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The Prophecies of The Brahan Seer

The Brahan Seer and Second Sight.

Mr. Mackay has asked me to make a few comments on Mr. Mackenzie’s “Prophecies of the Brahan Seer,” and I do so for the sake of old times and old ideas. Unlike Mr Mackenzie, I can unblushingly confess the belief that there probably are occasional instances of second sight, that is, of “premonitions.” I know too many examples among persons of my acquaintance, mostly Lowlanders or English, to have any doubt about the matter. Hegel was of the same opinion, and was not ashamed to include second sight in his vast philosophic system. [“Philosophie der Gheistes,” werke vii. 179. Berlin, 1845.] As to the modus of second sight, “how it is done,” in fact, I have no theory. If there is a psychical element in man, if there is something more than a mechanical result of physical processes in nerve, brain, and blood, then we cannot set any limit to the range of “knowledge super-normally acquired.” “Time and space are only hallucinations,” as a philosopher has audaciously remarked. They may be transcended by the spirit in man, et voilà pourquoi votre fille est muette! This explanation, of course, is of the vaguest, but I have no better to suggest.

By an odd coincidence, two cases of second sight, of recent date, in the experience of an educated lady, reached me yesterday at first hand, and, as I pen these words another (knowledge of a death at a distance) comes to me from a distinguished philologist. But he thinks he was ten minutes out in his reckoning, which, allowing for difference of watches, is not much., A fourth case is from a Royal Academician, an intimate friend. He and a lady, also of my acquaintance, were being shewn over a beautiful new house by the owner. My friend, in the owner’s bedroom, turned pale. The lady, when they went out, asked him what ailed him. “I saw X---” (the owner of the house) “lying dead in his bed.” X--- died within a month, which would be thought fair work in the Highlands. An odder case occurred last year. On June 15, a lady, well known to me, and in various fields of literature, told me that, calling on another lady the day before, she had seen a vision of a man, previously unknown to her, who thrust a knife into her friend’s left side. I offered to bet £100 against fulfilment. In autumn my friend, again calling at the same house, met the man of her vision on the doorsteps. Entering, she found her friend dying, as her constitution did not rally after an operation on her left side, performed by the man of the vision, who was a surgeon. This is much in the Highland manner. Of the Seers here alluded to (and I might add many other modern instances in my own knowledge), only one was Celtic. For savage examples which illustrate the belief (though evidence cannot, of course, be procured with exactness), I may be permitted to refer to my “Making of Religion” (pp. 72-158). The kind of story is always the same. And the legends of St. Columba, in Adamnan, are much on a par, in many cases, with modern examples in The Proceedings of the Society for Physchical Research. The uniformity of the reports argues the existence of some facts at their base.

While I am credulous to this extent, I vastly prefer modern cases, at first hand, and corroborated (as when I can swear that the lady told me of her vision before its fulfilment), to the rumours of the Brahan Seer. We can scarcely ever, except as to the deaf Seaforth, find any evidence that the prophecies were recorded before the event. In many cases fulfilment could only occur, either in the ancient fighting Clan society, or under its revival, to which we cannot look with much confidence. The prophecies about sheep one has no evidence to prove earlier than, say, 1770. As to the burning of the Seer, if it really had clerical sanction, why are Kirk Sessions’ Registers not brought forward as proof? Have they been examined for this purpose? We are, in fact, dealing with poetical legend, not with evidence.

In one respect Kenneth is peculiar, among Highland Seers. He is a “Crystalgazer,” whether his “gibber” (as Australian savages call divining stones) was blue, or grey, or pearly, perforated or not. This use of stones, usually crystals, or black stones, I have found among Australians, Tonkaways, Aztecs, Incas, Samoyeds, Polynesians, Maoris, Greeks, Egyptians, in Fez: water, ink, or blood being also employed to stare at. The whole topic is discussed in my book already cited, with many modern examples. Now I do not elsewhere, know more than one or two cases of this kind of divination in the Highlands. The visions are usually spontaneous and uninvoked, except when the seer uses the blade-bone of a sheep. In the interests of Folk Lore, or Psychology, or both, people who have the opportunity should record cases of the use of divining stones in the Highlands. It is even more desirable that the statements of second-sighted men (they are common enough, to my personal knowledge, in Sutherland, Lochaber, and Glencoe) should be taken down before fulfilment. Unless this is done, the predictions, as matter of evidence, go for nothing. We must try to discover the percentage of failures, before we can say whether the successes are not due to chance coincidence, or to misstatement, or to mere imposture. I have little or no doubt that the Ferrintosh story (told in this book) is a misconception, based on the actual calamity at Fearn, long after the Seer was dead. In fact, like Dr. Johnson, I want more evidence. He was ready to believe, but unconvinced. I am rather more credulous, but it would be very easy to upset my faith, and certainly it cannot be buttressed by vague reports on the authority of tradition. It may be urged that to inquire seriously into such things is to encourage superstition. But if inquiry merely unearthed failure and imposture, even superstition would be discouraged.

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