[From A Second Manx Scrapbook]



" The Matter of this Collection is beyond human reach we being miserably in the dark, as to the oeconomy of the invisible world, which knows what we do, or incline to, and works upon our passions, and is sometimes so kind as to afford its a glimpse of its praescience." (John Aubrey, in the Dedication of his " Miscellanies," 1696.)

1. Their Nature and Operation.

THE subject-matter of the present chapter consists of the relations human beings have with each other through abnormal channels, of communications with the dead, and of death-warnings. These contacts may be defined as the under-side or the over-side of ordinary human intercourse, according to preference. I do not know that they have ever been satisfactorily explained. In place of the response of the conscious intelligence to sense-impressions, knowledge is acquired through some intangible medium in which we may be imagined to live and move like fish in water. Nevertheless, this knowledge seems to its recipient, in most cases, to reach him through his physical senses, though in an unusual and profoundly disturbing way. It is therefore properly termed a secondary sight or hearing, touch or smell ; secondary, that is, from the usual standpoint, yet often more impressive than any normal vision and audition. Second sight and its concomitant kind of hearing differ again from the sights and sounds which can be deliberately evoked from the memory by an effort of the will; they are an unwilled activity of the unconscious mind. Independently of the percipient's wishes, the visions and the sounds imprint themselves on his perception of their own accord, as it seems. So also does the content of a day-dream or a brown study, but these lack the prophetic value which usually belongs to a seer's vision. His visionary experiences, though akin to ordinary dreaming, are not, as a rule, preceded by a suspension of outward consciousness ; they are not dependent on sleep ; but they bring with them a sleep of their own, inasmuch as they are vivid enough to obliterate external impressions and fill their place. While the seer sees he is blind to his surroundings. And naturally so, since that part of the brain which normally fashions images out of the stimuli supplied through the sensory nerves is then occupied with impressions reaching it through a different channel.

The sound of hammer or pick blows in a colliery can be heard through the solid wall between two connected galleries before it is repeated through the medium of the air along the galleries. The duplicated sounds in this case are broadly analogous to the visionary scene or symbol and its later fulfilment.

Second Sight is a sight within the mind which makes use of the physical eyes. The scene or symbol viewed by the seer may represent either a simultaneous but distant event or one which lies in the future or the past. The same distinction applies when the knowledge of an event reaches him through his hearing.

With these involuntary perceptions can be coupled the visions which are induced by artificial means, and visions occurring during sleep which are easily distinguishable from ordinary dreams. All these, when authentic, are functionings of the same faculty. Dr. Johnson, who was an incarnation of common sense, discussed the Second Sight which he met with in the Highlands as a fact and not as a vain superstition. He defined it as " an impression made either by the mind upon the eye, or by the eye upon the mind." Possibly he intended by this to include the two branches of foreknowledge-that acquired by actual vision, and that which comes through a symbol. If, however, he meant to offer two alternative definitions of Second Sight, the former, " an impression made by the mind upon the eye," is the preferable one ; for though we might at a pinch concede the possibility of some mirage-like projection upon the retina when the image seen is that of a living person or of an event in progress at the time, to see something in the past or the future does not admit of a purely physical explanation, any more than do the prophetic images or pictures seen by clairvoyants in the shapes taken by natural objects, in globes of beryl, bowls of water, pools of ink, or any substance which acts as a focus.

The last-mentioned mode of supernatural vision involves some conscious effort, or at the least a deliberate expectation of a visual message. To seers of this positive type perception often comes indirectly, in the form of a symbol which requires interpretation. It may be that the second half of Dr. Johnson's definition, " by the eye upon the mind," was framed to include this complementary branch of the faculty.

Between Second Sight and other kinds of supernatural vision which is not due to hallucination it would be difficult to draw a sharp line. Each is an effect of the unconscious mind acting upon the senses ; each suspends normal consciousness, or greatly narrows its field, while in operation ; certain varieties of each can be induced by suggestive conditions and formalities. One quality, however, characterizes Second Sight which is absent from the seeing of " apparitions " and fairies : its visions are reflected from actual occurrences in the world of humanity. They are revelations of something which has, has had, or will have, a substantial existence, and they carry a meaning and a message which relate to human affairs.

