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The Brahan Seer

His Life

Coinneach Odhar - The Seer's Beginnings

History of the Seaforth Family

Coinneach Odhar - The Seer's Beginnings

Kenneth Mackenzie, better known as Coinneach Odhar, the brahan Seer was born at Baile-na-Cille, in the Parish of Uig and Island of Lews, about the beginning of the 17th century. Nothing particular is recorded of his early life, but when he had just entered his teens, he received a stone in the following manner, by which he could reveal the future destiny of man: - While his mother was tending her cattle in a summer shealing on the side of a ridge called Cnoceothail, which overlooks the burying-ground of Baile-na-Cille, in Uig, she saw, about the still hour of midnight, the whole of the graves in the churchyard opening, and a vast multitude of people of every age, from the newly born babe to the gray haired sage rising from their graves, and going away in every conceivable direction. In about an hour they began to return, and were all soon after back in their graves which closed upon them as before. But, on scanning the burying-place more closely, Kenneth's mother observed one grave near the side, still open. Being a courageous woman, she determined to ascertain the cause of this singular circumstance, so, hastening to the grave, and placing her "cuigeal" (distaff) athwart its mouth (for she had heard it said that the spirit could not enter the grave again whilst that instrument was upon it), she watched the result. She had not to wait long, for in a minute or two she noticed a fair lady coming in the direction of the churchyard, rushing through the air, from the north. On her arrival, the fair one addressed her thus - "Lift thy distaff from off my grave, and let me enter my dwelling of the dead." "I shall do so," answered the other, "When you explain to me what detained you so long after your neighbours." "That you shall soon hear," the ghost replied; "My journey was much longer than theirs - I had to go all the way to Norway." She then addressed her: - "I am a daughter of the King of Norway; I was drowned while bathing in that country; my body was found on the beach close to where you now stand, and I was interred in this grave. In remembrance of me, and as a small reward for you intrepidity and courage, I shall possess you of a valuable secret - go and find in yonder lake a small round blue stone, which give to your son Kenneth, who by it shall reveal future events." She did as requested, found the stone, and gave it to her son, Kenneth. No sooner had he thus received the gift of divination than his fame spread far and wide. He was sought after by the gentry throughout the length and breadth of the land, and no special assembly of theirs was complete unless Coinneach Odhar was amongst them. Being born on the lands of Seaforth, in the Lews, he was more associated with that family than with any other in the country, and latterly removed to the neighbourhood of Loch Uissie, on the brahan estate, where he worked as a common labourer on a neighbouring farm. He was very shrewd and clear-headed, for one in his menial position; was always ready with a smart answer and if any attempted to raise the laugh at his expense, seldom or ever did he fail to turn it against his tormentors.

There are various other versions of the manner in which he became possessed of the power of divination. According to one - His mistress, the farmer's wife, was exacting with him, and he, in return, continually teased, and, on many occasions, expended much of his natural wit upon her, much to her annoyance and chagrin. Latterly, his conduct became so unbearable that she decided upon disposing of him in a manner which would save her any future annoyance. On one occasion, his master having sent him away to cut peats, which in those days were, as they now are in more remote districts, the common article of fuel, it was necessary to send him his dinner, he being too far from the house to come home to his meals, and the farmer's wife so far carried out her intention of destroying him, that she poisoned his dinner. It was somewhat late in arriving, and the future prophet feeling exhausted from his honest exertions in his master's interest and from want of food, lay down on the heath and fell into a heavy slumber. In this position he was suddenly awakened by feeling something cold in his breast, which on examination he found to be a small white stone, with a hole through the centre. He looked through it, when a vision appeared to him which revealed the treachery and diabolical intention of his mistress. To test the truth of the vision, he gave the dinner intended for himself to his faithful collie; the poor brute writhed, and died soon after in the greatest agony.

