© Robert Guthrie
Rev. Alexander Peden
'PUIR AULD SANDY'
'THE PROPHET OF THE COVENANT'
Alexander Peden was born in 1626 at Auchencloich Farm, Sorn in Ayrshire, the son of a small land-owner. He studied arts and divinity at Glasgow University from where he returned to his native Ayrshire to take up the position of schoolmaster at Tarbolton. The minister of the parish at that time was John Guthrie, a notable Covenanter in his own right and brother of William Guthrie the renowned minister of Fenwick. Peden would soon follow them into the ministry and in 1659 he was ordained at New Luce in Wigtonshire. However, this ministry was short-lived and like many ministers of the time including Hugh Crawford of New Cumnock, he was ejected from his charge.
The hills and the moorsides of south-west Scotland became his church. His congregation swoll to numbers that no building could hold as his reputation as a field-preacher spread throughout the land. His pulpits were often a moss-covered boulders many of which have passed into local folklore as 'Peden's Stanes' , like the one in the neighbouring parish of Kirkconnel in Dumfriesshire.
Peden was outlawed in 1666 and he had to take special precautions to avoid detection by informants as he trudged throughout the upland parishes from conventicle to conventicle. One form of disguise was his famous 'fawse-face and wig' which from a distance would confuse even the most alert spy !
In 1673, however, he was finally captured at a house-conventicle at Knockdow, Ayrshire and then imprisoned on the Bass Rock, in the Firth of Forth, where he remained for four and half years. In one his letters from the Rock he woefully relates 'We are close shut up by our chambers: not permitted to converse, diet , worship together'. The contrast with the realtive freedom of the expansive uplands and moors of his native Ayrshire engaged in Christian worship with his fellow Covenanters must surely have eaten at his soul.
A further year of imprisonment in the Tolbooth at Edinburgh followed before he was sentenced to banishment for life in the plantations of America. Along with others to suffer the same fate he was shipped from Leith to London. However, the captain of the connecting ship to Virginia could not stomach such an unholy act on such a pious group of Presybyterians. Peden made good his escape and would spend half a year in England and then later some time in Ireland before returning to his calling of field-preaching in his homeland of Scotland.
Peden's powers and reputation went beyond that of field-preaching. Traditions handed down often allude to his shamanistic qualities perhaps better associated with the great bards of the Dark Ages. He could call upon the Lord to 'cast the lap of Thy cloak ower auld Sandy and thir poor things and save us this one time' and a hill mist would descend concealing Peden and his fellow conventiclers from advancing dragoons. He had the gift of the second-sight earning him the accolade of 'Prophet of the Covenant' but too often his visions were filled with impending grief and perphaps none more so than that associated with John Brown, the Christian Carrier.
On the day he performed the marriage of John Brown and Isabel Weir at the farm of Priesthill he prophecised to the new bride 'You have got a good man to be your husband, but you will not enjoy him long; prize his company and keep linen by you to be his winding sheet, for you will need it when ye are not looking for it, and it will be a bloody one'. John Brown's life indeed came to a bloody end. He was shot on the spot at Priesthill by Graham of Claverhouse or 'Bluidy Clavers' in full view of his wife and family and sadly another of Auld Sandy's prophecy came to past!
The years of field-preaching and imprisonment finally took their toll on 'puir Auld Sandy' and he returned to his native Ayrshire to die. Still an outlaw he concealed himself in a cave on the Lugar Water near to a farm called Tenshillingside his brother had rented at in the parish of Auchinleck. Government troops were garrisoned at nearby Sorn Castle and would subject Tenshillingside to thorough searches on a regular basis with little success. Peden left his little cave for the last time to spend his last few days at his brother's house where he died on 26th January 1686, aged 60 years old. Boswell, the Laird of Auchinleck permitted the corpse of the Prophet to be laid rest in the family tomb in Auchinleck Kirkyard. Some 6 weeks later, Peden's body was taken by the dragoons to be hanged from the gibbet on the Gallows hill at Cumnock, an unholy act of contempt. The Covenanters' monument standing proudly adjacent to the Boswell Mausoleum tells the story...
