Pirates, Covenanters and ‘Prophet’ Peden’s Return in 1685

Was Alexander ‘Prophet’ Peden, a pirate? Yes he was is the surprising answer, as he did commit an act of piracy in February, 1685. However, it was not for booty or profit that the preacher briefly turned godly pirate …

Captain Blood

Peden was not a pirate in the Captain Blood sense, i.e., a fictional Monmouth rebel driven to a life of piracy. Instead, Peden and his band of followers were akin to hijackers that carry out an act of piracy, as they ‘compelled’ a ship to carry them to Scotland.

The account of Alexander Peden’s act of godly piracy is found in Patrick Walker’s life of Peden, a popular chapbook of the early eighteenth century that collected together stories from eyewitnesses to the events of Peden’s life who were known to Walker.

Walker’s narrative mainly consists of providential and prophetic incidents involving Peden in the 1680s. When the episodic incidents in it are placed in a historical context they reveal, to some extent, where Peden went, who he met with and when he was in some areas.

Walker does not mention that Peden “turned pirate”, but there is no other way of reading Peden’s role in the armed hijacking a ship.

Before examining Walker’s account, it is worth outlining what Peden and those with him were trying to achieve, as that may clarify some details in Walker’s account.

Peden and twenty-six armed followers planned to leave County Antrim in Ireland and land in Scotland. Entering Scotland in a large band was not an easy task, as the laws of kingdom designed to combat sedition required that all passengers were identified and checked on arrival at port, and that trading ships used burghs that were watched by royal officials. It was expressly forbidden to carry fugitives and rebels both in and out of Scotland.

In practice, the Society people circumvented border controls by using sympathetic skippers, false names, English ports and couriers with “clean skins” to travel and correspond between Scotland and the United Provinces, and occasionally to and from Ireland. However, the numbers involved in such operations were small, usually only one or two people, and could take time. For example, when James Renwick returned to Scotland from Dublin in late 1683, he and his travelling companion, George Hill, had to return on different ships and at different times. After Hill departed, Renwick had to remain in Dublin for some time awaiting another ship bound for Scotland and a captain who was both willing to take him and secretly put him ashore on a quiet stretch of coast. Renwick probably had to pay the captain a premium for the risks involved in smuggling him.

What Peden and his followers planned was a “break in” by over two dozen people into Scotland that avoided both the time delays and costs involved in Renwick’s return.

Peden’s landing in Scotland ran against the flow of fugitives. The lack of severe repression in Ireland and long-standing links between the Presbyterians on both sides of the Irish Channel made Ireland a relatively safe haven for fugitive rebels and ministers like Peden. Usually, Scottish fugitives fled to Ireland, away from danger, rather than towards where repression was at its most intense. To move from relative safety towards danger suggests that Peden’s band were determined to enter Scotland for a specific end. Speed and numbers seem to have been important, as they chose to break into Scotland as a group, rather than opting for the slower method of smuggling themselves in one or two at a time.

One reason for their flight to Scotland was the pressing of an oath by circuit courts in Ireland, but that level of repression on its own was probably not enough to drive Peden and his brethren into the furnace of the Killing Times.

To achieve their goal they sent two of their number to one of the Antrim ports to ‘compel’ the captain and crew of a mercantile barque to divert to a creek and pick up Peden’s armed band. However, at the creek, their initial plan went astray when customs officials – known as waiters -were informed of the presence of the barque. Faced with discovery, Peden and his friends seized the ship and immediately sailed across the Irish Channel to the Galloway coast of Scotland where Peden and his men landed. In short, it was an armed hijack to deliver insurgents into Scotland.

Why take such a risk? Why did the insurgents want to enter Scotland in numbers? As discussed above, it was possible for insurgents to enter and exit Scotland in small numbers over time. The actions of Peden and his band suggest that they had some urgent reason, or reasons, for jointly hijacking the ship.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Peden memorial at Glenwherry © Kenneth Allen and licensed for reuse.

