“In the farm-house of T—, where I spent my youth, there lived an old woman named Elspeth M’Kinnon, who was accounted famous for the gift of second sight. Now this old crone was the object of my greatest aversion. Not only was she in the highest degree witchlike in her appearance, being dwarfish in stature, bent almost double, small-eyed, wide-mouthed, and having a sharp chin fringed with a beard, but she was always sitting away in odd nooks and corners peering out at one with eyes glaring and cat-like in their expression, and muttering to herself in a language wholly unintelligible to other ears than her own. “Had I been permitted to have my own way I am afraid old Elspeth would never have been allowed to pass the remainder of her days at T—, but fortunately for her those in authority did not regard her in the same unpleasing light that I did. They considered her to be a poor helpless creature who had a claim on their kindness owing to her having been for many years a servant in my father’s family, and they reverenced her as a seer.
It is, perhaps, needless to tell you that Elspeth prided herself on her reputed gift, which it seems she inherited from her mother; and nothing enraged her so much as when any one doubted, or feigned to doubt, her prophetic powers.
“Boy-like, I loved to tease her upon this point, pretending that I was similarly endowed like herself; that whilst wandering amongst the mountains I had seen singular visions, and I would ask her with a mocking laugh what she thought they portended. Elspeth’s sole answer when thus pressed would be a torrent of reproaches, coupled with warnings of hideous evils which would assuredly overtake me for my wicked unbelief and ridicule of her powers.
“One autumn morning, as I was standing in a barn looking on while some men were grinding corn, a servant girl came in with the intelligence that Elspeth had just told her to stand on one side of the road, as she saw a ‘gathering’ with a corpse on a bier passing by. And that on her saying she did not believe in such things, Elspeth told her that the funeral would soon take place, and that her mother and several others (naming them) would follow the bier. She also described the tartan of the plaid which lay over the corpse.
“Running out of the barn I came upon Elspeth cowering under a hedge, moaning and muttering to herself in her usual strange fashion, when, to make use of her own words, ‘she was under the power of the sight.’ ‘Ha! ha! Elspeth,’ I shouted in derision, ‘and so you have just seen a vision—a bier covered over with a plaid—and what like was the plaid, Elspeth?’
“‘It was red,’ shrieked the beldame, glaring at me with the look of a tigress; ‘red, checkered with green and blue. But grey will be the one just over you, when, in company with another prettier than yourself, you are brought down cold and stiff from the heights of Scuir-na-Gillean!’ [“The hill of the young men.”] ‘Thank you, Elspeth; I am glad you have promised me such a comfortable wrap.’
“This mocking rejoinder drew down upon me a fresh torrent of abuse, which I did not tarry to listen to.
“Those among you who believe in ‘second sight’ will not be surprised when I tell you that Elspeth’s prophecy in regard to the ‘gathering’ that was to be was fulfilled to the very letter, and that within a week after she had given utterance to it. It chanced that a young man residing in a neighbouring cottage was accidentally drowned, and being known to all the residenters in the vicinity of T—, he was followed to the grave by the very people named by Elspeth, and his bier was covered with a plaid checkered as she described.
“Still this strange coincidence by no means cured me of my scepticism. What more likely, I thought, than that when the poor fellow was drowned, his friends, recalling to mind Elspeth’s prophecy, should contrive to aid its fulfilment by appointing these persons she named to follow the bier! And every cottage containing one or more plaids it would be easy to procure one similar in pattern to that described by Elspeth.
“Perfectly satisfied in my own mind that such was a correct explanation of the affair, I only laughed at the more than reverential awe with which Elspeth was now regarded by those credulous enough to place faith in her predictions.
“Shortly after this I went south for a few weeks. On my return I was accompanied by a young Englishman named Vernon, who was desirous of learning something of sheep farming under my father’s instructions. A stranger to mountain scenery, the weird grandeur of the Coolins so delighted him that he was never weary of gazing on their rugged summits when dimly seen through the driving clouds or rose-coloured mists of evening.
“Of a bold adventurous disposition, young Vernon frequently expressed the wish that together we should ascend their giddy heights ere a snowstorm rendered such a feat impracticable. Equally desirous myself of achieving such an undertaking which, as you are well aware, is accounted rather a hazardous one from the frequent avalanches of gigantic stones which crash in every direction, thereby imperilling life and limb, one fine October morning we started on our expedition, which, as agreed upon between us, was carried out sub rosa. We had a mile of hard climbing to encounter ere we reached the mountains; and to us unskilled mountaineers this was by far the most fatiguing part of the undertaking. Our breath came short and thick, and so great was the oppression on our chests that we felt as though we must succumb. Gradually, however, this unpleasant feeling wore off, and by the time we arrived at the foot of the Coolins it had entirely disappeared.
