By Elizabeth McQuillan
Pristine white sheets, pegged out on the washing line and flapping in the breeze, is the dream my mother has always had prior to the death of someone close to her. A vision of a happy smiling elderly lady, wearing a very distinctive brooch, beamed down at me once when I was sleeping. I didn’t recognise the person but when my mother phoned the following day to tell me a great aunt had passed away, it really came as no surprise – I knew exactly whom I had seen.
An Dà Shealladh is the Gaelic name meaning “the second sight”, the involuntary ability to supposedly see the future or distant events. Historical information on this gift points to a strong Celtic heritage, with a focus on the people of the Highlands in particular.
It seems unlikely that the Scottish people should be peculiar in this ability. Certainly within Roman and Greek mythology there is reference to premonitions warning of impending danger or change, and it is common in other cultures too but often after an intake of hallucinogenic drugs.
In Scotland, unlike our neighbouring countries, having the second sight was not connected with witchcraft. Its supposed prevalence here could be attributed to the fact that the subject was openly talked about, whereas it was not safe to do so elsewhere and that is why many known seers were Scottish. It is likely that it was simply accepted in Scotland as something that naturally occurred in some individuals although, contrary to what we might expect, it was considered to be more of a curse than a gift.
According to folklore the best known was The Brahan Seer, or Coinneach Odhar (Kenneth the Sallow). He is credited with foretelling a great many events including:
•Finding oil in the North Sea –‘A black rain will bring riches to Aberdeen.’
•The Highland Clearances – ‘The sheep shall eat the men.’
•The Battle of Culloden – ‘Oh! Drumossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I that I will not see the day, for it will be a fearful period; heads will be lopped off by the score, and no mercy shall be shown or quarter given on either side.’
It has been suggested that the Brahan Seer was born Kenneth Mackenzie on the Isle of Lewis, he is reputed to have worked as a labourer for the Seaforth family of chieftains on their Brahan Estate in Ross-shire.
The story goes that he lost his life after Lady Seaforth, a woman not known to be bonnie, insisted she tell him news of her husband’s trip to Paris. His prediction did not please her as he told of another, fairer, woman and the end of the Seaforth line with the last being deaf and blind.
This prediction actually came to pass with the final heir being rendered deaf and blind following a bout of scarlet fever as a child. His four sons all died prematurely and the Seaforth line ended. Kenneth the Sallow was boiled in a vat of tar for his troubles.
There is no written evidence to corroborate the existence of Brahan Seer in the 17th Century, but there was a gypsy called Coinneach Odhar in the 16th century who was accused with 26 other witches for supplying poison. Most of the others were burned, but what happened to this Kenneth remains unknown – perhaps he went on to have gifted children.
Lynne Gillespie, a psychic based in Falkirk, says she has been seeing spirits and visions since she was a child. Was a seer in the 17th century much different to a psychic or medium of today? Both are thought to receive messages from the spirit world. Both would appear to possess an unusual ability.
“We are the seers of the 21st century, we try to interpret what we see,” says Lynne, “Messages come through the spirits and they convey their messages to someone who is open to this.
“This might be as an image, something you hear, dream or simply feel. Many people who are not psychics do have the gift, but most that do just don’t have faith or trust the thoughts that come to them. Certainly psychic ability does seem to run very strongly in families.”
Whether the Brahan Seer really existed we shall never know but, due to the strong Scottish oral tradition, the story and the prophecies have persevered and been passed down through the centuries. Perhaps the strange things my mother and myself have seen are coincidental dreams, but then again perhaps they are the visions of those who still possess a remnant of An Dà Shealladh.