The Brahan Seer: Scotland’s Nostradumus

The crowds gathered at Chanonry Point, a spit of land which extends into the Moray Firth, between the Black Isle towns of Fortrose and Rosemarkie. The curse proclaiming the downfall of the house of Seaforth was still ringing in their ears. Isabella, Countess of Seaforth, was undeterred. She would have her revenge upon the man who accurately and publicly “saw” her husband’s infidelities in Paris. As the flames arose from the spiked barrel in which he suffered a “witches” death, a dove and a raven circled overhead. The dove rather than the raven landed on his ashes, indicating his innocence.

From out of the murky shadows where Highland folklore and history meet, comes the enigmatic character, Coinneach Odhar, Fiosaiche, or “Sallow Kenneth”, “the one who knows” otherwise known as Kenneth MacKenzie. MacKenzie is said to have been cursed with ‘The Sight’ and foretold many events in Scottish history which have since come to pass, such as the battle of Culloden and the building of the Caledonian Canal. The ‘Sight’ was a cursing indeed, for it would ultimately lead to him being burnt to death. Little written evidence remains of his life and even his prophecies were written down long after his passing. But the Gaelic culture of the Scottish Highlands was rich in oral tradition, and in stories which were passed from generation to generation were found nuggets of truth. Somewhere in those stories lies the man with the epitaph the ‘Brahan Seer’.

Who was the Brahan Seer?

The Brahan Seer has been likened to Nostradamus. Like the French visionary, there is more myth and legend surrounding the man than real fact. MacKenzie was born in a time when few people were literate and very little written records were kept. Records in the Highlands were notoriously poor. Most of what has been written about the Brahan Seer, was written by Alexander MacKenzie, the Gairloch-born writer and historian, who relied heavily on the help of his contemporaries, A.B. Maclennan, author of ‘The Brahan Seer” and editor of the “Celtic Magazine”, and Donald McIntyre schoolmaster of Arpafeelie on the Black Isle. However, some 200 years had passed since the Brahan Seer was alleged to have lived. Obviously, this gap in time has allowed many inaccuracies to slip in. There are some who question whether the Brahan Seer was actually a real person.

According to Alexander MacKenzie, the Brahan Seer was born at Baile-na-Cille, in the parish of Uig on the Isle of Lewis at the beginning of the 17th century. These lands belonged to the Earls of Seaforth who also owned Brahan Castle near Dingwall in Easter Ross. Apparently, he was later employed as a labourer on the Seaforth’s Estates near Brahan. It was here that he would meet his fate. He made one prediction too many, which led to his barbaric murder at Chanonry Point, where it is said he was burnt in a spiked tar barrel on the command of the Earl’s wife, Lady Seaforth.

However, there is no record of Kenneth McKenzie living at this time. Presumably, records would have been kept of his execution but unfortunately the Rosemarkie parish records of the time were destroyed in 1737 when the session clerk’s house burnt down. However, records of important events are seldom recorded in isolation. It is especially significant that no mention, of what would have been a major talking point in the wider community, is made in the diaries of the Brodie family of Brodie Castle, a family which had little reason to like Lady Isabella Seaforth. James Fraser, the Minister of the nearby Kirkhill parish also kept a diary during this time and likewise made no mention of an event he would certainly have known about and would have had very strong views about. This is particularly surprising as Fraser wrote about all his notable contemporaries in gossipy detail and wrote about other witchcraft trials.

There are, however, two records for a Coinneach Odhar, a man who lived in the 16th century who was accused of witchcraft.

Coinneach Odhar, The Witch

in 1925, historian, Dr William M McKenzie discovered a Commission of Justice from Holyrood House, dated 25th of October 1577. It was issued to Walter Urquhart, sheriff of Cromarty and Robert Munro Mor of Fowlis, authorising them to seek out and apprehend six men and twenty six women charged with the ‘diabolical practices of magic, enchantment, murder and homicide’. Among those arrested where Thomas McAnemoir McAllan McKendrick, alias Cassindonisch; Marriott Neymaine McAlester alias Loskoir Longert; and Christina Milla daughter of Robert Milla. The last name on the list was significant: one Keanoch Ower or Coinneach Odhar as written by a lowland clerk, who is described as the “leading principal enchantress”. No doubt with little knowledge of the Gaelic tongue the same clerk was unable to distinguish the gender of the accused and assumed that it must be a woman. We know that some of these suspects were eventually apprehended and were burnt as witches at Chanonry Point.

