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.
This chapter discusses a series of prophetic sayings attributed to figures from Britain’s past, enlisted to make claims about its future. Several collections of these prophecies circulated in early modern Britain. The most famous such compilation was The Whole Prophesie of Scotland, a collection of political poems ascribed to medieval English and Scottish prophets. Constructed during the sixteenth century and initially circulated in manuscript at the Scottish court, it was printed in 1603 to justify the claims of King James VI of Scotland to the English crown. It presented the Union of Crowns as divinely sanctioned, using prophets from England, Wales and Scotland to show that the Scottish Stewarts were legitimate heirs to England’s Tudors, and restorers of an ancient Britannic monarchy. As the widest-circulating collection of prophecies, the Whole Prophesie can be used to track attitudes towards prophecy throughout early modern Scotland. The chapter analyses the sixteenth-century genesis of the Whole Prophesie, and traces its continued and changing uses thereafter. In its repeated reprintings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was successively adapted to support Scottish unionism, Stuart royalism, Jacobitism and even Hanoverianism. Political use of the Whole Prophesie declined after 1773, when Lord Hailes subjected it to textual analysis arguing that key passages in it were interpolations. Finally, Sir Walter Scott and his antiquarian colleagues in the early nineteenth century reinterpreted the Whole Prophesie as remnants of ‘pagan’ superstition, thus obscuring the way in which its supernatural claims had been used by the elites of earlier centuries.
Supernatural beliefs have been vital to Scottish cultural development. In the early modern period, the Kirk played an all-important role in parish life, schooling the Scots on how to interpret the invisible world. Theologians and philosophers mused about the nature of God’s providence and the wiles of the Devil. Folk tradition peopled the landscape with fairies and nature spirits. The witch trials displayed the very real consequences of belief systems that would later be reframed as fantastical. This book analyses the Scottish supernatural between about 1500 and 1800. Drawing together an international range of scholars with expertise in history, ethnology and literary studies, it explores the diverse ways in which Scots understood and experienced magical beings and extraordinary events. There are chapters on trance experiences, spirit-guides, angels, preaching on the supernatural, political prophecies, providence, astrology, Second Sight and the Enlightenment’s encounter with the paganism of classical antiquity. The book’s historical material is framed by two literary chapters: one on the ‘elrich’ supernatural in the poetry of the early sixteenth century, and one on the political supernatural in the poetry of the eighteenth century. Overall, the book examines the cultural function of supernatural beliefs, and assesses how these beliefs evolved amid the upheaval of the Reformation, political and religious revolution, the emergence of the Enlightenment and the beginnings of romanticism.
For early modern Scots, the concept of providence infused life with religious significance. Everyday experiences such as nosebleeds, hailstorms and unexpected encounters with owls were understood as special providences, acts of divine intervention. Through the notion of general providence, moreover, the entire course of history could be perceived as an expression of the divine will. Focusing on the period from 1560 to c.1800, this chapter shows how providence enlaced the natural and supernatural worlds. Uses of providence ranged from the personal to the global. Individuals often understood their lives in providential terms. Covenanting culture placed particular emphasis on recording ‘rare and remarkable passagis’, and, after the 1660 Restoration, dispossessed Presbyterians assiduously catalogued manifestations of divine favour. The concept of providence offered comfort in the face of adversity, but also meant that hardships might be interpreted as divine punishment. Long after the reinstatement of Presbyterianism in 1690, this picture of God as ‘a Smiting and a frowning Beloved’ continued to shape religious experience. The chapter concludes by showing that providence could also be viewed on a grander scale. Writers from John Knox to William Robertson situated Scottish history within a providential framework. The minister Robert Wodrow collected special providences to demonstrate that God had manifested himself ‘in poor Scotland ... as much as any where since the primitive times’. Though their ways of understanding the world and writing its history changed over the period, early modern Scots consistently found in providence a useful expository and monitory framework.
On a return to the Wilderness Garden at Powis Castle in Mid-Wales where I once lived and worked, I am absorbed by a mood through which memory is recovered from place. Writing about this experience involves field notes, memoir, dream, natural history, Blake, the paranormal, natural magic, landscape theory and object-oriented ontology. Here, the ecoGothic becomes a literary form for the conservation of this uncanny mood created within the garden and through which the observer is observed by something unseen.
In his depiction of Blackwater Park in The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins uses the Gothic to suggest that the more-than-human world is neither passive nor necessarily benign, but active in its own right. With its stifling trees and sinister lake, Blackwater Park exerts an agency all of its own. As such, it suggests a form of ecoGothic, in which human narratives are haunted by the possibility of an agential materiality. With its emphasis on the performative intra-action of matter and discourse, Karen Barad’s concept of agential realism suggests a new way in which to evaluate this Gothicised depiction. Using agential realism as a framework, this chapter discusses the nineteenth-century ‘improvement’ of parks and estates, and their subsequent neglect, a neglect which at Blackwater enables the more-than-human world to reassert itself; it returns to haunt those with whom it intra-acts. At the same time, however, the power of that world to haunt Collins’s characters reflects its subjugation, even its withdrawal, as theories of hauntology underline. Gothic tropes and forms are, in part, a manifestation of this troubling persistence of a repressed agentiality.
Charles Darwin’s botanical writings, especially his books on insectivorous species and plant fertilisation, were scientifically innovative and culturally fertile. Coinciding with the popularity of ‘sensation fiction’ in the 1860s and 1870s, these books blurred the boundary between plants and animals in uncanny ways, helping to bring the Gothic into English gardens, much as sensation fiction imported Gothic romance into the domestic realism of the British novel. The chapter examines several gardens in the sensation fiction of Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins as well as the gardens and hothouses at Darwin’s home in Kent, where much of his botanical research was conducted.
Joseph von Eichendorff’s 1819 romantic fairy tale, The Marble Statue, with its enchanted yet threatening garden of Venus, and Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s famously enigmatic novel from 1809, Elective Affinities with its transformation of the baron’s lands into a vast English garden that results in four deaths, both portray idyllic gardens so lush and blooming as to seem almost mystical. And yet these gardens take on an ominously Gothic tone when their grounds or plant life are revealed to have startling power. If the traditional Gothic typically has gloomy castles and landscapes associated with a dark, possibly supernatural and definitely historical destiny from which we cannot escape, the ecoGothic tends in contrast to trap human beings in an uncertain status dominated by natural or ancient, physical forces. When these forces are vegetal, we can speak of the ‘Gothic green’, as we see in the narratives from Eichendorff and Goethe, who uncomfortably reintegrate the fate of human beings into natural processes and botanical energies beyond human control.