Portraits Dr. John Brown, alias "The
To many of our readers the above will recall to
remembrance a singular personage of the name of Brown, who assuming the
title of Doctor, and imagining himself destined to astonish and instruct
the world, acquired considerable notoriety in Scotland during the latter
part of the last and beginning of the present century. At what precise
period he entered on the stage of life, or what may have been the
station of his parents, we know not. He had been a soldier in his youth,
in one of his Majesty's artillery corps ; and had the honour under Gen.
Elliot, to be one of the memorable defenders of Gibraltar. Of a tall,
erect figure, he is said to have been in his day one of the prettiest
men in the service.
Alter obtaining his discharge, Brown had sufficient
influence to procure an appointment as an Excise officer; but this
situation he does not appear to have retained for any length of time.
What may have caused his suspension is unknown; but true it is he very
soon afterwards became an avowed enemy to the whole fraternity of
revenue collectors; and his extreme disaffection to "the powers that
were" increased to such an extent as evidently to affect his brain.
Having imbibed a few crude notions in political economy, in theology,
and natural philosophy, he began his Quixotic crusade against abuses, in
the triple character of philosopher, poet, and politician. The rapacity
of ministers, and the delusions of priestcraft, were of course
inexhaustible topics of declamation ; but, from the following programme
of one of his lecturesamusing from its absurdity, and which we
transcribe verbatimsome idea may be formed of the "scope and tendency"
of his more speculative opinions:
"Dr. Brown's exhibition of the Balance of Nature
explored, upon the Principle of Cause and Effect, to promote general
happiness, by transferring Taxation from being the punishment for
industry, to become the punishment for iniquity; the tendency of which
is to destroy the kingdom of the Devil, or Priestcraft, Bribery,
Corruption, and the cursed spirit of Persecution, and Blasphemy,
insulting Omnipotence with our abominable instructions; and prevent the
Disaffected from sowing the seeds of Rebellion in the Country, by
sporting with the Revenue, and hiring News-Printers with secret-service
money to deceive the people with lies, and to restore again the
Blessings of Peace, which is of the first glory, for that nation is most
honourable that sacrifices most pride for peace.
"The soldier's oath sure is not long,
Obey his orders right or wrong.
I'd rather draw my latest breath,
With independence on a heath.
The philosopher's pen the soldier disarms,
And's more than a match for the world in arms.
"With new parables to destroy cruelty, by
transferring iniquity from the Effect to the Cause: and an explanation
of the Subduplicate Motion of the Solar Atmosphere, to prove whether
Nature is created or eternal; and a contest between Faith and Reason, to
prove whether conscience is natural or acquired: with an address to the
God of Nature, who steers the Helm of the Universe.
"The Lecture will be clothed with Elegance and
precision* suitable to the dignity and importance of the subjects. To
conclude with a Lecture upon Love, and a new Song for the Ladies.
"Admittance Two Shillings."
This interesting lecture was to have been delivered
at Aberdeen ; but tbe magistrates, not being sufficiently enlightened to
appreciate its merits, prohibited tbe threatened harangue, and caused
the enraged philosopher to be removed without the jurisdiction of the
city. Tbis fate he experienced in various quarters not so far North as
Aberdeen. Tbe following lines, entitled " The Persecutors who robbed tbe
Author at Greenock," which are printed in his Book of Fame, record a
similar interference :
"For ever let the truth be spoke,
Your laws have robbed me of my cloak,
And stopped my lecture, just and sound;
The damage it is just ten pounds.
1 cannot go with much respect
A bad cause has a bad effect;
In future let this lie a lesson
Ne'er try to stop the Perpetual Motion."
So extravagant and blasphemous were the Doctor's
nonsensical ravings, that even the rabble, whom he purposed to
enlighten, in place of raising their voices in his favour, not
unfrequently rewarded him with hisses and abuse, accompanying these
demonstrations of feeling with something more substantial, in the shape
of mud and stones. Such manifestations he of course attributed to the
secret instigation of his enemies in high quarters; and while he pitied
the blindness of the people, he affected to bear their rudeness with all
the cynic indifference of a Diogenes. In the "wicked town o' Ayr" a
friend recollects witnessing a similar termination to one of his
harangues. He had been denied a place in which to hold forth; and, as a
last resource, had taken up his station at the gable of a house, where
he was just beginning to "illuminate" the people on the "Perpetual
Motion," when a volley of stones instantly put himself in such quick
motion, pursued by the crowd, that he found it convenient to make a
rapid retreat, leaving his oration unfinished.
