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The Brahan Seer

Culture: Folklore

The Brahan Seer:

Brahan Seer Memorial
Brahan Seer Memorial
Reprinted with permission from the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK
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The legendary clairvoyant, known in his native Gaelic tongue as Coinneach Odhar, is sometimes called the Scottish Nostradamus. Tradition places him in the seventeenth century; he reputedly hailed from Uig on the Isle of Lewis before coming to work for Kenneth Mackenzie, 3rd Earl of Seaforth, who lived at Brahan Castle near Dingwall in Easter Ross. There is, however, one major problem with this legend: while Kenneth Mackenzie was an historical figure who died in 1678, there is no actual documentation of a man by the name of Coinneach Odhar ever living in the Highlands in that era. But Parliamentary records from 1577 do show that two writs were issued for the arrest of a "principal enchanter," named Coinneach Odhar.

The Coinneach of this case was a gypsy who supplied Catherine Ross of Balnagowan with poison. Catherine bore her husband, Robert Mor Munro of Foulis, six children in addition to the six he already had by his first wife. Ambitious for her real children, Catherine recruited a team of witches to dispose of her step-sons, the first in line to inherit their father's wealth. After the witches failed in their task, Catherine sent for Coinneach. Before he could carry out the murder, however, the police got involved in the case. While records show that many of the witches were caught and bunt at Fortrose, Coinneach's fate remains a mystery. If he was caught, it is likely that he would have been burnt at the stake too.

Some say that the seventeenth century clairvoyant was the grandson of the Foulis sorcerer. Tradition maintains that after having gained fame as a diviner in his hometown of Uig, the Earl of Seaforth invited Coinneach to work for him at Brahan Castle. The primary source of the Brahan Seer legend comes from the 1899 book, The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer, written by the noted Scottish folklorist Alexander Mackenzie. Mackenzie based his book on the oral tradition. Whether or not there was ever such a person as "the Scottish Nostradamus," the legend of the Brahan Seer is a gripping subversive narrative that whispers of the decline of the landed nobility.

The Brahan Seer is the most famous example of a person with the gift of "second sight," a form of extra-sensory perception whereby a person perceives information about future events before they happen in the form of vision. The most frequently-reported visions are of funerals or premonitions of death. While there is nothing that distinguishes this Celtic form of clairvoyance from other forms of extra-sensory perception found throughout the world, the Gaelic words used for the phenomenon express the opinion that telepathy is induced by spirits acting upon living agents. Nor is second sight confined to the Highlands; folklorists have found that just as many Lowlanders today either believe in the faculty or have experienced visions themselves, but are more reluctant to discuss the matter publicly for fear of ridicule.

The fourteenth century Benedictine monk Randulf Higdons described second sight in his Polychronicon, adding "that 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." The method of transmitting the vision through touch was practiced for fear that if the clairvoyant spoke of what he had seen before the event occurred, he could lose the faculty of second sight.

The Brahan Seer was curious among Highland seers in the fact that he saw his visions through a magic stone. There are various accounts of how he came to obtain this stone (and with it his gift of prophecy), but they generally agree that he acquired it while engaging in the humble occupation of cutting peats or divots, which were the primary sources of fuel in the pre-industrialized Highlands. Fatigued from such work, he lied down to nap upon a little knoll and fell fast asleep. He awoke some time later and found in his pocket a curious stone with a hole through the middle.

One particular story goes on to say that when Coinneach looked through the hole in the stone, he saw a vision of his wife serving a dinner that was, unbeknownst to her, poisoned. When Coinneach got home, he tested his meat by giving a portion of it to his collie, and the poor brute fell dead within minutes. In many versions of the story, the person who had poisoned the food was another woman he had offended in some way.

The stone had, in addition to conferring the power of prophecy upon Coinneach, robbed him of sight in the eye with which he had looked through the hole. He continued ever after to be blinded in one eye.

Coinneach's new ability as a diviner quickly made him famous in the locale, his reputation growing to the point that he was invited to Brahan Castle by Lord and Lady Seaforth. This acquaintance, however, would be the end of him.

Kenneth Mackenzie, the Earl of Seaforth, had the occasion to visit Paris on some business. He left his wife at home, who grew sullen with self-pity, believing her husband had forgotten about her while enjoying the amusements of the city. As the weeks passed and she heard no word from her laird, the Lady Isabella's worries grew until she feared that something dreadful might have happened to him. She summoned Coinneach Odhar to divine her husband's whereabouts.

