Astrology was a core component of the university curriculum in Scotland until the late 1670s. It was taught as part of natural philosophy, linked with the teachings of Aristotle and Ptolemy. There were two branches of the subject: natural and judicial astrology. The former, used to understand natural phenomena such as weather, was widely accepted, even by Calvin, while the latter, aimed at prediction and control of outcomes based on subjective judgement, had always had its detractors, notably George Buchanan and James VI.
Two seventeenth-century developments led to astrology’s fall from grace. First, the gradual acceptance, despite some kirk opposition, of the falsity of the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe also undermined astrology’s validity by association and it was discarded from the syllabus along with them. Additionally, the ‘mathematical certainties’ afforded by the new Cartesian and later Newtonian theories had more intellectual and practical value than the ‘probable certaintie’ claimed by astrological predictions. Second, an explosion of astrology books published in the vernacular rather than Latin around mid-century opened the subject to the less educated and the entrepreneurial. During the civil wars, astrology was appropriated by these ‘seditious men’ as a propaganda tool, acquiring for it a reputation as vulgar and irrational, not to mention divisive and dangerous. The chapter traces the chronology and rationale for the intellectual downfall of astrology in Scotland.
This chapter proposes that the use and embodiment of the supernatural in eighteenth-century Scottish verse holds to the key term and opaque conjunction ‘as if’. It analyses a series of political poems invoking the visionary supernatural, mainly by Allan Ramsay (1686–1758), John Pinkerton (1758–1826) and Robert Burns (1759–96). These poems in turn respond to each other and to important English writers like John Milton, Alexander Pope and Daniel Defoe. Another key inspiration was Lord Belhaven‘s impassioned ‘Mother Caledonia’ speech against the Union of 1707, which was itself expressed in visionary terms.
The idea of the supernatural allowed people in eighteenth-century Scotland to wrestle with the idea of a new and elusive descriptor: British. Writing within an ethereal concept such as ‘Britain’ was already a complicated poetic and political gesture. The chapter thus proposes that Ramsay and Burns used the idea of a supernatural vision to bring into being the expression of cultural absence at one and the same time as they acknowledged the immanence of deep civic and political loss.
The chapter closes with an analysis of Burns’s poem ‘The Vision’ (1786). While allowing the supernatural realm to speak of artistry and politics, invention and civil society, the poem’s reliance upon figuration and similitude allows it to fashion and maintain a place immune to the threats of improvement, enlightenment or even critical judgement. As the sun drops on its opening stanza, so the light is taken away with the supernatural’s retreat from presence at the end.
Verse in Older Scots includes humorous poems that have been described as elrich – ‘connected with supernatural beings or elves; uncanny’. The poems in this tradition, products of the later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, are all concerned with other worlds – of fairyland, heaven, hell, paradise or nonsense. Their inhabitants can be elves, fairies, ghosts, brownies, giants, devils, spirits, warlocks or witches. Activities might include shape-shifting, cursing, magical trickery, visions, nightmares or conjurations. The viewpoint can be enigmatic, threatening, dreamlike, disorienting, a reversal of the natural order. Time is beyond precise date: when a giant is offspring of an acorn or the king and queen of fary have authority. The humour in these poems can be dark, even sadistic, drawing on the medieval church’s ever-present fear of evil spirits. Narratives can resemble nightmares. Devils, or the Devil himself, can tear sinful souls into rags, chillingly proclaim a sentence of eternal damnation or order a dance in Hell. In other poems, humour can have a lighter, dreamlike comic incongruity, often a childlike delight in the ghoulish. However great the supernatural threat, cumulative tension is always dissolved and the everyday world reasserted.
This chapter examines the textual challenges these poems present to those investigating the supernatural in early modern Scotland. Agile study is needed to make sense of these difficult texts, which have lost their immediate context and suffered textual changes, deliberate and inadvertent, because they survive only in manuscripts compiled long after the poems themselves were composed.
In early modern Scotland, there is a good deal of evidence for visionaries who experienced relationships with spirits. The evidence comes mostly from witchcraft trials. However, although the interrogators assumed that they were dealing with a witch who had met the Devil, it is clear that this is not how the visionaries themselves had experienced their relationship before their arrest.
