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A Succinct Account

Source: Folk-lore And Legends Scotland

Sir,--I heard very much, but believed very little of the second sight;
yet its being assumed by several of great veracity, I was induced to make
inquiry after it in the year 1652, being then confined in the north of
Scotland by the English usurpers. The more general accounts of it were
that many Highlanders, yet far more Islanders, were qualified with this
second sight; and men, women, and children, indistinctly, were subject to
it, and children where parents were not. Sometimes people came to age
who had it not when young, nor could any tell by what means produced. It
is a trouble to most of them who are subject to it, and they would be rid
of it at any rate if they could. The sight is of no long duration, only
continuing so long as they can keep their eyes steady without twinkling.
The hardy, therefore, fix their look that they may see the longer; but
the timorous see only glances--their eyes always twinkle at the first
sight of the object. That which generally is seen by them are the
species of living creatures, and of inanimate things, which be in motion,
such as ships, and habits upon persons. They never see the species of
any person who is already dead. What they foresee fails not to exist in
the mode, and in that place where it appears to them. They cannot well
know what space of time shall intervene between the apparition and the
real existence. But some of the hardiest and longest experience have
some rules for conjectures; as, if they see a man with a shrouding sheet
in the apparition, they will conjecture at the nearness or remoteness of
his death by the more or less of his body that is covered by it. They
will ordinarily see their absent friends, though at a great distance,
sometimes no less than from America to Scotland, sitting, standing, or
walking in some certain place; and then they conclude with an assurance
that they will see them so, and there. If a man be in love with a woman,
they will ordinarily see the species of that man standing by her, and so
likewise if a woman be in love. If they see the species of any person
who is sick to die, they see them covered over with the shrouding sheet.

These generals I had verified to me by such of them as did see, and were
esteemed honest and sober by all the neighbourhood; for I inquired after
such for my information. And because there were more of these seers in
the isles of Lewis, Harris, and Uist than in any other place, I did
entreat Sir James M'Donald (who is now dead), Sir Normand M'Loud, and Mr.
Daniel Morison, a very honest person (who are still alive), to make
inquiry in this uncouth sight, and to acquaint me therewith; which they
did, and all found an agreement in these generals, and informed me of
many instances confirming what they said. But though men of discretion
and honour, being but at second-hand, I will choose rather to put myself
than my friends on the hazard of being laughed at for incredible

I was once travelling in the Highlands, and a good number of servants
with me, as is usual there; and one of them, going a little before me,
entering into a house where I was to stay all night, and going hastily to
the door, he suddenly slipped back with a screech, and did fall by a
stone, which hit his foot. I asked what the matter was, for he seemed to
be very much frighted. He told me very seriously that I should not lodge
in that house, because shortly a dead coffin would be carried out of it,
for many were carrying of it when he was heard cry. I, neglecting his
words, and staying there, he said to other of his servants he was sorry
for it, and that surely what he saw would shortly come to pass. Though
no sick person was then there, yet the landlord, a healthy Highlander,
died of an apoplectic fit before I left the house.

In the year 1653 Alexander Monro (afterwards Lieutenant-Colonel to the
Earl of Dumbarton's regiment) and I were walking in a place called
Ullapool, in Loch Broom, on a little plain at the foot of a rugged hill.
There was a servant walking with a spade in the walk before us; his back
was to us, and his face to the hill. Before we came to him he let the
spade fall, and looked toward the hill. He took notice of us as we
passed near by him, which made me look at him, and perceiving him to
stare a little strangely I conjectured him to be a seer. I called at
him, at which he started and smiled. "What are you doing?" said I. He
answered, "I have seen a very strange thing: an army of Englishmen,
leading of horses, coming down that hill; and a number of them are coming
down to the plain, and eating the barley which is growing in the field
near to the hill." This was on the 4th May (for I noted the day), and it
was four or five days before the barley was sown in the field he spoke
of. Alexander Monro asked him how he knew they were Englishmen. He said
because they were leading of horses, and had on hats and boots, which he
knew no Scotchman would have there. We took little notice of the whole
story as other than a foolish vision, but wished that an English party
were there, we being then at war with them, and the place almost
inaccessible for horsemen. But in the beginning of August thereafter,
the Earl of Middleton (then Lieutenant for the King in the Highlands),
having occasion to march a party of his towards the South Highlands, he
sent his Foot through a place called Inverlawell; and the fore-party,
which was first down the hill, did fall off eating the barley which was
on the little plain under it. And Monro calling to mind what the seer
told us in May preceding, he wrote of it, and sent an express to me to
Lochslin, in Ross (where I then was), with it.

