Strange things

Interesting to see that this year’s theme for Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival, is An Dà Shealladh, or Second Sight, although how Alistair Darling snuck in there I don’t know. The former Chancellor has a holiday home in Lewis, as well as a new book to promote, but doesn’t seem to have inherited any of his ancestors’ gift of foretelling the future. If he had, perhaps he might have avoided the banking crisis.

John Lorne Campbell collected and published many stories about Second Sight, but as far as I’m aware never expressed himself as either a believer or a sceptic on the subject. However, he had a nose for a charlatan and went to great pains to expose one of the most blatant.

Ada Goodrich-Freer had first made her way to Eriskay in 1895 while she was researching the phenomenon on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research. At that time, in her late 30s, she was an attractive and engaging woman who always looked younger than her age and she easily won the confidence of Fr Allan McDonald, the island’s priest. He was a renowned Gaelic scholar and collector and allowed her to make use of the material he had gathered over decades.

In the last years of the nineteenth and first few of the twentieth centuries Miss Goodrich-Freer built a reputation for herself as an authority on Hebridean folklore, giving lectures to learned societies in London and Scotland, writing papers and in 1902 publishing a book, Outer Isles. This reputation persisted until her death in 1931, marked by an obituary in the magazine Folklore eulogising her achievements.

John was not convinced. Ada Goodrich-Freer, by her own admission, could neither speak nor understand Gaelic and had only visited the islands on a few short summer visits, so how was she able to amass the volume and quality of the material she presented?

In the 1950s John devoted himself to tracking down Fr Allan’s notebooks, which proved to be an immensely valuable source of Gaelic language, poetry and folklore. When he could read them for himself, he discovered that Goodrich-Frier had gone much further than merely drawing on them as source material.

With painstaking thoroughness, John and his secretary, Sheila Lockett, went through Ada Goodrich-Freer’s lectures, papers and book and compared them with Fr Allan’s notebooks. They discovered at least two-dozen instances of blatant plagiarism. Sometimes she reproduced extensive passages with only small changes of words, sometimes she flagrantly misrepresented his findings. To support her argument that Second Sight existed in the islands, she reproduced his retelling of folk memories as if they had happened recently. Where he added qualifications, she substituted certainties.

In 1968 John collaborated with Dr Trevor Hall, who had previously written about the Society of Psychical Research which had employed Miss Freer. Together they published Strange Things, which reproduced Fr Allan’s original notebook of that title and contained a thorough demolition of Miss Freer’s character, exposing her as a fantasist, fraud and habitual liar.

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