Wild Phanatiques, Dark Clouds of Mist and the Poor Straying Sheep in March 1685
Nothing 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 fields…
The following story comes from Patrick Walker’s life of Alexander Peden, a popular chapbook of the early eighteenth century. Walker’s informant was John Muirhead, a resident of Cambusnethan or Shotts parish in Lanarkshire who had spent time in exile with Peden in Ireland. Muirhead’s lack of familiarity with locations in the South West of Scotland probably accounts for why the story contains very little geographic information.
Based on the testimony of a historical eyewitness, the story is viewed through the frame of the Lord’s providential dealings with Peden and Muirhead. For a modern reader, those providential interventions may induce considerable scepticism about how reliable the story is as a historical source, but for Walker, Muirhead and Peden, providential interventions were an accepted part of reality.
The Dark Cloud of Mist
‘Shortly after they landed from Ireland in Galloway, the Enemy got Notice, they being then in Garrisons, Foot and Horse, and it being Killing-time [of 1685]: The Alarm came to them in a Morning, That Foot and Horse were coming upon them; The foresaid John Muirhead being struck with a violent Pain in his Head, they started up to run for it; he said. Stay, stay, Lads, let us pray for old John ere we go: He stood up, and said, Lord, we hear tell that thy Enemies and ours are coming upon ns, and thou hast laid thy Hand of Affliction upon old John; have Pity upon him, for thy Enemies will have none, his Blood will run there where he lies: Spare him at this Time, we know not if he be ready to die. And as John told me with the Tear in his Eye, the Pain of his Head and the Indisposition of his Body quite left him, and he started up and ran with the Rest.
The Enemies seeing them, pursued them hard, sometimes the Horse, and sometimes the Foot being near them; Mossy, Boguish Ground did cast about the Horses. After they had run some considerable Way, they got some little Height betwixt the Enemy and them: He stood still, and said, Let us pray here; for, if the Lord hear not our Prayers, and save us, we are dead Men, and our Blood will run like Water: If we must die, let the Enemy kill us, and let our Blood fill up their Cup, that the Day of Vengeance that’s coming upon them may be hastned. Then he began and said, Lord, it is thy Enemies Day, Hour, and Power: They may not be idle; but, hast thou no other Work for them, but to send them after us? Send them after them, to whom thou wilt give Strength to flee, for our Strength’s gone: Twine them about the Hill, Lord, and cast the Lap of thy Cloak o’er old Sandy, and thir poor Things, and save us this one Time; and we’ll keep it in Remembrance, and tell it to the Commendation of thy Goodness, Pity and Compassion, what thou didst for us at such a Time.’ (Walker, BP, I, 65-7.)
Walker does not identify where Peden was, beyond the events taking place soon after he arrived in Galloway. The presence of hills, boggy ground and government forces of both foot and horse, and the event taking place ‘soon’ after he arrived, may points towards the events having taken place in northern north-eastern Wigtownshire or in western Kirkcudbrightshire. However, it is not clear if the setting for the story was actually in Galloway, as Walker’s use of ‘soon’ may indicate that Peden had left Galloway. In many ways, Walker’s story resembles James Nisbet’s account of Peden being pursued by foot and horse in Ayrshire in late April, 1685.
According to Walker’s story, a providential mist appeared during Peden’s prayer:
‘In the mean Time, there was a dark Cloud of Mist came betwixt them. After Prayer, he ordered two of them to give Notice of the Enemies Motion, and the rest to go their alone, and cry mightily to the Lord for Deliverance. In the mean Time that they were thus exercised, there came Posts to the Enemy, for them to go and pursue Mr. [James] Renwick, and a great Company with him.’ (Walker, BP, I, 67.)
If Walker’s account is correct, then it appears that James Renwick and a large company of Society people were in the fields at some point in March or April, 1685. One the features of Renwick’s reasonably well-documented career is the highly fragmented sources that survive for where he was during the Killing Times in early 1685. However, Wodrow records that:
‘[Tuesday] March 24th, “The lords of council being informed that a number of desperate rebels in arms hath gone through the shire of Ayr, and no notice is taken of them, colonel [James] Douglas, or the commanders of the garrisons, are empowered immediately to punish the commons who did not inform against them, according to law, and to take bonds of the heritors on whose ground they appeared, to compear before the council in April.” These desperate rebels, now going up and down, were only a few of Mr Renwick’s followers, coming and going to his sermons in arms.’ (Wodrow, History, IV, 207-8.)
Renwick may have preached in Ayrshire, or somewhere near its borders, on Sunday 22 March. A large company of Society people usually appeared either going to, or from, one of Renwick’s field preachings. (There were no Societies’ conventions held between Peden’s landing at the end of February and 6 May.) Within a day or so of leaving a preaching, a large travelling contingent of Society people usually quickly dispersed into smaller groups.
According to Wodrow, Colonel Douglas was given a wide-ranging commission on 27 March as a result of the rebels in Ayrshire. Under the same day, Lord Fountainhall records:
‘In the end of March 1685, some of the discontented people fled from our Western circuit 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.)
