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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter XVI - Pilgrimages to Wells


Modern and Ancient Pilgrimages—Benefits from Pilgrimages—Cuthbert's Shrine at Durham — Cross of Crail --- Pilgrims' Well and St. Martha's Hospital at Aberdour — Ninian's Shrine at Whithorn and the Holy Wells of Wigtownshire—Kentigern's Shrine and Spring at Glasgow — Chapel and Well of Grace — Whitekirk — Isle of May — Witness of Archaeology — Marmion — Early Attempts in England to regulate Pilgrimages to Wells — Attempts in Scotland after Reformation — Enactments by Church and State — Instances of Visits to Wells—Changed Point of View—Craigie Well—Downy Well—Sugar and Water Sunday in Cumberland--Sacred Dramas at Wells—Festivities—St. Margaret's Well at Wereham—What happened in Ireland—Patrons—Shell-mound—Selling Water--Fairs at Springs—Some Examples—Secrecy of Visits to Wells.

NOWADAYS people put Murray or Black, or some similar volume, into their portmanteau, and set off by rail on what they call a pilgrimage. In this case the term is a synonym for sight-seeing, usually accomplished under fairly comfortable conditions. In ancient times pilgrimages were, as a rule, serious matters with a serious aim. Shakespeare says, in "Two Gentlemen of Verona":-

"A true devoted pilgrim is not weary
To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps.'

The object of such journeys was to benefit either soul or body, or both. The doing of penance, or the fulfilling of a vow, sent devotees to certain sacred spots, sometimes in distant lands, sometimes within our own four seas. Cuthbert's shrine at Durham, where the saint's body was finally deposited in 1070, after its nearly two hundred years' wanderings, was a noted resort of pilgrims in the middle ages, and many cures were wrought at it. Archbishop Eyre, on the authority of Reginald of Durham, tells of a certain man of noble birth, belonging to the south of England, who could not find relief for his leprosy. He was told to light three candles, and to dedicate them respectively to St. Edmund, St. Etheldrith, and St. Cuthbert, and to visit the shrine of the saint whose candle first burned out. The candles were lighted, and the omen indicated the last-mentioned saint. Accordingly, he travelled to the north country, and, after various religious exercises, drew near the shrine of Cuthbert, and was cured. The shrine in question was known even as far off as Norway. On one occasion, at least, viz., in 1172, its miraculous aid was sought by an invalid from that country. A young man of Bergen, who was blind, deaf, and dumb, had sought relief at Scandinavian shrines for six years, but in vain. The bishop suggested that he should try the virtue of an English shrine, and recommended that lots should be cast, to determine whether it was to be that of St. Edmund, St. Thomas, or St. Cuthbert. The lot fell to St. Cuthbert. The young man passed through Scotland to Durham, and returned home cured. The miracle, doubtless, still further increased the sanctity of the saint's tomb.

The Cross of Crail, in Fife, had the power of working wonderful cures; and many were the pilgrims who flocked to it. Aberdour, in the same county, had more than a local fame. The name of The Pilgrims' Well there tells its own tale. This well is now filled up, but for centuries it attracted crowds of pilgrims. In the fifteenth century the spot was so popular that about 1475, at the suggestion of Sir John Scott, vicar of Aberdour, the Earl of Morton granted a piece of land for the erection of an hospital to accommodate the pilgrims. This hospital was named after St. Martha. It is not certain to whom the Pilgrims' Well was dedicated; but Fillan was probably its patron, as the Rev. Wm. Ross conjectures, in an article on the subject in the third volume of the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland." The church of Aberdour was dedicated to the saint in question; and the well was near the old churchyard.

Ninian's shrine at Whithorn was the scene of various miracles during the middle ages. In 1425 James the First granted a safe-conduct to all strangers, coming to Scotland to visit it; and James the Fourth made a pilgrimage to it once a year, and sometimes oftener. "It is likely," remarks the Rev. Daniel Conway in an article on consecrated springs in the south-west of Scotland, "that the spots in Wigtownsbire, where Holy Wells were, marked the route pursued by pilgrims bent on doing homage to the relics of St. Ninian at Whit-horn." Whithorn was not the only shrine visited by James the Fourth. He went repeatedly on pilgrimage to St. Andrews, Dunfermline, and Tain, and left offerings at the shrines of their respective saints. When on pilgrimage the king was usually accompanied by a large retinue, including a company of minstrels. He liked to have his dogs and hawks with him too, to have a little hunting by the way.

