We have already hinted that events of an ordinary kind--illusions, cases of mistaken identity, or hallucination--are probably the groundwork in part of the Highland belief in second sight. Of course, if a certain proportion of hallucinations were or could be taken for "veridical," attention would be given to these alone: the others would be neglected. The Psychical Society has collected and examined hundreds of these cases in modern life.
The Society may find out, experimentally, whether second sight can be acquired in the manner described by Mr. Kirk--whether by
the hair tether, or by merely putting the foot under that of a seer. Thus contact is used in thought reading, as, in second sight, the seer by contact communicates his hallucination. Second sight itself is now called telepathy, which, however, does not essentially advance our knowledge of the subject. It is either very common, or people who choose to claim the possession of it are very common. In our society it is mere matter for idle tales; in the Highlands the second sight was a belief and a system. Mr. Pepys and Dr. Johnson investigated the matter, and Dr. Johnson came away open to conviction, but unconvinced. The Psychical Society is now examining second sight in the Highlands. It is interesting to learn that the Presbyterian seers justified their visions out of the Bible, which also justified the burning of these gifted men on occasion. Mr. Kirk is tolerant enough to ascribe their visions to a "bounty of Providence." This may have passed, north of the Highland line, but in Fife and the south the seers would speedily have been accommodated with a stake and tar-barrel. The writings of Wodrow and Mr. Robert Blair of St. Andrews (1650-60)
prove that if a savoury preacher wrought marvels, he was inspired, but if an amateur did the very same things,--prophesied, healed diseases, and so forth,--he, or she, was likely to be haled before the Presbytery, and possibly dragged to the stake. In the Highlands these invidious distinctions were less forcibly drawn. Mr. Kirk treats the whole question in his curiously cold scientific way. If these things occur, they are in the realm of Nature, and are results of causes which may be variously conjectured. They may be providential, or a sport of evolution, derived from "a complexionall Quality of the first acquirer," which often becomes hereditary in his lineage.
Lord Tarbott's letter to an inquirer, Robert Boyle, is added by Mr. Kirk to his little treatise, with his own annotations. His belief that the Fairy sights could only be seen while the eyes are kept steady without twinkling, is attested by a well-known anecdote. On the afternoon of Culloden, a little girl, staying with Lord Lovat at Gortuleg, was reading in a window-seat. Chancing to look out, she saw a company of headlong riders hastening to the castle. Believing them to be the Sleagh Maith,
she tried hard to keep her eyes from twinkling, that she might not lose the vision. But these, alas! were no Fairies, they were Prince Charles and his men flying from the victorious English. The tale proves that the belief long survived the day of the minister of Aberfoyle. Lord Tarbott mentions, also, the vision of the shroud on the breast of a man about to die, which seems to be alluded to in the prophecy of Theoclymenus in the Odyssey. Lord Tarbott's tales are of the familiar kind, there are dozens of such in Theophilus Insulanus. Mr. Kirk's notes are chiefly remarkable for his citation of Walter Grahame's "evil eye," which killed what he praised,--a world-wide superstition, too common to need supporting by foreign and classical examples.
Unluckily, at this point Mr. Kirk abandons what we may call his scientific attitude. He has accounted for his "supernatural" affairs as not supernatural at all, but phenomena in Nature, and subject, like other phenomena, to laws. But now it occurs to him to explain the conduct of his Sleagh Maith as the result of missionary zeal on their part: "they endeavour to convince us of a Deity; " though, on the face
of his argument, a Co-walker no more proves a Deity than does an ordinary "walker." He may have been reading "the learned Dr. Mor" (More the Platonist), and may have altered his ideas. His account of a girl who learned, or rather composed, a long poem by aid of "our nimble and courteous spirits," affords an early example of what is called "an inspirational medium." It is unlucky that Mr. Kirk did not publish this work, of which he had a copy. The ordinary "spiritual" poetry may be written, as Dr. Johnson said of Ossian, "by any one who would abandon his mind to it." When Mr. Kirk maintains that Neolithic arrow-heads could not have been executed "by all the Airt of man," he relapses from his usual odd common-sense. He also believes in men who are magically shot-proof, like Claverhouse, who had to be shot by a silver bullet; like Archbishop Sharp, on whom his pious assassins erroneously held that their bullets took no effect; and like certain soldiers mentioned by Dugald Dalgetty of Drumthwacket. This absurd belief was very generally held by the Covenanters. Where his local superstitions and those of his generation are not concerned, Mr. Kirk recovers his clearness of intellect. In
[paragraph continues] Purgatory he finds only the pre-Christian Hades, "our Secret Republick," with an ecclesiastical colouring--"additional Fictions of Monks' doting and crazied Heads." Mr. Kirk did not perceive the danger involved in his own argument. If a Highland second-sighted man answers to a Hebrew prophet in his visions and trances, a Hebrew prophet is in danger of being no more considered than a Highland second-sighted man. However, it is to Mr. Kirk's praise that he shows no persecuting disposition as far as witches are concerned (though he has seen them pricked), and that he argues very fairly from his premisses, and within his limits. 1 He recognises the unity of spiritual phenomena and of popular beliefs, whether it springs from a common well-head of delusion in our nature, or whether it really has a source in the observation of peculiar and rather rare phenomena.
