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Julian Goodare

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.

in The supernatural in early modern Scotland

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.

Julian Goodare
Martha McGill

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.

in The supernatural in early modern Scotland