"Fear not for your lord," the seer told her, "he is safe and sound, well and hearty, merry and happy." When the eager Countess pressed for more, Coinneach advised, "Be satisfied, ask no questions, let it suffice you to know that your lord is well and merry." But still the lady demanded to know more. After much wheedling, she finally pulled the truth from the seer. "My lord seems to have little thought of you, or his children, or of his Highland home," Coinneach reluctantly admitted. "I saw him in a gay-gilded room, grandly decked our in velvets, with silks and cloth of gold, and on his knees before a fair lady, his arm round her waist, and her hand pressed to his lips." 1

Upon hearing this devastating disclosure, Isabella erupted with rage. The seer, moreover, had spoken in the presence of the principle retainers of the house, making Lady Seaforth's private humiliation public. All of the pain and anger she should have directed toward her husband she turned instead onto he who had revealed the truth: "You have abused my hospitality and outraged my feelings," she screeched, "you have sullied the good name of my lord in the halls of his ancestors, and you shall suffer the most signal vengeance I can inflict - you shall suffer death!"

Coinneach at first did not believe Isabella at her word, suspecting that her furious speech had been an act devised to discredit the report of her husband's infidelity before the clansmen. But her decision was executed as quickly as it had been conceived: as soon as she decreed the seer's fate, her vassals grabbed his arms and took him into custody. They transported him to Chanonry Point, where, under the supervision of the ecclesiastical court, he was pitched alive into a barrel of burning tar for witchcraft.

Upon realizing that he would be shown no mercy, Coinneach had drawn his stone to his eye to make one last prediction. "I read the doom of the race of my oppressor," he cried. "The long-descended line of Seaforth will, ere many generations have passed, end in extinction and sorrow!" He went on to describe in great detail the occasion of the demise. When he was finished speaking, he hurled the stone into the nearby Loch Ussie, submitting to his fate.

The line of the Mackenzies of Seaforth did indeed come to an end as the Brahan Seer had predicted. Francis Mackenzie, 1st Baron of Seaforth, was stricken with scarlet fever at the age of twelve, a disease that left him both deaf and mute. Although he had four sons, none of them had children of their own before they died, and all of them passed away before their father, who died in 1815. This happened just as the seer had predicted it would: that the male line and the estate would pass away with a chief who was deaf and mute.

The demise of the Mackenzies of Seaforth heralded the end of the Mackenzies of Fairburn as well, according to another of the seer's prophecies: "The day will come when the Mackenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions; their castle will become uninhabited and a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of the tower." The Mackenzies of Fairburn did indeed lose their lands, and the castle fell to ruin. In 1851, a farmer was using the tower to store hay when a pregnant cow followed a trail of hay up to the garret where it got stuck. The cow was stuck in the upper chamber for five days, during which time it gave birth. People came by railway from all over the county to see the prophecy fulfilled for themselves.

One of the seer's most famous predictions foretold the day "ships will sail round the back of Tomnahurich Hill". In the nineteenth century, this prediction was fulfilled with the construction of the Caledonian Canal, which forks off from the River Ness at the eastern head of Loch Ness and passes behind Tomnahurich Hill before exiting into the Moray Firth at Clachnaharry. On another occasion, the Brahan Seer warned that the world would be plunged into chaos when five bridges were built over the River Ness. In August 1939, construction was completed on the fifth bridge; on September 1, Hitler invaded Poland.

A popular legend told on the oil rigs in Scotland is that the Brahan Seer predicted the appearance of a "one-legged, fire-breathing giant from Nigg". In due course, the monopod oil platform in the Ninian Central was built on the west coast at Kishorn and installed in the North Sea. Nigg is the site of another Scottish oil rig manufacturing facility across the Cromarty Firth, 18 kilometers from Chanonry Point.

Although the life, times, and prophecies of Coinneach Odhar are filled with uncertainties and mysteries, the legend of the Brahan Seer has captivated audiences for centuries. It does not matter who he was; what matters is what he has become.

Before he was about to be put to death, Lady Seaforth declared that, "having had so much unhallowed intercourse with the unseen world," he would surely be cast to hell. Coinneach replied that she was mistaken: not only would he indeed enter Heaven, but she would never meet him there. The sign would be a raven and a dove meeting in mid-air before settling in the dust of his remains. "If the raven be foremost [to alight], you have spoken truly," he told Isabella, "but if the dove, then my hope is well founded."

After the flames had subsided, leaving no remnant of the Brahan Seer but ashes and dust, a raven and a dove mingled in the air. To the wonder of all the onlookers who had beheld his final prediction, the dove, followed closely by the raven, alighted on the ashes.

Read the full e-text of Alexander Mackenzie's 1899 chronicle, The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer
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  1. Alexander Mackenzie, The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer, Eneas Mackay: Stirling, 1899. 73
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