This piece was first published in SR in 1998
As a journalist I am a professional sceptic. As the son of a journalist, my scepticism began in infancy. I vividly remember, even before I went to school, being asked to convey home a boy, nearly twice my age, because there was an aurora and he thought it was the angels dancing. Displays of aurora were frequent in my childhood because the canny burghers of Stornoway switched off the street lights when there was a moon. My childhood was punctuated with showers of meteorites and vivid displays of the Northern Lights as I came home from my granny's house on the seafront, snuggling under my father's coat. I will come back to the aurora later. It lies at the core of what I want to say.
My disbelief has been assailed by several incidents I find it hard to understand. My maternal grandfather, a ship's mate, was firmly convinced that his brother-in-law spoke to him from beyond the grave as he crossed the Bay of Biscay. John Smith's ship was lost with all hands in that area. Years later, my grandfather dreamt that John Smith came to him as he slept and asked him to assure the owner of the boat, a Stornoway man, that he had not been at fault. It is easy enough to rationalise that incident. My grandfather would have a fair idea that he was near the place where John Smith's ship was lost. That fact itself may have inspired the dream.
An Australian cousin, of whom I was very fond, was firmly convinced that she had a second sight. She gave me many instances. During the Second World War she was told officially that her uncle, an engineer in the Canadian navy, had been lost at sea. She refused to believe it, asserting he was alive and well in Nova Scotia. Her minister rebuked her for raising false hopes for her grieving mother. My cousin persisted in the story and in due course it proved to be correct. Her uncle's ship was torpedoed but he was picked up and landed in Nova Scotia.
Nothing as dramatic as that has ever happened to me but I had a strange experience in the middle of Princes Street. In the Overseas Club to be precise. My wife and I were going to our bedroom. The reception desk was then on the first floor and, as we passed it in the lift, we heard a man we could not see booking a room for the night. The voice was familiar and distinctive. I said, 'That's John Maclean'. 'That's John Maclean, undoubtedly!' said Cathie. In the morning, John Maclean, the Director of Education for Inverness and father of a much respected Scottish judge, was seated in the dining room before us. 'We heard you checking in last night,' I said to him as we paused at his table. He looked surprised. 'I wasn't here last night. I've just come off the sleeper. I haven't got access to my room yet.'
My mother had an even more disturbing experience. A fishing boat caught fire in Stornoway harbour. A group of youngsters, being taken for a sail, were trapped in the engine room. One died. His brother was badly burned. When the fire occurred, the mothers of the boys were together at a tea party, to welcome a new matron who had come to Lews Hospital. In the course of the conversation they discovered she read cups. 'You don't know any of us. You must read ours!' Nurse Galbraith found a strange ship without a funnel in several of the cups. She found tears and fire and people who got money they did not want. She told my mother she saw her in a state of terror but, suddenly, anxiety gave way to joy.
While the cups were still being read, a messenger burst into the room with the news that one of the hostess's sons was dead and another badly injured. He had no idea where my brother was. He hadn't seen him since the blaze. My mother raced to the quay where she found my brother standing in the crowd. Even as a child he had an instinct for mechanical things and refused to go into the engine room because he did not think it was safe. He watched the attempt to start an old-fashioned engine with a blow-lamp, through a hatch, from the safety of the deck. Ironically, the fishing boat was called The Children's Trust.
Almost exactly 100 years ago, there was a drowning disaster in Brown Bay, then one of the most prolific fishing grounds for haddock in the kingdom. For weeks, the fishermen had been unable to go to sea because of gales. Money and food were getting scarce. Just before Christmas, there was a sudden calm. It was the middle of the night. The boats were launched from open beaches and had to go when the tide was right, or not at all. If they had access to a barometer they would have known they were sailing into the heart of a hurricane. Just as they reached the fishing grounds, the storm was renewed, with even greater violence, from a different direction. The darkness was complete. The thatched houses round the bay gave no glimmer of light. The lighthouse at Tiumpan Head had not then been built. The fishermen had no idea from which direction the wind was blowing or where their boats were being driven. Those who survived could not see the land even when they struggled through the breakers to the shore. By daybreak, men from all the villages around the bay were combing the beaches for wreckage and for bodies.
On the night of the disaster, a young divinity student from the area, temporarily teaching in North Uist, had a strange dream. He was walking to Stornoway from his home in Gress to begin the journey to the university to resume his studies. He met a group of fishermen. It was a sunny day and they had not yet been to the beach but their oilskins were dripping wet. They said their Gaelic goodbyes and wished him well. Next night, he had another dream. There was a wedding in the village but the wedding dance was not held in the bride's parents' barn, as the custom was. It was held in the local joiner's shop. The dreamer was distressed at the obvious disagreement between the families who were all close friends of his. As he entered the dance, he was astonished to find the same seven fishermen, still in their oilskins, still dripping wet. Their coffins were being made in the joiner's shop when he had his second dream.
