Flight Through the Heather: Brysson Among the Society people in 1685 #History #Scotland


After a rebellion fails, comes flight. On the evening of Saturday 20 June, after George Brysson had his lamentable parting with his comrades from the Battle of Muirdykes, he set off with a small party of companions in search of safety. If they were captured alive, they would have been banished to Jamaica, as many other Argyll rebels were:

‘I came off with three other lads that came from London with me [to Holland to join the earl of Argyll’s ill-fated invasion and had fought at Muirdykes]. When we four were parted a good way from Sir John [Cochrane of Ochiltree] and the rest, we began to consult what to do;’

Brysson had been in the vicinity of Uplawmoor in Neilston parish, Renfrewshire, but they had moved to a new location, probably Blackstoun, when Ochiltree’s men split up.

Where he went next is not clear, but there are clues in the text.

‘as for our arms, we would in no case part with them, thinking to defend ourselves as long as we could. So one gave one advice, and some another: our conclusion at length was, that we would march towards Annandale, for some of us had acquaintance there, and there we could inform ourselves what was become of Monmouth[‘s Rebellion]; and if he were prospering, we resolved (if possible) to go to him, for we knew that we were always unsafe in our own country. So we resolved to travel all night, and to dern all day; and buy victuals as we went alongst, for as yet we wanted not money.’

Brysson and his companions’ plan was clearly to avoid the populated areas where government forces had the greatest chance of catching them. Their aim was to keep to the hills and moors as they headed south-east to Annandale on the Border. The landscape before them suited that plan, as it was possible to follow hills and moors, with only short breaks, to the edge of Annandale. Their planned route also would also take the through the heartlands of the militant Society people.

‘So we went on, and marched through a weary long moor, and then came to the plain ground, and had travelled a good way in the plain before it came to be very light [on the morning of Sunday 21 June]. This was on the sabbath morning. When we began to see about us, we could not perceive either wood or moss to shelter in all day. Then we wist not what to do, the whole country being full of the king’s forces, so that we were afraid of being apprehended. We resolved to venture on some house. We sent one of our number to a house hard by, to see if they would give us quarters, and desired him to tell them plainly what men we were, and that we were in hazard of our lives.’

Brysson and his companions almost certainly avoided heading directly south into the populated areas of Ayrshire and towards the government garrison at Kilmarnock. Instead, they probably skirted east and south-east through the uplands and into Fenwick parish, Ayrshire, heading towards Eaglesham Moor. Fenwick parish sounds like the plain ground he encountered and where they were compelled to seek shelter in a house.

Map of Fenwick area

The Widow and Mr Renny’s Men
‘We happened upon a very honest widow-woman’s house, who yet, upon no account, would give us quarters, taking us for dissemblers; for she had some of Mr. Renny’s men hiding in her house, who were in as great hazard as we were in. But she let us see a house a little way off, who, she said, would shelter us, if we were such men as we gave ourselves out to be.’

Mr Renny’s men in hiding were Society people led by James Renwick. In the summer of 1685, the Society people had were divided over the issue of whether to join with Argyll’s Rising over the failure of Argyll to expressly support a Covenanted settlement in his declaration. The widow clearly judged Brysson and his companions to be Argyll’s men:

The Second House
‘So we came to that house, and sent one to call at the door, whereupon the goodman came out. Our case was made known to him. He said, “Gentlemen, ye need not think to deceive me, for ye are not such men as ye say ye are.” I stept near and said, “Friend, we truly came alongst with Argyle, and our lives are in hazard, and if ye refuse to shelter us, ye cannot be free of our blood, if we should fall into the enemy’s hands.” Whereupon the honest man condescends. So we went in, and though it was early in the morning, there was a brave fire burning on the hearth. We sat down and warmed ourselves. He presently caused his daughter bring plenty of meat to us. After we had breakfasted, he said, “Now, gentlemen, what shall I do with you next, for your enemies will be abroad presently, and will range up our house for provision?” He said, “I have an old torn house, where our sheep lie, I think they will not go near it, being ruinous; there are two steads lying on the balks of the house, I will cause my daughter carry up straw, and ye may lie there till night.” Which, accordingly, we did, and slept there as sound as ever we did upon a feather bed.

[The Old, Torn House]
And at night [of Sunday, 21 June] one of those men that were hiding in the widow’s house [i.e., one of Renwick’s men], came to the honest man, and asked, if there came four armed men there in the morning. He told him, there did. He asked, what men we were. He told him, we were very honest men. He desired to see us. He brought him to us.’