St. Kentigern's Well, in the so-called crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, has already been mentioned. In the immediate neighbourhood is the spot believed to mark the last resting place of the saint. Till the Reformation his shrine attracted crowds of pilgrims. On special occasions his relics were displayed, including his bones, his hair shirt, and his scourge, and a red liquor that flowed from his tomb. These, along with other relics belonging to the cathedral, were taken to France by Archbishop Beaton in 1560. In the ancient parish of Dundurcus, Elgin-shire, not far from the river Spey, once stood the Chapel of Grace, and close to it was a well of the same name. The place was a favourite resort of pilgrims. Lady Aboyne went to it once a year, a distance of over thirty miles, and walked the last two miles of the way on her bare feet. In 1638 an attempt was made to put a stop to the pilgrimages, by destroying what then remained of the chapel. The attempt, however, seems to have been fruitless, for in 1775, Shaw, the historian of Moray, mentions that to it "multitudes from the western isles do still resort, and nothing short of violence can restrain their superstition." In 1435, when neas Silvius (afterwards Pope Pius the Second) was sailing from the low countries to Scotland on a political mission, he was twice overtaken by a storm, and was in such danger that he vowed to make a pilgrimage, should he escape drowning. At length he reached the Haddingtonshire coast in safety, and, to fulfil his vow, set off barefoot, over ice-covered ground, to Whitekirk, ten miles away, where there were a chapel and well, dedicated to the Virgin. The journey left its mark on the pilgrim, for we are told that he had aches in his joints ever afterwards. St. Adrian's Chapel, in the Isle of May, in the Firth of Forth, had a great reputation before the Reformation. The island has still its Pilgrims' Haven, and its Pilgrims' Well close by.

Archaeology bears witness to the popularity of pilgrimages in former times. Between Moxley Nunnery, in Yorkshire, and St. John's Well, about a mile away, are the remains of a causeway, laid down for the convenience of devotees. At Stenton, in Haddingtonshire, near the road leading to Dunbar, is the well of the Holy Rood, covered by a small circular building with a conical roof. The well is now filled up. Its former importance is indicated by the fact that the pathway between it and the old church, some two hundred yards off, had a stone pavement, implying considerable traffic to and from the spring. In the quiet Banffshire parish of Inveraven, is a spring, at Chapelton of Kilmaichlie, near the site of an ancient chapel. The spring is now almost forgotten, but its casing of stone shows that, at one time, it was an object of interest in the neighbourhood.

The author of "Marmion," when describing the arrival, at Lindisfarne, of the bark containing St. Hilda's holy maids from Whitby, has the following picturesque lines :-

"The The tide did now its flood-mark gain,
And girdled in the saint's domain:
For, with the flow and ebb, its style
Varies from continent to isle;
Dry-shod, o'er sands, twice every day,
The pilgrims to the shrine find way;
Twice, every day, the waves efface
Of staves and sandalled feet the trace."

Towards the end of the same poem, in connection with the Lady Clare's quest of water for the dying Marmion, we find the following reference:-

"Where Where shall she turn? behold her mark
A little fountain cell,
Where water, clear as diamond-spark,
In a stone basin fell I
Above, some half-worn letters say,
Drink weary pilgrim drink and pray.
For the kind soul of Sybil Grey .
Who, built, this, cross. and. well.'"

