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In the Shadow of Cairngorm
VII. The Wells and their Witcheries


THE Gaelic words for a well are fuaran and tobar. They are usually regarded as synonymous, but they may be distinguished. Fuaran, from fuar, cold, is the well in its natural state, as it springs sweet and pure from the bosom of the earth. Tubar marks the well where there has been the choice and handiwork of man, or some association of ideas with names and incidents of human life. There is a somewhat similar difference between the English words well and fountain, which Wordsworth brings out in his poems "The Fountain" and "A Complaint." The names of wells are often descriptive. Thus we have Fuaran buidh, near Lynamer, where the iron gives the water a rich yellow tinge. At Tontiri there is a well called F. ròmack, from its rough, shaggy sides. On the west shoulder of Carn Rhynettan, near the Tulloch road, there is a well bearing the curious name of F. ghoile (boiling). The water lies on a bed of finest sand, and from the centre there springs a little jet, which rises to the height of a few inches above the surface. The boiling goes on ceaselessly, but the jet at times rises with more force than at others. It is a miniature geyser. We find the same form of description in the Bible, compare Judges vii. i, the Well of Harod, or "Trembling," There are other wells with similar descriptive names, such as F. fiontag, the fair well; F mò,-leac-an-lorganaich, the big well of the tracker’s slab, in the Garvalt; and, a little higher up, F mhòr gharbh-uilt, which well deserves the epithet big, as it is some ten feet across, and the rush of water from it is like a mill stream. This well is sometimes called the source of the Nethy, but this is a mistake. The source is higher up, in Coire-na-spreidh, about a mile from Loch Avon.

The names of wells are often commemorative or connected with incidents in social life. There is a F. Bharbara in the wood above the Public School. Barbara has been for long a favourite name in the Highlands. The oldest part of Castle Grant is called "Babie’s Tower." Saint Barban was regarded as the type of true womanhood, and her shrines are still much frequented in Roman Catholic countries. There is a F Catair-na-dàlach near the Green Loch, and a F Ealsaid near Rhynettan, but nothing is known of either the Kate or the Elizabeth whose names are thus handed down. Near the Green Lochan there is a well called F. ghamhainn. It is very deep, about sixteen feet, and got its name from a stirk having been drowned in it. At Ribhoan there is a well which bears the name of F nam-poit, which takes us back to the time when "summering" was still the practice, and the sheiling pots were buried in the bogs till the next season came round. On the east side of Ben Bynac there is a flue well, often used as a luncheon place by sportsmen and passers by, which is called F. nan- Grandach, the Well of the Grants. Tradition says that early in the history of the Clan a party of Grants on an expedition to Deeside halted here, and that this gave rise to the name. There is a well at Sleighich, on the old drove-road to Castleton which is said to have crossed from one side of the stream to the other. The explanation given of this strange phenomenon is that the well had been polluted by some hides having been washed in it, and that it had therefore shifted to a purer site. A similar story is told of a well in Garten, which, instead of shifting, dried up. Hugh Miller, in his "Legends of Cromarty," gives an instance of the same kind, and says, "We recognise in this singular tradition a kind of soul or naiad of the spring, susceptible of offence, and conscious of the attention paid to it."

On the old road to Glenmore, by the Crasg, there is a well called F. Bharain. It is fenced with flags, and the tradition is that the Barons of Kincardine used to rest here on their hunting expeditions. Near the top of Cairngorm is the "Marquess Well." From its position it is well known, and it is a favourite resting-place for parties on their way to or from the summit. This well may claim to be the highest in Great Britain. There is a spring at Ben Nevis 3602 feet above the sea, and one on Ben Alder 3650, but the "Marquess Well," which is only about 150 feet below the summit, must be nearly 4000 feet. The water from this well falls into Allt-na-Cisde, but in times of strong thaw and flooding part is said to find its way into Ciste-Mhearad. The well is called after a Marquis of Huntly; but which Marquis? That is hard to say. It may have been the first Marquis, who won the Battle of Glenlivat in 1590, and who pressed the Marquis of Argyle so hard in his flight across the hills. There is an Argyle Stone in Rothiemurchus, and there may have been a Huntly Well on Cairngorm. Or it may have been the second Marquis, who made the chivalrous reply to the Covenanters, "You may take my head from my shoulders, but not my heart from the King." But most probably it was the last Marquis, who frequently resided at Kinrara, where he entertained Prince Leopold right royally in 1819, and who was fond of resting at this well on his excursions to the hills. Howe’er it be, the name is now fixed, and will remain as a link with the past, and a dear reminder to many of visits to Cairngorm, and of happy hours spent with friends who may never meet again. Wells are also named for their sanctity, or for the special virtues which they were supposed to possess. Tobar-Fettle, on the Grantown and Tomintoul road, was probably named after some saint. Near the Church of Kincardine, there is a well called Tobar Thomhaldidh, no doubt after some Celtic saint. There is another well called Tobar~na-Caillich, the Nun’s Well; and a well in the Braes is called after the Virgin. On the old Church road at Milton there is a fine spring called Tobar Donaich, the Lord’s Day Well. In former days, when people were more leisurely and social in their ways than in this fast age, this well was a great place of resort between sermons on the Sabbath, and especially at Sacrament times, when the services were longer than they are now. The most notable of the medicinal wells is in the moor above Lurg, called Fuaran-Claise-nan-Cràinean, the Well of the Furrow of Bones. It is of the same kind as the famous sulphur Wells of Strathpeffer, and was at one time much frequented. Some held that it had similar virtues to St Fillan’s blessed Well —

"Whose springs can frenzied dreams dispel,
And the craz’d brain restore."

A certain Caliph once asked a holy man what he should do to show his faith. The answer was, "Dig a Well." John Crowley, one of the York Company people (1730), seems to have been of this mind. There is a delicious spring, at the foot of the hank, near Aldersyde, which he had fenced and adorned, and which still bears his name. As Dean Stanley has said of the Moorish Wells of Grenada, "Even so it is with the good deeds of those who have gone before us. Whatever there has been of grateful consideration, of kindly hospitality, of far-reaching generosity, of gracious charity, of high-minded justice, of saintly devotion, these still feed the stream of moral fertilization, which will run on when their place knows them no more, when even their names have perished." A certain Abernethy boy, who had been away for more than forty years, when he re-visited the parish, found many changes. The home of his youth was occupied by strangers. The old familiar faces were gone. He could find no one to talk to of the former days. Sad at heart, he turned his steps to the Crowley Well, one of the dear haunts of his boyhood. Here was no change. The water gurgled forth clear and sweet as ever. He drank, and was refreshed, and in his heart he gave God thanks.

"All things else have but their day,
God’s love only lasts for aye."