The tale that unfolds is a strange one. Katherene Ross, daughter of Alexander Ross of Balnagowan, agreed to marry Robert Mor Munro of Fowlis, on condition that any sons she bore him, would inherit any lands which he bought during her life time. Katherene was his second wife, his first having provided with Robert with two surviving sons; Robert and Hector. When Munro reneged on his word, Katherene allegedly took things into her own hands and resorted to consulting with witches and the use of poison. Katherene, under the protection of her husband, was whisked away to the safety of Caithness where she lay low until things had cooled down. But people have long memories. Years passed, her husband died, and she no longer had his protective arm to spare her from the ire of his sons.

Some twelve years after the last commission for Coinneach’s arrest, Katherene stood on trial accused of trying to dispose of her stepson, Robert, heir of Fowlis and her sister-in-law, Marion Campbell of Calder (or Cawdor, daughter of  Muriel Calder). Her motivation, it seems, was to free her brother, George, so he could marry Robert junior’s wife. She was also accused of trying to dispose of Robert Mor’s sons to his first wife, so her son might become clan chieftain.  The charges levelled against her included, consulting with local witches and warlocks who cast prehistoric flint arrowheads, known as elf arrows at images formed from clay and butter. One of these warlocks included Coinneach Odhar. When this plan did not work she turned to ratsbane which purportedly killed a ghillie, her nurse and turned Marion Campbell into an invalid for life.

Katherene was acquitted and immediately had her accuser, Hector Munro, brought to trial for the death of her son, also by witchcraft. He was also acquitted.

Which Coinneach Odhar?

Here we are left with a dilemma: on the one had we have Coinneach Odhar, the labourer on the Brahan estate who died at the hands of Lady Seaforth but whose death passes through the annals of history unrecorded. Then we have Coinneach Odhar, the witch, who despite any mystical ability, certainly could not have have survived the flames on Chanonry Point to stand accused of witchcraft once more, some one hundred year later. Perhaps both men were related. It is possible that the Brahan Seer was a grandson of the original Coinneach Odhar or perhaps both figures have merged in the minds of a people immersed in an oral tradition to become one prophet. Perhaps much of the appeal of the man, lies in this sense of mystery.

 The Brahan Seer and the Stone

 The Brahan Seer was said to have received ability by looking into a hagstone or a pebble with a hole through its middle. To add to the enigma of the man, there are even discrepancies about how he received this stone.

In one tale, his mother was tending her cattle on a ridge overlooking the graveyard at Baile-na-Cille. At midnight she saw all the graves in the churchyard open and saw a host of spirits arise. After an hour, the spirits came back to their tombs, which immediately closed up upon their return. That is, all except one grave. With her curiosity peaked, she edged forward and placed her distaff in the gaping hole. Soon the spirit of a fair maiden appeared, rushing through the air from the north. Turning to her, the maiden pleaded “Lift thy distaff from off my grave and let me enter my dwelling of the dead.” But his mother was a determined woman and refused until she got an explanation from the spirit about why she had been detained longer than her neighbours. The spirit sighed and revealed that she had had to travel further than her fellow deceased. In fact, all the way to Norway for it turned out that she was the daughter of the King of Norway and drowned while bathing. Her body was washed ashore on the nearby beach and her remains interred in the grave that lay open before the two women. Turning to Kenneth’s mother, the ghost revealed that as a reward for her intrepidity and courage, that she would be rewarded if she went to the nearby loch. There she would find a small blue stone, which she should give to her son, Kenneth, who would be able to use it to reveal future events.

In another tale, he had gained the displeasure of his mistress, the farmer’s wife. While he was away cutting peats for his master, she hatched up a plan to rid herself of the Seer for once and for all.  She poisoned his dinner and sent it to him. But the dinner was late in arriving and he was tired from the strenuous labour. He lay down on the moor and sunk into a deep slumber. He woke up suddenly, feeling something pressing against his breast. A closer examination revealed the presence of a small, white stone, with a hole through the centre. As he peered into the aperture, a vision appeared to him which revealed the treachery of his mistress. To test the truthfulness of the vision, he fed his dinner to his faithful collie. Alas the poor creature writhed in agony and passed away so after.