TO THE MEMORY OF
THE NOTED COVENANTER, BORN 1626
DIED AND WAS BURIED IN THIS
CHURCHYARD 1686. HIS BODY
AFTER SIX WEEKS IN THE GRAVE
WAS RAISED BY THE DRAGOONS UNDER
COLONEL DOUGLAS AND IN
CONTEMPT WAS BURIED AT THE
FOOT OF THE GALLOWS -TREE AT
OLD CUMNOCK, WHICH PLACE
AFTERWARDS BECAME THE
Murray, in charge of the dragoons was intent on having Peden's decaying body hanged in public view. However, the Earl of Dumfries, as Baron Crichton of Cumnock would not permit such a despicable act, claiming that the gallows had been erected for common criminals and not for men of the standing of Alexander Peden. Murray reluctantly complied but still craving his pound of flesh insisted that Peden's body would be buried on the gallows-hill.
Peden's body was finally laid to rest along side the Covenanting Martyrs, David Dun and Simon Paterson (captured on Corsgellioch hill , New Cumnock) and Thomas Richard an 80 year-old farmer of Greenock Mains, Muirkirk, all executed here the previous year.
The people of Cumnock now looked upon the gallows-hill in a different light and considered it as a sacred place. A few years later the Earl of Dumfries had finally given up any hopes of reversing the decision made in 1650 to split the parish of Cumnock into the two new parishes of Old Cumnock and New Cumnock. The parish of Old Cumnock required a new burial ground and the townsfolk could see no further than the hallowed ground where Peden lay.
The tombstones of Peden, Paterson, Dun and Richard can still be found in what is now the old cemetery in Barrhill, Cumnock encircled by the gravestones of generations of Cumnock families, a testimony to their wishes to lie in peace beside the Prophet of the Covenant.
A LEXANDER P EDEN
(A NATIVE OF SORN)
HAT FAITHFUL MINISTER OF
FOR HIS UNFLINCHING ADHERENCE TO THE
C OVENANTED R EFORMATION IN S COTLAND, WAS
EXPELLED BY TYRANT RULERS FROM HIS PARISH
OF N EW L UCE, IMPRISONED FOR YEARS ON THE
B ASS R OCK BY HIS PERSECUTORS, AND HUNTED
FOR HIS LIFE ON THE SURROUNDING MOUNTAINS
AND MOORS TILL HIS DEATH ON 26TH J ANUARY 1686,
IN THE 60TH YEAR OF HIS AGE; AND HERE,
AT LAST, HIS DUST REPOSES IN PEACE, AWAITING
THE RESURRECTION OF THE JUST.
SUCH WERE THE MEN THESE HILLS TRODE,
STRONG IN THE LOVE AND FEAR OF GOD
DEFYING THROUGH A LONG DARK HOUR
A number of Peden relics were for many years in the possession of a Mrs Cooper, a great grand-daughter of one of Peden's brothers. Johnston, relates that she 'lived in a cottage in a secluded place among the uplands, near the heights of Corsegellioch'. The exact location of her cottage cannot be identified but since she was said to be a parishioner of the Rev James Murray of Cumnock, her abode is likely to have been in the Old Cumnock side of the hill rather than in New Cumnock. Wherever, she stayed it is fitting that it could not have been far from the monument to the Carsgailoch Martyrs.
Included in the relics were Peden's fause-face and wig, his sword , his staff with a whistle on top to alert his companions to impending danger and his tobacco box. Many of these relics were passed down to Miss Lees a sister of Mrs Cooper. They can now be seen in a magnificent display at the Museum of Scotland along with a number of Covenanting Flags.
ALEXANDER PEDEN and NEW CUMNOCK
There are no Covenanting traditions, monuments, caves or Peden Stanes that directly link Alexander Peden with the parish of New Cumnock. However, since this upland parish sits strategically at the head of Nithsdale where the Afton Water flowed into the River Nith it is unimaginable to think that Peden was not a frequent visitor to the hills, moors and farm-houses of New Cumnock. Whether conducting conventicles, seeking refuge or simply passing through en-route between his native Sorn and his church at Glen Luce, 'puir Auld Sandy' would undoubtedly have been known to people of this young parish.
Alexander Peden was unmarried and as such he had no direct descendants. However, the Peden family name survived and is subject to intensive genealogical research. Studies suggest that Alexander had at least two brothers, Hugh the tenant of Tenshillingside Farm where Peden died, and Mungo or Mongo Pethein as recorded in a Peden family bible.