Exploring the NC500

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The NC500 has something for everyone. My approach in writing this book was to see the route as the spectacular backdrop against which historical events took place and the stage on which many colourful characters lived and died. There must be as many of them as there are miles in the circuit. Some are famous like the good Hugh Miller; some are infamous like the Duke of Sutherland though in fact, the female of the species was the more villainous. There are many you may never have heard of before but that does not mean their stories are any the less interesting.

As well as historical fact, my narrative is peppered with a good number of folktales, myths and legends. Amongst these are the prophecies of the Brahan Seer of whom I imagine most people will have heard, though perhaps not his gruesome death.

This extract will enlighten you.

There is a memorial plaque crafted by the boys of Fortrose Academy attached to a boulder which reads: This stone commemorates the legend of Coinneach Odhar better known as the BRAHAN SEER – Many of his prophesies were fulfilled and tradition holds that his untimely death by burning in tar followed his final prophecy of the doom of the House of Seaforth.

He was born Kenneth Mackenzie in Uig on the Isle of Lewis and became an employee of his namesake, Kenneth Mackenzie, the third Earl of Seaforth (1635-1678). According to legend, his wife, Isabella, who was reputedly very ugly and therefore a bit paranoid about the Earl being attracted to other ladies, asked if her husband (who was supposedly in Paris on business at the time), was well, and then went on to press the Seer for more information. He reluctantly admitted her husband was having a dalliance with another lady. You might have thought he, of all people, would have been able to foresee the consequences of such a confession and prevaricated a little. But maybe he was like George Washington and could not tell a lie. Or a Seer has to tell it like it is, part of the deal of being given the gift.

William Congreve (1670-1729) gave to the world, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” and Isabella lashed out in anger at this defamation of her husband’s character, though actually the confirmation of her worst fears was nearer the mark. She not so much shot the messenger, but much more inventively had him put head first into a spiked barrel of boiling tar. And what she did to her husband on his return, if that is what she did to the messenger, God only knows. However I am happy to tell you that this story, at least, is probably a work of fiction. There are no contemporary written accounts as you would expect there to have been had there been any foundation in fact.

But what of the legends themselves? Have they any substance? Apart from the prophecies aforesaid, there are a good many others such as the Battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances, The Caledonian Canal and much, much more. I think we would do well to be cautious. For one thing, Coinneach Odhar (Kenneth the Sallow) made his prophecies in Gaelic and translations can be open to misinterpretation at the best of times, let alone when you are depending on what was heard, not read. Furthermore, who has not played “Chinese Whispers” and not been amazed (and amused) by the convoluted results, and that just in the space of two minutes, never mind two hundred years of being passed down from ear to ear?

The gift of the “Second Sight” may be something of a mixed blessing (though it is generally regarded as a curse), but hindsight, which most of us have, is a wonderful thing and therefore such things as the prediction of “black rain which would make Aberdeen rich” can be tied in to the discovery of North Sea Oil. Similarly, his prediction that when the fifth bridge over the Ness was built, there would be worldwide chaos, was followed the following month by Hitler’s invasion of Poland. In actual fact the contract had been awarded for the buiding of the fifth bridge but construction had to be suspended because of the outbreak of hostilities. Close though.

We are indebted to the Seer’s biographer, Alexander Mackenzie (1838-1898) for writing down these predictions, albeit a couple of centuries after the prophet’s death. Here is just one more, if you please. In his biographer’s day, there were eight bridges over the Ness, but the Seer predicted there would a ninth and when that happened “the Highlands will be overrun by ministers without grace and women without shame.” Well there are nine bridges now and I don’t know anything about the ministers but I’m sure if the Seer could see the women of Inverness today with their skimpy attire and tattoos that’s exactly what he would think of them.

On the manner of the Seer’s death, Parliamentary records dated 1577 show papers were issued for the arrest of a Coinneach Odhar on a charge of having supplied poison to a certain Catherine Ross who wanted to dispose of her stepchildren so her own hellish brood would inherit her husband’s fortune. Coinneach Odhar was very much a second choice, the lady having employed no less than twenty-six witches previously. Some of them were arrested and burnt at Chanonry Point despite their incompetence. There is no evidence of the same fate having happened to Coinneach Odhar, but you can see how this event and his name might be conflated with the Brahan Seer who died a century later. They might even have been related: grandfather and grandson perhaps.

To make his prophecies, the Seer is thought to have used an adder stone, revered by the Druids, a stone with a natural hole in the middle, through which he was able to see his visions. When he found it, he looked through the hole (who wouldn’t?) and was blinded but given the gift of second sight as a sort of compensation. In popular belief, the stones were created by a knot of serpents who became bonded by slime and saliva. The hole was created by their tongues, flickering in panic as they attempted to find a way out of their entanglement.

And should you, as you walk along the shore at Chanonry Point on the lookout for dolphins perhaps, cast your eyes to the ground, and should you happen to come across a stone with a hole in it, you have a choice. You can either pick it up and look through the hole or fling it as far into the firth as you can. It is said that before his dreadful death, that is what the Seer is supposed to have done – flung the accursed stone as far as he could into the water where it has never been seen again.

But one of these days might it not be tossed up by a gurly sea onto the beach? It might even be there now, just waiting for someone like you to come along and pick it up.

Dolphin watchers beware. You may see more than you bargain for.

Read more about Exploring the NC500 on the Extremis Publishing website.