The man who sought them out in the old torn house was probably the John Ferguson, sometimes mistakenly called Fergushill due to a typesetting or transcription error. A few months later, he and two others were killed in a raid on the farm at Midland in Fenwick parish in November when John Nisbet of Hardhill was captured.

‘He was very glad when he saw us, and asked several questions at us, which we told him. He inquired, what we resolved to do. We said, we were resolved to go for Annandale, and to travel all night, and keep close all day. He said it was impossible for us to win there, without being apprehended; for, he said, it was difficult for them to keep themselves out of the enemy’s hands, though they knew the country better than we did. He advised us rather to stay with them, and assured us we should not want meat and drink, if we would take our hazard with them. And we complied with his advice.’

Ferguson gave them sound advice. In the summer of 1685, Highlanders had been sent into Ayrshire, government troops were very active in hunting fugitives and the Border was under guard to prevent rebels joining Monmouth.

Brysson then implies that Ferguson was one of the Society people sympathetic to Argyll’s cause:

‘Now, there were very many of the west-country men upon their hiding, who had met together to have joined us if we had prospered!’

That may be true, however, Ferguson was a member of the United Societies. His interest in Brysson’s party may have for intelligence purposes. Brysson and the others had useful information for the societies about not only the fate of Argyll’s campaign, but how it had dissolved and what divisions there had been during it. That intelligence may have been of particular use to the Societies, as they were under pressure from Argyll’s former agents not only join with Argyll until his capture, but to join with Monmouth, who was in the weeks after the encounter with Brysson, still leading a rebellion in England. Intriguingly, Ferguson proposed to take them to a meeting of the Society people, probably on Eaglesham Moor.

On Eaglesham Moor?
They then went with Ferguson to a great moss:

‘So we took leave of our landlord [of the old torn house], and went alongst with him [i.e., Ferguson]. He carried us to a great moss [probably Eaglesham Moor], where we were to stay next day, for several of them had trysted to meet there. And as we were going to the place, he was to call at a house by the way who was to bring provisions to us, and desired us to stand at the end of the house till he spoke with the folk within.

In the mean time, when we were standing, there came about twenty-four men, well armed, who were on their hiding also; and they came with the same resolution to desire these folk to bring provisions to them, in such a place as they were to lodge in the moss. Not knowing of us, they came close up to the place where we were standing. We hearing the noise of their feet a pretty while before they came up to us, one of our company said, “We are all taken! for there is a party of the enemy coming.” So we had our arms ready to receive them, if they offered any violence. I looked betwixt me and the sky, and I perceived their arms, and saw that they had some sort of arms of their own making, which the forces used not. I said, “They are surely friends.” The other said, “There could not be so many friends together at such a time.” So they came close up to us; and, when they perceived us, they presented their guns, and said, “What are you?” We said, “We are friends!” They said, “How shall we know that?” We said, John Ferguson was with us; (this was the man that brought us along) thinking they might know him; which, accordingly, they did, when we called him.

So we parted; for John Ferguson told them that he had bespoke the house to bring provisions to us and some others that were to meet with us in the moss. So they went to some other place for provisions.’

‘The Great Moss’
‘We lay in the moss all that night and all next day [i.e., the night of 21 June and Monday 22 June]; and then went, in the night time, to another place.’

With the Society people around Eaglesham Moor
‘We remained six weeks wandering up and down with them; whiles lying in the fields and sometimes in houses, and were hardly one night where we were the other. The country was exceeding kind to us, and would take nothing for our victuals;’

Brysson’s party remained with the Society people in hiding on the borders of Eaglesham Moor between 22 June and early August, 1685. At some point in that stay, he and others were to be taken to a safe refuge the burgh of Kilmarnock. However, the plan went astray:

‘There was one night that there were about a dozen of us who were invited by some friends to come to Kilmarnock privately, in the night time, to stay there some days, and there were some ordained to wait upon us at the time appointed, a little space from the town, to convoy us in some secret way; but, behold, that evening some troops of horse had come to quarter there, so our friends sent to stop us by the way. Then we knew not what to do. We had travelled so far from the moors that we were afraid of being apprehended before we wan there again, there being no friend’s house near.’

The low-lying areas of Kilmarnock parish appear to have been hostile terrain for the Societies in comparison to the eastern uplands of it.

Taking Hostages
‘Then they resolved to go to a man’s house that was bein [i.e., well-off] enough, but no friend to them [i.e., to the Society people]; only he had some honest servants, and they thought the man would not be ill-natured.

There were several of the lads that were acquainted with him. So we sent one to call at the door, to see if they would harbour us, and were resolved to stay there by violence, if we could not prevail with fairness.’

The fugitive Society people did, as the occasion demanded, hold hostages for their security.

