Present Sense

Belief in second sight is still alive and well in Scotland particularly in rural communities. My own family is an exception to that rule as they come from one of the largest industrial cities in Europe. migrants from Ireland and the belief system last strongly through four generations.

If I use modern Scottish belief in second sight or the ‘evil- eye’ as it is popularly termed I have some difficulty relating it to the claim that second sight is not associated with melancholia. As the term evil- eye may suggest this form of vision is not considered to be a desirable quality to hold.

I will start with an extreme inflection regarding an encounter with the supernatural.

‘When youre grandfather and grandmother were visiting Donegal, they went for a walk on the hills with mad Uncle Peter. Just as they were about to pass a bend in the path, they heard a screaming sound. Mad Uncle Peter, knew it was a Banshee, ran back the cottage screaming and doused the four corners of the doors and windows with holy water and would not come outside for the rest of the holiday.

Meanwhile you’re Grandmother and Grandfather went around the bend on the mountain path and passed by a man with a very squeaky wheel barrow.’

A short comic tale originally told by my grandfather. I was told it by one of his daughters slight difference. It would appear to be an overtly skeptical take on the Banshee and the consequence of catching sight of such a creature (to see a Banshee is to learn that a death is about to occur). Yet I know my grandfather believed in the existence of such things and the with the property that such visions held, second sight. His daughters would potentially be more skeptical about the existence of banshee but not with the idea of second sight.

Mad uncle Peter is not mad because he sees banshee, nor would anxiety about a meeting with such a creature be viewed as unusual. It’s the regularity with which Uncle Peter saw such things which becomes the issue.

The next tale told about mad uncle Peter to make that point uses an identical formula, the trip to Ireland the walk on the hill although this time it is presented as “when mad uncle Peter met Jesus.”

Mad Uncle Peter is not mad because he see’s visions, Folk definition of his condition is in its repetition, the manner in which his encounters with the supernatural have become every-day.

What the story also contains are the methods that my grandparents generation deployed when they feared the banshee may visit. Illness among family members or close neighbours was a trigger for such anxiety.

Large quantities of holy water were always close to hand for such occasions and the four corners of doors and windows would be marked with a prayer.

Despite it’s skeptical take on mad uncle Peter the tale deploys a common method used in the modern world it hedges its bets. ‘I don’t know if its true or false but it does no harm to fall on the side of caution.’

This is a standard response when the tools used to dispel the taint that such vision bring are either discussed or deployed and the tale gives us both the correct methods to protect and the emotional state that should be expected to be felt.

When vision may be stimulated by other humans with the evil eye rather than supernatural entities differing strategies to ward of encounters are deployed. Social exclusion is the main one, the person with second-sight is avoided where possible.

“After I had to shake her hand I did not wash my hand for a week”

“I did not look her in the eye.” This information is punctuated with some indication of potential skepticism and doubt.

“I was not sure”…. “but you never but it does no harm….”

Doubt is expressed as this is presented as a form of evidence at the start of a group discussion. The goal is to determine with an acceptable level of proof that a member of the community holds the second sight and should therefore by excluded.

It’s the start of suspicion and the weakest form of proof that is going to be deployed.

‘When I met her I had this emotional response. I don’t know why, I felt something.’

In such deliberation and judgment further hard evidence is required. The consequences for an individual identified as having the second sight are serious: exclusion. These beliefs are the product of small tightly knit groups in which social cooperation is vital.

Proper judgement is essential here and significant care is taken with presenting evidence.

It is far removed from late 17th century descriptions which distance the sight from anxiety, despair and melancholia.

To have the eye, is a curse and a great sorrow in contemporary Scotland. Its social cost and the burden and stress it places on individuals identified as having such a curse are very really.

What contemporary examples and observation suggests is that the population in which such beliefs occur have a well-developed and managed system of information gathering and judging such issues.

Processes of becoming, the classification is intensely social and culturally mediated.

The final evidence in my contemporary example is physical a suitcase and a dress. It was deployed in the middle of what was roughly an hours discussion of the evidence.

The suspect was a relative visiting the community. During her visit three elderly relatives died. Before the night of the first funeral she had been witnessed opening a suitcase which contained a black dress and a black coat.

Physical and tangible nature of the evidence removes any doubt in everyone present. It is proof positive that she knew in advance that a death would occur.

Exclusion is the only course after such a public and visible declaration of power and knowledge that should be contained.


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