Seers and Witchcraft

Introduction

And then, too, there are the mists of the future, through which Highland seers may glimpse the unbelievable, but which kindly blind the ungifted.

The most famous, still, is Coinneach Odhar, The Brahan Seer, whose vision of his absent chief's entertainment in Paris so enraged the inquisitive Countess of Seaforth (who had "neither beauty, parts nor portion") that she ordered him burnt in a tar-barrel. Before the flame was put to the tar, his most famous prediction, The Doom of the House of Kintail, was uttered, heard, noted and memorized, to be repeated and discussed continually (for his fame was great) for more than a century before its fulfillment.

The Brahan Seer was not burnt as a warlock, for the faculty of second sight was accepted throughout the Highlands as unconnected with witchcraft. But witchcraft itself was believed by many to be a dreadful reality, and even at the highest levels in the kingdom it was feared as a potent political force. James VI was especially fearful, and believed the cult of the Dianists to be not only one of the greatest dangers to his throne, but also a danger to his soul. The comments on witchcraft at the royal court reproduced in this chapter are based on notes of conversations with the Lairds of Moncreiffe and of Buthlaw.

Second Sight

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 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 honors of his line are to be extinguished forever, 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 lass 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 Seaforth, the deaf and dumb chief. One shall be buck-toothed, another hare-lipped, another half-witted, and the fourth a stammerer. Chiefs like these shall be the neighbors of the last of the Seaforths; and when he looks around 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.

It is not easy today to appreciate the utterly helpless misery of a chief who, knowing from childhood the omens of the loss of four sons and the end of his line, must acknowledge the inevitability of fate and submit, without hope.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, born 1754, deaf and dumb from scarlet fever in 1766, succeeded as chief in 1783. His four sons predeceased him. Gambling losses and the failure of his West Indian investments then forced the sale of Kintail, the cradle of the Seaforth race, extinguishing with his "house" the "Mackenzie of Kintail" title.

The "white-coifed lass" (a girl in widow's weeds) was his eldest daughter, who returned from the East Indies fresh from the funeral of her husband, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood (coincidentally, a "coif" is a hood), to receive the remnants of her inheritance. A few years later, while driving her sister in a pony carriage, she lost control. Her sister died in the crash.

Witchcraft at Court

The granddaughter of James IV, Margaret Fleming, the daughter of Malcolm, 3rd Lord Fleming (by Janet Stewart, the illegitimate daughter of James IV by Agnes Stewart [who later married Adam Hepburn, 2nd Earl of Bothwell, and was great-grandmother of Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Hepburn, Arch-Dianist of Scotland]) was reputed to have magical powers and was said to have cast the pains of childbirth from the Queen of James VI upon Margaret, daughter of John Beaton of Creich, the wife of Arthur Forbes of Rires. At that time witches in Scotland "claimed to be able to cause and to prevent pregnancy, to cause and prevent easy delivery, and to cast the labor-pains on an animal or a human being" (often on the husband, which may account for some of their unpopularity). Margaret Fleming was thus probably a member of the Dianist cult considered by James VI to be one of the most dangerous menaces to his personal safety and his throne.

Margaret Beaton, Lady Rires, the proxy sufferer, had a sister Janet who was the third wife of Sir Walter Scot (known everywhere as "wicked Wat"), Laird of Buccleuch (1504-1552). She is alleged to have used witchcraft to influence Mary, Queen of Scots, to enter her disastrous marriage with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell. Margaret Fleming's son by her third marriage, John Stewart, 25th Earl of Atholl, was one of the conspirators who, in 1593, helped her to smuggle her great-grandson Francis Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, into the King's bedroom. It was at that time that Bothwell, as Arch-Dianist of Scotland, was recognized by most Scottish witches as the incarnation of their god, and as he had a possible claim to the throne (being the senior legitimated [born illegitimate] descendant of James V in the male line) he doubtless wielded his spiritual authority in pursuit of political ends. In 1591 a number of Dianists were charged with attempting to murder the King by witchcraft in order "that another might have ruled in His Majesty's place, and the government might have gone to the Devil," and although Bothwell escaped after only twenty days in prison, his co-accused went to the flames.