Yet the sympathy existing between Second Sight and other kinds of supernatural vision is apt to cause confusion of the one with the other. Take for an example the case of the man who saw the fairies working a railway in Santon twenty years before the first Manx line was laid down.1 What was essentially an experience in Second Sight took the form of a fairy spectacle. The gift of the Sight has indeed been attributed to the fairies, as well as to the Devil.

Second Sight and its allied faculties testify to a power possessed, probably, in a latent state by all human beings and irregularly active in a few; a power which in varying degrees frees the mind from the limitations of time and space, and enables it to range up and down the chain of coexistent causes and effects. The ability to prophesy at large, though akin to ordinary clairvoyance and clairaudience, is more continuous and of a higher order. Of this fuller illumination St. Columba gave one of his disciples a lucid account. " Some there are, though very few, to whom Divine grace has granted this : that they can clearly and most distinctly see, at one and the same moment, as though under one ray of the sun, even the entire circuit of the whole world with its surroundings of ocean and sky, the inmost part of their mind being marvellously enlarged."2" From his youthful years," says his biographer, " he began to excel in the spirit of prophecy, to foretell things to come, and to announce to those who were present things that were happening at a distance ; though absent in body he was yet present in spirit, and could perceive things done far away " ; 3 powers which St. Adamnan illustrates by a text from i Corinthians vi. 17: " He who cleaveth unto the Lord is one spirit." And, truly, it may be said of all these abnormal sense-impressions and subjective sources of knowledge that the more deeply they are probed the more surely they are found to converge towards a common impersonal centre.

Columba's gift, which was the efflorescence of a highly spiritual nature, came much nearer to being continuous and controllable than that of the ordinary seer ; but it is interesting to observe how prominent among the wonderful traits recorded of him in the 6th and 7th centuries are two kinds of foreknowledge characteristic of modern Manx and Scottish Second Sight ; namely, the foreknowledge of another's death, and of the imminent arrival of a stranger. His spiritual illumination (if we may credit Adamnan here) once even enabled his disciples to dispense with the drudgery of proof-reading.

These psychical or mediumistic communications of ordinary seers, then, crystallize into visions differing from those which picture fairies, phantoms, and the forms of things unknown. They are the impinging of human beings, alive or dead, upon a living subject through the physical senses functioning in an unusual way. The knowledge of circumstances or events, inaccessible to the seer's ordinary consciousness, which they convey, reaches him rather through the soul than through the intellect ; or, if the equation will pass, through the stomach rather than through the brain. Like visions of creatures populating a non-human world, these intimations through a channel outside the normal senses have been in continuance for innumerable centuries ; they are the occasional results of a permanent faculty of the human mind. Whether they are more active in the Isle of Man than elsewhere, and whether their activity is increasing, decreasing, or constant through the superficial changes in social life and mental outlook, would need too much space to discuss. Considered from the personal side, such subjective and evanescent experiences stamp themselves on the memory for the rest of the percipient's life, and become part of it in a degree that is only equalled by the most violent impressions from without. The more nearly, it would seem, an experience comes to being purely physical, the more fleeting is its impression on the mind.

Of the supernormal faculties the Sight, in particular, is often found, in varying degrees of fullness, in persons of comparatively low intellectual powers, rarely in those capable of much abstract or analytical thinking.4 A devout temperament is its most congenial soil, and it does not appear in persons of evil or perverted will. It is commoner in men than in women, so well as one can judge, an unexpected feature in an instinctive and self-acting function. Though it is far from being confined to the Islands and Highlands of Scotland,5 it seems to have been and still to be most prevalent there and most dramatic in its manifestations; and perhaps it is to the Scottish strain in their ancestry that some of the Manx people owe that power of prevision which comes to them in sleep, or in waking moments when the mind is open to influences other than those of the superficial workaday world. Higden's Polvchronicon tells us how a native Manx seer could transfer his vision to a foreigner. It is the Scottish method likewise. In a story of which the circumstances belong to the Isle of Lewis in the year 1662 or 1663, a Lewis man sets his foot on that of a man from the East of Scotland, and so enables him to see the predicament of a vessel then about a hundred miles away, in which he is financially interested; " but when the countryman's foot was off he saw nothing."6 I mention this illustration of a well-known practice because it reverses the more usual method of creating a link of sympathy which was used in the Isle of Man, where the stranger's foot was placed on that of the seer. The 17th-century writer, the Rev. John Fraser, from whose treatise on Second Sight the Lewis story is extracted, was a friend of William Sacheverell, a name familiar to those who read Manx history. Sacheverell collected many anecdotes of the Sight in the Isle of Man, and the two men, Fraser says, compared notes on the subject. It is safe to say that they might have used each other's notes, names and places excepted, without misrepresenting either of the regions concerned.7

