Prophetess by Alphonse Mucha

The 17th Century Seer, Janet Douglas: Being A Gifted Child Isn’t Always A Good Thing


Janet Douglas was a 17 th century Scottish teenager reputed to have a paranormal gift known as ‘Second Sight’. It may be pointed out that there was another well-known Janet Douglas, a Scottish noblewoman who lived during the 16 th century, and accused of witchcraft, was burnt at the stake during the reign of James V of Scotland. As for the 17 th century seer, she may have been more fortunate than the other Janet Douglas, as she is not recorded to have been executed as a witch. In fact, she simply vanishes from history, and no one knows for certain what happened to her. So, what actually occurred to bring her such fame?

Janet’s Childhood ‘Gift’

Janet Douglas’ early life is as murky as her later years. According to the Reverend George Hickes, who wrote a letter to Samuel Pepys regarding the history of Janet Douglas, the seer was born in the Scottish Highlands around the middle of the 17 th century.

Samuel Pepys, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689

Samuel Pepys, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1689 ( Public Domain )

According to Scottish folklore, those gifted with ‘Second Sight’ may be able to see things that are happening in faraway places, prophesy the future, or detect evil artifacts of witchcraft. In some rare cases, individuals are said to possess all three of these powers. Janet Douglas seems to have been able to detect evil artifacts of witchcraft, which, according to Hickes, was first used “in the Western Islands” to aid a certain Sir George Maxwell, who had been “tormented in effigy by witches”.

Witches from MacBeth by John Downman

Witches from MacBeth by John Downman ( Public Domain )

Then, at the age of 11, Janet Douglas travelled to Glasgow, apparently all by herself. Janet Douglas’ fame had preceded her, and when she arrived in the city, she was greeted by a large number of people. In that crowd was a goldsmith, who, though he was a hardworking man, had been unsuccessful in his trade. Janet Douglas called out to him, and told him that his lack of success was due to an image made against him. She also told the goldsmith that this evil image could be found in a corner of his shop. When the goldsmith went home, he found the image (which was made of clay) exactly where the seer had told him where it would be.

The Crystal Ball, Waterhouse, 1902

The Crystal Ball, Waterhouse, 1902 ( Public Domain )

Protective Custody

Janet Douglas’ presence certainly excited the people of Glasgow. Therefore, for her own safety, the city’s authorities decided to put Janet Douglas in protective custody in the Glasgow jail. A year or so later, Janet Douglas was summoned by the Privy Council of Scotland, and she travelled to Edinburgh. As the city’s authorities were also afraid that the seer’s arrival would cause frenzy amongst the inhabitants of Edinburgh, she was once again placed under protective custody. It was here that the Reverend George Hickes, who was serving as the private chaplain to John Maitland, the Duke of Lauderdale, was able to meet Janet Douglas.

Hickes used this opportunity to question the seer, in particular, regarding her ‘Second Sight’. For instance, Hickes asked whether “she thought it (her ‘Second Sight’) proceeded from a good or evil cause”. Another example of a question posed by Hickes to Janet Douglas was whether “she was wont to have any trouble, disorder, or consternation of mind, before or after the Second Sight came upon her”. Hickes also promised the seer that he would intercede with his patron in order that she might gain her liberty, on the condition that she leaves for England. Although the Duke of Lauderdale did not grant Hickes’ request, Janet Douglas was eventually released. After this, she simply vanishes from history.

Consulting the Oracle, John William Waterhouse, 1884.

Consulting the Oracle, John William Waterhouse, 1884. ( Public Domain )

Other Stories of Janet the Seer

Apart from Hickes’ account, there are also several other stories about Janet Douglas. One, for instance, elaborates on the story of Sir George Maxwell. In this tale, the seer identifies not only the effigy used against Maxwell, but also the witches responsible for the deed. In another tale, recounted by the historian Robert Woodrow, Janet Douglas was brought before the Privy Council of Scotland, where she was accused by a certain Archbishop Sharpe of practising sorcery and witchcraft. The seer, however, managed to vindicate herself by turning the tables on the clergyman.

Featured image: Prophetess by Alphonse Mucha ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )

By Ḏḥwty


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Jardine, M., 2015. The Entry of a Witch Finder into Glasgow, Samuel Pepys and the Second Sight. [Online]
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MacGowan, D., 2011. The Seer Janet Douglas. [Online]
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Sutherland, A., 2009. The Brahan Seer: The Making of a Legend. Oxford: Peter Lang.

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