The philosopher's "Book (or rather Books) of
Fame"for they were three in numberconsisted of a collection of
wretched rhyme and worse prose, the record of his sage opinions of men
and things, thrown together without any arrangement. The sale of these
productions, printed in the shape of pamphlets, was latterly the chief
source from which be derived a scanty living.
The "Book of Fame," No. I., in which the author can
be traced through an extensive tour of the Highlands, affords a
tolerable specimen of his wandering life. If he is to be credited, he
visited the abodes of many people of the highest rank and
respectability; and the kindness he everywhere experienced seems for the
time to have considerably softened his democratic ravings, for "fair"
scenes and "fair" ladies are the chief themes of his poetical
aspirations. The exquisite absurdity of his compositions is a sufficient
apology for indulging our readers with a specimen or two of his sublime
wooings of the muse. After celebrating the "Troshes (as he calls them)
of Menteith," and admiring the "ladies fair at sweet Aughry," we find
the Doctor at Auchline, which is thus immortalised in his "Book
"Through famed Breadalbane I did rove,
And saw Benmore, the hill of Jove,
Where I beheld the palace fine,
And ladies fair at sweet Auchline.
Sure, by all the powers above,
The Dochart is the river of love,
To bathe and wash Miss Campbells fine: Miss Auchallader like the sun doth shine;
To love such ladies can be no sin,
So I'll pass on to sweet Killin ! "
Ardvorlich and Invercauld next claim his
"Sweet rural shades of Invercauld,
Which calls to mind the days of old;
Such planting upon mountains high,
Whose lofty summits touch the sky,
Does honour to that Chieftain's name;
Improvement is the way to fame.
Your Highland Reel I love to dance,
It well might grace the Court of France."
The author must obviously have cut a handsome figure
in a Highland reel; but lest such condescension in a philosopher should
prove derogatory to his character, or any mistake exist as to his
identity, he concludes the sonnet with the following important
"I am neither Lord Fife, nor Duke of Mar,
But Dr. B------n, from a country far;
And since you have deigned on me to look,
I hope one day you'll get your book."
It would be fatiguing to accompany the Doctor farther
in his tour; enough has been given to prove the harmony of his
versification, and the sublimity and beauty of his ideas. Amid all the
fair scenes and kind hearts he describes, however, his recollections of
the Excise suddenly cast their gloom around them, and he bursts into the
following impassioned description of "Hunger-him-out the Gauger:"
"Would you the dregs of mankind trace,
Or know a gauger by the face
There is now ranging up and down
The meanest face e'er came to town:
The pimping officer starts the sport,
By taking the widow's stock too short;
The Supervisor comes with a smile,
Says God be praiseda sweet beguile;
The widow and children they do cry
Never mind though they should die;
The God of Heaven is fast asleep,
Let us make hay while widows weep;
We'll send a present to the Board,
And all complaints will then be smoored;|
And since by faith to heaven we are whirled,
We'll leave our conscience in this world."
A little farther on are four lines descriptive of "A
Fine Lady, who paid for one hundred copies, and rides with an
"When you mount your horse, my eyes go blind,
When you ride away, all grows dark behind;
Your slender hand has kindled a flame.
And raised the muse to the summit of fame."
The price of "one hundred copies" would be an
acceptable offering, and a sure way to be enrolled in the "Book of
Fame." The author appears to have been then soliciting subscriptions for
his embryo publication. Among other names honoured with his high
approval, we find that of the Hon. Charles James Fox
"Whose memory for ever lives,
The enemy of Revenue Thieves!"
Mrs. Clarke also finds a niche in his temple of
British worthies :
"In spite of pimping lawyer sages,
For truth she stands the rock of ages;
They laid their traps to make her fall
By the god of war she foil'd them all!"