I had occasion once to be in company where a young lady was (excuse my
not naming of persons), and I was told there was a notable seer in the
company. I called him to speak with me, as I did ordinarily when I found
any of them; and after he had answered me several questions, I asked if
he knew any person to be in love with that lady. He said he did, but he
knew not the person; for, during the two days he had been in her company,
he perceived one standing near her, and his head leaning on her shoulder,
which he said did foretell that the man should marry her, and die before
her, according to his observation. This was in the year 1655. I desired
him to describe the person, which he did, so that I could conjecture, by
the description, of such a one, who was of that lady's acquaintance,
though there were no thoughts of their marriage till two years
thereafter. And having occasion in the year 1657 to find this seer, who
was an islander, in company with the other person whom I conjectured to
have been described by him, I called him aside, and asked if that was the
person he saw beside the lady near two years then past. He said it was
he indeed, for he had seen that lady just then standing by him hand in
hand. This was some few months before their marriage, and that man is
now dead, and the lady alive.

I shall trouble you but with one more, which I thought most remarkable of
any that occurred to me.

In January 1652, the above-mentioned Lieutenant, Colonel Alex. Monro, and
I, happened to be in the house of one William M'Clend, of Ferrinlea, in
the county of Ross. He, the landlord, and I, were sitting in three
chairs near the fire, and in the corner of the great chimney there were
two islanders, who were that very night come to the house, and were
related to the landlord. While the one of them was talking with Monro, I
perceived the other to look oddly toward me. From this look, and his
being an islander, I conjectured him a seer, and asked him at what he
stared. He answered by desiring me to rise from that chair, for it was
an unlucky one. I asked him why? He answered, because there was a dead
man in the chair next to me. "Well," said I, "if it be in the next
chair, I may keep my own. But what is the likeness of the man?" He said
he was a tall man, with a long grey coat, booted, and one of his legs
hanging over the arm of the chair, and his head hanging dead to the other
side, and his arm backward, as if it was broken. There were some English
troops then quartered near that place, and there being at that time a
great frost after a thaw, the country was covered all over with ice. Four
or five of the English riding by this house some two hours after the
vision, while we were sitting by the fire, we heard a great noise, which
proved to be those troopers, with the help of other servants, carrying in
one of their number, who had got a very mischievous fall, and had his arm
broke; and falling frequently in swooning fits, they brought him into the
hall, and set him in the very chair, and in the very posture that the
seer had prophesied. But the man did not die, though he recovered with
great difficulty.

Among the accounts given me by Sir Normand M'Loud, there was one worthy
of special notice, which was thus:--There was a gentleman in the Isle of
Harris, who was always seen by the seers with an arrow in his thigh. Such
in the Isle who thought those prognostications infallible, did not doubt
but he would be shot in the thigh before he died. Sir Normand told me
that he heard it the subject of their discourse for many years. At last
he died without any such accident. Sir Normand was at his burial at St.
Clement's Church in the Harris. At the same time the corpse of another
gentleman was brought to be buried in the same very church. The friends
on either side came to debate who should first enter the church, and, in
a trice, from words they came to blows. One of the number (who was armed
with bow and arrows) let one fly among them. (Now every family in that
Isle have their burial-place in the Church in stone chests, and the
bodies are carried in open biers to the burial-place.) Sir Normand
having appeased the tumult, one of the arrows was found shot in the dead
man's thigh. To this Sir Normand was a witness.

In the account which Mr. Daniel Morison, parson in the Lewis, gave me,
there was one, though it be heterogeneous from the subject, yet it may be
worth your notice. It was of a young woman in this parish, who was
mightily frightened by seeing her own image still before her, always when
she came to the open air; the back of the image being always to her, so
that it was not a reflection as in a mirror, but the species of such a
body as her own, and in a very like habit which appeared to herself
continually before her. The parson kept her a long while with him, but
had no remedy of her evil, which troubled her exceedingly. I was told
afterwards that when she was four or five years older she saw it not.

These are matters of fact, which I assure you they are truly related. But
these and all others that occurred to me, by information or otherwise,
could never lead me into a remote conjecture of the cause of so
extraordinary a phenomenon. Whether it be a quality in the eyes of some
people in these parts, concurring with a quality in the air also; whether
such species be everywhere, though not seen by the want of eyes so
qualified, or from whatever other cause, I must leave to the inquiry of
clearer judgments than mine. But a hint may be taken from this image
which appeared still to this woman above mentioned, and from another
mentioned by Aristotle, in the fourth of his Metaphysics (if I remember
right, for it is long since I read it), as also from the common opinion
that young infants (unsullied with many objects) do see apparitions which
were not seen by those of elder years; as likewise from this, that
several did see the second sight when in the Highlands or Isles, yet when
transported to live in other countries, especially in America, they quite
lose this quality, as was told me by a gentleman who knew some of them in
Barbadoes, who did see no vision there, although he knew them to be seers
when they lived in the Isles of Scotland.

Thus far my Lord Tarbat.

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