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Scotland's Nostradamus


by Eric Shackle

"When the ninth bridge crosses the Ness, there will be fire, flood and calamity," the Brahan Seer predicted some 300 years ago. The ninth bridge was built in 1987. Within two years: the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea exploded, killing 167 oil workers (fire); the 127-year-old rail bridge across the Ness was washed away (flood); an American aircraft crashed in flames on Lockerbie, with a loss of 279 lives (calamity).

Coincidence, scoff the sceptics. Well, how about this time-defeating and mind-boggling  news tip, which must have seemed ridiculous when it was made? "When five spires should rise in Strathpeffer, ships will sail over the village and anchor to them."  In the 1850s it was proposed that an Episcopal church be built. Because there were already four spires in Strathpeffer, a petition was presented to the rector asking that another should not be built. However St Anne's Church was erected with a spire, taking the total to five... Shortly after the First World War, a small airship appeared at the Strathpeffer Games. It dropped a grapnel which became entangled in one of the spires, thus anchoring to them.

The Brahan Seer, whose real name is variously quoted as  Kenneth, Kennoth or Coinneach Mackenzie, Coinneach (dun-coloured Kenneth) Odhar, and Keanoch Owir, worked as a labourer on the Brahan Estate, seat of the Seaforth chieftains. He saw future events by peering not into a crystal ball, but through a hole in a curious small bluish-black stone.

"He talked of great black, bridleless horses, belching fire and steam, drawing lines of carriages through the glens," says the author of Troubled Times. "More than two hundred years later, railways were built through the Highlands and the name of the Brahan Seer was spoken in awe.  Streams of fire and water, he said, would run beneath the streets of Inverness and into every house. Gas and water pipes were laid down in the 19th century.

"As his fame spread, Coinneach Odhar's predictions became more and more bizarre. He spoke of huge ships sailing through the Great Glen, all the way across Scotland. The Caledonian Canal was the fulfilment of his vision centuries later.

"He predicted that Tomnahurich, the fairy hill of Inverness, would be barred and locked: 'One day the Fairy Hill will be under lock and key and the fairies will be secured within." In 1860 the place was turned into a cemetery and, in Victorian fashion, it was surrounded by iron railings and a gate which was locked at night.

"North Sea oil was foretold: 'A black rain will bring riches to Aberdeen.' Coinneach Odhar spoke of the day when Scotland would once again have its own Parliament. This would only come, he said, when men could walk dry shod from England to France. The opening of the channel tunnel which allowed just such a walk was followed a few years later by the opening of the first Scottish Parliament since 1707."

Another Web site, run by Jim McIntosh, of Edderton, Ross-shire, says "He foretold the battle of Culloden Muir in 1746, the last battle fought on British soil, when the Hanoverian forces finally defeated the royalist army of Prince Charles Edward Stuart:  'Oh! Drumossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad I am 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."

Perhaps the Seer's most unlikely prediction was  "The day will come when the Mackenzies of Fairburn shall lose their entire possessions; their castle will become uninhabited and a cow shall give birth to a calf in the uppermost chamber of the tower."

With the passage of time, Fairburn Tower became a ruin and in 1851, was being used by a farmer to store hay when a cow calved in the garret. "The prophecy was so well known that people came via railway to Strathpeffer or Muir-of-Ord and then by coach to see the cow." according to The Legend of the Brahan Seer on the Web site of the Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK.

"She had gone up the tower following a trail of hay, had a good feed at the top and became stuck. She gave birth to a fine calf and both were taken down some five days later, allowing enough time for the incredulous to come and see the prophecy fulfilled for themselves. Such an odd thing for the Brahan Seer to have predicted. Sceptics say that he could have second guessed the Caledonian Canal but surely not this."

Tragically,  one of the Seer's most  incredible predictions led to his death.  Here's the story, as recounted in Troubled Times :

Isabella, wife of the Earl of Seaforth and said to be one of the ugliest women in Scotland, asked for his advice. Described as being "without art, nor part nor portion",  this lady was justifiably suspicious of her husband's late return from a visit to Paris.

Coinneach re-assured her that the Earl was in good health but he was unusually reluctant to go into further detail. Knowing the worst but determined to hear it from another, Isabella threatened to have him killed unless he revealed all he knew.

Never having had much time for the nobility, often comparing their children unfavourably with dogs, Coinneach let her have it with both barrels. "Your husband," he said, "is this moment with another who is fairer than yourself... The line of Seaforth will come to an end in sorrow. I see the last head 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 forever, that no future chief of the Mackenzies shall bear rule at Brahan or in Kintail.

"His inheritor will be a white-coifed lass who will kill her sister. As a sign 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 neighbours of the last of the Seaforths; and when he sees them, he may know that his sons are doomed to death, that his lands shall pass away to the stranger, and that his race shall come to an end."

The Seer's prediction was fulfilled when Francis Humberston Mackenzie, deaf and dumb from scarlet fever as a child, inherited the title in 1783. The white-coifed lass was his eldest daughter, widow of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood whose arms bore a white hood or coif. She later lost control of a pony and trap which killed her sister.

That was the Seer's last prediction. It so enraged Isabella that she ordered her guards to seize him. Screaming that he had insulted both her husband and herself by his lies, she had the guards drag him to the courtyard and throw him head-first into a barrel of boiling tar.

Is this saga of the Seer fact or fiction? Sceptics claim it's all based on folklore handed down orally and embellished from generation to generation, with little documentation. Romantics like to think it's all true.

"The Brahan Seer's prophecies have an uncanny track record," said photographer/writer Willie Shand in The Scots Magazine in March 2000.  "Some, like his visions ... may be put down to educated guesswork. Others are so fantastic that they defy any rational explanation. How, in the 17th century, was he able to predict Culloden or the Second World War with such amazing accuracy? To his fellow countrymen, the Highland prophet is held with an esteem second only to their religious belief. However ridiculous his prophecies may sound, they have been proven right far too often to be dismissed."

[That sums it up in a nutshell. Before leaving this strange story, take a look at Willie Shand's great photos of the places mentioned by the Seer. You'll find them by clicking on his feature article in The Scots Magazine. - ES]

Jim McIntosh, of Edderton, Ross-shire
Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK


The Brahan Seer lived about the same time as that better-known French futurist, Nostradamus (1503-1566), who wrote his predictions in cryptic stanzas which can be interpreted in many ways.

Italian genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), probably the most versatile man of all time, had brilliant ideas, theoretical and applied, which foreshadowed many later inventions, including  airplanes, submarines, steam engines and the camera.

Frenchman Jules Verne (1828-1905), possibly the world's first science fiction writer (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Mysterious Island) foresaw many scientific and technical developments.

Few long-range forecasters can compete with that great English poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1883) whose poem Locksley Hall, first published in 1842, forecast the use of flying machines in trade and war. He wrote the poem more than 60 years before the Wright brothers took their home-built machine  for a 12-second, sustained flight, in December 1903. That was the first successful, powered, piloted flight in history. Tennyson's poem contained these memorable lines:

For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue.

Copyright 2001.   Eric Shackle   Story first posted June 2001.

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