Between the summer of 1682 and late February 1685, Peden was in hiding in Antrim in Ireland, which was, as discussed above, a place of relative safety. Between 1682 and 1685, Peden is said to have lived at Misty Burn in Glenwherry, County Antrim, which lies to the west of Larne and north-west of Carrickfergus.

Map of Glenwherry       Street View of Peden’s Home at Glenwherry

However, after the death of Charles II in early February, he decided to return to Scotland.

Walker claimed that Peden and his comrades returned to Scotland to join their brethren suffering in the Killing Times and the Societies’ preacher, James Renwick.

The Killing Times may have been a factor is Peden’s decision to return. However, the timing of his return was determined by political events.

First, the imposition of oaths in Ireland increased the pressure on Presbyterian exiles. Lord Fountainhall records that

‘In the end of March 1685, some of the discontented people fled from our Western circuit [in 1683] to Ireland, being now pershued ther to take ane oath, they, to the number of 100, forced some boats and came back to Scotland;’ (Lauder, Historical Observes, I, 157.)

It is almost certain that Peden and his followers were one of a number of parties of presbyterian fugitives departing Ireland.

Second, the death of Charles II and the accession of his Catholic brother James VII was immediately viewed as an opportunity by many radicals in exile to put their long-discussed plans for a rebellion into operation. Whether Peden was privy to such discussions is not known. He and his followers may have acted independently of other groups. His preaching against James VII and contacts with many significant Society people on his return to Scotland probably indicate that his agenda included preparing the ground for a Presbyterian rebellion. In that respect, Peden’s actions in the South West prepared the way for the Earl of Argyll’s agents, William Cleland, Andrew Cameron, William Veitch and George Barclay. Politically, peden was one of the “mids men” who steered a course between the Argyll radicals and Renwick’s militant Society people. At some point in the summer of 1685 he met with Renwick, but when supporters of the Argyll Rising in Galloway took up arms in June, Peden was with them and Barclay near Wigtown.

Scots Navy

Walker’s Account
‘After this [i.e., the death of Charles II in early February, 1685], he long’d to be out of Ireland, what through the fearful Apprehensions of that dismal Day of Rebellion in Ireland, that came upon it four Years thereafter, and that he might take Part with the Sufferers of Scotland [i.e., the Society people], he came near the Coast one Morning; John Muirhead came to him lying within a Hedge; he said, Have ye any News, John? John said, There is great Fears of the Irish Arising, he said, No, no, The Time of their Rising is not yet; but they will rise, and dreadful will it be at last.’ (Walker, BP, I, 58.)

Walker does not mention which part of the Antrim coast Peden came near to.

BudshawBudshaw © Jim Smillie and licensed for reuse.

John Muirhead was one of several Scottish exiles who were with Peden in Antrim and returned with him. He was from either ‘Cambusnethan or Shotts’ parish in Lanarkshire. Also in Peden’s band was John Waddell in Budshaw, a fugitive from Shotts parish.

Map of Budshaw

Peden’s departure was delayed:

‘He was long detained waiting for a Bark, not daring to go to Publick Ports [, such as Carrickfergus or Larne], but to some remote Creek of the Sea;’ (Walker, BP, I, 58.)

It is clear from Peden’s actions that he wanted to avoid Irish officials at the larger ports. Like Scottish trade, Irish trade was legally restricted to legally defined ports for reasons of customs and security.

A creek refers to a tidal water channel which a ship can enter when the tide is high enough. In the seventeenth century, tidal creeks were often functioned as harbours for small settlements.

From Walker’s narrative it is clear that the tidal creek lay somewhere on the Antrim coast, not at a public port, and relatively near to, but not at, the port of Carrickfergus. Fortunately, Dean Dobbs’ description of Antrim of 1683, does mention the few tidal creeks which punctuate Antrim’s ‘hard shore’. They are, moving round the coast from Carrickfergus, Castle Chichester/Port Davy, Larne and Glenarm, which were all by Dobb’s estimate about four hours sail from the closest parts of Galloway.