‘News came to the Privy Counsell, that about 100 men, weill armed and appointed, had left Ireland, because of a search there for such malcontents, and landed in the West of Scotland, and joined with the wild phanatiques. The Council, finding that they disappointed the forces, by skulking from hole to hole, ware of opinion it ware better to let them gather into a body, and draw to a head, and so they would get them altogether in a snare. They had one, Mr [Alexander] Pedan, a minister, with them, and one Isaak [Blackwell?] who commanded them. They had frighted the most part of all the country Ministers, so that they durst not stay at ther Churches, but retired into the Edinburgh, or garrison tounes; and it was sad to see wholle Shires destitute of preaching, except in the burghs. Wherever they came, they plundred armes, and particularly at my Lord Dumfreis’s house.’ (Lauder, Historical Notices, II, 630-1.)
What was going on in Ayrshire? Fountainhall’s account of 100 well-armed men arriving from Ireland, joining the Society people, terrorising ministers and carrying out raids, probably reflects both the arrival of Peden’s party and the Societies’ activity in Ayrshire. The council probably did not know who had been responsible for all of the acts in Ayrshire and may have rolled different events and reports together.
The reports certainly exaggerated how large Peden’s particular contingent was. Walker’s evidence suggests that Peden arrived with twenty-six others and that at least half of them departed from Peden soon after they arrived in Galloway. It is more likely that a body of around a hundred armed men came from one of Renwick’s preachings. It is clear from Fountainhall, that the hundred-strong band of “fanatics” dispersed rather than remaining together in one body.
The arrival of Peden’s contingent from Ireland may have increased the fears of country ministers and triggered some them into flight, but it was probably not the only reason why the ministers sought shelter. Similar large bodies of Society people had appeared in the fields after the Black Loch preaching, the conventions near Auchengilloch and Glengaber, and to storm Kirkcudbright tolbooth in 1684, but their appearance had not led country ministers to desert their charges.
Probably of more concern to country ministers were a spate of recent violent attacks on ministers which had killed the minister of Carsphairn and nearly taken the life of the minister of Irongray.
Government policy had also placed ministers across the South West in the front line of the campaign to repress the Society people. At the beginning of 1685, ministers had been compelled to assist in pressing of the Abjuration oath in every parish across the South West. The oath renounced the Societies’ war against their oppressors, which included assassination and threats against intelligencers. It was designed to flush out Society people from among the local population. However, in the pressing of the oath must have made it clear to many country ministers that more potential assassins lurked outside of the doors of their isolated upland manses than they had ever imagined. In taking part in the pressing of the oath and providing intelligence on dissenters, they had become potential targets.
The expectation of a rebellion following the accession of James VII in February, 1685, was probably a further cause of anxiety for country ministers, as the South West, already in the grip of the violence of the Killing Times, was where any Presbyterian rising was expected to break out.
In those contexts, the reports of well-armed men “fanatics” that had evaded government forces were coursing through the South West and raiding houses may have been a tipping pint that convinced many country ministers that retiring to a garrison town was a prudent course of action.
The Society people near Cumnock, rather than Peden’s small, roving band, were probably responsible for the raid for arms in the house of Lord Dumfries, aka. William Crichton, 2nd earl of Dumfries.
Dumfries lived at Ward of Lochnorris, a tower two miles to the west of Cumnock in Cumnock parish. The original house/castle was a substantial, defensible structure, which suggests that any raid on it would not have been an easy undertaking. How substantial Lochnorris was is not easy to assess, as it was demolished and replaced by Dumfries House in the middle of the eighteenth century. Today, only the Doocot built in 1671 survives from the original Lochnorris house.
The stories about Peden in early 1685 suggests that he was more concerned with obtaining food and evading capture, than obtaining arms.
The Poor Straying Sheep
After the government forces diverted to pursue Renwick, perhaps after his possible preaching in Ayrshire on 22 March, Peden and his companions gave thanks:
‘After the Enemy were gone, he called them together, and said, Let us not forget to return Thanks to the Lord, for hearing and answering us in the Day of our Distress; and charged the whole Creation to praise the Lord, and adjured the Clouds to praise him. Then he sat down at the Side of a Well, and enquired if they had any Crumbs of Bread: Some of them had some few Crumbs; When seeking a Blessing, he said, Lord, Thou who bless’d the few Loaves and Fishes, and made them sufficient for so many, bless this Water and these Crumbs to us: for we thought we should never have needed any more of these Creature-comforts.’ (Walker, BP, I, 67.)
Food appears to have been a constant concern of Peden and his companions in the months after they arrived. Unlike the Society people hiding in a given locality, Peden’s itinerant band did not have an established support network to maintain them. For a companion like John Muirhead, becoming isolated from the main body of Peden’s group could be dangerous, especially as Muirhead was in the unfamiliar surroundings of the South West:
‘A few Days after this, the foresaid John Muirhead was in a House alone, at a Distance from the rest; and the Morning was a dark Mist, and he knew not whither to go, or where to find them; only he heard him speak of the Name of a Place, where he was to baptize some Children. He gave a Sixpence to a Lad to conduct him to that Place, which was Six Miles distant; when he came, he was praying. After Baptism, he came to John, and said, Poor straying Sheep, how come you to stray from the rest? I had a troubled Morning for you; do not this again, otherwise it will fare the worse with you.’ (Walker, BP, I, 67.)
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