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Representation of a seer or prophetess.

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

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Janet Douglas was a 17th century Scottish teenager reputed to have a paranormal gift known as ‘Second Sight.’ She should not be confused was another well-known Janet Douglas, a Scottish noblewoman who lived during the 16th century, and accused of witchcraft, was burnt at the stake during the reign of James V of Scotland. As for the 17th century seer, she may have been more fortunate than the other Janet Douglas – at least 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. But what actually occurred to bring her such fame?

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.

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. (Public Domain)

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 17th century.

Janet Douglas’ ‘gift’ seems to have been an ability to detect evil artifacts of witchcraft. According to Hickes, she first used this ability “in the Western Islands” to aid a certain Sir George Maxwell, who had been “tormented in effigy by witches.” She is also said to have identified the killers of two boys who had mysteriously drowned in a river – citing witchcraft was behind their untimely deaths as well.

Effigies used for witchcraft. (Malcolm Lidbury/CC BY SA 3.0)

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 there 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 it would be.

Questions about Her ‘Second Sight’

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 among 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.”

The Crystal Ball, Waterhouse, 1902

The Crystal Ball, Waterhouse, 1902 (Public Domain)

These questions probably stemmed from the belief that witchcraft and ‘Second Sight’ were related. The Scotsman reports that a mathematics professor at the University of Glasgow named George Sinclair wrote a book in 1685 called ‘ Satan’s Invisible World Discovered’ discussing this topic and he claimed:

“I am undoubtedly informed, that men and women in the Highlands can discern fatality approaching in others, by seeing them in waters, or with winding sheets about them. It is not improbable, but that such preternatural knowledge comes first by a compact with the Devil, and is derived downward by succession to their posterity, many of such I suppose are innocent, and have this sight against their will and inclination.”

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 leave for England. Although the Duke of Lauderdale did not grant Hickes’ request, Janet Douglas was eventually released. After this, she simply vanishes from history – though some say she ended up living out the rest of her life somewhere in the West Indies.

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 practicing sorcery and witchcraft. The seer, however, tried to vindicate herself by asserting that she was using her abilities to counter evil.

When that didn’t work, she is said to have turned the tables on the clergyman, asking him who had seen the night before between midnight and one o’clock. The legend concludes that she later explained to the Duke of Rothes that the holy man changed his stance towards her to avoid her telling everyone that he had met with the Devil!

No one knows for sure if the stories of Janet Douglas’ abilities were real or what finally happened to the young Scottish girl who was as enigmatic as her supposed powers.

Top Image: Representational image of a seer or prophetess. Source: Надежда Манахова /Adobe Stock

By Ḏḥwty

Updated on October 9, 2020.


Collins, M. S., 2015. Scottish Folklore: Spectre Haunted – Second Sight & Seers. [Online]
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Collins, M. S., 2017. The Enigmas of Janet Douglas and Christian Shaw. [Online]
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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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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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