The Occult

Review of Strange Things. The Enquiry by the Society for Psychical Research into Second Sight in the Scottish Highlands, the Story of Ada Goodrich Freer, the Ballechin House ghost hunt, and the stories and folklore collected by Fr. Allan Mc Donald of Eriksay. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968

British Journal of Psychiatry, 115, 1969, p. 739

The folklore enshrined in an age‑old oral and un­written tradition, protected by an ancient and almost obsolete language, confined to a remote and isolated people, is a subject of research which must be both interesting and important. The continued existence of such a culture into the twentieth century is like the survival of a living fossil. Only a scholarly man, and one native to the language and the people, could hope to study it at first hand; but for him it could be a challenge to high endeavour. Fr. Allan McDonald was an ascetic Catholic priest who devoted his short life to this work, in such free inter­vals as he could get, from 1884, when he was sent to a parish in the Western Isles, until his death in 1905. He was a man of saintly character and noble mind, but of such innocence that he fell a defenceless victim to a ruthless and capable adventuress. This lady, for long known in spiritualist circles as Miss X, was sent by the Society for Psychical Research to the Highlands to study 'second sight'; she met Fr. McDonald, and fixed herself upon him. He made freely available to her his notebooks of strange local stories and beliefs; and he never knew how far she went in exploiting his work and claiming for herself the credit. She did in fact gain a reputation in learned circles which she enjoyed till she died at the age of 72, twenty‑six years after the death in obscurity of her master, benefactor and dupe.

   Strange Things is the record of an enquiry that demanded two entirely different kinds of scholar­ship, and it unfolds a story which had to be built up by detective work on two fronts. Dr. Campbell dis­covered the work done by McDonald, and succeeded eventually in tracking down four of his six notebooks; in the last eighty pages of the book he shows the calibre of the man by providing a substantial selection of the stories of ghosts and 'second sight' which he had collected from the islanders. Dr. Campbell has also recovered from limbo arid has published before now a Gaelic vocabulary and a volume of poems in Gaelic, also by McDonald. In the course of his searches he came upon evidence of the fraudulence of an important book (Outer Isles) about the Hebrides, which could be shown to be very little the work of the supposed author, Ada Goodrich Freer, but nearly all McDonald's work, though seriously botched. Who was this thief, and how had she done it?

   Ada Goodrich Freer, in the fulness of time to develop into Adela Monica Goodrich‑Freer (and a relative of Sir Henry Bartle Frerr!!), appeared on the London scene, seemingly from nowhere, when she joined the S.P.R. in 1888. She very rapidly conquered the leading personalities of that society by her youth and femininity, her personal attractions and charm of manner, her high intelligence and great energy of character, and especially by her facility in eliciting occult messages from crystals, ouija boards, sea‑shells and out of the ether. This last faculty was so strong that her employer, the well known journalist W. T. Stead, claimed that he received messages from her with the ease and certainty of a telegram: 'Whenever I wish to know where she is, whether she can keep an appointment, or how she is progressing with her work, I simply ask the question and my hand automatically writes out the answer.' She may also have helped her brilliant ascent by a love affair with F. W. H. Myers, a psychopath a good deal more deadly than she was. The eventual duel between these two is the stuff of melodrama.

   During her lifetime, Miss Freer had been completely successful in covering up her honest but unfortunately humble origins, and in giving the general impression of a background of culture, private means and familiarity with the landed gentry. The detec­tive work by which Mr. Hall has unearthed the much more interesting truth is beyond all praise, and the skill with which he relates the strange story matches the solidity of its foundation.

   This is a book which, I would suppose, is important for both the student of folklore and the student of the occult. For the psychiatrist it is sheer joy to read. If he is not interested ‑ as indeed he should be ‑ in the hallucinatory and mystical experiences of an in­telligent but unlettered people, he cannot fail to be fascinated by the detailed picture of some of the oddest delinquents and some of the oddest quirks of gullibility that might reward a professional lifetime, all set against the richly lunatic background of British spiritualism at the turn of the century.