In England, during the middle ages, there were various attempts to regulate the custom of making pilgrimages to wells. A canon of King Edgar, of date 963, prohibited the superstitious resorting to fountains, and in 1102, one of the canons of St. Anselm permitted only such wells to be visited as were approved of by the bishop. In Scotland, vigorous efforts were made, after the Reformation, to abolish the practice. Both Church and State combined to bring about this result. In an Act of Parliament, of date 1581, allusion is made to the " pervers inclination of rnannis ingyne to superstitioun through which the dregges of idolatrie yit remanis in divers pairtis of the realme be useing of pilgrimage to sum chappellis, wellis, croces, and sic other monumentis of idolatrie, as also be observing of the festual dayis of the santes sumtyine namit their patronis in setting forth of bain fyres, singing of caroles within and about kirkes at certane seasones of the yeir." In 1629 the practice was sternly forbidden by an edict from the Privy Council. In connection with this edict, Daly ell remarks, " It seems not to have been enough that congregations were interdicted from the pulpit preceding the wonted period of resort, or that individuals, humbled on their knees, in public acknowledgment of their offence, were rebuked or fined for disobedience. Now, it was declared that, for the purpose of restraining the superstitious resort, 'in pilgrimages to chappellis and wellis, which is so frequent and common in this kingdome, to the great offence of God, scandall of the kirk, and disgrace of his Majesteis government; that commissioners cause diligent search at all such pairts and places where this idolatrous superstitious is used, and to take and apprehend all suche persons of whatsomever rank and qualitie whom they sail deprehend going in pilgrimage to chappellis and wellis, or whome they sail know thameselffes to be guiltie of that cryme, and to commit thame to waird, until measures should be adopted for their trial and punishment.'" Prior to the date of the above edict the Privy Council had not been idle, crowds of people were in the habit of making a pilgrimage on May Day to Christ's Well, in Menteith, where they performed certain superstitious rites. Accordingly, in 1624, a Commission was issued to a number of gentlemen belonging to the district instructing them to station themselves beside the well, to apprehend the pilgrims and to remove them to the Castle of Doune. Even such measures did not cause the practice to cease.

In 1628 several persons were accused before the kirk-session of Falkirk of going in pilgrimage to the well in question, and being found guilty, were ordered to appear in church three appointed Sundays, clad in the garb of penitents. The same year the following warning was issued by the aforesaid kirk-session:—"It is statute and ordained that if any person or persons be found superstitiously and idolatrously, after this, to have passed in pilgrimage to Christ's Well, on the Sundays of May to seek their health, they shall repent in sacco and linen three several Sabbaths, and pay twenty lib. (Scots) toties qunties for ilk fault; and if they cannot pay it the baillies shall be recommended to put them in ward, and to be fed on bread and water for aught days."

Scottish ecclesiastical records, indeed, bear ample testimony to the zeal displayed by the Church in putting a stop to such visits. In his "Domestic Annals of Scotland," Chambers gives the following picture of what was done by the kirk-session of Perth. The example shows the lines usually followed in connection with such prosecutions:--"At Hunting-tower there was a well, the water of which was believed to have sanative qualities when used under certain circumstances. In May, 1618, two women of humble rank were before the kirk-session of Perth, `who, being asked if they were at the well in the bank of Huntingtower the last Sabbath, if they drank thereof, and what they left at it, answered, that they drank thereof, and that each of them left a prin (pin) thereat, which was found to be a point of idolatrie in putting the well in God's room.' They were each fined six shillings, and compelled to make public avowal of their repentance." In the parish of Nigg, Kincardineshire, is St. Fittack's or St. Fiacre's Well, situated close to the sea. It is within easy reach of Aberdeen across the Dee. Many a visit was paid to it by the inhabitants of that burgh, from motives of superstition. The Aberdeen kirk-session, however, did its duty in the matter, and repeatedly forbade such visits. In 1630, "Margrat Davidson, spous to Andro Adam, was adjudget in ane unlaw of fyve poundis to be payed to the collector for directing hir nowriss with hir bairne to Sanct Fiackres Well, and weshing the bairne tharin for recovirie of hir health; and the said Margrat and hir nowriss were ordainit to acknowledge thair offence before the Session for thair fault, and for leaveing ane offering in the well." The saint, to whom the well was dedicated, is believed to have migrated from Scotland to France early in the seventh century, and to have been held in much esteem there. From Butler's "Lives of the Saints" we get the curious information that "the name fiacre was first given to hackney coaches, because hired carriages were first made use of for the convenience of pilgrims who went from Paris to visit the shrine of this saint." A well at Airth, in Stirlingshire, was for long a centre of attraction. What was done there may be learned from some entries in the local kirk-session records quoted in Hone's "Every-Day Book":—"Feb. 3, 1757. Session convenit. Compeared Bessie Thomson, who declairit schoe went to the well at Airth, and that schoe left money thairat, and after the can was fillat with water, they keepit it from touching the ground till they cam horn." "February 24th.—Compeired Robert Fuird, who declared he went to the well of Airth and spoke nothing als he went, and that Margrat Walker went with him, and schoe said ye belief about the well, and left money and ane napkin at the well, and all was done at her injunction." " March 21.—Compeired Robert Ffuird who declairit yat Margrat Walker went to ye well of Airth to fetch water to Robert Cowie, and when schoe corn thair schoe laid down money in God's name, and ane napkin in Robert Cowie's name." The session ordered the delinquents to be admonished.