The following version is supplied by Mr Macintyre, teacher, Arpafeelie: - although the various accounts as to the manner in which Coinneach Odhar became gifted with second sight differ in some respects, yet they generally agree in this , that it was acquired while he was engaged in the humble occupation of cutting peats or divots, which were in his day, and still are in many places, used as fuel throughout the Highlands of Scotland. On the occasion referred to, being somewhat fatigued, he lay down, resting his head upon a little knoll and waited the arrival of his wife with his dinner, whereupon he fell fast asleep. On awaking, he felt something hard under his head, and examining the cause of the uneasiness discovered a small round stone with a hole through the middle. He picked it up, and looked through it, saw by the aid of this prophetic stone that his wife was coming to him with a dinner consisting of sowans and milk, polluted, though unknown her, in manner which, as well as several other particulars connected with it, we forbear to mention. But Coinneach found that though the stone was the means by which a supernatural power had been conferred upon him, it had, on its very first application deprived him of the sight of that eye with which he looked through it, and he continued ever afterwards cam, or blind of an eye.

It would appear from this account that the intended murderer made use of the Seer's wife to convey the poison to her own husband, thus adding to her diabolical and murderous intention by making her who would feel the loss the keenest, the medium by which her husband was to lose his life.

Hugh Miller, in his "Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland," says: - When serving as a field labourer with a wealthy clansman who resided somewhere near brahan Castle, he made himself so formidable to the clanman's wife by his shrewd sarcastic humour that she resolved on destroying him by poison. With this design, she mixed a preparation of noxious herbs with his food, when he was one day employed in digging turf in a solitary morass, and brought it to his in a pitcher. She found him lying asleep on one of those conical fairy hillocks which abound in some parts of the Highlands, and her courage failing her, instead of awaking him, she set down the pitcher by his side and returned home. He woke shortly after, and, seeing the food, would have begun his repast, but feeling something press heavily against his heart, he opened his waistcoat and found a beautiful smooth stone, resembling a pearl, but much larger, which had apparently been dropped in his breast while he slept. He gazed at it in admiration, and became conscious as he gazed, that a strange faculty of seeing the future as distinctly as the present, and men's real designs and motives as clearly as their actions, was miraculously imparted to him; and it is well for him that he should become so knowing at such a crisis for the first secret he became acquainted with was that of the treachery practised against him by his mistress. We have thus several accounts of the manner in which our prophet obtained possession of his remarkable stone, white or blue, with or without a hole through its centre, it matters little; that he did obtain it, we must assume to be beyond question; but it is a matter for consideration, and indeed open to considerable doubt, whether it had any real prophetic virtue. If Kenneth was really possessed of the power of prophecy he more than likely used the stone simply to impose upon the people, who would never believe him possessed of such a gift, unless they saw with their own eyes the means by which he exercised it.

History of the Seaforth Family

The most popularly received theory regarding the Mackenzies is that they are descended from an Irishman of the name of Colinas Fitzgerald, son of the Earl of Kildare or Desmond, who distinguished himself by his bravery at the Battle of Largs in 1263. It is said that his courage and valour were so singularly distinguished that King Alexander the Third took him under his special protection, and granted him a charter of the lands of Kintail, in Wester Ross, bearing date from Kincardine, January the 9th, 1263.

According to the fragmentary "Record of Icolmkill," upon which the claim of the Irish origin of the clan is founded, a personage, described as "Peregrinus et Hibernus nobilis ex familia Geraldinorum" - that is "a noble stranger and a Hibernian, of the family of the Geraldines" - being driven from Ireland with a considerable number of his followers was, about 1261, very graciously received by the King, and afterwards remained at his court. Having given powerful aid to the Scots at the Battle of Largs, two years afterwards he was rewarded by a grant of the lands of Kintail, which were erected into a free barony by royal charter, dated as above mentioned. However, no one is sure that such a document as this Icolmkill Fragment was ever known to exist, as nobody has ever seen it. Until the forfeiture of the Lord of the Isles, the Makenzies always held their lands from the Earls of Ross, and followed their banner in the field, but after the forfeiture of the great and powerful earldom, the Mackenzies rapidly rose on the ruins of the Macdonalds to the great power, extent of territorial possession, and almost regal magnification for which they were afterwards distinguished among the other great clans of the north. They, in the reign of James the First, acquired a very powerful influence in the Highlands, and became independent of any superior but the Crown. Mackenzie and his followers were, in fact, about the most potent chief and clan in the whole Highlands.

