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Dr. John Brown, alias "The Devil-Killer"


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 lectures—amusing from its absurdity, and which we transcribe verbatim—some 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 number—consisted 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 of Fame:"—

"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 attention :—

"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 information :—

"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 praised—a 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 embroidered saddlecloth:"

"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, 1808.

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 Webster—a 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 darkness—hence 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."


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