Chichester Castle WhiteheadCastle Chichester

Castle Chichester lay directly on the sea route from Belfast and Carrickfergus to Scotland. Today, the castle lies in ruins on the outskirts of Whitehead. In the seventeenth century it was probably used as a watch tower, rather than as a residence.

Portdavy Before High WaterCottage-sized boulders at Port Davy at 80 minutes before High Water at Carrickfergus © Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse.

About ‘half a mile northward’ of the castle lay Port Davy where fishing boats were dragged up and ‘many times boats of 16 or 18 tuns land here from Scotland, but there is no getting in but at full sea, and that dangerous enough for strangers, the shore being clad with tumbling great stones, some about the Port as big as a cottage.’ (Dobbs reprinted in An Historical Account of the MacDonnells of Antrim, 379.)

Map of Port Davy


At Larne a sea inlet allows access to Larne Lough. In 1685, Larne had a harbour at Olderfleet, or Lough Larne, in which ships from Scotland and other Irish ports often called, and Scottish settlers landed in large numbers. According to Dobbs, who had a low opinion of Presbyterians, ‘the inhabitants [of Larne] except 2 or 3 belonging to the Custom House, and one family of one Mr M’Kay, who are of the Church of England) are all Scotch and Presbiteiians’, and the locals would ‘not omit’ christenings by their presbyterian minister at their meeting house ‘supposing the children to be christened into the solemn league and Covenant’. (Dobbs reprinted in An Historical Account of the MacDonnells of Antrim, 381.)

Map of Larne

Although the population of Larne probably sympathised with the Presbyterian cause in Scotland, Larne was probably not Peden’s departure point, as he desired to avoid busy public ports and customs officers.


The final candidate is Glenarm, which lies twenty miles north of Carrickfergus and ten miles north of Larne.

Map of Glenarm

‘North-west of this [Deer] Park [belonging to the earl of Antrim] is the Town of Glenarm and the Bay. The harbour is safe, made by a river running through the town [i.e., a tidal creek], but coming over the Bar, being filled commonly with round stones shuffled to and fro, between the Sea and the River, which runs out very violently after great Rains. Here lies Boats of 18 or 20 Tuns. […] This Town is all thatched houses, except the Earl of Antrim’s, The Church, and one more; over the river and between the town and the Earl’s house, (the main house was burnt by the Irish in the Late Rebellion [the castle, which belonged to the Catholic earl, was actually burnt by the Scottish Covenanters in 1642]) is a handsome stone bridge of two or three arches erected last summer [i.e., in 1682. A “Jacobean” barbican gatehouse was added in the 1820s]. Here is likewise a meeting-house at some distance from the town, the Inhabitants for the most part Scotch and Presbiterians; above in the Glenns, most Irish and papists;’ (Dobbs in An Historical Account of the MacDonnells of Antrim, 382.)

In 1685, the charge of Glenarm’s meeting house was held by John Darroch, a minister from Argyll. After the Society people heard good reports about Darroch, they met with him in Argyll in early 1688. The source for those reports were probably members of the Irish societies established in 1686 to 1687. David Houston, a minister in Ireland who later joined the United Societies in late 1686, had also briefly been responsible for Glenarm’s meeting house. (Reid, History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 310.)

Peden had received an offer to smuggle him into Scotland:

Alexander Gordon of Kinstuir in Galloway, had agreed with one; but Mr. Peden would not sail the Sea with him; Mr. Peden having somewhat of the Foresight of what he did prove afterwards [in late 1685 when he split from Renwick]: In the beginning of August before [i.e., 1684], this Kinstuir was relieved at Enterkin-Path, going from Dumfries to Edinburgh Prisoner. When the News of it came to Ireland, our Scots Sufferers their Acquaintance, were glad of the News, especially that Kinstuir was escaped. He said, What means all this Kinstuiring, Kinstuiring? There’s some of them relieved there, that one of them is worth many of him, ye’ll all be ashamed of him e’re all be done.’ (Walker, BP, I, 58.)

