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Book of Scottish Story
John Brown; or, the House in the Muir


John Brown, the Ayr, or as he was more commonly designated by the neighbours, the Religious Carrier, had been absent, during the month of January (1685), from his home in the neighbourhood of Muirkirk, for several days. The weather, in the meantime, had become extremely stormy, and a very considerable fall of snow had taken place. His only daughter, a girl of about eleven years of age, had frequently, during the afternoon of Saturday, looked out from the cottage door into the drift, in order to report to her mother, who was occupied with the nursing of an infant brother, the anxious occurrences of the evening. "Help," too, the domestic cur, had not remained an uninterested spectator of the general anxiety, but by several fruitless and silent excursions into the night, had given indisputable testimony that the object of his search had not yet neared the solitary shieling. It was a long, and a wild road, lying over an almost trackless muir, along which John Brown had to come; and the cart track, which even in better weather and with the advantage of more daylight, might easily be mistaken, had undoubtedly, ere this become invisible. Besides, John had long been a marked bird, having rendered himself obnoxious to the "powers that were," by his adherence to the Sanquhar declaration, his attending field-preachings, or as they were termed "conventicles," his harbouring of persecuted ministers, and, above all, by a moral, a sober, and a proverbially devout and religious conduct.

In an age when immorality was held to be synonymous with loyalty, and irreligion with non-resistance and passive obedience, it was exceedingly dangerous to wear such a character, and, accordingly, there had not been wanting information to the prejudice of this quiet and godly man. Clavers, who, ever since the affair of Drumclog, had discovered more of the merciless and revengeful despot than of the veteran or hero, had marked his name, according to report, in his black list; and when once Clavers had taken his resolution and his measures, the Lord have mercy upon those against whom these were pointed! He seldom hesitated in carrying his plans into effect, although his path lay over the trampled and lacerated feelings of humanity. Omens, too, of an unfriendly and evil-boding import, had not been wanting in the cottage of John to increase the alarm. The cat had mewed suspiciously, had appeared restless, and had continued to glare in hideous indication from beneath the kitchen bed. The death-watch, which had not been noticed since the decease of the gudeman's mother, was again, in the breathless pause of listening suspense, heard to chick distinctly; and the cock, instead of crowing, as on ordinary occasions, immediately before day-dawn, had originated a sudden and alarming flap of his wings, succeeded by a fearful scream, long before the usual bed-time.

It was a gloomy crisis; and after a considerable time spent in dark and despairing reflection, the evening lamp was at last trimmed, and the peat fire repaired into something approaching to a cheerful flame. But all would not do; for whilst the soul within is disquieted and in suspense, all external means and appliances are inadequate to procure comfort, or impart even an air of cheerfulness. At last Help suddenly lifted his head from the hearth, shook his ears, sprung to his feet, and with something betwixt a growl and a bark, rushed towards the door, at which the yird drift was now entering copiously. It was, however, a false alarm. The cow had moved beyond the "hallan," or the mice had come into sudden contact, and squeaked behind the rafters. John, too. it was reasoned betwixt mother and daughter, was always so regular and pointed in his arrivals, and this being Saturday night, it was not a little or an insignificant obstruction that could have prevented him from being home, in due time, at least, for family worship. His cart, in fact, had usually been pitched up, with the trams supported against the peat-stack, by two o'clock in the afternoon; and the evening of his arrival from his weekly excursion to Ayr was always an occasion of affectionate intercourse, and more than ordinary interest. Whilst his disconsolate wife, therefore, turned her eyes towards her husband's chair, and to the family Bible, which lay in a "bole" within reach of his hand, and at the same time listened to the howling and intermitting gusts of the storm, she could not avoid—it was not in nature that she should—contrasting her present with her former situation; thus imparting even to objects of the most kindly and comforting association, all the livid and darkening hues of her disconsolate mind. But there is a depth and a reach in true and genuine piety, which the plummet of sorrow may never measure. True religion sinks into the heart as the refreshing dew does into the chinks and the crevices of the dry and parched soil ; and the very fissures of affliction, the cleavings of the soul, present a more ready and inviting, as well as efficient access, to the softening influence of piety.

This poor woman began gradually to think less of danger, and more of God— to consider as a set-off against all her fruitless uneasiness, the vigilance and benevolence of that powerful Being, to whom, and to whose will, the elements, in all their combinations and relations, are subservient; and having quieted her younger child in the cradle, and intimated her intention by a signal to her daughter, she proceeded to take down the family Bible, and to read out in a soft, and subdued, but most devout and impressive voice, the following lines :—

I waited for the Lord my God,
And patiently did bear;
At length to me he did incline
My voice and cry to bear.