An early 16th-century Welsh manuscript quoted by Rhys (Celtic Folklore, page 330) says: "In this island [Man] one beholds in the light of day people who have died. . . . And if strangers desire to see them, they have to stand on the feet of the natives of the land, and in that way they would see what the latter had seen." The passage on which this is based can plainly be recognized in Blundell's History of the Isle of Man, chapter xxii., where he quotes from " Caxton " in reference to an old Manx law-custom, viz. the setting by the plaintiff of his foot on the defendant's foot. Of this Blundell says : " Whence it had first beginning I know not, but I find it in another case to have been a very ancient ceremony practised in the Isle of Man, but very superstitiously, for both Ranulf of Chester, and Caxton in his description of England, hath written, ' that in the Island of Man, oftentimes even in the daytime, the Islanders did see men that had been dead, either without a head, or the body entire, and what manner of Death they died. But Aliens, to see this Sight, were to sett foot upon the foot of a Manksman, or otherwise they could not see these Sights that the Natives did see.' " (" Ranulf " is Ralph Higden.)

The Teutonic Mythology (pages 1107 and 1112) has some remarks which shed a little light on the Manx usage, though in Germany it is not merely the particular vision which is thus transmitted, but the visionary power as a whole. Seers in that country " can impart their gift to him that treads on their right foot and looks over their left shoulder ; this was apparently a very ancient, even a heathen, posture ; it was a legal formality in taking possession of cattle. . . . The first child christened at a newly-consecrated font receives the power to see spirits and coming events, until some one shall from idle curiosity tread on his left foot and look over his right shoulder, when the gift will pass away to him . . . even to the dog the gift descends, if you tread on his right foot and make him look over your right shoulder."

In a story current in Guernsey the foot-on-foot nexus is used for a different purpose. A man who has the power of flying invisibly to and from his daily work takes a friend as well, after bidding him place a foot on one of his, clasp him tightly round the waist, shut his eyes, and speak no word.8

In the legend of the Breton St. Yves, he shares his miraculously keen hearing with a disciple by allowing the latter to place a foot on his own.

A Cardiganshire story adapts the idea to the familiar theme of the fairy house situated beneath the dwelling of the human folk. The fairy-man gets the farmer to put his foot on the fairy's own foot, to enable the man to see how the slops from his house went down the chimney of the fairy's house, " which stood far below in a street he had never seen before."9

In addition to the natural inheritance of a tendency towards visionary and prophetic inspiration, there are traces in folk-lore that initiation by external yet supernatural means was understood to be possible. The Manx people in former times held a belief, of which a memory still lingers, that once in several years the rising sun flashed on the world a momentary ray or tincture of his light which was charged with a special potency. If a glimpse could be caught of this portent it conferred on the lucky beholder some benefit in the nature of Second Sight or divinatory power, or occult knowledge of some kind. As it was necessary that the sun should be seen in the very act of rising, it may be supposed that it was coming up out of the sea, and I take the belief to have resulted from the acquaintance of a race of fishermen and herdsmen with the natural phenomenon generally called " the Green Ray " or " the Green Flash." A number of letters on this subject appeared in The Times during the second fortnight of August, 1929, during the course of which a scientific explanation of the " ray " was put in simple terms by one of the correspondents. It can be seen when conditions are favourable at either sunrise or sunset, and is due to refraction of light from the sun just below the horizon. Green is the most vivid colour in its composition and therefore the most frequently observed. Reminded by the descriptions in The Times correspondence that natives of the Isle of Man used to place a mystical interpretation on something very like the Green Ray, I addressed an inquiry to the paper about this aspect of the matter. My letter elicited one response only,* but it furnished the desired details, which are appended here as a valuable contribution to Insular folk-lore:* In the issue of 10th September, 1929.