The "Book of Fame," No. II.,
is more indicative of the Doctor's eccentric tenets in politics
and religion. The titles of a few leading pieces are"On Revenue
Thieves""On the Fast-Day""On the War""The Millennium, upon the
Principle of Cause and Effect, universal peace must be preceded by
universal monarchy;" and in order to fix the subject more permanently on
the minds of his hearers, he calls in the aid of melody, and directs his
disquisitions to be sung to the tune of "Johnnie Cope:"
"Your thundering guns shall roar, roar, roar,
Your fame extend to every shore;
And you shall conquer more and more,
Till mankind is free in the morning !"
No. III. of the "Book of Fame" is of a still more
political and theological cast. As an accessory to bribery and
corruption, the press, which he accuses of dealing in "thick-skinned
lies," does not escape the lash of the cynic. In a letter addressed to
the Editor of the Tyne Mercury, he says
"Sir,As the business of the philosopher is to warn
mankind of their danger, and lash vice without personality, and let the
sins find out the thief, you ought therefore to be candid, and give both
sides of the question ; for when you mauufacture the French news, you
deceive yourself, and impose on your readers; for, since the schemes
taken to deceive the country have induced the manufacturers to read the
papers backwards, on purpose to come at the truth, proves that
corruption defeats its own purpose, by promoting investigation. Please
to give the following a place in your paper." [Here follows a long
paragraph, entitled, "A Receipt for reading newspapers."] 25th October,
Among the other prose, effusions, is to be found an
account of his much-vaunted discovery of "The Perpetual Motion, or
Eternal Machinery of Uncreated Nature." In this document, astronomical
truisms and infidel dogmas are strongly blended with his own rude
conceits and audacious levity of language. Speaking of the clergy, who,
as he asserts, persuade "the ignorant to deny themselves the comforts of
this life, and submit to the cheat, assuring them of the riches of the
next world for the riches of this," he concludes by observing"for a
bird in hand is worth two in the bush ; we have shown the way to heaven,
but we are going about by Stirling Bridge! " But enough of the Doctor's
opinions and his Books of Fame.
As already stated, Brown frequently suffered severely
for the promulgation of the "new philosophy;" and it must have required
all his enthusiasm to bear the load of martyrdom. He was patronized,
however, by many who, while they pitied him, were amused with his
eccentricities and absurdities. The Print, done in 1819, affords a very
accurate portraiture. He was then a little bent by age, still he
maintained, in appearance, a degree of respectability. Over his neatly
tied hair, which was grey and well powdered, he wore a whitish-brown
hat; and his white neckcloth and ample length and breadth of frill
sufficiently indicated that he was no common person.
That the Doctor experienced a full share of the
vicissitudes incident to such a devious career may be justly inferred.
At Dunse, on one occasion, when stocks were evidently low, he entered
the shop of a victualler, to purchase the luxury of a half-penny
worth of cheese! The shopman declared his inability to accommodate
him with so small a portion. "Then, what is the least you can sell?"
inquired the Doctor. "A penny worth," replied the dealer, and instantly
set about weighing the quantity, which he speedily placed on the counter
in anticipation of payment. "Now," said the Doctor, taking up the knife,
"I will instruct you how to sell a half-penny worth in future;" upon
which he cut the modicum of cheese in two, and appropriating one of the
halves, paid down his copper and departed.
Brown was a frequent visitor at the shop of the late
eccentric David Webstera vender of books, who was much patronized by
Sir Walter Scott; and it was not a little amusing to be present at their
colloquies. Webster, who was a shrewd, strong-headed man, liked nothing
better than to engage Brown in a discussion; and the nonsense the latter
used to utter was vastly amusing. One favourite subject was the power of
his Satanic Majesty. Here the Doctor was in his element. Numerous were
the encounters he had had with the enemy of mankind and his emissaries;
and repeatedly had he defeated them; nay, he had killed the devil and
slaughtered numbers of the imps of darknesshence his soubriquet
of "The Devil-Killer."
Brown died about twenty years ago; and we cannot
close this sketch of his life more appropriately than by quoting the
epitaph or elegy which he composed upon himself
"The Discoverer of the Perpetual Motion,
This cold grave is all his portion.
The stars will show you at a glance,
The perpetual motion is Omnipotence.
Before I was, I did not exist,
I now exist no more -Nature has to me been just
I'm what I was before."
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.