Studying the Supernatural
An entry showing that George Graham Bell borrowed ‘Aubreys Miscellanies’ from the Advocates Library on 1 January 1823 seems innocuous enough. But dare to open the library catalogue the full title reveals a world of the supernatural: Miscellanies, viz. I. Day-fatality. II. Local-fatality. III. Ostenta. IV. Omens. V. Dreams. VI. Apparitions. VII. Voices. VIII. Impulses. IX. Knockings. X. Blows invisible. XI. Prophesies. XII. Marvels. XIII. Magick. XIV. Transportation in the air. XV. Visions in a beril, or glass. XVI. Converse with angels and spirits. XVII. Corps-candles in Wales. XVIII. Oracles. XIX. Exstasie. XX. Glances of love. envy. XXI. Second-sighted-persons (London: Edward Castle, 1696).
John Aubrey, virtuoso and antiquarian, in his dedication to the work, said that
The Matter of this Collection is beyond Humane reach: We being miserably in the dark, as to the Oeconomie of the Invisible World, which knows what we do, or incline to, and works upon our Passions, and sometimes is so kind as to afford us a glimpse of is Præscience’.
Aubrey’s supernatural Miscellanies included the first published account of second sight, a phenomenon then under investigation by the Royal Society of London. Meanwhile, Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth of 1692 circulated in manuscript until 1815 when Walter Scott brought out a printed edition.
Second sight is the ability – or curse – to see visions of the future. It was the focus of serious scientific study and it also came be a Romantic theme for poets and novelists, including Scott, whose interest in the supernatural is well attested by his library at Abbotsford.
Martin Martin’s A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, first published 1703, was popular in many of the libraries covered in our project. Students of the University of Glasgow, for example, borrowed it throughout the 1760s. James Boswell took a copy, now in the National Library of Scotland, which he and Samuel Johnson carried on their tour of the Hebrides in 1773. Johnson came away ‘only willing to believe’ and ‘content to yield to the force of testimony’.
Martin’s work covered the natural history of the Western Isles, but also included a discussion of second sight. Martin was a Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Skye who was educated at the Universities of Edinburgh, Leiden, and Reims. He was acquainted with members of the Royal Society and had the patronage of Edinburgh virtuosi. He believed in the reality of second sight, an important aspect of Highland culture. The title page of the 1703 included, alongside a list of the natural features and antiquities of the islands, ‘A Particular Account of the Second Sight, or Faculty of foreseeing things to come, by way of Vision, so common among them’.
Speculation and study of second sight continued to fascinate throughout the eighteenth century. More than a century after Martin published his Description, Anne MacVicar Grant published Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlanders in 1811. Grant learned Gaelic to better communicate with her husband’s congregation at Laggan and found that this skill gave her a unique insight into the culture of the Highlands. She collected customs and heard tales of ghosts and apparitions.
Of second sight, she says:
I knew a man of great worth, who some time closed a life of unspotted integrity, with a pious and exemplary death. He was a native of the vale of Glenorchy, and had a good natural understanding, and a better education than generally fell to the share of the highland gentlemen of his day.
As a devout and rigid Presbyterian, he though it his duty to war against superstition in all its forms. Yet he still kept a corner in his mind for one darling idol, fondly cherished by all true highlanders, with constant, though concealed love.
This was the second sight, including ominous sights and sounds, by which the approach of death is announced: not perhaps to the person who is to be summoned to another world, but possibly to some friend, or even to an indifferent person.
One instance of this, mentioned and firmly believed by my old friend, shall serve as a specimen of this kind of foresight; the varied instances of which, and the legends belonging to them might fill a folio ….
The good old pastor to whom I allude…had his custom to go forth and meditate at even; and this solitary walk he always directed to his church-yard, which was situated in a shaded spot, on the banks of a river. There, in a dusky October evening, he took his wonted path, and lingered, leaning on the church-yard wall, till it became twilight, when he saw two small lights rise from a spot within, where there was no stone, nor memorial of any kind. He observed the course these lights took, and saw them cross the river, and stop at the opposite hamlet. Presently they returned, accompanied by a larger light, which moved between them, till they arrived at the place from which the first two set out, when all three seemed to sink into the earth together.
