Every country has had its prophets: Greece its Cassandra, Rome its Sybils, England its Nixon, Wales its Robin Ddu, and the Highlands their Kenneth Oaur … The predictions, say the good wives, have been fulfilled, and not a single breach in the oracular effusions of Kenneth Oaur.
The words of the English writer Thomas Pennant in the book of his Voyage to the Hebrides in 1772. He was describing one of the most famous characters in the Highlands to have been given the gift of the Second Sight. According to tradition, he was called, in Gaelic, Coinneaech Odhar (which roughly translates to Kenneth the Mottled and Pennant’s spelling is phonetic) and worked as a general labourer on the Brahan Estate near Dingwall, north of Inverness, during the latter half of the seventeenth century. There are no official records that can confirm this. In the official record, the only Coinneaech Odhar referred to are in writs issued by the parliament in 1577 for a gipsy enchanter who was wanted for arrest and prosecution, for supplying poison to a certain Catherine Ross who was ambitious to the point of murder to gain inheritance rights for her sons.
Who was the Brahan Seer?
As no official records place or date the birth of the Brahan Seer or his later life, we rely on hearsay and collected tales to form a coherent and credible story from the legend. The most widely recognised source is Alexander MacKenzie’s book The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer (Coinneach Odhar Fiosaiche), originally published in 1877 by the Celtic Magazine in Inverness.
Working with his friend, the Reverend Alexander MacGregor of Inverness, MacKenzie not only compiled a catalogue of all the known predictions uttered by the prophet but categorised them into definitely fulfilled, unfulfilled and those that might have been fulfilled if you interpret them a certain way! Reading through them, it is surprising to find how clear and precise the prophecies are. These are not obscure and difficult to interpret riddles; the Brahan Seer speaks of precise and distinct events.
Oh! Drummossie, thy bleak moor shall, ere many generations have passed away, be stained with the best blood of the Highlands. Glad am I 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.
The prediction of the Battle of Culloden and its disastrous outcome for highland people and the culture of the Gaelic speaking for north cannot be clearer. Even the most cynical of sceptics will be hard-pressed to sow doubt on this prophecy’s accuracy and clarity except to wonder whether he ever actually did say the words.
Indeed, the Brahan Seer was very unusual in the tradition of seers in the Gaelic Northwest and the Western Isles. He predicted a wide-ranging series of events from the highland clearances of the nineteenth century to the oil boom of the twentieth century.
The day will come when the jaw-bone of the big sheep, or ‘ caoiricli mhora,’ will put the plough on the rafters (air an aradh); when sheep shall become so numerous that the bleating of the one shall be heard by the other from Conchra in Lochalsh to Bun-da-Loch in Kintail they shall be at their height in price, and henceforth will go back and deteriorate, until they disappear altogether, and be so thoroughly forgotten that a man finding the jaw-bone of a sheep in a cairn, will not recognise it or be able to tell what animal it belonged to. The ancient proprietors of the soil shall give place to strange merchant proprietors, and the whole Highlands will become one huge deer forest; the whole country will be so utterly desolated and depopulated that the crow of a cock shall not be heard north of Druim-Uachdair; the people will emigrate to Islands now unknown, but which shall yet be discovered in the boundless oceans, after which the deer and other wild animals in the huge wilderness shall be exterminated and drowned by horrid black rains (siantan dubha). The people will then return and take undisturbed possession of the lands of their ancestors.
Most of the current interpretation does seem to fit the historical events not yet fulfilled at the time of MacKenzie’s documentation of the prophecy. It’s just the last bit about the “horrid black rains” that has me questioning the generally accepted interpretation that black rain represents oil and the oil boom with Scots émigrés returning to their homeland to work in the industry. Elsewhere I have found many instances of the phrase quoted as “a black rain will bring riches to Aberdeen.” However, I have as yet not found a source for this in academic or pre-twentieth century literature. The ubiquitous presence of the phrase across the internet demonstrates the evolution of a doubtful origin becoming regarded as a generally recognised matter of record. I look forward to being shown the true source of the Aberdeen phrase. The original phrase quoted above looks to altogether bleaker outcome yet to be fulfilled.
The advantages and disadvantages of hindsight
MacKenzie and MacGregor were compiling their work two hundred years after the events occurred. It is possible that they altered the predictions slightly to fit in with their interpretation of them. Culloden and the Jacobite revolution were recent history to them while yet unimagined in the time of the Brahan Seer. It must have been tempting to tidy up the text a little or for their sources to do so. Sometimes it can make for a better story not to test it too far.
Strange as it may seem to you this day, the time will come, and it is not far off, when full-rigged ships will be seen sailing eastward and westward by the back of Tomnahurich, near Inverness.
The prophecy about Tomnahurich is often the first saying of the Brahan Seer that we hear as we arrive in Inverness, the capital of the Highlands. MacKenzie, in his work, suggested that Coinneaech Odhar was actually a shrewd judge and thought a canal would be a good idea, as would roads and bridges throughout the region “there will be a road through the hills of Ross-shire from sea to sea, and a bridge upon every stream.” We call that progress, and the Brahan Seer might have foretold it out of the wisdom of his experience.
History may seem a logical progression with the perfect vision of hindsight, and I doubt that the Brahan Seer would have considered the Caledonian Canal and Wade’s Military Roads a logical development of the North Highlands in the way that MacKenzie did. He was not that clever because he died by revealing to his landlady the Lady Seaforth that her husband was philandering while away in France who had him burned to death in a barrel of tar on Chanonry Point.
The Brahan Seer story is so good that we want it to be true, and when you come and hear the tales in the context of the landscape where they became fulfilled, you will be in a better place to make up your own mind.