These two solitary worshippers of Him whose eyes are on the just, and whose ear is open to their cry, had proceeded to the beginning of the fourth verse of this psalm, and were actually employed in singing with an increased and increasing degree of fervour and devotion, the following trustful and consolatory expressions—

O blessed is the man whose trust
Upon the Lord relies,

when the symphony of another and a well-known voice was felt to be present-end they became at once assured that the beloved object of their solicitude had joined them, unseen and. unperceived, in the worship. This was felt by all to be as it ought to have been; nor did the natural and instinctive desire to accommodate the weary and snow-covered traveller with such conveniences and appliances as his present condition manifestly demanded, prevent the psalm-singing from going on, and the service from being finished with all suitable decency. Having thus, in the first instance, rendered thanks unto God, and blessed and magnified that mercy which pervades, and directs, and over-rules every agent in nature, no time was lost in attending to the secondary objects of inquiry and manifestation, and the kind heart overflowed, whilst the tongue and the hand were busied in "answer meet" and in "accommodation suitable."

In all the wide range of Scotland's muirs and mountains, straths and glens, there was not to be found this evening a happier family than that over which John Brown, the religious carrier, now presided. The affectionate inquiries and solicitous attentions of his wife,— of his partner trusty and tried, not only under the cares and duties of life, but in the faith, in the bonds of the covenant and in all the similarity of sentiment and apprehension upon religious subjects, without which no matrimonial union can possibly ensure happiness,— were deeply felt and fully appreciated. They two had sat together in the "Tor-wood," listening to the free and fearless accents of excommunication, as they rolled in dire and in blasting destiny from the half-inspired lips of the learned and intrepid Mr Donald Cargill. They had, at the risk of their lives, harboured for a season, and enjoyed the comfortable communion and fellowship of Mr Richard Cameron, immediately previous to his death in the unfortunate rencounter at "Airsmoss." They had followed into and out the shire of Ayr, the zealous and eloquent Mr John King, and that even in spite of the interdict of council, and after that a price had been set upon the preacher's head. Their oldest child had been baptised by a Presbyterian and ejected minister under night, and in the midst of a wreath of snow, and the youngest was still awaiting the arrival of an approven servant of God, to receive the same sanctified ordinance. And if at times a darker thought passed suddenly across the disc of their sunny hearts, and if the cause of a poor persecuted remnant, the interests of a reformed, and suffering, and bleeding church, supervened in cloud upon the general quietude and acquiescence of their souls, this was instantly relieved and dispersed by a deeper, and more sanctified and more trustful tone of feeling ; whilst amidst the twilight beams of prophecy, and the invigorating exercise of faith, the heart was disciplined and habituated into hope, and reliance, and assurance. And if at times the halloo, and the yells, and the clatter of persecution, were heard upon the hill-side, or up the glen, where the Covenanters' Cave was discovered, and five honest men were butchered under a sunny morning, and in cold blood,—and if the voice of Clovers, or of his immediate deputy in the work of bloody oppression, "Red Rob," came occasionally in the accents of vindictive exclamation, upon the breeze of evening; yet hitherto the humble "Cottage in the Muir" had escaped notice, and the tread and tramp of man and horse had passed mercifully, and almost miraculously by. The general current of events closed in upon such occasional sources of agitation and alarm, leaving the house in the muir in possession of all that domestic happiness, and even quietude, which its retirement and its inmates were calculated to ensure and to participate.

Early next morning the cottage of John Brown was surrounded by a troop of dragoons, with Clavers at their head. John, who had probably a presentiment of what might happen, urged his wife and daughter to remain within doors, insisting that as the soldiers were, in all likelihood, in search of some other individual, he should soon be able to dismiss them. By this time the noise, occasioned by the trampling and neighing of horses, commingled with the hoarse and husky laugh and vociferations of the dragoons, had brought John, half-dressed and in his night-cap, to the door. Clavers immediately accosted him by name; and in a manner peculiar to himself, intended for something betwixt the expression of fun and irony, he proceeded to make inquiries respecting one "Samuel Aitkin, a godly man, and a minister of the word, one outrageously addicted to prayer, and occasionally found with the sword of the flesh in one hand, and that of the spirit in the other, disseminating sedition, and propagating disloyalty among his Majesty's lieges."

