Brahan Seer: the Scot who could see the future

by Bruce Munro

Re-enactment of Culloden Battle showing Jacobite fighters"Oh! Drumossie, thy bleak moor shall... be stained with the best blood of the Highlands."

These words were uttered many years before the armies of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke of Cumberland met at the Battle of Culloden, the decisive clash of the 1745-46 Jacobite uprising.

The prediction is attributed to be Kenneth Mackenzie, known as Coinneach Odhar in Gaelic, a 17th Century Highland prophet best known as the Brahan Seer.

As well as Culloden, it's said that the Seer foresaw more recent events such as World War Two and the Piper Alpha disaster. While many are sceptical about such powers, others question whether this man ever actually existed.

The Brahan Seer and the Seaforths

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The popular backstory of the Seer begins in the 17th Century. Born in Uig on the Isle of Lewis, he acquired his supernatural powers before moving to the mainland to work on the Brahan Estate near Dingwall in Ross-shire.

Both areas belonged to the Mackenzies of Seaforth, and it was the chief of this clan who was ultimately his undoing.

As Odhar was famed for his powers of prophecy, the Countess of Seaforth asked for news about her husband, the Earl, who was in France at the time. Odhar's response suggested that the Earl was being unfaithful his wife.

Enraged, she ordered that Odhar be burnt to death in a barrel of tar at the nearby Channory Point, just outside Fortrose on the Black Isle.

Before he died, however, he is alleged to have correctly predicted that this particular Mackenzie line was doomed to extinction. This final prophecy came to pass in 1815 when Francis Mackenzie died leaving no sons.

The Brahan Seer evidence

The problem, pointed out by a number of historians, is that there no documentary evidence of this man ever having existed.

There is, however, proof of someone called Coinneach Odhar being accused of witchcraft approximately 100 years earlier.

Brahan Seer memorial stone at Channory Point
Brahan Seer memorial at Channory Point

Court records from 1577 indicate this man was implicated, as a "principal enchanter", in a plot to kill the rightful heirs to the Munro clan at Foulis in Easter Ross.

If he was caught, it is likely he would have been punished at Fortrose since Foulis was within the jurisdiction of Fortrose Cathedral.

Therefore, this factual detail from the 16th Century fits with the location where the 17th Century Odhar supposedly died.

The Brahan Seer myth

So what is the relationship between these two figures who exist a century apart from each other?

Dr Alex Sutherland of the University of Aberdeen, argues that 16th Century Odhar was the basis of the myth that we now know as the Brahan Seer.

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This is an extremely persausive argument if the historical context of the 18th and 19th centuries is considered.

During the chaos of the clearances, powerless crofters could take solace from stories about an anti-establishment figure predicting misery on the chiefs who were evicting them.

Local author Elizabeth Sutherland, who has written about the Seer, agrees that this is indeed a factor, as is the storyteller's tendency to bend the truth in order to tell an interesting tale.

Historian Ted Cowan, from the University of Glasgow points out the nature of oral tradition has to be taken into account, with the same stories being attributed to different people over time.

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