‘When the man came to the door, behold, it was not locked; he came again and told us; so we came in, and placed our arms beside us, and there was a fine gloss of fire on the hearth. We laid to some more peats, and kept very quiet. When the fire began to have some light, the goodman’s brother, lying in the hall, looked over the bed, and began to bless himself, saying, “What’s that there!” One of them named him, and said, “Be not afraid, it is kend folk.”

He asked, “who we were?” They told him some of their names that he knew. He said, what the devil had brought us there! We desired him to be quiet, for we should do them no wrong. He said, “Devil a one of you stays here!” Then he began to call aloud to his brother to rise and come to his assistance, for there were a great many of the mountain-men come there; upon which his brother rose in haste, and was as ill-natured as he. Then we four that were strangers took upon us to command. After no intreaties would prevail, we threatened to shoot the rascals dead, if we heard any more of their noise; and forthwith we locked the goodman up in a close room, and made him prisoner, and set down his brother amongst us, and commanded him to silence, and threatened, if we had any more of his disturbance, we would immediately knock him down; so after that we had great quietness.

In the morning, very early, the servant men came in, being ordered by their master the night before to go to carry carriage-coals for their laird.

The two servants were well inclined; and after some time’s converse with us they obtained leave to go. We made all the rest prisoners. In the morning, when the cattle and sheep were to go to their meat, the goodman and his brother began to desire liberty for the servants to take them out. We told them, we would be herds ourselves for that day. So two of our number took all the cattle to their meat, and waited on them. Then the goodman and his brother began to use many intreaties to let them be set at liberty, and their life for it, they would do us no harm. At length we condescended, for that stead stood by itself a good way from any other, and we kept a watchful eye upon all that belonged to the house. The goodman, at length, began to be more friendly, telling us it was for fear of bringing hazard upon himself that made him so rude; and desired that we might go down to his barn, where was a great deal of straw, and take us rest, and he and his brother would watch; which accordingly we did, but kept always three sentries to oversee them, that none went to give warning to the enemy. At length our landlord caused make breakfast ready for us of very good victuals, and caused set them down in our sight that we might take them, that, if he were challenged, he could say, he gave us neither meat nor drink. We continued safe till night, and so parted.’

By early August, the Argyll Rising emergency and the Killing Times had passed.

‘When we had staid very long we began to think the country somewhat more quiet. We thought of venturing home to see our friends, whom we had not seen for two years and a half. Two of us went away first, and after that the other two ventured.’

Brysson (b.c.1649) had attended field preachings and been a Bothwell rebel in 1679. He lived at ‘Goursnout’, probably ‘Gourstoun’ in Lasswade parish, Edinburghshire, and attempted to trade privately in Edinburgh before he left for London in mid 1683. In London, he was recruited to join the risings by Argyll and Monmouth by Major James Henderson, who later died from wounds he received at the Battle of Dunkeld in 1689. (Memoirs, 278n., 291, 302.)

‘My comrade and I kept our arms all alongst till we came to Calder Moor, and there left them with a friend that we were recommended to [by the Society people?]; and so we came home; but were in as bad circumstances as we were in when we went off the country. For half-a-year we durst never travel safely but in the night; we thought we would be but a burden to our friends; we resolved to go for England again, where we were not so well known.

So my friend, who had been with me in the most part of all my travels, who is living at the writing hereof [in 1714], (and was the person I spoke of formerly/who was carried off the field into the house sleeping,) went away before me to Northumberland, and promised to write me if he got any settlement, which he did, accordingly, within a short time; he being settled in an honest family. He desired me to take my venture, for I knew not what providence might carve out for me.’ (Brysson in Memoirs of Veitch, 335-45.)

Brysson soon headed to Northumberland where he met James Welsh, a preacher from Kirkcudbrightshire who had been opposed to the militant platform of the Society people in 1682. He remained there until well after the Revolution.

In 1721, he attested an account of George Lapsley’s appearance before the privy council. Lapsley, a follower of Donald Cargill, had escaped from Edinburgh Tolbooth in 1683 and fled to London.

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

~ by drmarkjardine on November 23, 2015.

2 Responses to “Flight Through the Heather: Brysson Among the Society people in 1685 #History #Scotland”

  1. […] the battle of Muirdykes on 18 June. Soon after, his men who had forced their way across the Clyde, broke up and fled into hiding. As ever, Alexander “Prophet” Peden was allegedly on hand to warn the Galloway […]

  2. […] of Muirdykes, see the versions of Patrick Hume of Polwarth, Lord Fountainhall, George Brysson and his escape after it, and the visit of Maxwell of Cardoness to the […]

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