In other tales it is said that when the Brahan Seer, looked into the stone for the first time, it robbed him of sight in that eye and he was left forever ‘cam’ or blind in one eye.

The fulfilment of the Brahan Seer’s Predictions

 The Brahan Seer and the Caledonian Canal

 He foretold the building of the Caledonian Canal which joins the three lochs, Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy found in the Great Glen which runs between Inverness and Fort William. In Alexander MacKenzie’s words:

He no doubt predicted many things which the unbeliever in his prophetic gifts may ascribe to great natural shrewdness. Among these may be placed his prophecy,150 years before the Caledonian Canal was built, that ships would some day sail round the back of Tomnahurich Hill. A gentleman in Inverness sent for Coinneach to take down his prophecies. He wrote several of them, but when he heard this one, he thought it so utterly absurd and impossible, that he threw the manuscript of what he had already written into the fire, and gave up any further communication with the Seer.

Mr Maclennan gives the following version of it: —” Strange as it may seem to you this day, the time will come, and it is not far off, when full-rigged ships will be seen sailing eastward and westward by the back of Tomnahurich, near Inverness.” Mr Macintyre supplies us with a version in the Seer’s vernacular Gaelic: —” Thig an latha ‘s am faicear laraichean Sasunnach air an tarruing le srianan corcaich seachad air cul Tom-na-hiuraich.”(The day will come when English mares, with hempen bridles, shall be led round the back of Tomnahurich.)’

The Brahan Seer and the Highland Clearances

 He also predicted the land reforms put in place by the Duke of Sutherland, whereby the people were forcibly removed from their small holdings to make way for sheep. This became known as the ‘Highland Clearances’. Deprived of hearth and home and the means of supporting their families, thousands of Highlanders were forced to emigrate to the New World. Alexander MacKenzie rehearsed:

” that the day will come when there will be a road through the hills of Ross-shire from sea to sea, and a bridge upon every stream.” ” That the people will degenerate as their country improves.” “That the clans will become so effeminate as to flee from their native country before an army of sheep).” Mr Macintyre supplies the following version of the latter: —Alluding possibly to the depopulation of the Highlands, Coinneach said ” that the day will come when the Big Sheep will overrun the country until they strike (meet) the northern sea.” Big sheep here is commonly understood to mean deer, but whether the words signify sheep or deer, the prophecy has been very strikingly fulfilled.”

 

He also stated:

” The day will come when the jaw-bone of the big sheep, or ‘ caoraich mhora,’ will put the plough on the rafters (air an aradh) ; when sheep shall become so numerous that the bleating of the one shall be heard by the other from Conchra in Lochalsh to Bun-da-Loch in Kintail they shall be at their height in price, and henceforth will go back and deteriorate, until they disappear altogether, and be so thoroughly forgotten that a man finding the jaw-bone of a sheep in a cairn, will not recognise it or be able to tell what animal it belonged to. The ancient proprietors of the soil shall  give place to strange merchant proprietors, and the whole Highlands will become one huge deer forest ; the whole country will be so utterly desolated and depopulated that the crow of a cock shall not be heard north of Druim-Uachdair {Drumochter} ; the people will emigrate to Islands now unknown, but which shall yet be discovered in the boundless oceans, after which the deer and other wild animals in the huge wilderness shall be exterminated and drowned by horrid black rains (siantan dubha).The people will then return and take undisturbed possession of the lands of their ancestors.”

 The Brahan Seer and the Battle of Culloden

 The Brahan Seer also foresaw the Battle of Culloden, the last battle to be fought on British soil. It was a particularly bloody battle, in which the government troops, annihilated the Jacobite rebels. According to Alexander MacKenzie, Coinneach Odhar stated:

 “The Seer was at one time in the Culloden district on some important business. While passing over what is now so well known as the Battlefield of Culloden, he exclaimed, ” Oh! Drummossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I that I will not see that day, for it will be a fearful period; heads will be lopped off by the score, and no mercy will be shown or quarter given on either side.” It is perhaps unnecessary to point out how literally this prophecy has been fulfilled on the occasion of the last battle fought on British soil. We have received several other versions of it from different parts of the country, almost all in identical terms.”

