It was seeing the single solitary figure, treading his lonely path that caught my attention. He was heading away from me. The effect was similar to a magnet. Had he turned round and waved at me to join him, I could not have felt the urge to catch up with him more strongly.
Yet I had no idea who he was.
This scenario had only come about because of my indecision on where to walk the dogs. I had three of four tried and tested places, but today I had a really strong urge to go somewhere different. So I had driven a little way in the opposite direction from my usual route, and espied a sign that indicated woodland.
Slowing to take a careful look at the terrain, I saw a path that meandered over the hill. What lay beyond, I could not tell, but it was worthy of investigation. I parked and got out with my two eager companions.
The woodland was adjacent to a busy main road, but that wouldn’t matter once I had climbed the hill to discover what delights lay beyond. The climb was easy and the countryside fragrant. The wind only ruffled the leaves of the trees slightly and the dogs searched purposefully and determinedly for any sight or sound of a rabbit. My thoughts had started wandering casually, as they do when I am relaxed.
Just as I was beginning to appreciate my new location, the woods thinned, and another main road presented itself abruptly, thus ending the walk. This was very disappointing. I checked my watch; less than fifteen minutes had passed since the car had been parked.
Disgusted with this abbreviated version of a stroll, I was about to turn around when I spotted the lone figure, moving slowly on a gravel thoroughfare which continued on the other side of the road. This was no longer woodland, and there was no sign to indicate what it was…. but I could see the distinct figure plodding forward into the distance.
I had hesitated at first. I didn’t know where the road went, or who the figure was. I was about to turn round, when the shortness of the walk goaded me yet again. I had to confess that for some strange reason, my interest was heightened, and with no knowledge of what or who was before me, I decided to cross the road.
It seemed that a different country waited across the road. The soft woodland was gone, and in its place an open moor land stretched in front of me.
As I took my first tentative steps, the experience was far from edifying. First on my left was a yard full of rubbish, which looked as if it was being filled frequently by fly tippers. On my right, was a very run down business which seemed to use a number of decrepit, filthy vans.
I was slightly uneasy now. The next nerve racking experience on the left was a very high metal fence. Four fierce barking dogs loudly declared their policy of NO ENTRY. They seemed to be describing in vivid Technicolor what they would do to you if you decided to challenge them. A caravan was parked on this protected land, and the occupants tweaked at the curtains, regarding me suspiciously.
This did not look promising – this place seemed very forbidding. However, I could still see the figure in the distance, and once more I was pulled onwards.
Once past the decay, rubbish and dubious characters, there was a little house standing on its own. A friendly dog showed some interest in my presence through a neat wooden fence, but there was no sign of an owner or occupant. It made me feel slightly better.
I continued on my way. The road opened out marvellously now. It was a very rough gravel surface, quite wide enough for a car. There were fields on sides, animals grazing, a river, clumps of trees – and still that figure – though perhaps I was gaining on him slightly. Was it definitely a man? I couldn’t quite discern from this distance, yet I felt that it was.
The scenery slid past, and eventually I drew level with him -yes, it was a man. I slowed to pass the time of day. He was local, knowledgeable and a great story teller. We fell into step together.
He was 80 years of age, he informed me, and he walked this road twice a day come what may.
“It used to be so lovely here” he sighed. “There were birds aplenty in the fields. When we were young we’d love to come up here on a day like this, and lie on out backs in the field just watching the aeronautic display. Now look at it!” He gestured angrily at the vast expanse. “There’s absolutely nothing. D’ you see one bird here? D’ you hear one? It’s dead.”
I looked and listened, and I admit could not conceal my astonishment. What he said was true. There was nothing to be seen or heard. Nothing moved in the sky. I had been so distracted with other new sights and sounds, I had not been aware.
“What happened?” I asked.
“What happened? The Ministry of Defence moved in, that’s what happened” he responded furiously. “They built a whole pile of buildings over there” he vaguely gestured to his right “to dispose of mines used in the Second World War, we were told. Then it was sold to someone else. What happened, we don’t know, but the birds never came back.”
His grief and longing were obvious. In his young day, these had been his fields – his playground – and now because the one feature that brought it all to life was gone, it seemed wasted, ruined. The features of the landscape were still there, but they no longer brought the same pleasure.
“Would you mind if I walked with you a little way?” I asked.
“I don’t mind at all, but I never turn back before Peden’s Stane, lass. As long as you know that, you’re welcome!” he said.
I had never heard of Peden or his Stane, but was very reluctant to display my ignorance. We continued up the road, chatting generally about old times. Eventually, we came to a swing gate which led into a field.
“We go this way” he said, commandingly. “Are you coming or not?”
Thus encouraged, I followed him through to the large open meadow, where the path started to wind steeply downhill.
“This track just follows the line of the fence, and leads you down into the glade” he informed me as we walked.
“Who was Peden?” I asked.
“Alexander Peden” he returned, as if I had been disrespectful, “was a Covenanter – a man of God. He risked his life every day for his faith and his people.”
Although I was not much wiser, we kept descending the hillside. Eventually we reached an inconspicuous place, shrouded by trees beside a burn. Through another fence and a gate I could see one side of a monument.
“Aye, this is where Peden preached,” he informed me. “He had to be down in a hollow, so that the congregation was not discovered. If either he or they had been found, it would have been off with their heads!” He sighed. “There’s his stone, lass. He was a wonderful man.”
It was unusual. It was a four –sided iron monument, painted white, and stood atop a boulder. On the side nearest me were the words:
“Of whom the world was not worthy”
“That is the boulder he stood on to make himself heard,” my storyteller friend informed me. “Anyone can go in through that gate, but I just usually turn here.”
So saying, he did.
I didn’t like to appear nosey by barging through the gate as I would usually have done. This man was obviously held in some respect, so I decided to return later. We walked the mile back together, and when we parted, hoped a friendship had been formed.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure, lass. I certainly hope you’ll come back again some time!” he said as we shook hands.
I assured him that I would.
I returned several times. I returned early and I returned late.
I went in the morning and in the afternoon. I walked and cycled.
I never saw the story teller again.
I found the mass of buildings he had told me about that the MOD had built. They are still secure and usable. The area of land taken up by them and now unused and derelict could hold five football pitches. There are something like fifteen buildings – some huge, some just large shed size.
But who was this Peden? Checking on the internet, it appeared that he was a Minister, who was determined to tell people about his faith. I found that the local school was named after him, that there is a Peden’s Way and a Covenanter’s Way.
Several local boulders lay claim to being associated with Peden.
His monument is crafted very lovingly. It is white paint with black lettering, and on top is a black orb.
The four sides tell of his difficulties, where he had to hide, where he wandered, where he preached.
Being forbidden a building to preach in, made no difference to this man. If they could not come to him, he would take his faith to the people. He believed his people should hear the word of God, no matter how many dangers he faced.
Later in the summer, I returned with my husband to Peden’s Stane, and he took photographs.
Now what was hidden can be seen. People can learn about the efforts of those who had gone before. It is out of sight – it is in a hollow – it is in a place that nobody would think of looking.
Three hundred and fifty years on, it still has the power to inspire: to tell of courage, inventiveness and sheer determination.
It tells of a man who would not take “No” for an answer.
Only now the sky is empty.