The good man went into the church-yard and threw a few stones on the spot where the light disappeared. Next morning he walked out early, called for the sexton, and shewed him the place, asking if he remembered who was buried there. The man said, that many years ago, he remembered burying in that spot, two young children, belonging to a blacksmith on the opposite side of the river, who was now a very old man. The pastor returned, and was scare set down to breakfast, when a message came to hurry him to come over to pray with the smith, who had suddenly taken ill, and who died next day.
Supernatural Stories: Prophecy in Scott’s Guy Mannering
The borrowers in our database had a wide range of supernatural material to select as their reading. Gothic tales and novels, fairy stories, poetry, and works such as Martin’s Description of the Western Isles of Scotland and Grant’s Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlands all provided glimpses into the invisible worlds of Scotland and beyond.
Walter Scott frequently invoked the uncanny in his poems and novels. In Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer of 1815 published in the same year as his edition of Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, he explores the relationship between the academic study and the uncanny powers of the Scottish landscape.
Mannering, a graduate of the University of Oxford, visits Scotland in quest of antiquities in November when ‘the brief and gloomy twilight of the season had already commenced’. Lost in the dark of the evening, he comes to shelter in the home of the Laird of Ellangowan whose wife is in labour with his heir. There he meets Dominie Abel Sampson, a professed follower of Isaac Newton, and the supernaturally endowed gypsy queen Meg Merrilies who has come to tell the baby’s fortune.
Mannering spars with Sampson over the reality of astrology and agrees to cast a horoscope for the child at the behest of his host despite being a sceptic. The resulting chart disquiets him: the heir to Ellangowan, subject to Mars, would face hazards – ‘captivity, or sudden and violent death’ – aged 5, 10, and 21.
And what of Meg Merrilies’s prophecy? Mannering comes across her in the ruins of Ellangowan Castle. He hides ‘and could not help feeling, that her figure, her employment, and her situation, conveyed the exact impression of an ancient sybil’. Meg is spinning and singing:
‘While the mystic twist is spinning,
And the infant’s life beginning,
Dimly seen though twilight bending,
Lo, what varied shapes attending!’
The thread she spins is a means of prophecy, and her mystical actions coincide with Mannering’s divinations, but give a reassuring detail: ‘A hank, but not a haill ane – the full years o’ the three score and ten, but thrice broken, and thrice to oop (i. e. to unite); he’ll be a lucky lad an he win through wi’t’.
Mannering goes on his way, leaving his astrological prediction with the instruction ‘to keep it for five years with the seal unbroken, until the month of November was expired’.
And – spoiler! – the predictions come to pass. Meg has further instances of prophecy and second sight throughout the novel, but Mannering (who reappears later in the story) renounces his celestial gifts.
Our database (so far) has borrowers of Guy Mannering from the Advocates Library, Chambers’ Circulating Library, Orkney Library, and the Wigtown Subscription Library.
 John Aubrey, ‘Dedication’, in Miscellanies (London: Edward Castle, 1696) [accessed via EBBO, 26 Oct. 2022]. The Miscellanies explored phenomena beyond natural histories such as Aubrey’s Natural History of Wiltshire. See Michael Hunter, The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), p. 149.
 Hunter, Decline of Magic, p. 148.
 Ibid., p. 166. For a description of the manuscript versions, see Michael Hunter, The Occult Laboratory: Magic, Science and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2001), pp. 38-41.
 Quoted in Hunter, Decline of Magic, pp. 156-7.
 Lizanne Henderson, Witchcraft and Folk Belief in the Age of Enlightenment: Scotland, 1670-1740 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 40-41.
 Anne MacVicar Grant, Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlanders of Scotland (London: Longman, 1811), pp. 256-61.
 Walter Scott, Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer, 4th edn (Edinburgh, 1817), vol. 1, p. 4.
 Ibid., p. 54
 Ibid., p. 62.
 Ibid., p. 62.
 Ibid., p. 66.
 Ibid., p. 83.