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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.

On one occasion, Tarbat and a companion had come upon a turf digger staring intently at a neighbouring hill. The man had suddenly burst into laughter and when asked why, explained that he had just seen ‘a great body of English horse’ coming down the hill; questioned by Tarbat – who knew there were no English troops in the vicinity at the time – as to why he thought he’d seen some, the man replied ‘because they had not Coats and bonnets the habit of that Country but Cloaks and Hats’. He had laughed, he said, because he had seen the horses feeding on ripe barley, whereas it was then early May and the barley was only just being sown. Four months later, Lord Tarbat heard that events had turned out at that very spot exactly as the man had predicted.

The second instance occurred when Tarbat joined two men sitting by the fire at a house in the Highlands where he was staying. As he sat down, one of the men looked at him ‘very steadfastly’ and advised him to move:

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