These visionaries were ordinary people who had extraordinary experiences and who often gained special powers as a result. Most of the visionaries, though not all, were women. Most of the spirits were fairies or ghosts. Several visionaries had a ghost as a main spirit-guide, but the ghost associated with fairies and introduced the visionary to fairyland. The chapter reconstructs one visionary’s relationship in detail: that of Alison Pearson with the ghost William Simpson who accompanied her to fairyland but also protected her from the fairies’ capricious violence. The relationship between visionary and spirit-guide was unequal, expressed as ‘friendship’, but constructed like the relationship between client and patron.
The visionaries experienced various emotions of their own, notably fear. Although spirit-guides could be helpful, they were also powerful, demanding and oppressive. Because the visionaries’ relationship with them was two-way, they also attributed emotions to their spirit-guides, notably sympathy (the spirit-guide often wanted to look after the visionary) but also anger. The conclusion discusses psychological and cultural dimensions of these imagined and fantasised relationships. The emotions of other-worldly beings are a deeply human subject.
This chapter uses modern medical, psychiatric and anthropological literature to interrogate reports of dissociative or other-worldly experiences in early modern Scotland. It shows that some people experienced trance, and argues that an understanding of how or why they did so enables us to uncover information about their lives that would otherwise go unnoticed. It argues that trance was experienced as a dissociative phenomenon that might be voluntary or involuntary. Some trances were linked to trauma, but others were apparently non-pathological and might also develop naturally in fantasy-prone individuals. Trances occurred in different modalities and might be of long or short duration, with symptoms ranging from the mild to the dramatic. One particularly important question is the way in which individuals might exercise control over their trances. Some people’s trances were clearly involuntary, but some ‘seers’ were able to induce trances deliberately and to use them for specific purposes like healing and divination.
The chapter concludes that neurobiological brain functions worked together with social and cultural context to create very real visionary experiences. The medical, psychiatric and anthropological literature helps us to understand the intensity of trance symptoms that a number of early modern people experienced. This means it is no longer tenable to disregard their experiences as superstitious nonsense, or even to confine ourselves to psychoanalytical interpretations. These trances form a vivid case-study of the relationship between the cultural and the neurobiological aspects of the human condition.
This introductory chapter surveys existing scholarship on the supernatural and clarifies the book’s field of enquiry. We use the term ‘supernatural’ to refer to events or beings that transcend the natural order. This includes orthodox elements of Protestantism, as explored in chapters on providence and the supernatural in sermons. Then there were beliefs that almost all educated folk would have rejected as superstitious, such as pagan gods or ghostly spirit-guides. In between these were borderline cases, including astrology and prophecy. The chapter discusses how early modern people formulated the boundaries between natural and supernatural. It also reflects on the problems historians encounter when setting out to write about early modern beliefs.
Thereafter, the chapter outlines the book’s central themes. It explores how early modern Scots formed concepts of the supernatural, looking first at the influence of literary works, before considering the emotional and cognitive dimensions of reported supernatural encounters. It discusses areas of overlap and divergence between popular and elite ways of envisaging the supernatural world and highlights the importance of binary classifications such as orthodox/unorthodox, good/evil and superstitious/demonic. Lastly, it reflects on how understandings of the supernatural changed over the course of the early modern period, with particular reference to Max Weber’s controversial theory of disenchantment.
This chapter examines how Scottish ministers defined, described and used the supernatural in their sermons, both implicitly and explicitly. The supernatural as framed in Reformed sermons was a broad, fluid category that might include God, the Devil, the divinity of Christ, the occasional angel, divine providence or evil more generally. This chapter argues that sermons shaped expectations for consistent engagement with the supernatural in two opposite but mutually constitutive ways: through an emphasis on the external and internal presence of Satan in human lives, and through the cultivation of hope for communion with the supernatural grace of God and Christ. Attention and energy were focused on God, Satan and human depravity – the three pillars of godly life. The world remained as enchanted as ever, but all that was truly mystical, unknowable and good belonged only to God.
