Friday, 24 April 2009

Archive: Highland Smugglers, Second Sight and Superstitions - Francis Thompson

Highland Smugglers, Second Sight and Superstitions
Francis Thompson

I saw this listed on one of my late night trawls of the internet and seeing as it was going cheap (and I was bored), I thought what they hey and clicked a few buttons and hey presto. It landed on my doorstep with a delicate thud a few days later.

I have to illustrate this review because the book itself is illustrated - generously throughout and to charming effect. And by 'charming' I don't just mean quaint, I mean to the point where some of them give me the giggles. The example given is one of my favourites, illustrating a story about a priest gifted with the two sights who happens on a bunch of women, somewhat worse for wear in the street after selling their fish at market and investing the proceeds to lubricate their dry throats. Raucous though they are, instead of reproaching them and disapproving of them as the church elders did, the priest brings out his fiddle and plays music for them to dance to. Merriment ensues. When questioned about his conduct, the priest tells the elders why should he not follow suit of the angels who were preparing their harps in heaven for one of the women in the group (and sure enough, she died within a week). Which is a typically cheery tale of seership, it seems.

Another of the pictures worth seeing is one of a witch, topless but cupping her breasts for modesty (and almost succeeding, were it not for her generous proportions) whilst looking decidedly pissed off at the devil-like fairies who'd congregated for the annual review of all the witches, warlocks, fairies and wizards of the area at Bealltainn.

It's more of a booklet than a book - very short at around 50 pages - and with all the illustrations it's hard to tell who the book is aimed for. It's short and sweet and very straightforward, so my guess would be for older teens still in school, or as one of these fairly throw-away books that often get sold in touristy shops. Either/or, really. Its simplicity and conversational tone make it an easy read, but at the same time it's a little too simplistic to be useful in some respects; no references are given at all, except a passing mention of a particular author like Martin Martin, nor are there any page numbers or a bibliography. This is a shame because for the most part it seems to be well researched, and there are even bits that I want to follow up about bannocks being made on Lewis at Bealltainn in the twentieth century.

The book is split into three sections - the first looking at the smugglers, the second looking at the second sight (aptly enough), and the third dealing with the superstitions of the title. In this case the superstitions are concerned with the seasonal festivals, and Thompson takes a brief look St Bride's Day, Shrovetide, Yule/Hogmanay, Samhainn and Bealltainn; the lack of any mention of Lùnasdal/Lammas is odd considering it was published in 1980, though. This section and the section on the second sight are the most relevant, but the first section gives some entertaining tales and a sense of the humour that could be found in hard times. For the most part there's nothing new to see in the third section on superstitions, and it suffers a little in that Thompson seems to go with the idea of everything harking back to the druids like McNeill does in The Silver Bough, but otherwise it goes into all the usual stuff you'd expect.

I found the section on the second sight to be very informative for what it was - I'm up to speed with the Brahan Seer in a vague sort of way but this helped give me something more concrete to go on, and Thompson was keen to stress that the Brahan Seer is not the be all and end all of Scottish prophecy (hence the tale illustrated above).

If you're looking for a straightforward overview then this book fits the bill if you're willing to put up with its faults. Although if you're not that au fait with terms involved in distilling whisky, like barm, then you might want a dictionary or google handy on occasion. The lack of references is frustrating though, because otherwise it would have been a really good book to recommend for beginners, for the introductory material and then the pointers to further sources. As it is, I'd only really recommend it if you stumbled across it cheap and thought it might be good to get an idea of some of the basics of second sight and the festivals in Scotland. Really, The Silver Bough or The Gaelic Otherworld is what you want, but at least this is a lot shorter so it could serve as an experiment to see if you're interest was piqued enough to invest in more expensive books, I suppose.