Feed on

By Mike Mowbray

Andrew Lang, Scottish man of letters, folklorist and psychical researcher, in his 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article, ‘Second Sight,’ characterizes the by then oft-described (if also much-contested) phenomenon attributed mainly to Scots Highlanders as a “species of involuntary prophetic vision, whether direct or symbolical.” ‘Second sight,’ he writes, is

a term denoting the opposite of its apparent significance, meaning in reality the seeing, in vision, of events before they occur. “Foresight” expresses the meaning of second sight, which perhaps was originally so called because normal vision was regarded as coming first, while supernormal vision is a secondary thing, confined to certain individuals (ibid).

John Gregorson Campbell, a Gaelic-speaking Scottish minister at Tiree who compiled material collected in the 1850s and 1860s into the posthumously-published volumes Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands & Islands, suggests that the Gaelic name for the phenomenon, dà shealladh, means literally ‘two sights,’ rather than ‘second sight’: “The vision of the world of sense is one sight, ordinarily possessed by all, but the world of spirits is visible only to certain persons.” That said, the “object” or “phantasm” seen – though often a recognizeable likeness of a living person – is at best colloquially described as a “spirit,” according to Campbell, as these taibhs, as they are known in Gaelic, were thought to present themselves completely independent of both the seer and the person whose likeness they bore. Those possessed of the faculty of second sight, believing themselves of sound mind and the apparition an external reality, “were compelled to believe in doubles, or semblances, that move in a world that is neither that of sense nor that of spirits” (Campbell 2008: 241).

The taibhs most commonly beheld by taibhsear (those possessed of the faculty of second sight, itself also referred to astaibhsearchd), by many accounts, almost invariably foretold unhappy future events. And as Lang implies, the visions were sometimes less “direct” than “symbolical.” “[T]he shroud” and “the corpse-candle or other spectral illumination” (Lang 1911) are key symbols associated with instances of the second sight, and visions of an individual wrapped in a death shroud (the portion of the body covered sometimes said to offer clues as to the time a person has left to live) or showing sign of the cause of their upcoming demise (sodden and walking in squelching wet shoes in case of drowning, appearing minus the head in case of a rendezvous with the executioner’s ax) or of a coffin being carried – often in a full-out funeral procession including all those affected – are perennial elements in any discussion. As one late 17th century account indicated

For instance if a man’s fatall end be hanging; they’ll see a gibbet or a rope about his neck; if beheaded; they’ll see the man without a head: if drowned; they’ll see water up to his throat: if unexpected death; they’ll see a winding-sheet about his head: all of which are represented to their view. One instance I had from a Gentleman here, of a highland-gentleman of the Mackdonalds who have a brother that came to visit him, saw him coming in wanting a head; yet told not his brother, he saw any such thing: but within 24 hours thereafter, his brother was taken, being a Murderer; and his head cut off, and sent to Edinburgh. Many such instances might be given (cited in Hunter 2001: 143).

Other accounts, however, suggest that the figures of prospective arrivals at a given place (known or unknown to the seer, identified visually, perhaps by distinctive garb or other detail) or the image of another’s future matrimonial partner (i.e. as a spectre seated or standing adjacent) were also among the taibhsear’s repertoire. Still, given the preponderance of unhappy or distressing events – and the obvious distraction of being involuntarily subject to captivating visions – most accounts from the late 17th century onwards indicate that those possessed of the ‘gift’ of second sight would just as well be rid of it.

The taibhs “are often seen” according to Campbell (2008: 242) “with as much distinctness as external objects.” Or, as a minister near Inverness reported to James Garden of King’s College, Aberdeen, in 1694, “they foresee murders, drownings, marriages, weddings, burials, combats, manslaughters” which are seen “visibly acted before their eyes, sometimes within & sometimes without doors, as in a glass” (cited in Hunter 2001: 146). As the latter elaborated, “It is a thing very troublesome for them to have it, & would gladly be rid of it, for if the object be a thing that is terrible, they are seen to sweat and tremble, & shreek at the apparition. At other times they laugh & tell the thing cheerfully. Just according as the nature of the thing is, pleasant or astonishing” (ibid). But far from being ensconced in a perpetual swirl of apparitions, only exceptionally conducive circumstances elicited the ‘gift.’ By Campbell’s account, “The most usual of these are after dusk and across a fire, when a sudden or violent death has occurred or is to occur, when a friend is ill, when strangers are to come, or any event is impending calculated to make a deep impression on the mind” (242).