The difficulty with a story like this for a sceptical journalist is that we seldom hear of the premonition until after the event. However, there are unusual circumstances relating to this incident which, though they do not prove the timing of the dreams, give them credibility. The divinity student had two younger friends, still pupils in the Nicolson Institute, in whom he confided. One was Donald Maclean who went on to become headmaster of Boroughmuir School in Edinburgh and one of the leading educationalists of his generation. The other was Robert MacIver who almost completely cut himself off from Lewis when he set out on a career which earned him honorary degrees from eight universities, including Edinburgh and the big four in America: Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and Yale. A few years ago, Donald Maclean's daughter found among her father's papers an account of the dream as he recorded it soon after the event. When Robert MacIver sat down, in his 85th year, to write his reminiscences, he recalled the dream almost in identical terms, commentating: 'The story caught me. I could not doubt the divinity student's veracity. But I was not convinced'.
The Lewis ceilidh tradition claims that Coinneach Odhar (Grey Kenneth), the celebrated Brahan seer, belonged to the island and got the famous stone, through which he saw the future, by blackmailing the ghost of a Norwegian princess whom he surprised as she was returning to her grave in Bailie na Cille, from a midnight excursion to see her friends in Norway. William Matheson, a lecturer in Celtic Studies at Edinburgh University, has shown fairly conclusively that this version of the Lewis seer is but the shade of a shade. This is the story of the Brahan seer, carried across the Minch by the Mackenzies when they took possession of Lewis in the early 17th century and given a local habitation by the tale's bearers.
The real Brahan seer is a tougher nut to crack. There is still a thriving industry in the Highlands inventing his prophecies to match events, but every time I look out my study window to Chanonry Point, where he was burnt in a barrel of tar, I am reminded that Sir Walter Scott and Sir Humphry Davy, inventor of the miners' safety lamp, are both on record as having heard his most famous prophecy, about the doom of the Seaforths, before it was fulfilled.
An incident of a different kind but raising somewhat similar questions occurred shortly after I took over the editorship of the Stornoway Gazette
in the early 1930s. One Sunday morning, an elderly lady in the village of Tolsta Caolais, on the west coast of Lewis, was sitting with her granddaughter and grandson having a cup of tea. Suddenly the caorans – little bits of peat – began to jump from the side of the stove. One struck the old lady on the cheek. Another plopped into her cup of tea. Then there was a crash. The globe of a lamp, hanging from the ceiling, had broken in two and the fragments of one half were lying on the floor. The old lady was startled but kept her head. She told her granddaughter to take the dishes into the scullery and put them for safety into the cupboard.
As soon as the scullery door was opened, the teapot sailed from the sink into the bedroom where it struck the wall, coating the wallpaper in tea leaves. A jug of peasemeal landed on the bed with the contents intact. A jug of rice smashed in the middle of the floor. A row of cups, hanging from nails by their lugs, dropped to the floor, leaving their lugs on their nails. All the plates on the sink were broken clean across. A cake of Lifebuoy soap was split in two as cleanly as if it had been done with a knife. Even the toothbrush was broken in three. When the granddaughter opened the cupboard door all the dishes there disintegrated. In a few minutes, there was nothing left whole in the house but the dishes she was still clutching to her chest. While this was going on, the little grandson was sitting on the floor clapping his hands and shouting in Gaelic, 'Here's another, here's another'. The old lady's son, passing with the family to church, heard the commotion and came in just in time to see the end of the carnage.
I examined the old lady and the children very closely. The old lady was a remarkable woman. She said to me simply: 'There is an explanation although I don't know what it is'. Some of the villagers claimed greater enlightenment. They avoided the cottage after dark because it was haunted!
At first I thought it was a classic case of poltergeist. The granddaughter, who seemed to be at the centre of the action, was just entering her teens and the events had all the appearance of being the work of an 'unruly spirit', although I could not see how the little lassie, who had all the dishes in her safe keeping, could be throwing teapots and jugs from a room she wasn't in. Then I came to the conclusion that it was a straightforward electrical phenomenon. That weekend there was a remarkable display of aurora over the whole of northern Europe, accompanied by severe thunderstorms, one of them in Lewis.
The old lady's house was a large-scale model of the Leyden jar, beloved of school laboratories for building up high charges of static electricity. The wooden house on a concrete foundation was the non-conducting container. The iron stove, out of all proportion to the room, with an iron chimney through the roof, was the metal conducting rod through which the charge of electricity was fed in. The disturbance began with the caorans flying away from the stove which was the source of the electric charge. The second phase began when the insulating wooden door between living room and scullery was opened, the third phase when the insulating cupboard door was opened and the last dishes were exposed to the electric charge.
My explanation was met with a certain amount of derision. Electricity could not break dishes! Now, after more than 60 years, I have been vindicated. A few months ago, there was a programme describing how half of Canada was blacked out, in a matter of minutes, by a flare-up of the sun, producing brilliant displays of aurora and violent thunderstorms. More importantly, it played havoc with the delicate electronic equipment on which modern life depends. The US military were deeply concerned. They realised that a similar flare-up might dislocate their whole communications system for days or even weeks. They haven't long to take precautions – if precautions can be taken. The next flare-up of sunspots is due around 2000.
In the 1930s, sunspots could do nothing more serious than break the dishes in a Lewis croft-house. In the fragile, friable world of the internet and microchip, a similar flare-up might disable the economic, social and military life of a continent.
Are we worrying about the wrong millennium bug?
James Shaw Grant died in 1999