The Brahan Seer

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The Brahan Seer

Sixteenth-or seventeenth-century Scottish seer named Coinneach Odhar (Kenneth Mackenzie). Although Coinneach Odhar is still spoken of and believed in as a seer throughout the Highlands of Scotland, and especially in the county of Ross and Cromarty, his reputation is of comparatively recent growth.

The first literary reference to him was made by Hugh Miller in his Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (1834). About half a century later, a collection of the seer's predictions was published by Alexander Mackenzie of Inverness, the author of several clan histories. Many of these alleged foretellings are of a trivial character. The most important prophecies attributed to Coinneach (Kenneth) are those that refer to the house of Seaforth Mackenzies.

One, which dates to the middle of the seventeenth century, foretold that the last of the Seaforths would be deaf. It was uttered at Brahan Castle, the chief seat of the Seaforths, near Dingwall, after the seer had been condemned to death by Lady Seaforth for some offensive remark. He declared to her lady-ship that he would go to heaven, but she would never reach it. As a sign of this he declared that when he was burned, a raven and a dove would hasten toward his ashes. If the dove was the first to arrive it would be proved his hope was well founded.

Notably, the same legend is attached to the memory of Michael Scott. According to tradition, Kenneth was burned on Chanonry Point, near Fortrose, although no record survives of this event.

The first authentic evidence regarding the alleged seer was unearthed by William M. Mackenzie, editor of Barbour's Bruce, who found among the Scottish parliamentary records of the sixteenth century an order, which was sent to the Ross-shire authorities, to prosecute several wizards, including Coinneach Odhar. This was many years before there was a Seaforth.

It is quite probable that Kenneth was burned, but the legendary cause of the tale must have been a "filling in" of late tradition. Kenneth's memory apparently had attached to it many floating prophecies and sayings, including those attributed to Thomas and Michael Scott. The sayings of "True Thomas" were hawked through the Highlands in Gaelic chapbooks, and so strongly did the bard appeal to the imaginations of the eighteenth-century folk of Inverness, that they associate him with the Fairies and Fingalians (Fians) of the local fairy mound, Tom-na-hurich.

A Gaelic saying runs, "When the horn is blown, True Thomas will come forth." Thomas took the place of Fingal (Finn or Fionn) as chief of the "Seven Sleepers" in Tom-na-hurich, Inverness. At Cromarty, which was once destroyed by the sea, Thomas is alleged to have foretold that it would be thrice destroyed.

Of course, the Rhymer was never in Cromarty and probably knew nothing about it. As he supplanted Fingal and Inverness, so at Cromarty he appears to have supplanted some other legendary individual. The only authentic historical fact that remains is that Coinneach Odhar was a notorious wizard of mature years in the middle of the sixteenth century. Wizards were not necessarily seers. It is significant that no reference is made to Kenneth in the letters received by Pepys from Lord Reay regarding second sight in the seventeenth century, or in the account of Dr. Johnson's Highland tour, although the learned doctor investigated the problem sympathetically.

There is little support for the "Brahan Seer" legends, especially when it is found that Kenneth died before the Seaforth branch of the Mackenzies came into existence. Whoever fore-told the fall of that house, it was certainly not the "notorious wizard" of the Scottish parliamentary records.

No doubt Kenneth made himself notorious by tyrannizing over a superstitious people in the sixteenth century and was remembered on that account. During his lifetime he must have been credited with many happenings supposed to have been caused by his spells. After his death his reputation for prophecy and piety snowballed through folklore, a not unfamiliar happening in the history of the Scottish Highlands, where Sir William Wallace, St. Patrick, St. Bean, and others were reputed to have been giants who flung glaciated boulders from hilltop to hilltop across wide glens and lochs.

One interesting aspect of the claimed visionary powers of the Brahan Seer is that he was said to use a white or blue stone in which he saw distant or future events, as in crystal gazing.


MacGregor, Alexander. Highland Superstitions. Eneas Mack-ay, 1901.

. The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer. Inverness, 1896. Reprint, London: Constable, 1977.

Miller, Hugh. Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland. Nimmo, 1834.

Sutherland, Elizabeth. Ravens and Black Rain. London: Con-stable, 1985.