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Issue 52 - What the seer saw

Scotland Magazine Issue 52
August 2010


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What the seer saw

James Irvine Robertson looks at the belief in second sight.

Mankind has an innate need for the supernatural. Usually this is satisfied by belief in conventional religions; other forms of the supernormal are dismissed as mere superstition, but other times and other societies believed otherwise.

In Scotland, particularly the Highlands, belief in Second Sight has never gone away but nowadays it is a fringe activity and few take it seriously. But it used not to be so and was brought to the attention of leading scientists and intellectuals in London before the end of the 17th century and their opinion was that it was real.

The facility to see into the future was considered a curse by those who had the talent for it. It struck without warning, often during daylight. The seer would suddenly enter a trance and have a vision of the future. These were rarely cheerful. A neighbour would be seen wearing a shroud or a phantom funeral was witnessed and a few days later the subject would sicken and die. Or someone would be observed with a livid wound somewhere on their person and they would suffer this in the near future. If a spark from a fire were seen to fall on the arms or breast, it presaged a dead child that had been cradled on that breast.

Countless examples were recorded but not all were gloomy. If a woman was seen standing alongside a man it meant that they would soon marry. If, say, three women were seen, it meant he would marry each of them in turn although this may have been bad news for the first two. Martin Martin who wrote a book on his travels round the western isles in 1700 took an interest in the subject and told of a useful butler to Sir Norman Macleod of Bernera. He and his friends were gambling and placing bets on the outcome of the throw of dice. The butler leaned over and whispered in one of the player’s ear who immediately changed his bet and won. Knowing his butler could not play the game Sir Norman asked why.

Because, replied his servant, he saw a Brownie lean over and indicate the winning position. This same man would have foreknowledge of the time of Sir Norman’s return to his castle however long his master had been absent and have fires lit and food prepared for his master.

The most famous seer was Kenneth Mackenzie, the Brahan Seer who still possesses a formidable reputation. It has to be said that his greatest failure came when he told the wife of the 3rd Earl of Seaforth that her husband, then in Paris, was in the arms of a French floozy. It may have been true but he failed to predict that the outraged countess would have him burned to death in a tar barrel.

Most seers were simple, uneducated folk of either sex. The church often considered them witches best consigned to a pyre but ministers were not immune to the Sight. The Rev Cameron, minister of Lochend on Kintyre, saw the Covenanters fly at the battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679 although he was more than a hundred miles away.

Ann Grant, wife of the minster of Laggan at the end of the 18th century, tells of one of her husband’s colleagues who ‘was his churchyard. In an October twilight, he saw two small lights rise from a spot unmarked by any stone or memorial. These ‘corpsecandles’ crossed the river, stopped at a hamlet, and returned, attended by a larger spot whence the two lights had risen. The minister threw a few stones on the spot, and next day asked the sexton who lay there. The man remembered having buried two children of a blacksmith who lived at the hamlet on the opposite side of the water.

The blacksmith died next day.’ Whether one believes in second sight or not can only be a matter of faith. Those who possess or possessed it knew they had it and nowhere is there any suggestion of fraud or imposture. Hard heads such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys, and the great chemist Robert Boyle, were amongst those were convinced of the existence of this eerie faculty when reports of it first came from Scotland.

One account does give pause for thought, perhaps through its very mundanity. It took place around 1835 and was written by the meticulous historian of Fortingall and Glen Lyon, Duncan Campbell. ‘Mairi Mhor was an industrious, humbly pious, thoroughly good woman, who recoiled with horror from her uncanny gift of seeing what was invisible to others. The strangest of all Mairi’s glimpses of the future was her vision of the mill-stone, the announcement of which I heard, and the fulfilment of which I witnessed myself. It must have been the time of peat-cutting, when, after an early breakfast, masters and servants went off to their work up the hill and coming home before nightfall to a supper of broth, meat, and potatoes. Such a meal was in preparation when the smoke of the kitchen sent Mairi, who was asthmatic, to take refuge on the bench at the end of the house, where she stopped till the peat-cutters were sitting down to their food, by evening daylight.

‘Then Mairi rushed in with blazing eyes, and, under strong excitement, told her wonder tale. She said she had seen a great gathering of the men of the neighbourhood, pulling by ropes tied to a pole which was stuck through a hole in its middle, a big round thing which they made to roll along over the burn and on past the hillock near the burn. Then my father took her in hand and accused her of falling asleep and dreaming. It was an argument he often used to silence her, and which she knew had some foundation of fact, since it was undeniable that when busy at work, carding or spinning wool, she occasionally dropped off into dream trances. But this time she was sure she was wide awake when the wonder thing passed, and she ended by saying to my father “I saw you there among the rest.” ‘A short time passed, and as nothing happened, the dream theory appeared to be justified. But one hot day the miller, in a huge hurry, came to tell the farmers who had much grain waiting to be ground for the next four months’ provision, that the upper mill-stone had splintered that morning, and that the mill would, of course, have to stand idle until the broken stone was replaced by a new one. When Mairi heard of the accident, and listened to a talk about the methods to be used in bringing a new one to the mill, she said at once “That is what I saw.” ‘But at first it looked as if her vision would prove false to a large degree, for it was up the Glen that a rock was chosen out of which to carve the mill-stone. When some cutting out had been done, a flaw was discovered, and that place was abandoned. Down the Glen, on the Ben Lawers hills, the next cutting out took place, and a good mill-stone was the result, which, with a hole in its middle and roughly dressed, had then to be taken down from its high position and piloted and dragged up to the mill. Through the hole made in the middle of it for suiting its permanent mill work, a young larch tree, stripped and rounded, was driven and used as a rudder, lever, and holdfast for the ropes by which the men pulled it on and kept it back when a drag was required. They thus managed to take it down from a rough and high mountain, and by a convenient ford to get it across the river to the high road which they intended to follow to Balgie Bridge.

‘Had this intention been carried out, the procession would not have passed where Mairi had seen the wraith form. But at a narrow and dangerous turn of the road, within sight of Balgie Bridge, they found they could not get past. So they had to turn back to the ford below the manse, and having crossed there, they had no option but to follow the route of Mairi’s vision, since the level fields were barred to them by the rising crops. The vision, therefore, was literally fulfilled without accident or mishap to men or mill-stone.’

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