Academic journal article CLIO

Highland Histories: Jacobitism and Second Sight

Academic journal article CLIO

Highland Histories: Jacobitism and Second Sight

Article excerpt

Duncan Forbes, the Lord President of Scotland during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 and a gentle, fussy man in earnest service of the Hanoverians, earned himself an unlikely place in cultural memory by making one of British history's most famous prophecies. In the delirious interval after the Battle of Prestonpans (1745), when it appeared that the Jacobites just might manage to restore the Stuart line to the English throne, Forbes retreated to his house near Inverness to consider the next course of action and its possible end results. He paused, looked out the window onto the damp moor below, and said: "All these things may fall out; but depend on it, all these disturbances will be terminated on this spot."(1)

The spot Forbes reputedly had in mind was the field of Culloden, the site of the final battle of the '45, in which the Hanoverian army destroyed the Jacobite forces. The Hanoverians, led by William, Duke of Cumberland (known in Jacobite literature as "Billy the Butcher"), gave no quarter to the Highlanders leading the Jacobite troops, and ended the last real hope of a Jacobite restoration. Forbes was right: the Jacobite "disturbances" ended once and for all on the moor of Culloden, now a heather-tangled memorial to the fallen Highlanders, studded with clan grave-markers.

Forbes's prophecy was recorded by Thomas Pennant, a Welsh scholar who wrote one of the most extensive eighteenth-century studies of the Highlands in his itinerant history, A Tour of Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides (1769). Pennant used the prophecy to illustrate the Highland belief in second sight, the ability to see symbols and signs, invisible to all others, that foretell the future. As in Forbes's prophecy, the future perceived by second sight consisted mostly of unlucky and unhappy events, usually violent or painful deaths. In his Account of Second Sighted Men in Scotland (1696), undertaken on behalf of the Royal Society, John Aubrey explained that seers with second sight perceive precursors of death that "none sees but themselves; for instance, if a man's fatal end be hanging, they will see a gibbet, or a rope around his neck: if beheaded, they will see the man without a head; if drowned, they will see water up to his throat."(2) As Aubrey's learned correspondents point out, second sight grants a visual experience, and that alone. Although seers "see a gibbet" and understand it to signify a future hanging, they cannot tell how, when, or why that man comes to be hanged. Like Greek oracles, those with the second sight see only the effect, and never the cause.

As a rule, Pennant did not believe in second sight and, elsewhere in his Tour, scoffed at it as mere superstition. He dismissed accounts of second-sightings that predicted guests or domestic catastrophes as mere "tales, founded on impudence and nurtured on folly" (282). But he considered Forbes's second-sighting "well attested," and stated that he himself had the relation from the "nobleman" with whom Forbes was in conversation (180). Why did Pennant credit Forbes's second-sighting of the Battle of Culloden, but not others?

This essay argues that the eighteenth-century discourse on second sight was political, linked to Jacobitism through cultural association and as a method of representing Jacobitical events as history. Second sight is not Jacobitical in the sense that an individual who experiences second sight, believes in it, or reports an instance of it is necessarily a Jacobite. Rather, I suggest that second sight was infused with Jacobite sentiment and content, but was not a Jacobitical argument in itself.(3) As a form of history, written accounts of second sight offered an ostensibly neutral way to represent Jacobite events and provided a literary counterpart to the growing influence of "common-sense" Whig historiography. After Culloden, second sight lost its status as history in its own right, and became a mere object of historical inquiry, as scholars and writers sought to preserve the quickly-disappearing Highland traditions. …

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