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Popular Superstitions - Second Sight

( Originally Published 1884 )

The following is a very remarkable vision of a Highland Seer, who is famous among the Mountains, and known by the Name of Second-Sighted Sawney. Had he been able to write, we might probably have seen this Vision sooner in print ; for it happen'd to him very early in the late hard winter ; and was drawn up by a Student of Glasgow, who took the whole Relation from him, and stuck close to the Facts, tho' he has delivered them in his own Style.

[The account that follows is a political allegory of no importance to modern readers, except to show how very generally the possession of second sight was believed in.]

The following remarks upon the Second Sight, wherewith some of the inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland are still supposed to be haunted, are extracted from the truly ingenious " Essays of the celebrated Dr. Beattie, lately printed at Edinburgh, in a large quarto volume, consisting of " Essays on Truth : on Poetry, and Music : on Laughter and Ludicrous Composition : and on the Utility of Classical Learning." Your readers will, I doubt not, be pleased with the sentiments of this philosopher upon so curious a subject. They occur in pp. 480, 1, 2 of the work, and will not be deemed unworthy of a place in your valuable Magazine, if an occasional correspondent is not greatly mistaken in his opinion. He has therefore taken the trouble of transcribing them, and hopes they will be inserted as soon as possible.

" I do not find sufficient evidence for the reality of Second Sight, or at least of what is commonly understood by that term. A treatise on the subject was published in the year 1762, in which many tales were told of persons, whom the author believed to have been favoured, or haunted, with these illuminations; but most of the tales were trifling and ridiculous ; and the whole work betrayed on the part of the compiler, such extreme credulity, as could not fail to prejudice many readers against his system. That any of these visionaries are liable to be swayed in their declarations by sinister views, I will not say; though a gentleman of character assured me, that one of them offered to sell him this unaccountable talent for half-a-crown. But this I think may be said with confidence, that none but ignorant people pretend to be gifted in this way. And in them it may be nothing more, perhaps, than short fits of sudden sleep or drowsiness attended with lively dreams, and arising from some bodily disorder, the effect of idleness, low spirits, or a gloomy imagination. For it is admitted, even by the most credulous highlanders. that, as knowledge and industry are propagated in their country, the Second Sight disappears in proportion ; and nobody ever laid claim to this faculty, who was much employed in the intercourse of social life. Nor is it at all extraordinary, that one should have the appearance of being awake, and should even think one's self so, during these fits of dozing ; or that they should come on suddenly, and while one is engaged in some business. The same thing happens to persons much fatigued, or long kept awake, who frequently fall asleep for a moment, or for a longer space, while they are standing or walking, or riding on horseback. Add but a lively dream to this slumber, and (which is the frequent effect of disease) take away the consciousness of having been asleep; and a superstitious man, who is always hearing and believing tales of Second Sight, may easily mistake his dream for a waking vision; which, however, is soon forgotten when no subsequent occurrence recalls it to his memory ; but which, if it shall be thought to resemble any future event, exalts the poor dreamer into a highland prophet. This conceit makes him more recluse and more melancholy than ever, and so feeds his disease, and multiplies his visions ; which, if they are not dissipated by business or society, may continue to haunt him as long as he lives ; and which, in their progress through the neighbourhood, receive some new tincture of the marvellous from every mouth that promotes their circulation. As to the prophetic nature of this Second Sight, it cannot be admitted at all. That the deity should work a miracle, in order to give intimation of the frivolous things that these tales are made up of, the arrival of a stranger, the nailing of a coffin, or the colour of a suit of cloathes ; and that these intimations should be given for no end, and to those persons only who are idle and solitary, who speak Erse, or who live among mountains and deserts, is like nothing in nature or providence that we are acquainted with ; and must therefore, unless it were confirmed by satisfactory proof (which is not the case), be rejected as absurd and incredible. The visions, such as they are, may reasonably enough be ascribed to a distempered fancy. And that in them, as well as in our ordinary dreams, certain appearances should, on some rare occasions, resemble certain events, is to be expected from the laws of chance ; and seems to have in it nothing more marvellous or supernatural, than that the parrot, who deals out his scurrilities at random, should sometimes happen to salute the passenger by his right appellation."

Amongst the many popular superstitions, which prevail even at the present day, the supposed, or rather pretended faculty of Second Sight may be ranked. It is chiefly found among the inhabitants of the Highlands of Scotland, those of the Western Isles, and of Ire-land. By this supplemental faculty of sight, it is pretended, certain appearances, predictive of future events, present themselves suddenly and spontaneously before persons so gifted, without any endeavour or desire on their part to see them. Accounts differ much respecting this faculty : some make it hereditary ; which is denied by others. The same difference arises respecting the power of communicating it. But, according to an account from a gentleman at Strathspay to Mr. Aubrey, some of the seers acknowledged the possibility of teaching it.

The visions, attendant on Second Sight, are not confined to solemn or important events. The future visit of a mountebank, or piper ; a plentiful draught of fish ; the arrival of common travellers ; or, if possible, still more trifling matters than these, are foreseen by the seers. Not only aged men and women have the Second Sight, but also children, horses, and cows. Children, endowed with that faculty, manifest it by crying aloud, at the very time that a corpse appears to a seer : of this many instances could be given. That horses possess it, is likewise plain, from their violent and sudden starting, when their rider, or a seer in company with him, sees a vision of any kind, by night or by day. It is observable of a horse, that he will not go forwards to-wards the apparition, but must be led round, at some distance from the common road ; his terror is evident, from his becoming all over in a profuse sweat, although quite cool a moment before. Balaam's ass seems to have possessed this power or faculty; and, perhaps, what we improperly style a startlish horse, may be one who has the gift of the Second Sight. That cows have the Second Sight, is proved by the following circumstance : If a woman, whilst milking a cow, happen to have a vision of that kind, the cow runs away in a great fright at the same instant, and cannot, for some time, be brought to stand quietly.

To judge of the meaning of many visions, or the time in which they will be accomplished, requires observation and experience. In general, the time of accomplishment bears some relation to the time of the day in which they are seen. Thus, visions seen early in the morning (which seldom happens), will be much sooner accomplished than those appearing at noon; and those seen at noon will take place in a much shorter time than those happening at night : sometimes the accomplishment of the last does not fall out within a year or more.

The appearance of a person wrapped in a shroud, is, in general, a prognostic of the death of the party. The time when it will happen may be judged from the height it reaches ; for if it be not seen above the middle, death is not to be expected for a year or more; but when the shroud appears closed about the head, the accomplishment is not many hours distant.

If, in a vision, a woman is seen standing near a man's left hand, she will become his wife ; if there are two or three about him, he will marry them all in succession, according to their proximity. A spark of fire falling on the belly of a married woman predicts her delivery of a dead child ; the like spark falling on her arm betokens she shall shortly carry a dead child. If a seat, in which a person is sitting, suddenly appears empty, although he hath not moved, this is a certain presage that such person will very shortly die.

Persons who have not long been gifted with Second Sight, after seeing a vision without doors, on coming into a house, and approaching the fire, will immediately fall into a swoon. All those that have the Second Sight do not see these appearances at the same time ; but if one having this faculty designedly touches his fellow seer, at the instant that a vision appears to him, in that case it will be seen by both.

During the appearance of a vision, the eyelids of some of the seers are so erected and distended, that they cannot close them otherwise than by drawing them down with their fingers, or by employing others to do it for them.

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