“‘Now for the tug of war,’ said Vernon at sight of the grim barren-looking mountains towering up from our very feet, their wild and savage appearance rendered still more perceptible at our near approach. Nothing daunted, however, onwards we went, and now it was climbing in good earnest. Our progress might not unfrequently be described as that of one step forward and two backward: the loose shingle yielding beneath our feet occasioned this rather unsatisfactory mode of progression. The higher we ascended the greater the difficulties we had to encounter; and in many instances the peril became extreme when the narrow pathway by which we advanced led us to the brink of some giddy precipice where one false step would have precipitated us down into an unfathomable abyss.
“When near the top of the mountain I observed a solitary peak rising up behind the others, and evidently a good deal higher than those surrounding it. Pointing it out to Vernon, I said, ‘Once on that pinnacle we have achieved something to be proud of.’ He smiled assent, and we pushed onward, determined to do or die. After two hours and a half’s incessant clambering we stood upon the summit, panting and breathless, yet esteeming ourselves amply rewarded for our arduous ascent. The mighty Coolins, naked, lofty, and precipitous, surrounded on all sides this strange-looking peak, which we found to our great disappointment unscalable. Taglioni herself would have hesitated to execute a pas seul on the giddy pinnacle, whose point seemed to us fine as that of a needle, It towered up from the centre of the Coolins, solitary in its height and obelisk-like appearance, whilst its sides were polished as those of marble. The surrounding scenery was sublime. Lochs and mountains in endless variety met our gaze. Wherever we turned there was something to admire or wonder at in the freaks of nature.
“Whilst intensely enjoying the beauties surrounding us, imagine our horror at beholding a dense mass of cloud advancing towards us with rapid strides. There was something terrific in its appearance as it sped over the sea, enveloping the sun in its dusky folds, which, now of a fierce lurid red, seemed like an incensed magician glaring at us in anger for having invaded his dominions. In an instant, as it seemed, everything was hidden from view. Mountains, loch, glens, all had disappeared, and we were thoroughly wet, as though we had been submerged in one of the lochs we were so recently admiring.
“The cold on the top of the mountain had now become so intense that our faces were quite excoriated, and there being no further inducement for us to remain, we prepared to descend. Some large flakes of snow were now in the air. We quickened our steps in alarm, for one of us at least was but too familiar with the horrors of a Highland snow-storm.
“Not far from the summit we met two shepherds who had come up in quest of their fleecy charge, many of which lay dead around. In our eagerness to accomplish the descent in safety, we only tarried to make some inquiries respecting the path by which to descend, and to ask the name of the mountain on which we stood. At mention of Scuir-na-Gillean I could not restrain a cry of surprise. Old Elspeth’s prophecy flashed across my mind, and now it seemed about to be accomplished. Was I not on the heights of Scuir-na-Gillean, in company with a friend, and surrounded on all sides with indications of a coming snow-storm, which, unless we were enabled to accomplish the descent in less than half the time it took to ascend, might yet prove our winding-sheet!
“Through the glimmer of the fast-darkening day I seemed to see old Elspeth’s skinny hand pointed at me in scorn, and to hear her mocking laugh rise and mingle with the storm now moaning at a distance amongst the wild glens and rocks. As the concluding words of her prediction rose to my recollection, I grasped Vernon by the wrist with a vice-like grasp and plunged madly down the mountain.
“Some three or four hours afterwards we were discovered by other shepherds lying underneath the shelter of a huge beetling crag, whither we had crept for safety, not dead, but with the life in us frozen. And the shepherds fold us tenderly in their plaids and bear us in safety to our home, for their feet are familiar with the windings of each giddy path, and their dogs, in their wondrous instinct, are guides that err not.
“Ever after that memorable day I permitted old Elspeth to predict as many deaths and marriages as she pleased without further molestation from me—for had not her prophecy in respect to myself been literally fulfilled?
“Grey was the colour of the plaid which covered me when, in company with another prettier than myself, I was brought down cold and stiff from the heights of Scuir-na-Gillean.”
The Psychological Review, August, 1882: pp. 118-122
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: To be Relentlessly Informative, the mountain is Sgùrr nan Gillean in the Cuillin range on the Isle of Skye. The reality of Second Sight is a fact of life for many on the Isle and throughout Scotland and, like the unnamed young idiot of the tale above, one defies it at one’s peril. He was singularly fortunate in the ambiguity of Elspeth’s Second Sight prophecy and one hopes that he was grovellingly courteous to that lady afterwards. But “I permitted old Elspeth” does not suggest that he took any lesson whatever from his near-death experience.
The “Phantom Funeral” is a particularly common Sight. This footnote to the story gives details:
That invisible funerals—that is, invisible to all save those gifted with the “second sight”—always precede real ones, is a favourite belief with the lower class of Highlanders in the islands of Tiree, Mull, and Skye. The writer of this paper was once solemnly assured by an inhabitant of Mull that a friend of hers was repeatedly knocked down one evening while coming along a road then occupied by a train of spiritual mourners.
That funereal-minded person over at Haunted Ohio has written several posts that tell of phantom funerals: Phantom Funerals and Tokens of Death. A most unsettling and unpleasant thing to meet in the road…
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.