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Sketches of The Character, Manners, and Present State of the Highlanders of Scotland


T, Page 110. Second-sight

There are many traits of the character, manners, and dispositions of the people, which I have not noticed. The most remarkable of these is that imaginary talent of seeing into futurity, commonly called the "Second Sight." The subject has been frequently discussed ; and I shall, therefore, say little of these ideal flights of a warm and vivid imagination. But however ridiculous the belief of the second sight may now appear, it certainly had no small influence on the manners and actions of the people. The predictions of the seers impressed their minds with awe, and as they were generally such as brought to the remembrance death, a future state, retributive justice, the reward of honourable and virtuous conduct, and the punishment of the wicked, they certainly controlled the passions, and, as I have often had occasion to observe, supplied the defect of those laws which now extend to the most distant recesses of the mountains.

The impressions of a warm imagination appear so like realities, and their confirmation is so readily found in subsequent events, that we can scarcely wonder if popular superstitions have long maintained their ground, even against the advances of reason and science. Allowing the possibility of coming events being shadowed forth by supernatural agency to some favoured seers, the question naturally occurs, Why should those revelations be confined to the Highlanders of Scotland? Yet it must be owned, that the coincidences between events and their foreboding have, in many instances, been so curious and remarkable, that credulous minds may be excused for yielding to the impression of their prophetic character. It may not be improper to produce an instance or two for the amusement of the reader.

Late in an autumnal evening in the year 1773, the son of a neighbouring gentleman came to my father's house. He and my mother were from home, but several friends were in the house. The young gentleman spoke little, and seemed absorbed in deep thought. Soon after he arrived he inquired for a boy of the family, then about three years of age. When shown into the nursery, the nurse was trying on a pair of new shoes, and complaining that they did not fit. "They will fit him before he will have occasion for them," said the young gentleman. This called forth the chidings of the nurse for predicting evil to the child, who was stout and healthy. When he returned to the party he had left in the sitting-room, who had heard his observations on the shoes, they cautioned him to take care that the nurse did not derange his new talent of the second sight, with some ironical congratulations on his pretended acquirement. This brought on an explanation, when he told them, that, as he approached the end of a wooden bridge thrown across a stream at a short distance from the house, be was astonished to see a crowd of people passing the bridge. Coming nearer, he observed a person carrying a small coffin, followed by about twenty gentlemen, all of his acquaintance his own father and mine being of the number, with a concourse of the country people. He did not attempt to join, but saw them turn off to the right in the direction of the church-yard, which they entered. He then proceeded on his intended visit, much impressed from what he had seen with a feeling of awe, and believing it to have been a representation of the death and funeral of a child of the family. In this apprehension he was the more confirmed, as he knew jny father was at Blair Athole, and that he had left his own father at home an hour before. The whole received perfect confirmation in his mind by the sudden death of the boy the following night, and the consequent funeral, which was exactly similar to that before represented to his imagination.

This gentleman was not a professed seer ; this was his first and his last vision ; and, as he told me, it was sufficient. No reasoning or argument could convince him that the appearance was an illusion. Now when a man of education and of general knowledge of the world, as this gentleman was, became so bewildered in his imaginations, and that even so late as the year 1773, it cannot be matter of surprise that the poetical enthusiasm of the Highlanders, in their days of chivalry and romance, should have predisposed them to credit wonders which so deeply interested them.

The other instance occurred in the year 1775, when a tenant of the late Lord Breadalbane called upon him, bitterly lamenting the loss of his son, who, he said, had been killed in battle on a day he mentioned. His Lordship told him that was impossible, as no accounts had been received of any battle, or even of hostilities having commenced. But the man would not be comforted, saying, that he saw his son lying dead, and many officers and soldiers also dead, around him. Lord Breadalbane, perceiving that the poor man would not be consoled, left him ; but when the account of the battle of Bunker's Hill arrived some weeks afterwards, he learnt, with no small surprise, that the young man had been killed at the time and in the manner described by his father.

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