Numerous accounts from the 17th through 19th centuries imply that many Scots were familiar with, and inclined to credit as believable, the notion of second sight. Campbell, for example, suggests that belief in the second sight was widespread in Scotland. “’The shepherds of the Hebrid isles’ are usually credited with the largest possession of the gift, but the doctrine was well-known over the whole Highlands, and as firmly believed in Ross-shire and the Highlands of Perthshire as in the remotest Hebrides,” Campbell recorded (2008: 240). Lang suggests that the phenomenon is one of which “we hear most” from among Scottish Highlanders (“it is much less familiar to the Celts of Ireland,”), and earlier accounts tend to concur both with Campbell’s attribution of a particular facility in second sight among Islanders and the assertion that knowledge and belief of such notions was common in many regions (e.g. Hunter 2001).

According to accounts spanning a variety of sources, ranged across the past several centuries, it would appear that some version of belief in the second sight has entrenched roots, though the relatively sparse pre-17th century historical accounts pointed up by some as evidence of a deep-seated tradition indicate both parallels with and differences from those consolidated later. Lang’s article in the Britannia notes that Ranulf Higdon’s 14th century Polychronicon mentions Scottish second sight, and describes a procedure by which strangers “setten their feet upon the feet of the men of that londe for to see such syghtes as the men of that londe doon” (cited in Laing 1911). The placing of one or both feet upon another’s “is almost universally described as the way in which Gaelic seers passed on the second sight,” according to Black’s contemporary commentary on Campbell (2008: 506, n. 845), though accounts vary as to the exact stance required and whether the uncanny ability is merely channeled for the duration of this physical contact or conferred upon the previously uninitiated participant.[i]

An even older example that arguably stands as a precursor or early example of second sight involves St Columba, a 6th century figure who travelled from Ireland to Iona off the Western coast of Scotland to evangelize for the Catholic Church, sometimes designated Apostle of the Picts. Columba is claimed to have performed miracles “by the gift of God […] foretelling the future…and making known to those present what was happening in other places, for though absent in body he was present in spirit, and would look on things widely apart.” Thus, “by some divine intuition, and through a wonderful expansion of his inner soul, he beheld the whole universe drawn together and laid open to his sight as in one ray of the sun” (Adamnan, cited in Coates 1909: 230, italics in original).[ii]  The ‘miracles’ attributed to Columba already in Adamnan’s 7th century account include cases seemingly of a piece with the most common instantiations of the second sight in much later ones, as when the Saint, at the Isle of Skye, is said to have marked a spot near the sea and proclaimed that on that very day “an aged heathen, whose natural goodness has been preserved through all his life, will receive baptism, die and be buried on this very spot,” an event which apparently came to pass an hour thereafter (Coates 1909: 231). As noted, the foretelling of a death appears to be commonly-held as perhaps the most frequent theme for visions associated with the second sight as recorded from the 17th century onwards.

Any association of such abilities with divinity or godliness is, however, not generally upheld in these latter accounts. To the contrary, later commentators on the phenomenon of second sight often suggested that the ability arose from a compact with the Devil, perhaps being passed down hereditary lines for a certain number of generations. As to the perceived origins of second sight, one of James Garden’s letters (written 1694) responding to a series of questions about the phenomenon sent him by the Englishman John Aubrey responds to the effect that “some say by compact with the devill: some say by converse with those Demons, we call Fairies” (cited in Hunter 2001: 143). The aforementioned minister at Inverness, in the same historical moment, suggests that it is surely possible that “persons who have a sense of God & religion, & may be presumed to be godly” are gifted with the second sight; the evidence adduced, however, is such persons’ “judging it a sin, & that it came from the Devil & not from God,” wishing it away and petitioning their minister to pray for such relief to come to pass (Hunter 2001: 146). Another contemporary account (indeed, adduced in the same letter in which Garden conveys the words of the minister at Inverness) suggests that the only way to stave off the ability from a continuous bloodline is to baptize the child during the act of delivery, as soon as the head is visible.