Alexander Gordon of Kinsture was a forfeited Galloway laird with a 1,000 merk price on his head for his part in proclaiming the Sanquhar Declaration in 1680.

He had attended the Societies’ third convention, but had found his right to sit in the convention questioned over the baptism of his child by Peden. Kinsture appears to have been on the wing of the Societies that favoured retaining links with the moderate-presbyterian ministry. At some point, probably in mid 1684, he was captured. However, when he was sent as a prisoner to Edinburgh, he was rescued by the Society people at Enterkin Pass at the end of July, 1684.

It appears that in early 1685 that Kinsture was in Ireland and had made arrangements with a captain to secretly transport both Peden, himself and perhaps others to Scotland. According to Walker, who later opposed Kinsture’s break with the Societies, Peden rejected the offer as he had an inkling of Kinsture’s future split with the Society people. We do not know why Peden turned down Kinsture’s plan. It may have been for ideological reasons. He may not have trusted either Kinsture, or his plan. The ship Kinsture proposed to use may have been departing from a public port like Carrickfergus or Larne, which Peden refused to use. He may have rejected Kinsture’s purpose for delivering him to Scotland. He may not have intended to return to Scotland before the death of Charles II. It is possible that Kinsture’s planned voyage may simply have cost too much. For whatever reason, Peden opted for a different plan:

‘Being in this Strait, he said to Robert Wark, who is yet alive near Glasgow [in c.1720], an old Christian, worthy of Credit, Robert go and take such a Man with you, and the first Bark ye can find, Compel them, for they will be like the Dogs in Egypt, not one of them will move their Tongue against you; accordingly Robert and his Comrade found it so, and brought her to that secret Place where he was. Robert and his Comrade came and told him;’ (Walker, BP, I, 58.)

The Robert Wark who lived near Glasgow was possibly captured at Renwick’s preaching in Cambuslang parish in 1687.

Walker does not identify to which port Wark went to find a barque, however, either Belfast/Carrickfergus, or Larne, are probably where Wark selected the barque.

It is also not clear where Peden departed from or where he went to.


Without the name of the port that Wark went to, it is hard to identify which creek Peden and the rest of the party awaited the arrival of the barque. He almost certainly left the Antrim coast somewhere ‘near’ to Carrickfergus, as they feared that the garrison there would be warned and arrive to seize them.

The route to Scotland would suggest that if the barque came from Belfast or Carrickfergus, then he may have rendezvoused with the ship at the creek at Port Davy. If the barque came from Larne, then the creek at Glenarm would probably be a better bet for the rendezvous point. However, the latter, at over twenty miles from the garrison at Carrickfergus does not really fit the description of being ‘near’ to Carrickfergus.

Peden landed somewhere on the Galloway coast, probably in Wigtownshire and perhaps near Glenluce, which was near Peden’s former parish of New Luce. The involvement of Alexander Gordon of Kilsture in the earlier plan to bring Peden to Scotland may indicates that he landed somewhere in the area of Luce Bay.

Map of Antrim/Galloway area

The story appears to indicate that the barque was selected at random and at some point ‘compelled’ to divert from its planned voyage to pick up Peden and the rest of the armed band. How Wark and his companion compelled the captain and crew to go to the ‘secret place’ at the creek is not revealed. Armed coercion cannot be ruled out.

The allusion to the dogs of Egypt refers to Exodus 11.7.: ‘But against any of the children of Israel shall not a dog move his tongue, against man or beast: that ye may know how that the LORD doth put a difference between the Egyptians and Israel.’ The implication of that is that although the captain and crew were not friends of the Presbyterian cause they would keep silent and not warn royal officials.

