son to John Brown in Castlehill, in the said parish [of Kilmarnock]’ whose name was appended to the roll for Ayrshire. Castlehill lies relatively close to Hardhill and the Loudoun estate to which James Nisbet had very strong connections. However, also listed is ‘John Brown in Craeland’, which is probably Crawlaw, which lies directly on the opposite bank of the Polbaith Burn from Castlehill.
Hardhill lay on the west side of Newmilns.
It may be a long shot, but it is possible that among the three John Brown’s listed are Nisbet’s kin who were killed, one of whom perhaps, just perhaps, may have been the John Brown found in Lesmahagow parish and shot at Blackwood.
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