 The Brahan Seer and the Cow

Some of his prophecies relate to the landed gentry and clan chiefs of his day. Alexander MacKenzie recorded a remarkable but unusual tale:

“Coinneach also prophesied remarkable things regarding the MacKenzies of Fairburn and Fairburn Tower. ” The day will come when the MacKenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions, and that branch of the clan shall disappear almost to a man from the face of the earth. Their Castle shall become uninhabited, desolate, and forsaken, and a cow shall give birth to a calve in the uppermost chamber in Fairburn Tower.” The first part of this prophecy has only too literally come to pass; and within the memory of hundreds now living, and who knew Coinneach’s prophecy years before it was fulfilled, the latter part—that referring to the cow calving in the uppermost chamber—has also been undoubtedly realized. We are personally acquainted with people whose veracity is beyond question, who knew the prophecy, and who actually took the trouble at the time to go all the way from Inverness to see the cow-mother and her offspring in the Tower, before they were taken down. Mr Maclennan supplies the following version: —Coinneach said, addressing a large concourse of people—” Strange as it may appear to all those who may hear me this day, yet what I am about to tell you is true and will come to pass at the appointed time. The day will come when a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber (seomar uachdarach) of Fairburn Castle. The child now unborn will see it. “When the Seer uttered this prediction, the Castle of Fairburn was in the possession of, and occupied by, a very rich and powerful chieftain, to whom homage was paid by many of the neighbouring lairds. Its halls rang loud with sounds of music and of mirth, and happiness reigned within its portals. On its windingstone stairs trod and passed carelessly to and fro pages and liveried servants in their wigs and golden trimmings. Nothing in the world was more unlikely to happen, to all appearance, than what the Seer predicted, and Coinneach was universally ridiculed for having given utterance to what was apparently so nonsensical; but this abuse and ridicule the Seer bore with the patient self-satisfied air of one who was fully convinced of the truth of what he uttered. Years passed by, but no sign of the fulfilment of the prophecy. The Seer, the Laird of Fairburn, and the whole of that generation, were gathered to their fathers, and still no signs of the curious prediction being realized. The Laird of Fairburn’s immediate successors also followed their predecessors, and the Seer, to all appearance, was fast losing his reputation as a prophet. The tower was latterly left uninhabited, and it soon fell into a dilapidated state of repair—its doors decayed and fell away from their hinges, one by one, until at last there was no door on the main stair from the floor to the roof. Some years after, and not long ago, the Fairburn tenant-farmer stored away some straw in the uppermost chamber of the tower; in the process, some of the straw dropped, and was left strewn on the staircase. One of his cows on a certain day chanced to find her way to the main door of the tower, and finding it open, began to pick up the straw scattered along the stair. The animal proceeded thus, till she had actually arrived at the uppermost chamber, whence, being heavy in calf, she was unable to descend. She was consequently left in the tower until she gave birth to a fine healthy calf. They were allowed to remain there for several days, where many went to see them, after which the cow and her progeny were brought down; and Coinneach Odhar’s prophecy was thus fulfilled to the very letter.”

 The Execution of the Brahan Seer

 According to the tales available to the author Alexander MacKenzie, Kenneth, the Third Earl of Seaforth went to visit France. His wife was left at home at Brahan Castle and began to fret for her husband. Knowing of the Brahan Seer’s reputation for his great powers of divination, she had him summonsed to her presence. She managed to prise out of him, details of her husband’s infidelity. Unfortunately, many of her retainers were present and she felt that she had been slighted publicly. The anger she felt ought to have been directed to her husband but instead she vented her wrath upon the Seer. She would have him killed as a witch.

When it became apparent that there would be no mercy for Coinneach, he pulled out his stone and used it one last time. According to Alexander MacKenzie, he uttered a curse which would fall upon the House of Seaforth.