To the Edinburgh edition of 1815 (probably the only one) the editor added the work of Theophilus Insulanus on Second Sight. This is not rare nor expensive, and we do not reproduce it. One case of "telepathy" may be quoted from Theophilus.
"Donald Beaton, residenter in Hammir, related that, in his passage from Glasgow to the Isle of Sky, he stopped at Tippermory, a known harbour in the Isle of Mull." Here some one gave him a loin of venison. Donald, whose wife's mother was a seer, to try her powers, wished that piece of venison in her hands. "The same night the seer, who lived with her daughter, his wife, apprehended she saw him enter the house with a shapeless lump in his hands--she knew not what, but it resembled flesh, which gave herself and her daughter great joy, as they had despaired of him by his long absence." This is "telepathy," if telepathy there be.
Another picturesque tale shows how, on the night before the Rout of Moy, Patrick M'Caskill met the famed M'Rimmon (sic), M'Leod's piper, in the town of Inverness, and saw him contract into the size of a boy of five or six, and expand again into his athletic proportions. M'Rimmon was killed in the Rout of Moy--an attempt to surprise and seize Prince Charles. Before leaving Skye he had prophesied--
M'Leod shall come back,
But M'Rimmon shall never."
The editor is acquainted with a splendid case of second sight in Kensington. The seer was an accomplished English gentleman, and mentioned his vision at the moment to a witness who remembers and corroborates the statement. Thus the Hebrides and Highlands have no monopoly of second sight.
The researches of M. Charcot, M. Richet, and other psychologists do not at present help us much in the matter of veridical second sight. It is not a hallucination "suggested" to a hypnotised subject, but an impression produced by a remote person or event on a subject who has not been hypnotised at all. For example, Dr. Adam Clarke, in his Life (vol. ii. p. 16) tells us of Mr. Tracy Clarke, who, being in the Isle of Man with his son, dreamed that he had visited his wife in Liverpool. He told his son that Mrs. Clarke was looking very well, but, contrary to her habit, was sleeping in the best bedroom. On the day when Mr. Clarke said this, Mrs. Clarke, who had been sleeping in her best bedroom, told the little son who lay in her room that she had heard his father ride up to the house, stable his horse, open the door, come upstairs, and walk round her bed, but that she
could not see him. This is a case at least of second hearing, and has no hypnotic explanation.
We end in the candid spirit of Dr. Johnson, as far as the Polter-Geist and second sight are concerned--willing to be convinced, but far indeed from conviction. As to the Fairy belief, we conceive it to be a complex matter, from which tradition, with its memory of earth-dwellers, is not wholly absent, while more is due to a survival of the pre-Christian Hades, and to the belief in local spirits--the Vuis of Melanesia, the Nereids of ancient and modern Greece, the Lares of Rome, the fateful Mræ and Hathors--old imaginings of a world not yet "dispeopled of its dreams." 1
lxii:1 Note ( f), p. 86.
lxv:1 The "earth-houses " in Scotland and the isles, which seem to have been inhabited at an early period, can seldom be called hills or mounds; being built for purposes of concealment, they are usually almost on a level with the surrounding land. The Fairy hills, on the other hand, are higher and much more notable, and were probably sepulchral. This, at least, is the impression left on me by Mr. MacRitchie's book, The Underground Life. (Privately printed. Edinburgh, 1892.)