John admitted at once that the worthy person referred to was not unknown to him, asserting, however, at the same time, that of his present residence or place of hiding he was not free to speak. "No doubt, no doubt," rejoined the questioner, " you, to be sure, know nothing!—how should you, all innocence and ignorance as you are? But here is a little chip of the old block, which may probably recollect better, and save us the trouble of blowing out her father's brains, just by way of making him remember a little more accurately." "You, my little farthing rush-light," continued "Red Rob," ["Red Rob," the "Bothwell." probably, of "Old Mortality," was, in fact, the right hand man of Clavers on all occasions, and has caused himself lung to be remembered amidst the peasantry of the Wot of Scotland, not only by the dragoon's red cloak, which he wore, but still more by his hands, crimsoned in the blood of his countrymen!] alighting from his horse, and seizing the girl rudely, and with prodigious force by the wrists, —"you remember an old man with a long beard and a bald head, who was here a few days ago, baptizing your sister, and giving many good advices to father and mother, and who is now within a few miles of this house, just up in a nice snug cave in the glen there, to which you can readily and instantly conduct us, you know?" The girl looked first at her mother, who had now advanced into the doorway, then at her father, and latterly drooped her head, and continued to preserve a complete silence.

"And so," continued the questioner, "you are dumb; you cannot speak; your tongue is a little obstinate or so, and you must not tell family secrets. But what think you, my little chick, of speaking with your fingers, of having a pat and a proper and a pertinent answer just ready, my love, at your finger ends, as one may say. As the Lord lives, and as my soul lives, but this will make a dainty nosegay" (displaying a thumbikin or finger-screw) "for my sweet little Covenanter; and then" (applying the instrument of torture, meanwhile, and adjusting it to the thumb) "you will have no manner of trouble whatever in recollecting yourself; it will just come to you like the lug of a stoup, and don't knit your brows so" (for the pain had become insufferable) ; "then we shall have you quite chatty and amusing, I warrant." The mother, who could stand this no longer, rushed upon the brutal executioner, and with expostulations, threats, and the most impassioned entreaties, endeavoured to relax the questioner's twist.