To the Editor of The Times.

SIR,-I should like to corroborate the statement of your correspondent Mr. Gill, in your issue of 30th August, that something like the green flash appears occasionally in Manx folk-lore. The old Manx name for it was soilshey-bio, or " living light " ; and I have gathered the impression, without having been actually told so, that it was thought to be an emanation of the sun's life in much the same way as the " living image," or apparition of a living person, is believed to be an emanation of the personality or will. The soilshey-bio is, however, sometimes taken as a warningsign. In several fragments taken down by me from Manx fisherfolk, the " flash " was seen at sunrise on the morning preceding a wreck of one or more boats, sometimes by a relative of men actually lost and in other cases by the men themselves, who took the warning and withdrew from the fated enterprise.

Perhaps the real significance of this danger-signal aspect of the soilshey-bio may be a belief that it conferred upon the watcher a kind of second-sight, enabling him or her to apprehend coming events. At any rate, the " flash " certainly also had its beneficial side in popular belief, and in this aspect it was made use of by the old " charmers ' or " witch-doctors " who flourished in the island until recently. It was believed by them that if this strange ray fell upon certain medicinal herbs and they were gathered immediately afterwards they acquired an almost miraculous power. I had this belief directly from a very old man who was, I should think, about the last survivor of the "charmers," and who claimed to be able to cure " all diseases of body or mind in man, woman or child," provided that the sufferer came to him in good time and that he did not " see the sign of death " on him or her. This man also told me that if any person could find what he called " the herb of life " at the moment when it was touched by the soilshey-bio, death would never touch him or anyone to whom he gave a portion of the herb to eat.

Yours faithfully,

Isle of Man. MONA DOUGLAS.

I do not know how far the old Manx conception of the " ray " as a tongue of fire bestowing its gift of inner vision and soothsaying on the lucky beholder is to be related to another and more definable portent seen in the morning sky. Here, again, I am only able to give a hearsay description, not the first-hand evidence of an eye-witness. The correspondent whose letter has just been cited has retained from her childhood a family tradition of " old tales which speak of some tremendous being with his body shining like water and all colours of the rainbow, who could be seen in the sky on play morning, but others say at Midsummer dawn; and my own grandmother . . . told me that she herself had once seen it on Easter morning, and had been very much afraid. But all the versions agree that it was a dawn apparition." The beliefs held in Britain and on the Continent that the sun danced or gave three leaps when it rose on Easter Day, and the Somerset tradition that a lamb could then be seen in it, may be further fragments of some myth which formed part of a system of sun-worship.

So fertile is the Isle of Man in experiences produced by supernatural sight and hearing that I shall restrict myself mainly to instances of foreknowledge and afterknowledge which have been related to me by the actual percipients. Exceptions to this rule will be clearly distinguished as such. I have been careful to use the statements of those persons only of whose sincerity I feel assured. Some of the examples date so far back as forty years ago, others are so recent as last year. All but one were written down immediately after I heard them.


1 Roeder, Lioar Manninagh, iii., 155.

2 Adamnan's Life of Columba, bk. I., ch. xliii.

3 Bk 1., ch i.

4 A notable exception to this dictum was Jacob Boehme, during the later part of his life.

5 Ennemoser's History of Magic mentions cases of it in Denmark, chiefly on the coast. In Germany it is concerned largely with the same phenomena as in the Isle of Man. " To this day," says Grimm (Teut. Myth., page 1107), " there are families that" have the peculiar gift of foreseeing what will happen, especially fires, deaths and corpses."

6 Sir George Douglas, Scottish Fairy Tales, page 211.

7 Sacheverell in his Account of the Isle of Man (1703) says that the gift was hereditable and could be transmitted from father to son in the course of nature. From my own observation I have no doubt the visionary tendency does, in Man, run in families. In Germany, Grimm says, it descends from mother to daughter, from father to son.

8 MacCulloch, Guernsey Folk-lore, page 337.

9 Celtic Folklore, page 230.


Back index next

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2004