Pre-17th century accounts, as noted, are thin (at best), with rare mentions of apparently similar phenomena documented in much more recent sources such as Lang (1911) and Coates (1909); written records of any sustained inquiry and attempt at describing second sight came to publics attention primarily through the efforts of curious Englishmen, both travelers and those who sought out insight into the matter from sources visiting England or via correspondence. In important respects, prominent early accounts reflect their own construction in light of intellectual problems and tendencies affecting their English authors (for instance, around scientific, theological and moral implications), and the appeal of second sight as a compelling example of folk authenticity and extra-sensory potentiality for some European Romantics subsequently brought its cultural construction in intellectual intercourse and in literature even further from the Highlands and Islands. Indeed, Busst (1995), as discussed in more detail below, goes so far as to suggest that the treatment of the subject ultimately ebbs towards a severing of the phenomena’s cultural and geographic particularity in later efforts at its definition.

Michael Hunter (2001a; 2001b) describes the ‘discovery’ of the Scottish second sight by a handful of interested Englishmen, of whom the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-1691) stands out as the first determined inquirer, spurring the interest of fellow countrymen including John Aubrey (1626-1697) and Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Perhaps the earliest reference to the second sight in English dates from a section on witchcraft and associated occurrences written by John Evelyn in the early 1670s, in which a short note states “That some at first view, can tell what events shall happen to any person they see: of these, some are very innocent and weake people, especially women; and such as professe they know not how it comes to them,” adding that “The old Duke of Albermarle told me he knew this to be true, in Scotland; tho at first he very much doubted of it” (cited in Hunter 2001: 4). As Hunter observes (ibid), “prior to 1678, this was the sum of the curiousity that anyone had shown it.”

Boyle’s interest, and that of other contemporary Fellows of the Royal Society, was sharpened by a particular tension that affected “the combination of curiosity about the natural world and deep religiosity” which inscribed their worldview and inflected their activities. Dedicated to a more-or-less rigorous empiricism, Boyle and others were nonetheless at pains to challenge the “threat to the theistic economy to which they were committed” posed by strictly materialist alternative viewpoints (as espoused, for example, by Thomas Hobbes) “which denied that anything at all could happen outside nature, and which attributed supposedly supernatural phenomena either to a misunderstanding of purely natural events, or to fraud” (Hunter 2001a: 6). Outright skepticism towards the possibility of the real spiritual or extra-normal realm evoked in accounts of second sight (or, more broadly, of witchcraft and demonology) was associated with atheistic iconoclasm. Boyle et al were “heirs to a well-established tradition which took it for granted that the world was full of ‘preternatural’ as well as ‘natural’ events and forces” (ibid: 5), and so, though not necessarily naively credulous, they were inclined to take seriously such matters as the unusual prognostic visions reported (and indeed, often taken much for granted) by some Scots.

Boyle appears to have been responsible for bringing into circulation among interested parties (in manuscript) the key early account of Lord Trabat, later published in the early 19th century, in which he speaks to the experiential nature of second sight (“The sight is of no long Duratione only Continually so long as they Keep their eyes Steadie without twinckeing. The Hardie therefor fix their look that they may see longer But the timorous sie only glances their eyes always twinkleing at the first sight of the object”), to the symbolism involved (e.g. the death-shroud and the implications of its arrangement in visions) and to examples including one from his own experience, In this last, a seer foretold a coffin soon leaving a house in which Trabat was to lodge and advised against his doing so; by the Lord’s account, “tho no sick person wes then there Yet the Landlord a healthie highlander dyed of ane apoplextick fitt befor I left the house” (cited in Hunter 2001a: 166-167). Following a veritable litany of examples, Boyle’s Scottish informant dares little to speculate on the causes of the phenomenon (though he does note the claim that Scots seers transported abroad “did sie no vision ether,” underlining the ostensively distinctive Scottishness of the second sight common to such early records):

These are matters of fact which I asure you are truly related but these and all others that occured to me by Informatione or other ways could never lead me Into a remote Conjecture of <the cause> so extra ordinare a phaenomenon[;] whether it be a qualitie in the Eyes of some people in those parts concureing with a qualitie in the aire alsoe whether such species be every where though not seen by the want of eyes so qualified or from whatever other cause I must leave to the enquerie of Clearer Judgments than Myne (cited in Hunter 2001a: 169).