” I see into the far future, and I read the doom of the race of my oppressor. The long-descended line of Seaforth will, ere many generations have passed, end in extinction and in sorrow. I see a Chief, the last of his house, both deaf and dumb. He will be the father of four fair sons, all of whom he will follow to the tomb. He will live careworn and die mourning, knowing that the honours of his line are to be extinguished for ever, and that no future Chief of the MacKenzies shall bear rule at Brahan or in Kintail. After lamenting over the last and most promising of his sons, he himself shall sink into the grave, and the remnant of his possessions shall be inherited by a white-coifed (or white-hooded) lassie from the East, and she is to kill her sister. And as a sign by which it may be known that these things are coming to pass, there shall be four great lairds in the days of the last deaf and dumb Seaforth—Gairloch, Chisholm, Grant, and Raasay—of whom one shall be buck- toothed, another hare-lipped, another half witted, and the fourth a stammerer. Chiefs distinguished by these personal marks shall be the allies and neighbours of the last Seaforth; and when he looks round him and sees them, he may know that his sons are doomed to death, that his broad lands shall pass away to the stranger, and that his race shall come to an end.”

When the Brahan Seer had finished his prophecy, he took his stone and threw it into a small Loch and stated that whoever found the stone would be also be granted ‘The Sight’.  Alexander MacKenzie related the following about the Brahan Seer as he was being led to his execution:

“When Coinneach Odhar was being led to the stake fast bound with cords. Lady Seaforth exultingly declared that, having had so much unhallowed intercourse with the unseen world, he would never go to Heaven. But the Seer, looking round upon her with an eye from which his impending fate had not banished the ray of a joyful hope of rest in a future state, gravely answered —” I will go to Heaven, but you never shall; and this will be a sign whereby you can determine whether my condition after death is one of everlasting happiness or of eternal misery: a raven and a dove, swiftly flying in opposite directions will meet, and for a second hover over my ashes, on which they will instantly alight. If the raven be foremost, you have spoken truly; but if the dove, then my hope is well-founded.” And, accordingly, tradition relates that after the cruel sentence of his hard-hearted enemies had been executed upon the Brahan Seer, and his ashes lay scattered among the smouldering embers of the fagot, his last prophecy was most literally fulfilled ; for those messengers, emblematic all denoting—the one sorrow, the other joy—came speeding to the fatal spot, when the dove, with characteristic flight, closely followed by the raven, darted downwards and was first to alight on the dust of the departed Coinneach Odhar ; thus completely disproving the positive and uncharitable assertion of the proud and vindictive Lady of Brahan, to the wonder and consternation of all the beholders.”

 The Brahan Seer’s curse on the House of Seaforth Fulfilled

 Three generations passed, after the death of the Brahan Seer before the chilling prediction came true. Francis MacKenzie, the young heir of Seaforth, was in perfect health when he was born but as a twelve-year-old he contracted scarlet fever while at boarding school.  Alexander MacKenzie related the following which occurred while the young Seaforth lay upon his sickbed:

“One evening, before dark, the attendant nurse, having left the dormitory for a few minutes, was alarmed by a cry. She instantly returned, and found Lord Seaforth in a state of great excitement. After he became calmer, he told the nurse that he had seen, soon after she had left the room, the door opposite to his bed silently open, and a hideous old woman came in. She had a wallet full of something hanging from her neck in front of her. She paused on entering, then turned to the bed close to the door, and stared steadily at one of the boys lying in it. She then passed to the foot of the next boy’s bed, and, after a moment, stealthily moved up to the head, and taking- from her wallet a mallet and peg, drove the peg into his forehead. Young Seaforth said he heard the crash of the bones, though the boy never stirred. She then proceeded round the room, looking at some boys longer than at others. When she came to him, his suspense was awful. He felt he could not resist or even cry out, and he never could forget, in after years, that moment’s agony, when he saw her hand reaching down for a nail, and feeling his ears. At last, after a look, she slunk off, and slowly completing the circuit of the room, disappeared noiselessly through the same door by which she had entered. Then he felt the spell seemed to be taken off, and uttered the cry which had alarmed the nurse. The latter laughed at the lad’s story, and told him to go to sleep. When the doctor came, an hour later, to make his rounds, he observed that the boy was feverish and excited, and asked the nurse afterwards if she knew the cause, upon which she reported what had occurred. The doctor, struck with the story,returned to the boy’s bedside and made him repeat his dream. He took it down in writing at the moment. The following day nothing eventful happened, but, in course of time, some got worse, a few indeed died, others suffered but slightly, while some, though they recovered, bore some evil trace and consequence of the fever for the rest of their lives. The doctor, to his horror, found that those whom Lord Seaforth had described as having a peg driven into their foreheads, were those who died from the fever; those whom the old hag passed by, recovered, and were none the worse whereas those she appeared to look at intently, or handled, all suffered afterwards. Lord Seaforth left his bed of sickness almost stone deaf; and, in later years, grieving over the loss of his four sons, absolutely and entirely ceased to speak.”

