Friday, January 18, 2013

Swein MacDonald

My mother's family are Highlanders.  If you are of Scots descent, you know what that means.  If you aren't, well, it's a bit hard to explain. 

Scotland is divided into the Highlands, Lowlands, and The Borders.  The Borders is the area that abuts northern England.  While Highlanders tend to carry names that begin with "Mac", Borderers carry the familiar Scottish surnames of Armstrong, Elliot, Scott, Douglas, Hepburn, Bruce and Johnston, among others. North of the Border is the Lowlands, which includes most of the economic and political life of the country, an area from the Firth of Clyde in the west to Moray Firth in the east. In the Lowlands one finds the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. 

Inverness and north lie the Highlands, an area of geographic distinction from the rest of the country.    The Highlanders belong to the various clans that claim particular, sometimes spectacular, roles in the history of the northern Britons.  My mother's family are the Mackay on the maternal side, and the McIntyre on the paternal.  Again, this is meaningless save to other Highlanders.

Highlanders are by turns aristocratic and common; sagacious and intemperate, literate and pre-verbal.  Because of their physical isolation from the other areas of Scotland, they became self-sufficient and remarkably redoubtable, forming the tightly-knit system of clan membership that kept them protected from the vagaries of English rule.

They were a hardy, active and warlike people - of this there is no possible doubt. Everybody who has left early evidence testifies to it, and not generally in flattering terms. Such people need to be well nourished, and the Highlanders were always great meat eaters. They bred cattle in their glens, and their woods were full of game that they loved to hunt. At a time when the Lowlander of central Scotland was little better than a serf, tyrannized by greedy bonnet lairds [landed proprietors], and lived mainly off brose and oatmeal, the Highlander was well fed. 
[Scottish Highlanders, Barnes and Noble Books, 1992. P.29]

In such an atmosphere, Highlanders also tended to be closer to the more mystical elements of human experience.  Hence, they claim to have developed an acute form of what psychologists refer to as hyper-observation.  In the Highlands, it's called "second sight".  Those blessed, or cursed, with second sight can predict events before they happen, note occurrences from hundreds or even thousands of miles away, and receive terrific visions.  My Great-Granny Mackay was one of her clan's seers and she could be positively spooky sometimes.  My grandfather used to try to get her to pick horses for him, but I don't think she was keen on betraying the gift so that her son-in-law could win a few extra bob at the track.

While every clan has its seer, there is usually one who stands out even in the competitive world of Highland para-psychology.  That man or woman is generally declared a "Highland Seer", although I don't think the office is all that formal.  The first so recognized was Coinneachd Odhar of Brahan in the 17th century, who died after being "burned in a barrel of tar at Chanonry Point on the Black Isle on the orders of the Countess of Seaforth, after he declared he 'saw' her husband in dalliance with a courtesan in Paris."*  For a fair part of the 20th century, the best known Highland Seer was Swein MacDonald.  Well, depending on whom you ask.  To some, he was a consummate con man.

There isn't all that much about him online, which is appropriate, as he really didn't seek fame or fortune.  [Although notoriety he certainly found.]  After working as a performing psychic, he retired to a humble life in a crofter's cottage in the Highlands, a life many of us would think rather perfect.  From there he would offer his "readings".  He charged very little for these and gave what he made to charity. But, whether a lord or lady, movie star or undergrad in his cups, MacDonald offered both hospitality and a sometimes frighteningly accurate prediction for them.

My particular memory of him is that he would be featured on Scottish radio every New Year's Eve, telling us what we might expect in the year to come.  With a talent for the theatrical, something that can never be taught, his presentation was the only part of New Year's entertainment that I never missed, even after moving back to the US, when I would listen to the BBC on an underpowered shortwave radio.

MacDonald died in 2003.  The current Seer does not seek publicity, so the great accessibility offered by MacDonald is no more, which is understandable, but somewhat of a pity.  Highlanders never seek to be regarded as "grand", you see.  That's best left to the Lowlanders.

This anecdote from MacDonald's life is to be found in a remembrance of him published in The Herald of Scotland on the occasion of his death.  There is something wonderfully Highland about it:

"Well-known names in show business, the film industry, and among the nobility regularly called on him, either in person or by telephone. He had offers to be flown to the United States, to Switzerland, and to the Middle East for consultations with the rich and powerful. Of course, the media loved him. The sceptical news editor of a Glasgow-based paper telephoned him gruffly to arrange an interview. ''I don't like your attitude, my man,'' Swein told him stiffly, ''and furthermore you are conducting an illicit affair with a woman called M.'' The startled news editor abruptly terminated the call."

[*from Tremayne's History of the Scottish Folk: The Highlands.]