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Kirk, the Reverend Robert

Category: Ordinary person

This entry is a little unusual, as Robert Kirk himself did not have any spiritual experiences. But in 1691 he produced a small book entitled the Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and fairies in which he documents many experiences of the people of his parish and of Scotland. And there is a good reason to keep the experiences he describes together because he managed to pin down what caused the experiences of the people he knew who were 'seers' and had second sight.

The Reverend Robert Kirk was a student of theology at St Andrews and he took his Master's degree at Edinburgh. He was no gullible easily convinced believer in things spiritual – at least not the sort of things he wrote about. He became the minister for Balquidder, then in 1685 he was transferred to Aberfoyle. He published a Psalter in Gaelic and translated the Bible into 'Irish'. He married twice [his first wife died] and he had a son called Colin. He died aged 51 in mysterious circumstances.

That he was interested in 'fairyland' and prepared to write a book about seers and those with second sight was extremely unusual. In fact it might be classified as a brave act. As Andrew Lang aptly says in the introduction to his book support for ideas of this sort became a 'burning question' in his lifetime – literally. Many so called witches – most of whom were actually healers – were being burned at the stake by Presbyterians.

Yet the reverend Kirk of Aberfoyle living among Celtic people treats the land of faerie as a mere fact in nature, a world with its own laws, which he investigates without apparent fear of the Accuser of the Brethren. He shows none of the persecuting dispositions of his fellow clergy.... Firm in his belief, he treats the matter in a scientific spirit, as if he were dealing with generally recognised physical phenomena.

To understand how the Reverend Kirk managed to escape persecution himself, we need to realise that if any preacher or clergyman 'wrought marvels' he was classified as inspired. If a lay person did the same thing or healed prophesied or affected the environment, he or she was likely to be dragged before the Presbytery and possibly burnt at the stake. So Kirk was largely immune from any persecution and as his descriptions only related the stories anonymously – no names are given, so were his sources and parishioners. There was the added advantage that the further North you went the less fanatical were the persecutions.

Both the Reverend Kirk and his acquaintances Lord Talbott and Robert Boyle came to the conclusion that being a seer was very largely inherited

I heard very much, but believed very little of the second sight, yet its being assumed by several of great veracity, I was induced to make inquiries after it in the year 1652, being then confined to abide in the North of Scotland by the English usurpers. The more general accounts of it were that many Highlanders yet far more islanders were qualified with this second sight. That men, women and children were subject to it and children where parents were not. It is a trouble to most of them who are subject to it and they would be rid of it if they could.

He the goes on to say that they had all sorts of capabilities from healing to prophecy, hallucination, environmental influence – flying stones was a common problem - and visions - those in love often saw each other, but he also added that

..there were more of these seers in the Isles of Lewis, Harris and Uist than in any other place .. and that ...several did see the second sight when in the Highlands and Isles, yet when transported to live in other countries, especially America, they quite lost this quality, as was told me by a gentleman who knew some of them in Barbados who did see no vision there although he knew them to be Seers when they lived in the Isles of Scotland.

So it was the area that was key, not just the people. What marks this area out? Stone built houses of much the same rock as that in the Pennines, weather of a ferocious kind – wind that must produce considerable resonance of just about every organ in the body, and numerous fault lines. The whole of the Outer Hebrides is riddled with standing stones, circles and so on indicating there are large numbers of telluric hot spots.

It is also a very forbidding and difficult place to live – few people, the isolation and loneliness as well as the insecurity of the existence they led must have been quite severe. And there is a great deal of cold and wet – so hypothermia I'm sure played its part. Finally crofting in the Outer Hebrides is no picnic [sorry for the joke]. Islanders of old could barely grow enough to feed themselves and what they did grow was not exactly nutritious. Most of the time the islanders were suffering from nutritional deprivation.

And thus we have a rather devastating combination of circumstances all of which conspired to produce a lot of experiences.

It is worth adding that childbirth at the time could also be horrendous and we have one observation from this little book caused by the horrors of childbirth with no help.

Observations

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