Kenneth, son of Angus, is supposed to have commenced his rule in Kintail about 1278, and was succeeded by his son, John, in 1304, who was in his turn succeeded by his son, Kenneth. John, Kenneth's son, was called Iain MacChoinnich, John MacKenneth, or John son of Kenneth, hence the name Mackenny or Mackenzie. The name Kenneth in the course of time became softened down to Kenny or Kenzie. It is well known that, not so very long ago, z in this and all other names continued to be of the same value as the letter y, just as we still find it in Menzies, MacFadzean, and many others. There seems to be no doubt whether that this is the real origin of the Mackenzies, and of their name.

Murchadh, or Murdo, son of Kenneth, it is said, received a charter of the lands of Kintail from David II. In 1463, Alexander Mackenzie of Kintail, obtained the lands of Strathgrave, and other possessions, from John, Earl of Ross. They afterwards strenuously and successfully opposed every attempt made by the Macdonalds to obtain possession of the forfeited earldom. Alexander was succeeded by his son, Kenneth, who married Lady Margaret Macdonald, daughter of the forfeited Earl John, Lord of the Isles; but through somecause, Mackenzie divorced the lady, and sent her home in a most ignominious and degrading manner. She had only one eye, and Kintail sent her home riding a one-eyed steed, accompanied by a one-eyed servant, followed by a one-eyed dog. All these circumstances exasperated the lady's family to such an extent as to make them ever after the mortal and sworn enemies of the Mackenzies.

Kenneth Og, his son by the divorced wife, became chief in 1493. Two years afterwards, he and Farquhar Mackintosh were imprisoned by James V in Edinburgh Castle. In 1497, however, they both made their escape, but were, on their way to the Highlands, seized in the most treacherous manner, at Torwood, by the laird of Buchanan. Kenneth Og made a stout resistance, but he was ultimately slain, and Buchanan sent his head as a present to the King.

Leaving no issue, Kenneth was succeeded by his brother John, whose mother, Agnes Fraser, his father's second wife, was a daughter of Lovat. He had several other sons, from whom have sprung other branches of the Mackenzies. As John was very young, his uncle, Hector Roy (Eachainn Ruadh) Mackenzie, progenitor of the house of Gairloch, assumed command of the clan and the guardianship of the young chief. Under his rule the Clan Kenzie became involved in feuds with the Munroes and other clans; and Hector Roy himself became obnoxious to the Government as a disturber of the public peace. His intentions towards the young chief of Kintail were considered very dubious, and the apprehensions of the latter and his friends having been roused, Hector was compelled by law to yeild up the estate and the command of the clan to the proper heir. John, the unlawful heir, on obtaining possession, at the call of James IV, marched at the head of his clan to the fatal field of Flodden, where he was made prisoner by the English, but afterwards escaped.

On King James the Fifth's to the Western Isles in 1540, John joined him at Kintail, and accompanied him throughout his whole journey. He fought with his clan at the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, and died in 1561, when he was succeeded by his son, Kenneth, who had two sons by a daughter of the Earl of Athole - Colin and Roderick - the latter becoming ancestors of the Mackenzies of Redcastle, Kincraig, Rosend, and several other branches. This Colin, who was the eleventh chief, fought for Queen Mary at the Battle of Langside. He was twice married. By his first wife, Barbara Grant of Grant. He had four sons and three daughters, namely - Kenneth, who became his successor; Sir Roderick Mackenzie of Tarbat, ancestor of the Earls of Cromartie; Colin, ancestor of the Mackenzies of Kennock and Pitlundie; and Alexander, ancestor of the Mackenzies of Kilcoy, and other families of the name. By Mary, eldest daughter of Roderick Mackenzie of Davochmaluag, he had a natural son, Alexander, from whom descended the Mackenzies of Applecross, Coul, Delvin, Assynt, and others of note in history.