Subsequent to Boyle’s initial inquiries, interest in the second sight showed no sign of abating; to the contrary, references and accounts proliferated. Notable sources include the correspondence of Pepys and Aubrey (and the latter’s Miscellanies (1696), which collected information pertaining to all manner of extra-sensory occurrences and offers the first published treatment of the second sight in any detail) and the works of the Scotsmen Robert Kirk (The Secret Commonwealth[iii]), John Fraser (Deuteroscopia,1707[iv]) and Martin Martin (1703/1716). Martin’s account, according to A.J.L. Busst (1995), proved particularly influential throughout Europe,[v] and also inspired, in part, the inquiries of later travelers including Samuel Johnson (see Jemielity 1974), who further entrenched a broadening fascination abroad. By the early 19th century, interest was such that various of the accounts thus far discussed (and others) were collected in excerpt in publications such as the Miscellanea Scotica (1820). At the same time, attempts to draw parallels between the ostensive abilities of certain among the Highlanders and Islanders and the distinctly modern doctrine of animal magnetism, with the former adduced as evidence of the latter (though the ‘revelations’ and ‘discoveries’ of animal magnetism, or Mesmerism, could equally be presented as backing for the genuineness of accounts of the second sight among adherents).

Second sight, in this early 19th century context, simultaneously appears as a motif in fiction, playing upon widespread interest in both the rugged and curious inhabitants of the northern reaches of Scotland and in supernatural phenomena. In Sir Walter Scott’sThe Two Drovers, for example, published in 1827, an aunt of the protagonist Robert Oig warns upon his departure with a drove of cattle to England that she sees English blood on his dirk (a type of dagger), and in accordance with her entreaty, Oig leaves this to the care of a friend. At Cumberland, a dispute over arrangements for an enclosure prompts a situation in which Oig is called upon to fight the English acquaintance who managed to secure the place over his own efforts; though Oig refuses, a cheap shot knocks him senseless – a state from which he soon recovers, setting out to retrieve his dirk and returning to stab his assailant and erstwhile acquaintance in through the heart. For his trouble, he is sentenced to death for murder by an English judge and jury, marking the tale very much within the confines of the most typically unhappy narratives described in many accounts of the second sight.

Questions pertaining to the credibility of the myriad examples and accounts of the general phenomenon, or to its explanation, were never by any means resolved, to be sure (there was always no shortage of skeptics), but belief in the phenomenon far outside the Scottish territory from which the original accounts emerged seems to have gained a certain range and respectability through the first half of the 19th century. Busst (1995: 162) locates among possible contributing explanations for this apparent popular credibilty

the Romantic cult of uncorrupted, primitive man, of die Stimme der Völker, and of Volksglaube; the conviction of the inadequacy of reason and of the necessity for intuition, imagination and vision for the comprehension of what is really important, which can best be reached by the poéte voyant; in addition, the fascination with subconscious and the unconscious. Important also, besides the pseudo-science of animal magnetism, was the frequent occurrence of dreams and hallucinations in the Gothic novel and thecompte fantastique. Then, one would have to consider Celtomania, and the popularity of Scotland generally during the Romantic era when, according to some, it was supplanting Italy in public esteem. The contribution of Walter Scott to this vogue is well known, as also is that of Ossian.[vi]

Running throughout many accounts, beneath the currents of interest in the second sight from abroad, there appears to be a common inclination to exoticize the Celts of the Highlands and Islands, to set the land and people of Scotland’s more remote regions apart by more than simple geography. If for the earliest inquirers, Boyle et al, “the Highlands seemed almost like a kind of laboratory, strange yet accessible, where data about abnormal phenomena could be collected and theories tested,” (Hunter 2001a: 1), later ones sought perhaps a taste of enchantment less readily accessible at home. Whether vicariously via the consumption of literary and documentary treatments, or directly through travel and active investigation (Edward Llhuyd appears to be the first to actually travel to Scotland to follow up on such matters around 1700, later to become a more well-travelled path), the second sight proved emblematic of broader interests in the people and places of the area. “The longing for an obscure object that would fulfil the lack of the ethereal and spiritual dimensions of human existence was turned upon Scotland,” write Inglis and Holmes (2003: 52-53), propelled English tourists, even avowed skeptics such as Johnson who explicitly sought out tales of the second sight, “attempting both to glimpse aspects of human existence beyond those accounted for by science, and to catch the past experientially before it was exorcised and Scotland, in line with England, was catapulted into the conditions of modernity.”