Bothwell was extremely fortunate. His grandfather, James V, had been less merciful with the nobility: Janet Douglas, granddaughter and sister of Earls of Angus, widow of John Lyon, 6th Lord Glamis, and daughter-in-law to Archibald Campbell, 2nd Earl of Argyll, young and beautiful enough to stir the mob's pity and eventual anger, was for the same charge, on Castle Hill in Edinburgh on 17 July 1537, burned alive. As one specialist in the reign of James VI has observed: "It is impossible to study the details of this period without realizing the extraordinary fear which James had of his cousin; it was fear with an underlying horror, totally different from his feeling towards his other turbulent subjects." When Bothwell entered Holyrood House in the early morning of 24 July 1593, assisted by Lady Atholl (Margaret Fleming's daughter-in-law), the King attempted to escape into the Queen's room, but found the way blocked by Bothwell's friends. One account of the incident states: "The King, seeing no other refuge, asked what they meant. Came they to seek his life? Let them take it: they would not get his soul." This remark, made in the urgency and excitement of the moment, is highly significant. Had Bothwell been, as many of the King's other enemies, merely an assassin, James would not have spoken of his soul. But Bothwell as the Devil had the right to demand his soul, and James was aware of the fact.

Another connection between Margaret Fleming and the Devil may be found in Agnes, Countess of Erroll, her niece by marriage, whose stepson, Francis, 9th Earl of Erroll, married Margaret's daughter Mary. Agnes (then the wife of Alexander Gordon of Stradoun, son of George, 5th Earl of Huntly) was brought to trial on 29 May 1596 on a charge of "resetting and inter-communing with Francis, Earl of Bothwell."

In 1588, when Archibald Douglas, 8th Earl of Angus, died in suspicious circumstances, leaving an only daughter, his wife, Jean, daughter of John Lyon, 8th Lord Glamis (and great-granddaughter of the Janet Douglas burned alive in 1537), was reputed to have collaborated with a notorious witch, Barbara Napier, for the purpose of putting an end to his life by sorcery. Barbara Napier went to the stake 8 May 1591 on this charge. His death was believed to have been financially beneficial to the husband of his sister Margaret, the Arch-Dianist Patrick Stewart, 5th Earl of Bothwell, (his sister having previously been married to the grandson of "Wicked Wat").

The fear King James had of witchcraft may account for some of the hostility towards the Earl of Gowrie and his family. Patrick, 3rd Lord Ruthven, his bastard brother-in-law, George Douglas (the pirate and future Bishop of Moray), and his son, William, the future Earl of Gowrie, were all involved in the murder of Riccio in 1566, when Mary herself was fortunate to escape being killed. The two Ruthvens were suspected of Dianism, and the younger (who successfully kidnapped the King and was executed for high treason in 1584) may well have been Bothwell's predecessor as the Arch-Dianist of Scotland, and perhaps his son, John, 3rd Earl of Gowrie (himself a necromancer) may have been deputy for Bothwell when he was absent abroad. The 3rd Earl's brothers, William and Patrick, even in their exile after 1600, pursued studies believed at that time to be generally associated with Dianism, and Patrick gave twenty years of his life to research into alchemy while imprisoned in the Tower of London.

The strength of the Ruthvens was ended by the dagger of John Ramsay of Wyliecleuch at Perth in August 1600, when King James, during a tussle with his handsome friend Alexander, Master of Ruthven, called for help, and Ramsay, his jealous page, dispatched both Alexander and his brother John, 3rd Earl of Gowrie, in what history came to call "The Gowrie House Mystery" (because the nature of the activities before the tussle developed were difficult to describe in school history books). Ramsay was knighted, then raised to the peerage, and was subsequently promoted to the rank of an earl: all fair rewards for tact and discretion.

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