Walker continues:

‘He [i.e., Peden] was glad and very kind and free; he seemed to be under a Cloud at that Time. He said, Lads, I have lost my Prospect wherewith I was wont to look o’re to the Bloody Land [of Scotland], and tell you and others what Enemies and Friends were doing.’ (Walker, BP, I, 58-9.)

Beyond Port Davy it is possible to see Galloway from the Antrim coast, except, of course, when it is cloudy.

The Devil and I puddles and rides Time about upon other; but if I were uppermost again, I shall ride hard and Spurgaw well [i.e., apply spurs]: I’ve been praying for some Time for a swift Passage over to the sinful Land [of Scotland], come of us what will:

And now Alexander Gordon [of Kilsture] is away with my Prayer-wind; but it were good for the Remnant in Scotland [i.e., the Society people], he never saw it: For, as the Lord lives, he shall wound that Interest e’re he go off the Stage; which sadly came to pass in his Life, and was a Reproach to it at his Death.’ (Walker, BP, I, 59.)

At this point, Walker’s narrative of the voyage breaks to tell the story to tell the story of Peden’s baptism of a daughter of John Maxwell, son of Maxwell of Bogton, a fugitive from Cathcart parish and a ‘Glasgow man’, and Mary Elpinston, just before he departed for Scotland. According to Wodrow, John Maxwell (and his wife) had fled to Ireland with James Maxwell. Walker’s story appears to indicate that Peden supported James Renwick. It also indicates that Peden and his companions may have been short of money: ‘this was all the Drink-money he had to leave in Ireland’. (Walker, BP, I, 59-60, 110-111; Jardine, ‘United Societies’, II, 202; Wodrow, History, III, 485.)

When the barque arrived at the creek, customs officials, known as waiters, were either informed of, or became aware of, the ship in the creek:

‘The Waiters being advertised of the Bark in that Place, they and other People came upon them, which obliged them that were to come off, to secure the Waiters and People altogether, for Fear of the Garrison of Craigfergus apprehending them; being near to it, which obliged them to come off immediately, however it might be with them:’ (Walker, BP, I, 60.)

Portdavy High WaterOne of the boulders at Port Davy at High Water © Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse.

The evidence of Peden ‘being near to’ the garrison at Carrickfergus does imply that he was at Port Davy, rather than Glenarm. Peden and his followers seized both the waiters, who may have come from the watch tower at Castle Chichester, and other local people and put them aboard the barque to prevent them informing the garrison. If Port Davy was where Peden met the barque, then the hijacking was a well-timed operation. The tide at Port Davy only allowed access for larger vessels into the creek at high tide. Peden and his followers may have feared the arrival of the Carrickfergus garrison, but the short window that tide allowed for a barque to stay in the creek also dictated a rapid departure.

When Peden and his men boarded the barque, the wind was allegedly not in their favour:

‘After that, he and Twenty six of our Scots Sufferers came Aboard; he stood upon the Deck and prayed, being not the least of Wind, where he made a Rehearsal of Times and Places, when and where the Lord had heard and answered them in the Day of their Distress, and now they were in a great Strait. Waving his Hand to the West, from whence he desired the Wind, said, Lord, give us a Loof-full of Wind; fill the Sails, Lord, and give us a fresh Gale, and let us have a swift and safe Passage over to the Bloody Land [of Scotland], come of us what will. John Muirhead, Robert Wark [from near Glasgow] and others who were present told me, that when he began to pray, the Sails were all hanging straight down; but ere he ended, they were all like blown Bladders: They put out the Waiters and other People, and got a very swift and safe Passage.’ (Walker, BP, I, 60-1.)

It would be an armed incursion.

‘The Twenty six Scots Sufferers, that were with him, having provided themselves with Arms, and being designed to return to Scotland, being then such a Noise of Killing; and indeed the Din was no greater than the Deed, being in the Heat of Killing Time, in the End of February 1685.