In its Romantic-era iterations in literature and popular speculation, the particular Scottishness of second sight often appeared essential to its character (and sometimes part of its charm), and the entry of the term into English (and subsequently of analogues in French and German) evidently derives from attempts to describe and come to grips with the beliefs and phenomena associated with the Gaelic taibhsearchd and dà shealladh (Busst 1995). Indeed, interests similar to those generated throughout this era (and with marked parallels to those of Boyle et al) continued to persist in work conducted under the auspices of the British Society for Psychical Research (e.g. Campbell and Hall’s Strange Things (1968), a late 19th century collection of accounts gathered by a pair of ministers from their posts in the Scottish Highlands), and numerous mentions appear in early 20th century works on such topics as animal magnetism, clairvoyance, telepathy, extra-sensory perception, etc.

Yet in its passage through the 19th century and beyond, Busst suggests, the notion of the second sight frequently appears to lose its quintessential Scottishness. Though speculations as to the possibility of the phenomenon’s roots in a more universal register arose already by the spate of late 17th century accounts already indicated, the second sight generally carried a sense – as stolidly remains for Gaelic scholars and other Scottish specialists – of cultural specificity, a unique tie to the particular worldviews, practices, myths and beliefs propagated among the descendents of the Druids and their ilk. Yet more contemporary dictionaries and reference works, including the OED, the Robert and Larousse, and a number of German equivalents, notes Busst (1995: 150-151), make no mention of specifically Scottish origins or characteristics in connection with their definitions of the terms ‘second sight,’ ‘seconde vue,’ ‘zweites Gesicht,’ ‘anderes Gesicht’ or ‘doppeltes Gesicht.’ “Not only has the Scottish second sight ceased to attract attention, but the specific association of second sight with Scotland appears to be lost,” (ibid) at least as concerns many such works of reference. Busst attributes this decline to the fact that what initially “in fact primarily supported the plausibility of Scottish second sight” and also “ above all aroused interest in its occurrence outside of Scotland: its resemblance to other phenomena” (1995: 163).

Ultimately, it was this that destroyed it as a particularly Scottish manifestation, because it was thereby de-particularized, de-localized, and de-nationalized. Moreover, this universalization of second sight coincided in Scotland itself with a decline in its credibility and in the frequency of its manifestations (ibid).

The notion of second sight became subsumed under the mantle of animal magnetism, or other allegedly universal paranormal phenomena. As such, its reception and subsequent fortunes as an idea attached to larger currents of thought. As it happens, second sight came to be be regarded as “merely a particular designation for foresight,” the term deployed “to characterize prophesies and visions of every age and every nation, and to make them appear authentic and respectable” (Busst 1995: 166). Thus, the ability to envision objects and happenings across great distance attributed to Laplanders could be refigured as a form of ‘second sight.’ Indeed, Lang’s 1911 entry in the Britannica asserted phenomena of the type described under the banner of second sight to be “peculiar to no people.” Among the earliest recorded instances, he suggests, we may consider the Odyssey (where “where Theoclymenus sees a shroud of mist about the bodies of the doomed Wooers, and drops of blood distilling from the walls of the hall of Odysseus”) and other Greek myths, as well as in the Icelandic sagas. Shorn of particularistic connotations, Coates (1909: 231), writing at roughly the same time, suggests that ‘second-sight’ (combining clairvoyance and premonition) falls under the umbrella of a more general ‘Psychic Faculty’ which “is more common than supposed, and is characteristic of all warm-hearted, emotional, and intelligent people the world over,” just another manifestation of a diffuse “Psychic Faculty.” And despite Lang’s (1911) assertion that the handful of contemporary examples he presents “prove that the faculty is believed to be as common as in any previous age,” and serve to emphasize that claims that the phenomena had by then “died out, under the influence of education and newspapers, is an averment of popular superstition in the south,” the apparent decline in ascribed incidence had already by 1951 prompted one commentator to declare second sight in Scotland “‘moribund’ if not actually extinct” (Busst 1995: 168). Today, while it remains the subject of discourse on Scottish heritage and tourism and the language of some popular psychics in that country (as well as academic study),[vii] it is primarily as a relic or curiosity that this potential candidate for the position of ‘sixth sense’ comes to be considered today.