 Francis’ four sons all died before he did. His widowed daughter, Lady Hood, did indeed return from the east to inherit the Seaforth legacy, in 1815. She completed the last of the grim prediction when she accidentally ‘killed her own sister’, the Honourable Caroline MacKenzie, while driving a carriage which went out of control.

Furthermore, the curse of the Brahan Seer was known by the Seaforths before it was fulfilled. It appears to have been common knowledge. Lockhart in his ‘Life of Scott’, in relation to the Seaforth prediction stated

“Mr Morrit can testify thus far—that he heard the prophecy quoted in the Highlands at a time when Lord Seaforth had two sons alive, and in good health, and that it certainly was not made after the event “; and he goes on to tell us that Scott and Sir Humphrey Davy were most certainly convinced of its truth, as also many others who had watched the latter days of Seaforth in the light of those wonderful predictions.”

If Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer was not sentenced to death by Lady Seaforth, then who did put the curse on the Seaforths? The Seaforth title was not bestowed upon the MacKenzies until 1623, too late for the Coinneach Odhar, who was involved in the Fowlis affair, to have been its instigator.

The Brahan Seer’s influence lives on today.

 Such is the belief in the Brahan Seer’s prophecy that to this day he is still influencing the course of history.

The Brahan Seer predicted that when the Eagle Stone, an ancient Pictish stone found at Strathpeffer, falls three times, the Strath will be engulfed by the sea, and boats will moor to the stone. Today the stone is discreetly but very firmly concreted into the mound on which it stands. It is already believed to have fallen twice so nobody is taking any chances. It is said that when it fell for the second time, the Cromarty Firth rose up and flooded the neighbouring town of Dingwall.

Modern politicians have allowed his prophecies to influence their decisions. Clarence Finlayson wrote in his book ‘The Strath: A the biography of Strathpeffer’:

“The continuing strength of belief in the veracity of Coinneach Odhar’s predictions is testified to by the front page of the People’s Journal for September 23, 1978.

The report relates how the Highland Regional Council’s Planning Committee, bedevilled by traffic congestion, had been considering the advisability of building another bridge across the River Ness at Inverness. The river is already spanned by six bridges. A ratepayer with a long memory telephoned one of the members of the committee to ask whether he knew that the Brahan Seer had prophesied destruction for the town by fire and water and the fall of black rain in the event of the construction of a seventh bridge across the Ness. The good councillors were preparing to laugh it off when someone pointed out that ‘black rain’ could mean radioactive fall-out from a nuclear disaster at Dounreay. Sobered, the committee ordered the costing of the alternative of tunnelling under the river!

Moreover, Mrs Winnie Ewing, SNP Euro-candidate for the Highlands and Islands, is reported in the press recently as blaming the recent foul weather on the Prime Minister, since the Brahan Seer foretold that when two women ruled the kingdom summer would turn into winter!”

The Mystery of the Brahan Seer lives on

Whoever the Brahan Seer was, real or imagined, the mystery surrounding the man lives on. He would not have been alone in meeting a witch’s death at Chanonry Point, for this was one of the places where witches were burnt during the Scottish Witch Trials.

Today the crowds gather at Chanonry Point, for a different reason. They gather to celebrate life. The world’s most northernly pod of bottle-nosed dolphins live in the Moray Firth. As the tides change they frequently come close to the shore at the Point to feed. However, a monument is erected at the site, to mark where the Seer met his fate and is a chilling reminder that this popular tourist spot once had a more sinister purpose.

2018-07-21T19:17:47+00:00

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