The Discovery of Second Sight in Late 17th-Century Scotland

Michael Hunter tells how a mysterious phenomenon in the Highlands sparked a debate between scientific virtuosi and urban sceptics, in an episode that helps shed light on the vexed issue of ‘the decline of magic’.

In the afternoon of Thursday, October 3rd, 1678, Robert Boyle (1627-91), the distinguished scientist, philanthropist and religious writer, waited at his home in Pall Mall for a visit from the Scottish aristocrat, George MacKenzie, Lord Tarbat. Boyle had  heard about strange stories that Tarbat had told members of the entourage of the Secretary of State for Scotland, John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, earlier that year, and, on Tarbat’s coming to London, had summoned him to an interview.

The stories that Tarbat told were indeed strange. They related to the years of the Interregnum (1649-60) when he had been on the run from the invading English forces in the Scottish Highlands. Tarbat had come across, and been impressed by, the phenomenon known as ‘second sight’ – the uncanny ability of certain individuals to foresee the future – which was not uncommon in the Highlands but which was almost unheard of anywhere else.

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