Works cited

 Campbell, John Gregorson. 2008. The Gaelic otherworld: John Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland and Witchcraft & second sight in the Highlands & Islands, edited with commentary by Ronald Black. Edinburgh: Berlinn.

Busst, A.J.L. 1995. “Scottish Second Sight: The Rise and Fall of a European Myth.” European Romantic Review 5(2): 149-177.

Campbell, John Lorne and Trevor H. Hall. 1968. Strange Things: The story of Fr. Allan Macdonald, AdSecond Sight. London: Routledge and Keegan Paul.

Coates, James. 1909. Seeing the Invisible: Practical studies in psychometry, thought-transference, telepathy, and allied phenomena. London: L. N. Fowler.

Davis, Deborah. 1992. “Contexts of Ambivalence: The Folkloristic Activities of Nineteenth Century Scottish Highland Ministers.”Folklore 103(2): 207-221.

Hunter, Michael. 2001a. The Occult Laboratory: magic, science and second sight in late seventeenth-century Scotland.Woodbridge: Boydell Press.

Hunter, Michael. 2001b. “The Discovery of Second Sight in Late 17th Century  Scotland.” History Today (June 2001): 48-53.

Inglis, David and Mary Holmes. 2003. “Highland and Other Haunts: Ghosts in  Scottish Tourism.” The Annals of Tourism Research 30(1): 50-63.

Jamielity, Thomas. 1974. “Samuel Johnson, Second Sight and his Sources.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 14(3): 403-420.

Lang, Andrew. 1911. “Second-Sight” Encyclopedia Britannica. Available online at:


MacLean, Diane. 2006. “A second sight for sore eyes.” The Scotsman, 23/2/2006.

Martin, Martin. 1716. A description of the Western Islands of Scotland (2nd edition).  London: printed for A. Bell at the Cross-Keys and Bible in Cornhill; T. Varnam  and J. Osborn in Lombard-Street; W. Taylor at the Ship, and J. Baker and T. Warner at the Black Boy in Paternoster-Row.

Porter, James. 1998. “The Folklore of Northern Scotland: Five Discourses on Cultural Representation.” Folklore 109(1): 1-14.


[i] Alongside the opinion that the second sight derives from compact with the Devil and persists down the family line for ten generations, a minister acting as an informant to James Garden, recorded in a 1694 letter to John Aubrey, suggests that “others averr that on [sic] does communicate the same to another: & that in the mean time of the apparition, if on sett his foot upon his who hath it, he will see what he sees. But once given cannot be recalled or taken away again which scares many from their curiosity.” See Hunter 2001a: 147.

[ii] Adamnán of Iona, 627-704, a Catholic Saint who wrote of the life of Saint Columba.

[iii] A treatise which delves deeply into discussion of the realm of Faeries – of whom the spectral doubles viewed by seers, or “co-walkers” in Kirk’s parlance, were examples – and other entities in Celtic lore, “ane invisible polity […] made known to us by some obscure hints of a few admitted to their converse” (cited in Hunter 2001a: 17). This theory, incidentally, was not widely credited. Though not published as such until 1815, copies of Kirk’s work clearly circulated and inspired interest from approximately the time of his death in 1692.

[iv] Fraser died in 1702, though his work was not published until a few years later.

[v] “In the Romantic period, the resonance of this work was throughout Europe was such that, of the multitude of writers dealing with Scottish second sight, there was scarcely a single one who was not endebted, either directly or indirectly, to Martin’s account” (Busst 1995: 155).

[vi] Re Ossian

[vii] See, for example, MacLean 2006.