Ministers rarely evoked other spiritual entities, like brownies, fairies and other spirits, that fell outside the God–Devil dichotomy. On the rare occasions when fairies were mentioned, this was not so much to denounce beliefs in such beings themselves, as to attack – and arguably to caricature – the pre-Protestant world in which the minister thought that such beings were found. A dichotomous consolidation of the mystical and inexplicable had taken place, at least in theory – though the elimination of a range of spirits and other-worldly beings from sermons did not eradicate them from popular belief.
This chapter examines and reassesses the earliest Scottish accounts of a constellation of diverse supernatural abilities, primarily relating to premonition and clairvoyance, often described in English as Second Sight and in Scottish Gaelic as an dà shealladh or taibhsearachd.
In modern English-language scholarship and popular discourse alike, Second Sight tends to be regarded as distinctive to the people of the Scottish Highlands: a primal, hereditary phenomenon involving involuntary visions of future events. Close analysis of the earliest Scottish references, however, collated with folkloric evidence from elsewhere in Europe, suggests that belief legends concerning ‘Second Sight’ may have been a Lowland as well as a Highland phenomenon, and that heightened interest in and concern over supposed visionary encounters with the supernatural in Lowland covenanting heartlands may have directed outside attention to similar experiences and narratives retailed in the Gàidhealtachd. The expression ‘Second Sight’ itself clearly derives from theological discourse. Its adaptation into popular belief may represent a pragmatic, creative response to increasing anxieties in interpreting supposed visions of and encounters with a supernatural other world, in an attempt to circumvent the aggressive stance taken against demonically inspired maleficia by contemporary religious reformers. Second Sight, then, follows a common trajectory to other early modern ‘superstitions’, from being a cause of clerical concern to an object of learned scepticism and enquiry.
This chapter analyses an image found in seventeenth-century witchcraft court records from Orkney. During the trial of Barbara Bowndie, in 1644, she confessed to have danced at the fields of Moaness in the island of Hoy in Orkney, as one out of ninety-nine women at a witchcraft gathering with the Devil present. The number of dancers draws attention to magic numbers in folk belief, while the dance itself has connotations of witches’ meetings. During Barbara’s interrogation, several other learned ideas about witches and the Devil were introduced through leading questions from the interrogators. Still, it becomes clear that the story of the devilish dance of Moaness had been circulating in the local community for many years and hence was known by Barbara through oral transmission before her trial began.
The question then arises how and in which way the learned – and dangerous – ideas about human beings’ relations with the Devil came into the sphere of common people in the seventeenth century, and to what extent this knowledge influenced the development of witchcraft trials. The Orkney women accused of witchcraft were down-to-earth peasants who knew the struggle for daily existence. They were realistic in many senses. However, their beliefs displayed an invisible and unrealistic thread, as the image of the dancers of Moaness brings to the fore. Barbara confessed that she was one of the fourscore and nineteen. This chapter explores the tension between the down-to-earth attitude of early modern Orkney women and the much more dangerous, but still obviously popular, dance with the Devil.
Classical pagan visions of the supernatural world excited Scottish intellectuals throughout the eighteenth century. The pagans’ oracles, gods and conceptions of the afterlife were debating points in defining appropriate attitudes towards the supernatural. Oracles were initially ascribed to demonic spirits, but, later in the century, naturalistic theories arose attributing oracular powers to human imposture instead. This contributed to the declining respectability of supernatural explanations, furthering the banishment of demons from scholarly accounts of events in the natural world.
However, pagan beliefs in divine power and the afterlife continued to engage the Scottish literati throughout the century, and remained central to the religious debates of the Enlightenment. Here we see no shift from ‘supernatural’ to ‘natural’ explanation, but the deployment of incorrect pagan supernaturalism to vindicate correct Christian supernaturalism. The superstitious polytheism of the pagan masses proved that the supernatural assistance of divine revelation offered Christians a distinct advantage in reaching an accurate understanding of the supernatural world. Pagan religion thus demonstrated the virtues of revealed religion over the rational religion of the deists or the irreligion of the atheists. Debate continued over the question of whether it was possible for pagans to discover the fundamental principles of Christian supernaturalism through the natural powers of the human mind. Overall, Scottish analyses of paganism reveal that a commitment to Christian supernaturalism remained a vital force in the intellectual life of the Scottish Enlightenment.