The belief that people could have visions into an invisible world parallel with ours has long been a feature of Atlantic European culture. The belief in what has been termed ‘Second Sight’ encompasses visions that are both prophetic and intimately linked to the idea of fairies and the fairy world.
The 17th century was a period when there was renewed interest in prophecies due to political and religious upheaval. Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703) contained a particular account of the ‘Seers’ in the Hebrides in the late 1600’s, and is useful because it corroborates many of Robert Kirk’s observations of Highland beliefs at the same period. Kirk’s work, usually known as ‘The Secret Commonwealth’, was to remain unpublished until rediscovered by members of Walter Scott’s literary circle in the early 19th century. A perhaps lesser-recognised book about the Second Sight among the Scots (‘Deuteroskopia or, A Brief Discourse upon the Second Sight, so-called’) was published in 1707 from the notes of the late Revd John Frazer, minister of Tiree and Coll. There was considerable interest in the intellectual and scientific examination of such phenomena at this period.
However, accounts of the second sight go back much further. During the 14th century, Ranulph Higden – a cloistered monk at St Werberg’s monastery, Chester, was writing an encyclopaedic Latin compendium of knowledge about Britain that he called the Polychronicon. It was to become a popular book – so much so that it was eventually translated to English and printed. In this work, Higden mentions the following fascinating account of superstitions in the Isle of Man (probably gathered from a Scotsman called Martholine who was supposedly an administrator there during the occupation by Robert the Bruce):
In ilia insula vigent sortilegia, superstitiones, atque praestigia …. Ibi frequenter ab indigenis videntur etiam de die homines prius mortui, decapitati sive integri, juxta modum suae mortis; ut autem alienigenae et adventitii hoc videre possint, ponunt pedes super pedes incolarum, et sic videre poterunt quod incolae vident.
Which translates as:
“In this Island are observed prophecies, superstitions and trickeries … Frequently, by the very light of day, some of the islanders have visions of men who are about to die, and can tell by their appearance – beheaded or whole – in what manner they will meet their demise. Incomers wishing to share the sight of the Manxmen simply place their foot upon that of the islander.”
This description is congruent with those gathered 400 years later by Martin, Frazer and Kirk (who also mentions the placing of the foot), and there is good evidence of a continuity of the belief in both the Hebrides and the Isle of Man down to the 20th century if not longer. In fact, Adomnán of Iona‘s 7thC ‘Life of Columba’ draws upon traditions about Columcille which depict him as a prophet in the Hebridean sense.
Kirk’s 17thC account suggests that it was believed that ‘fairies’ would make premonitions by acting out or aping scenes of what was to come, and a near-contemporary account of the Manx by George Waldron suggested that this was believed in the Isle of Man too. Visions of fairies performing funerals or christenings were supposed to predict a death or a birth respectively. However, Kirk mentions the belief that each living person has an attendant spirit double which can be transmitted to appear to others over great distances – particularly when the owner was in peril. The other aspect to the belief was the appearance of inanimate objects such as funeral shrouds or hangman’s nooses in the visions, sometimes also of sparks of light. It can be of little doubt that there was a fervent belief in such phenomena which approached the religious, and that this was reinforced by telling stories of accounts of it, as can be seen from Martin’s extensive and somewhat credulous reports.
The concurrence of the Second Sight beliefs and Fairy beliefs indicates that the ‘Otherworld’ could be accessed by the common people, although not by all, and not always by choice. The world of the dead and the world of fairies were the same realm, albeit in a seemingly inverted state to that of ours, and from which we might gather information about the future. Periods at which the spirits were closer allowed for a greater common appreciation of what the otherworld might show, and this is why festivals such as Samhain were associated with popular prognostications. At other times, the Second Sight was the province of specialist Seers and ‘Fairy Doctors’ who could read the signs from where the two worlds interacted.