My first reaction to the mask and wig of Alexander Peden is revulsion.
It’s not a pretty sight. The mask looks as though it’s made of vellum, with eyes gashed through the skin and horrorshow stitching around the sockets. It has a sharp elongated nose (the better to smell you with, my dear), wooden peg teeth and a thick red beard. The shoulder-length wig is peaty brown and matted.
My task now is to write a 62 word response for the 26 Treasures exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.
I’m grappling with any response apart from a desire to run in the opposite direction, so look into Peden’s story instead.
Hunting the outlaw priest
Peden was one of the ministers who signed the 1638 National Covenant that opposed interference in the Scottish church by the Stuart monarchy. He was on the run from government forces for 11 years and preached at illegal ‘conventicle’ meetings on hillsides to thousands of believers. By 1670, preaching at conventicles was punishable by death. Peden would have worn this wig and mask in the hope of evading government forces.
(By the way, read ‘The Fanatic’ by James Robertson for a fascinating insight into the Covenanting ministers who lived and died during the ‘Killing Times’, when up to 18,000 people were brutally put to death.)
Despite being sent to the Bass Rock, the Scottish Alcatraz, Peden avoided the hangman’s rope and died a natural death aged 60. But he seems to be a footnote among Covenanting ministers, and many details of his life evade capture. However, there’s a chapter on Peden in ‘Scots Worthies’ by John Howie (which discredits talk of his prophecies), and you can see his bible in Greyfriars Kirk – open, appropriately enough, at the Book of Job.
One of a kind
I’d presumed that all Covenanting ministers would have worn masks. But curator George Dalgleish says that this is the only surviving example, and that there is no documented evidence that it was a common practice for Covenanters to disguise themselves this way.
And the closer you look at the mask, the stranger it becomes. How would you make your sermon heard through that tiny mouth crowded with wooden teeth? Why are there feathers stitched around the eyes? Isn’t that a strangely theatrical decoration for a Presbyterian minister? And why are there spots of what look like greasepaint on the cheeks? Was this originally a theatrical mask, adapted for a different type of stage and performance?
We’ll probably never know. See the wig and mask and decide for yourself at the National Museum of Scotland - Kingdom of the Scots, Level 1.