A pivotal role in my third book, The Prodigal Son, is played by Sandy Peden, the charismatic minister that has Matthew Graham risking life and limbs by his steadfast support of the Covenanter cause. While Matthew is a purely fictional character, Sandy Peden is not – and anyone familiar with the history of the Covenanters and their persecution in the late 17th century will, at some point or another, have stumbled over his name.
To me, Sandy Peden – oops, Alexander Peden (Sandy to friends only, and I’m not quite sure I qualify. “Aye, you do,” Sandy says, smiling at me. “You can’t help being opinionated, loud and sadly uneducated in anything having to do with faith and Bible. Now I could do something about that, and if you want we can start by…” Jeez! The man can talk the leg off a donkey and then some!) – came alive the day I stood in the National Museum of Scotland and peered at his mask.
The purpose of the mask and the attached strands of hair was to disguise him, thereby leading me to assume he didn’t at all look like the mask – I’d bet he didn’t have a beard. All the same, we know that Sandy wore this contraption quite often, and maybe the soft leather acquired his overall features. Whatever the case, when studying the mask I had my first clear image of Sandy – a short, slight man that burned with restless energy, whose eyes glowed with passion when he spoke about God, whose hands fluttered like butterflies as he underscored whatever point he was making. A brave man, a stubborn man – and a man convinced that his faith and his beliefs were the right ones.
“Of course they are,” he sighs, sounding aggravated.
“You think?” I snort. “All that stuff about predestination, about the relative importance of man and woman…”
“Pah! Just shows how little you know! Now, as I said before, I am willing to take on the task of educating you – however much of a Sisyphus task that might be.”
I ignore the little man. I’m not uneducated, thank you very much.
“Aye you are,” he says. “You have read so much, studied such varied subjects, and how much of your academic efforts have you expended on God? On the Holy Writ?” He sinks those luminous grey eyes of his into mine. “No, I thought as much,” he says before fading away.
Alexander Peden was born in 1626 and educated at Glasgow University. In 1662, he was ejected from his parish New Luce, and from that moment on, he spent the rest of his life as a religious rebel, holding secret meetings out on the moors of, predominantly, Ayrshire. Loudly he protested against the Church of England, his sermons fortified his ever growing flock of die-hard Presbyterians, and despite not being allowed to, he continued to baptise children, to wed and bury as needed. In brief, Sandy became an enervating pain in the neck for the English authorities.
The powers that were searched high and low for him, but Sandy had a canny ability to blend into the landscape and to further confuse his pursuers he wore the mask mentioned above. It is said that on several occasions he evaded capture by praying to God for deliverance – which God duly supplied through the opportune appearance of a thick fog, or driving rain, or clouds to cover the moon.
“God looks to his own,” Sandy puts in, scratching at his balding head. He smells a bit, his dark coat is frayed around the cuffs and has a long tear down the back that someone has sewn together rather sloppily. He looks tired and dirty, and he keeps on coughing. He frowns at my inspection. “It’s not a life of comfort to be constantly on the run.”
“So why not give up?”
“Give up?” Sandy raises fair, bushy brows. “I’m outlawed since years back. They’d hang me off the first gallows they could find.” He caresses his scraggly neck. “I don’t want to hang,” he murmurs. No, I imagine that would be very unpleasant – even for a minister convinced that he’s earned his place in heaven.
No matter divine intervention, Sandy’s luck ran out after ten years, and in 1673 he was captured and spent the coming five years on the Bass Rock. (Quite the prison; a bald, rounded cliff standing some distance off Scotland proper, it is difficult to escape from – unless you swim like a seal and have a comparable layer of insulating blubber. It is said Sandy took the opportunity to preach to his guards so as to guide them towards the light.) After this, he was to be deported to America and together with 60 others he was set aboard a ship to London where they were to be transferred to another, larger vessel. However, the captain of this vessel was incensed when Sandy informed him as to why they were being deported, and so he released them, leaving them on the London docks.
“A right godly man,” Sandy laughs. “He would no more carry me off against my will than he would have killed his mother.” He scratches at his chest. “Lice,” he mutters, “and some fleas. Courtesy of His Majesty’s tender care, I reckon.”
“Or of living rough,” I suggest.
“That too,” he nods. He purses his lips. “Sometimes…”
Sandy shakes his head. “Nowt,” he says, smiling ruefully.
“Go on; sometimes…”
“… I long for a bed – a warm home, a family…” He stares off in the distance. “God has ordained,” he whispers, “and I must obey.”
After this rather positive experience with the godly seafaring man, Sandy and his companions walked all the way home (long walk…) For the remaining years of his life, Sandy divided his time between Scotland and Ireland, always on the run, always holding to his faith and preaching the word of God as he knew it.
Alexander Peden died in 1685 – in his bed, as he’d prophesised.
“Of course,” Sandy says, brushing at his sleeves. “God allowed me one last night of comfortable sleep.”
“That was nice of him,” I mutter. Seems the least he could do, given Sandy’s unstinting service.
Sandy wags his finger at me. “You sound like Alexandra Graham. Now there is a woman who is in serious need of guidance, but that husband of hers is too besotted with her to do as he should.”
“He is?” I smile, thinking that if Matthew is besotted with Alex, she definitely returns the favour.
“You know he is,” Sandy snorts. His face softens. “A marvellous woman, for all that she is wild and half heathen.”
“Matthew isn’t too bad either,” I say.
Sandy chuckles and gets to his feet. “Well you would say so, wouldn’t you? After all, you’ve made him up!” With that he is gone.
Upon hearing Alexander Peden was dead, a company of soldiers chose to disinter his body, having the intention of hanging his corpse from the gallows in Cumnock. There were loud rumblings among the people, and the Earl of Dumfries objected to the proposed spectacle, so instead Sandy was reburied at the foot of the gallows. In due course, an impressive monument was erected over Prophet Peden’s final resting place. Personally, I think he wouldn’t be all that impressed; Sandy never wanted a monument – all he wanted was the freedom to praise God according to his beliefs.