The Old Church B&B, a Ghost, and a Lonely Grave: Part III

An early sketch of John Brown the Martyr of Priesthill Scotland being shot down by Bloody Clavers.

An early sketch of John Brown the Martyr of Priesthill Scotland being shot down by Bloody Clavers.


I first heard of John Brown the Martyr of Priesthill in the late 60s.

My dad arrived home from a reunion with a family tree that traced a branch of our family back to the martyr. Given the staunch Presbyterian leanings of the ancestral Mekemsons, it was an important connection.

My Great, Great, Great Grand Father, James Mekemson, married Mary Brown Laughhead Findlay. (Mary had already seen two husbands die.) John Brown was five generations up the line.

The story of John Brown’s murder verges on legend. He was, as the saying goes, a Covenanter’s Covenanter, a very devout man. Reverend Alexander Peden, one of the top leaders of the Covenanter Movement, described him as “a clear shining light, the greatest Christian I ever conversed with.” High praise indeed; the type you reserve for a man who is killed for your cause.

They say that Brown would have been a great preacher, except he stuttered. Leading Covenanters visited his home and secret church services were held there. Important meetings took place.

Alexander Peden stayed at his house the night before Brown earned his martyrdom and warned of dark times. Peden was something of a prophet when it came to predicting dire events. This time he was right.

Brown was out gathering peat with his nephew the next morning when soldiers led by John Graham of Claverhouse appeared out of the mist and captured him. The date was May 2, 1685.

Claverhouse, or Bloody Clavers as the early Presbyterians identified him, was the King’s go-to man when it came to eliminating Covenanters. He was not noted for his compassion.

He took Brown back to his home and demanded that he swear an oath to the King in front of his wife and children. Brown started praying instead. The legend states that Claverhouse ordered his soldiers to kill Brown but they refused. So he took out his own pistol and shot him in the head in front of his family.

The story then goes on to describe how Brown’s wife, Isabel Weir, went about the yard collecting pieces of her husband’s brain. (I don’t mean to treat this lightly, but somehow I can’t help thinking about a TV episode of Bones.)

The family eventually escaped to Ireland and then moved on to North America where it settled in Paxtang, Pennsylvania.

This shot of Peggy captures the isolation of John Brown's Grave, the white speck on the upper left of the photo.

John Brown’s appearance on our family chart in 1969 immediately caught my attention. Not too many families can claim a certified martyr. When I became serious about genealogy three years ago, I determined I would go to Scotland and find his grave.

Our arrival at the Priesthill Farm with its disappearing woman meant that we were near. A faded sign pointed off to the right. The fine print suggested we would find the grave in a mile. We went wandering out across the grass-covered hills, following a muddy path that was minimally marked.

We were beginning to despair about out chosen route when we crested a hill and spotted the lonely grave in the distance with only sheep for company. We hiked down the slope, jumped a small creek, and arrived. After paying proper homage to the martyr we climbed above the grave to where he had lived. Only a few stones marked the site. Peggy photographed me standing in his house, near where he had been shot down on that misty morning in 1685.

Looking down on John Brown's Grave.

I am standing on a rock that may have been part of John Brown's home, only feet away from where he would have been shot.

Our ‘pilgrimage’ completed, we left Muirkirk and drove east to Dumfries where I visited the local genealogical center. The next day we returned our car to Edinburgh and took the train to London. Our visit to England and Scotland was over. Between our visit to Chatsworth, adventure on the narrow boat canal, exploration of Edinburgh, tour of southwestern Scotland and search for ancestors, we had a full three weeks. We we had enjoyed the Midlands of England, we fell in love with Scotland. We’ll be back.

Next Blog: Back to the wild west… There’s a beaver standing on my tent.

The River Nith flowing through the heart of Dumfries.

A final view of southwestern Scotland.

The Mummy of Carlisle, PA and other Scary Halloween Stories

Carlisle Mummy Cradles Bone

A well-preserved Mummy is parading around outside the van. Bone is excited. He wants his photo taken with the fearsome creature. After all, what is a mummy but gauze, skin and bone.

It’s not quite Halloween but I wouldn’t tell that to the folks at the Western RV Village. The campground is packed with people here to celebrate. And it is filled with ghosts and goblins and ghouls, not to mention the mummy, witches and innumerable graveyards.

Halloween is serious business in central Pennsylvania. People decorate for the event like they do for Christmas in other places.

I whined to the campground manager that Peggy and I were missing our annual pumpkin carving contest in Sacramento with my sister Nancy and her husband, Jim. It’s been going on for 20 years. “Why don’t you join the children in their contest,” she suggested. I gracefully declined.

Old Graveyards are key to Halloween stories and Genealogical research. This grave is located in Newville/Big Springs PA. John Brown fought in the Revolutionary War and was the Uncle of my Great, Great, Great Grandmother Mary Brown Mekemson.

We are engaged in a Halloween like activity, however, searching through old graveyards looking for long dead people. My Great, Great, Great Grandmother Mary Brown Mekemson was born near here in the town of Big Springs (now Newville). Her Grandfather, James, arrived in the area in 1750, back when the US was still part of England.

The Browns trace their lineage back to John Brown, the Scottish Martyr. He was shot down in front of his wife and children in the late 1600s for insisting that Christ, not the King of England, was his Ruler.  His epitaph notes he was “butchered by Clavers and his bloody band, raging most ravenously o’re all the land.”

The early Scottish Presbyterians didn’t think much of Bloody Clavers but they liked their alliteration and poetry.

Legend tells that the Ghost of John Brown visited Clavers to predict his doom the night before he was killed in battle. Revenge and justice.

Ghosts have become big business in modern-day America, in case you haven’t noticed. They are no longer limited to their once a year appearance on Halloween. Having one or more on the premise can mean big bucks. Historic communities that depend on tourist revenue are required to have several.

Next week, in honor of the season, Peggy and I will visit one of the most famous ghost haunts in America, Fort Mifflin, located just outside of Philadelphia. It was the sight of an important battle of the Revolutionary War where 400 men held off the might of the British Navy while George Washington escaped to Valley Forge. Lots of patriots died. It is also the sight of all sorts of spooky business and has been featured on the popular SyFy channel TV show, Ghost Hunters.

More to the point, from my perspective, four Mekemson boys, brothers of my fourth Great Grandpa, Joseph, were involved in the battle. Two were killed saving the flag according to family stories and a flyer distributed by the Fort. One was cut in half by a cannon ball, which anyone would agree is a rather gory end that should justify ghost status. Maybe Uncle Andrew will make an appearance on our visit. I’ll let you know in next week’s blog, “The Mekemson Ghosts of Fort Mifflin.”

Bone whispers in skeleton's ear about upcoming visit to Fort Mifflin.