The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science, and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland

By Michael Hunter | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

This book is about a significant but little-known episode. It presents a series of interconnected texts dating from the last twenty years of the seventeenth century, the common theme of which is second sight — in other words, the uncanny ability of certain individuals to foresee future events. This strange phenomenon was particularly associated with the Scottish Highlands, where most documented examples of it were recorded. Yet interest in it came principally from south of the Border, being initially stimulated by enquiries made in 1678 by the English natural philosopher, Robert Boyle.

Thereafter, a series of figures took up the matter, both English virtuosi like Samuel Pepys and John Aubrey — who published letters on the subject from Scottish correspondents in his Miscellanies (1696) — and also Scotsmen, notably Robert Kirk, a Highland minister who wrote a celebrated treatise, The Secret Commonwealth, which is predominantly about second sight. Kirk's career intersected with Boyle's since he was employed to produce a text of the Gaelic Bible in Roman script at Boyle's expense; it was while he was in London seeing the printed version of this through the press that he had discussions on second sight and related phenomena which are recapitulated in his book, which they almost certainly helped to stimulate. Thereafter, further accounts of second sight were written by Scotsmen, perhaps notably John Fraser, Dean of the Isles, whose treatise on the subject, published in 1707 but written before his death in 1702, is also reprinted in this volume. Also included are certain ancillary documents, notably a 'Collection of Highland Rites and Customs' which deals with second sight along with many other topics, and which also seems to have passed through Boyle's hands.

The episode is interesting from various points of view. It has significant implications for our understanding of evolving attitudes towards magic and the supernatural in the late seventeenth century. The writings on second sight represent a telling variant on the apologetic literature of the day which sought to vindicate the supernatural by retailing empirical evidence: they thus shed new light on the perceived boundaries of the natural realm in the early years of the Royal Society, and on the religious implications of this. Equally revealing is a debate on second sight which occurred in the aftermath of the episode from which these documents stem, which indicates where the cutting edge of scepticism on such matters lay: this is outlined in the conclusion to this Introduction.

Above all, this represents a perhaps unexpected episode in Anglo-Scottish relations. To English savants like Boyle or Aubrey, the Highlands seemed almost like a kind of laboratory, strange yet accessible, where data about abnormal phenomena could be collected and theories tested. The Scottish authors, on the other hand, seem to have responded to this curiosity from south of the Border by taking an interest in phenomena that had previously been taken for granted, making records

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