The mysterious faculty of Second Sight—an apparently involuntary ability to see events in the future or far distant, usually encompassing funerals, death, and disasters—is understood today as quintessentially a Scottish Highland phenomenon.

If we turn to older historical accounts, however, the suspicion grows that in the past the notion of Second Sight (taibhsearachd in Scottish Gaelic) may have meant something altogether different: a more direct, even willed ability to communicate with usually invisible, capricious, and potentially dangerous beings, whether powerful otherworldly creatures such as sìthichean or fairies, or else treacherous spirit doubles of mortal men and women. These beings could impart occult secrets and occult gifts, although little benefit would accrue to their recipients in the long term.

Again, if we examine folklore and popular belief elsewhere in northern Europe, it appears that there may in fact be little that is specifically Highland about ‘Second Sight’. There, similar anecdotes and similar motifs about such uncanny phenomena were pervasive in the past—and are still told today.

This suggests that Highland Second Sight may have a history, an unexpected process by which an already somewhat ambiguous power was transformed—and, perhaps, restrained—into a more passive, spontaneous, innate, and inexplicable ‘sixth sense’. If this is the case, why did Second Sight change, and why has the ability come to be perceived as somehow emblematic of the Scottish Highlands?

An expedition—with some diversions—through four hundred years of Highland folklore and popular belief, in this world and the otherworld.


Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart is a Senior Lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands, and Course Leader there for the MSc in Cultar Dùthchasach agus Eachdraidh na Gàidhealtachd (Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History). He has lectured and published extensively on the history, literature, material culture, ethnology, folklore and popular culture of the Scottish Highlands from the seventeenth century onwards, and is often interviewed on these subjects for radio and television.

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