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Second Sight

Second sight is a form of extra-sensory perception whereby a person perceives information, in the form of vision, about future events before they happen. 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.

History of Symbolic Visions

Though we hear most of the second sight among the Celts of the Scottish Highlands (it is much less familiar to the Celts of Ireland), this species of involuntary prophetic vision, whether direct or symbolical, is peculiar to no people. Perhaps our earliest notice of symbolical second sight is found in the Odyssey, where Theoclymenus sees a shroud of mist about the bodies of the doomed Woors, and drops of blood distilling from the walls of the hall of Odysseus. The Pythia at Delphi saw the blood on the walls during the Persian War; and, in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius, blood and fire appear to Circe in her chamber on the night before the arrival of the fratricidal Jason and Medea. Similar examples of symbolical visions occur in the Icelandic sagas, especially in Njala, before the burning of Njal and his family. In the Highlands, and in Wales, the chief symbols beheld are the shroud, and the corpse candle or other spectral illumination.

Second sight flourished among the Sami and the Native Americans, the Zulus of South Africa and Māoris of New Zealand, to the surprise of travellers who have recorded puzzling events that they have witnessed. But in these cases the visions were usually induced, not spontaneous, and should be considered as precognition.

Ranulf Higdons Polychronicon (14th century) describes Scottish second sight, 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”. This method of communicating the vision is still practised with some success. For the method see “Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies”, 1691, 1815, 1893. It is believed by some that if a person tells what he has seen before the event occurs he will lose the faculty. When this opinion prevails it is, of course, impossible to prove that the vision ever occurred. There are many seers, as Lord Tarbat wrote to Robert Boyle, to whom the faculty is a trouble, and they would be rid of it at any cost if they could.

Second Sight and its Association with Death

Perhaps the visions most frequently reported are those of funerals, which later occur in accordance with the sight, of corpses, and of arrivals of persons, remote at the moment, who later do arrive, with some distinctive mark of dress or equipment which the seer could not normally expect, but observed in the vision. A fair example of second sight is the following from Ballachulish. An aged man of the last generation was troubled by visions of armed men in uniform, drilling in a particular field near the sea. The uniform was not England’s cruel red, and he foresaw an invasion. It must be of Americans, he decided, for the soldiers do not look like foreigners. The Volunteer movement later came into being, and the men drilled on the ground where the seer had seen them. Another case was that of a man who happened to be sitting with a boy on the edge of a path in the quarry. Suddenly he caught the boy and leaped aside with him. He had seen a runaway trolly, with men in it, dash down the path; but there were no traces of them below. The spirits of the living are powerful to-day, said the percipient in Gaelic, and next day the fatal accident occurred at the spot. These are examples of what is, at present, alleged in the matter of second sight.

Second Sight and Health

Taibhsearachd is the Gaelic name given to “second sight”, the involuntary ability of seeing the future or distant events. It originated in the Scottish highlands.

The sight may, or may not, be preceded or accompanied by epileptic symptoms, but this appears now to be unusual.

Second Sight and Extra-Sensory Perception

These phenomena may be classed under clairvoyance, premonition, and telepathy. There is nothing peculiar to the Celtic people to explain their reputation for having second sight; but the Gaelic words for it and the widespread opinion of local communities is that telepathy is the action of the spirits on the living, using the living as agents for their activities.

Study of Second Sight

The literature of second sight is not insignificant. “The Secret Commonwealth” of the Rev. Mr Kirk (1691), edited by Sir Walter Scott in 1815 (a hundred copies), and by Andrew Lang in 1893, is in line with cases given in “Trials for Witchcraft” (cf. Dalyell’s Darker Superstitions of Scotland, and Wodrow’s Analecta). Aubrey has several cases in his “Miscellanies”, and the correspondence of Robert Boyle, Henry More, Glanvil and Pepys, shows an early attempt at scientific examination of the alleged faculty. The great treatise on Second Sight by Theophilus Insulanus (a Macleod) may be recommended; with Martin’s Description of the Western Isles (1703, 1716), and the work of the Rev. Mr Fraser, Dean of the Isles (1707, 1820). Fraser was familiar with the contemporary scientific theories of hallucination, and justly remarked that the sight was riot peculiar to the Highlanders; but that, in the south, people dared not confess their experiences, for fear of ridicule. (A. L.)


  1. This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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