Kenneth, the eldest son, soon after succeeding his father, was engaged in supporting Torquil MacLeod of Lewis, surnamed the "Conanach," the disinherited son of Macleod of Lewis, and who was closely related to himself. Torquil conveyed the barony of Lewis to the Chief of the Mackenzies by formal deed, the latter causing the usurper to the estate, and his followers, to be beheaded in 1597. He afterwards, in the following year, joined Macleod of Harris and Macdonald of Sleat, in opposing James the Sixth's project for the colonisation of the Lewis by the well-known adventures from the "Kingdom of Fife."

In 1602, th old and long-standing feud between the Mackenzies and the Macdonalds of Glengarry, concerning their lands in Wester Ross, was renewed with infuriated violence. Ultimately, after great bloodshed and carnage on both sides, an arrangment was arrived at by which Glengarry renounced for ever, in favour of Mackenzie, the Castle of Strone and all his lands in Lochalsh, Lochcarron, and other places in the vicinity, so long the bone of contention between these powerful and ferocious chieftains. In 1607, a Crown charter for thse lands was granted to Kenneth, thus materially adding to his previous possessions, power, and influence. "All the Highlands and Isles, from Ardnamurchan to Strathnaver, were either the Mackenzies' property or under vassalage, some few excepted," and all around them were bound to them "by very strict bonds of friendship." In this same year Kennethh received, through some influence at Court, a gift, under the Great Seal, of the Island of Lewis, in virtue of, and thus confirming, the resignation of this valuable and extensive property previously made in the favour of Torquil Macleod. A complaint was, however, made to his Majesty by those of the colonists who survived, and Mackenzie was again forced to resign it. By patent, dated the 19th of November, 1609, he was created a peer of the realm, as Lord Mackenzie of Kintail. Soon after, the colonies gave up all hopes of being able to colonise the Lewis, and the remaining adventurers - Sir George Hay and Sir James Spens - were easily prevailed upon to sell their rights to Lord Mackenzie, who at the same time succeeded in securing a grant from the king of that part of the island forfeited by Lord Balmerino, another of the adventurers. He (Lord Mackenzie) now secured a commission of fire and sword against the islanders, soon arrived with a strong force, and speedily reduced them to obedience, with the exception of Neil Macleod and a few of his followers. The struggle between these two continued for a time, but ultimately Mackenzie managed to obtain possession of the whole island, and it remained in the possession of the family until it was sold by the "Last of the Seaforths."

This, the first, Lord Mackenzie of Kintail died in 1611. One of his sons, Simon Mackenzie of Lochslin, by his second wife, Isabella, daughter of Sir Alexander Ogilvie of Powrie, was the father of the celebrated Sir George Mackenzie, already referred to. His eldest son, Colin, who succeeded him as the second Lord Mackenzie of Kintail, was created first Earl of Seaforth, by patent dated the 3rd Dcember, 1623, to himself and his heirs male. Kenneth, Colin's grandson, and third Earl of Seaforth, distinguished himself by loyalty to Charles the Secong during the Commonwealth. He supported the cause of the Royalists so long as there was an opportunity of fighting for it in the field, and when forced to submit to the ruling powers, he was committed to prison, where, with much firmness of mind and nobility of soul, he endured a tedious captivity during many years, until he was ultimately released, after the Restoration, by authority of the king. He married a lady descended from a branch of his own family, Isabella Mackenzie, daughter of Sir John Mackenzie of Tarbat, and sister of the first Earl of Cromartie. The remarkable doom which awaited the family of Seaforth, which was predicted in such an extraordinary manner by Coinneach Odhar, will be explained in all its minutest detail.

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