When at Exercise at Night, in the Bark, he said, Lord, thou knowest, thir Lads are hot-spirited, lay an Arrest upon them, that they may not appear: Their Time is not yet; tho’ Monmouth and Argyle be coming, they’ll work no Deliverance. And at this Time, no Report of their coming, and they came not for ten Weeks thereafter [at the beginning of May].’ (Walker, BP, I, 61.)

Were Peden’s companions agents? Why were the ‘hot-spirited’ lads to ‘not appear’ as ‘their time in not yet’? What message were they to spread?

Scottish Ship

Peden Lands Galloway
When he landed in Galloway he gave his companions a parting message, which may have been distributed through the Society people and other Presbyterian factions:

‘In the Morning after they landed, he lectured before they parted, sitting on a Brae-side, where he had fearful Threatnings against Scotland, saying, The Time was coming, that they might travel many Miles in Galloway and Nithsdale, Air and Clidsdale, and not see a reeking House, nor hear a Cock crow: And further, said, That his Soul trembled, to think, what would become of the Indulged, Backslidden and Upsitten Ministers of Scotland. As the Lord lives, none of them should ever be honoured, to put a right Pin in the Lord’s Tabernacle; nor assert Christ’s Kingly Prerogative, as Head and King of his Church. […] When ended, he prayed earnestly for many Things; particularly, That all their Ireland-sins might be buried in that Place, and might not spread with them thorow the sinful Land [of Scotland].’ (Walker, BP, I, 61-2.)

From later stories about Peden in Scotland in 1685, it appears that over half of his companions in the hijacking of the barque departed after landing. The rest remained with him as he preached and travelled through the South West.

Walker does not explain what Peden and his companions’ ‘Ireland-sins’ were. However, it is clear that the Society people regarded going into exile in Ireland as a desertion of the Lord’s Cause and a failure to maintain the testimony in Scotland. It would appear that Peden had no intention of returning to Ireland. He would remain in Scotland come what may.

Peden’s message was issued in the midst of the Killing Times and predicted something akin to apocalyptic destruction across the heartlands of the Society people and dismissed the moderate-presbyterian ministry as unfit to win the Lord’s favour. It was a message which probably resonated with many Society people, but Peden appears to have been was careful to avoid publicly backing either Renwick, who had proclaimed ‘war’ in the Apologetical Declaration, or the supporters of Argyll, who were plotting an armed invasion and insurrection. In the months which followed, it became increasingly difficult for the mids-man Peden to steer a course between both presbyterian factions.

Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to or retweet this post, but do not reblog without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine



~ by drmarkjardine on May 22, 2014.

6 Responses to “Pirates, Covenanters and ‘Prophet’ Peden’s Return in 1685”

  1. […] is ever quite what it seems in the world of Alexander ‘Prophet’ Peden. After he hijacked a barque and landed in Galloway at the beginning of March, 1685, government forces descended on Peden and his brethren in the […]

  2. […] Fire, where he uttered some Imprecations upon the cursed Intelligenters, who have told the Enemy that I’m come out of Ireland [on c.1 March].’ (Walker, BP, I, […]

  3. […] Cursed by they in the name of the Lord, that speaks of my being come to Scotland (for he was but come from Ireland a few weeks before) and it was known to us afterwards that a wicked malicious woman died at the very same hour that he […]

  4. […] what John Muirhead, whom I have often mentioned, told me [prior to that], That when he [i.e, Peden] came from Ireland to Galloway [in March, 1685], he was at Family-Worship, and giving some Notes upon the Scripture read, there […]

  5. […] group that ‘forced some boats’ included a party with Alexander Peden who hijacked boats in Ireland at the end of February or early March, […]

  6. […] especially if it took place after his 1685 appearance before the court. It is worth noting that Peden returned to Scotland at that time. Most of the stories Walker tells about Peden relate to his field preaching tours of 1682 and 1685. […]

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