"Can you, mistress, recollect anything of this man we are in quest of?" resumed Clavers, haughtily. "It may save us both some trouble, and your daughter a continuance and increase of her present suffering, if you will just have the politeness to make us acquainted with what you happen to know upon the subject." The poor woman seemed for an instant to hesitate; and her daughter looked most piteously and distractedly into her countenance, as if expectant and desirous of respite, through her mother's compliance. "Woman!" exclaimed the husband, in a tone of indignant surprise, "hast thou so soon forgot thy God? And shall the fear of anything which man can do induce thee to betray innocent blood?" He said no more; but he had said enough, for from that instant the whole tone of his wife's feelings was changed, and her soul was wound up as if by the hand of Omnipotence, into resolution and daring. "Bravo!" exclaimed the arch persecutor, "Bravo! old Canticles ; thou word'st it well; and so you three pretty innocents have laid your holy heads together, and you have resolved to die, should it so please God and us, with a secret in your breast, and a lie in your mouth, like the rest of your psalm-singing, hypocritical, canting sect, rather than discover gude Mr Aitkin:—pious Mr Aitken!—worthy Mr Aitken! But we shall try what light this little telescope of mine will afford upon the subject," pointing at the same time to a carabine or holster pistol, which hung suspended from the saddle of his horse. "This cold frosty morning," continued Clavers, "requires that one should be employed, were it for no other purpose than just to gain heat by the exercise. And so, old pragmatical, in order that you may not catch cold, by so early an exposure to the keen air, we will take the liberty," (hereupon the whole troop gathered round, and presented muskets), "for | the benefit of society, and for the honour and safety of the King, never to speak of the glory of God and the good of souls. — simply and unceremoniously, and in the neatest and most expeditious manner imaginable, to blow out your brains." John Brown dropped down instantly, and as it were instinctively, upon his knees, whilst his wife stood by in seeming composure, and his daughter had happily become insensible to all external objects and transactions whatever. "What!" exclaimed Clavers "and so you must pray too, to be sure, and we shall have a last speech and a dying testimony lifted up in the presence of peat-stack and clay walls and snow wreaths ; but as these are pretty staunch and confirmed loyalists, I do not care though we entrust you with five minutes of devotional exercise, provided you steer clear of King, Council, and Richard Cameron,—so proceed, good John, but be short and pithy. My lambs are not accustomed to long prayers, nor will they readily soften under the pathetic whining of your devotions." But in this last surmise Clavers was for once mistaken ; for the prayer of this poor and uneducated man ascended that morning in expressions at once so earnest, so devout, and so overpoweringly pathetic, that deep silence succeeded at last to oaths and ribaldry; and as the following concluding sentences were pronounced, there were evident marks of better and relenting feelings:—"And now, gude Lord." continued this death-doomed and truly Christian sufferer, "since Thou hast nae mair use for Thy servant in this world, and since it is Thy good and rightful pleasure that I should serve Thee better and love Thee more elsewhere. I leave this puir widow woman, with the helpless and fatherless children, upon Thy hands. We have been happy in each other here, and now that we are to part for awhile, we maun e'en look forward to a more perfect and enduring happiness hereafter. As for the puir blindfolded and infatuated creatures, the present ministers of Thy will, Lord, reclaim them from the error and the evil of their courses ere it be too late; and may they who have sat in judgment and in oppression in this lonely place, and on this blessed morning, and upon a puir weak defenceless fellow-creature, find that mercy at last from Thee which they have this day refused to Thy unworthy but faithful servant." "Now, Isbel," continued this defenceless and amiable martyr, "the time is come at last, of which, you know, I told you on that day when first I proposed to unite hand and heart with yours; and are you willing, for the love of God and His rightful authority, to part with me thus?" To which the poor woman replied with perfect composure, "The Lord gave, and He taketh away. I have had a sweet loan of you, my dear John, and I can part with you for His sake, as freely as ever I parted with a mouthful of meat to the hungry, or a night's lodging to the weary and benighted traveller." So saying, she approached her still kneeling and blindfolded husband, clasped him round the neck, kissed and embraced him closely, and then lifting up her person into an attitude of determined endurance, and eyeing from head to foot every soldier who stood with his carabine levelled, she retired slowly and firmly to the spot which she had formerly occupied. "Come, come, let's have no more of this whining work," interrupted Clavers suddenly. "Soldiers! do your duty." But the words fell upon a circle of statues; and though they all stood with their muskets presented, there was not a finger which had power to draw the fatal trigger. Then ensued an awful pause, through which a "God Almighty bless your tender hearts," was heard coming from the lips of the now agitated and almost distracted wife. But Clavers was not in the habit of giving his orders twice, or of expostulating with disobedience. So, extracting a pistol from the holster of his saddle, he primed and cocked it, and then walking firmly and slowly up through the circle close to the ear of his victim,

* * * * *

There was a momentary murmur of discontent and of disapprobation amongst the men as they looked upon the change which a single awful instant had effected ; and even "Red Rob," though a Covenanting slug still stuck smarting by in his shoulder, had the hardihood to mutter, loud enough to be heard. "By God, this is too bad!" The widow of John Brown gave one, and but one shriek of horror as the fatal engine exploded ; and then, addressing herself leisurely, as if to the discharge of some ordinary domestic duty, she began to unfold a napkin from her neck. "What think ye, good woman, of your bonny man now?" vociferated Clavers, returning. at the same time, the pistol, with a plunge, into the holster from which it had been extracted. "1 had always good reason," replied the woman firmly and deliberately, "to think weel o' him, and I think mair o' him now than ever. But how will Graham of Claverhouse account to God and man for this morning's work?" continued the respondent firmly. "To man," answered the ruffian, "I can be answerable; and as to God, I will take Him in my own hands." He then marched off, and left her with the corpse. She spread the napkin leisurely upon the snow, gathered up the scattered fragments of her husband's head, covered his body with a plaid, and sitting down with her youngest and yet unbaptised infant, wept bitterly.

The cottage, and the kail-yard, and the peat-stack, and the whole little establishment of John Brown, the religious carrier, have long disappeared from the heath and the muir; but the little spot, within one of the windings of the burn, where the "House in the Muir "stood, is still green amidst surrounding heath; and in the very centre of that spot there lies a slab, or flat stone, now almost covered over with grass, upon which, with a little clearing away of the moss from the faded characters, the following rude but expressive lines may still be read:—

Clavers might murder godly Brown,
But could not rob him of his crown;
Here in this place from earth he took departure.
Now he has got the garland of the martyr.

Blackwood's Magazine, 1822.


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