Years went on, and modes of thought gradually changed. Church and State alike began to respect the liberty of the subject. Though visits continued to be paid to holy wells, they ceased to be reckoned as offences. People might still resort to the spots, so familiar to their ancestors, and so much revered by them; but they no longer found themselves shut up in prison, or made to do penance before the whole congregation. Old customs continued to hold sway, though less stress was laid on the superstitions, lying behind them. Thus it came to pass, that pilgrimages to holy wells became more and more an excuse for mirthful meetings among friends. This was specially true of Craigie Well, in the parish of Avoch, in the Black Isle of Cromarty. The time for visiting the spring was early in the morning of the first Sunday in May. The well was situated near Munlochy Bay, a few yards above high-water-mark, and gets its name from the crags around. A correspondent of Chambers's "Book of Days" thus describes what he saw and heard:—"I arrived about an hour before sunrise, but long before, crowds of lads and lasses from all quarters were fast pouring in. Some, indeed, were there at daybreak who had journeyed more than seven miles. Before the sun made his appearance, the whole scene looked more like a fair than anything else. Acquaintances shook hands in true Highland style, brother met brother, and sister met sister, while laughter and all kinds of country news and gossip were so freely indulged in, that a person could hardly hear what he himself said." Amid all the stir and bustle the spring itself was not neglected, for everyone took care to have a drink. Some used dishes, while others, on hands and knees, sucked up the water with the mouth. These latter were now and again ducked over head and ears by their acquaintances, who much. enjoyed the frolic. No one went away without leaving a thread, or patch of cloth on a large briar bush near the spring. Besides St. Fittack's Well, there is another in Nigg parish called Downy Well. It used to be resorted to in May, by persons who drank the water, and then crossed by a narrow neck of land, called The Brig of a'e Hair, to Downy Hill—a green headland in the sea—where they amused themselves by carving their names in the turf.

Brand, in his "Popular Antiquities," gives the following particulars about a custom that still prevailed in Cumberland, when he wrote about forty years ago:—"In some parts of the North of England it has been a custom from time immemorial for the lads and lasses of the neighbouring villages to collect together at springs or rivers, on some Sunday in May, to drink sugar and water, where the lasses gave the treat: this is called "Sugar and Water Sunday." They afterwards adjourn to the public-house, and the lads return the compliment in cakes, ale, punch, &c. A vast concourse of both sexes assemble for the above purpose at the Giant's Cave, near Eden Hall in Cumberland, on the third Sunday in May."

We do not know whether sacred dramas were ever performed beside Scottish springs; but Stow informs us that the parish clerks of London made an annual pilgrimage to Clark's Well, near the Metropolis, "to play some large history of Holy Scripture." He also mentions that a Miracle Play, lasting eight days, was performed at Skinner's Well in the time of Henry the Fourth. South of the Tweed, springs were often the scenes of festivity. Thus, to take only one example, we find that pilgrims to St. Margaret's Well, at Wereham in Norfolk, were in the habit, in pre-Reformation days, of regaling themselves with cakes and ale, and indulging in music and dancing. What occurred in Ireland down to the beginning of the present century may be gathered from a passage in Mason's "Statistical Account of Ireland" reprinted in the "Folklore Journal" for 1888. After referring to religious assemblies at Holy Wells the writer remarks "At these places are always erected booths or tents as in Fairs for selling whisky, beer, and ale, at which pipers and fiddlers do not fail to attend, and the remainder of the day and night (after their religious performances are over and the priest withdrawn) is spent in singing, dancing, and drinking to excess. . . . Such places are frequently chosen for scenes of pitched battles, fought with cudgels by parties not only of parishes but of counties, set in formal array against each other to revenge some real or supposed injury." In Roman Catholic districts of Ireland, what are called patrons, i.e., gatherings in honour of the patron saints of the place, are still popular. From an article on "Connemara Folklore," by G. H. Kinahan, in the "Folklore Journal" for 1884, we learn that a consecrated spring at Cashla Bay has, beside it, a large conical mound of sea-shells. These are the remains of the shell-fish forming the food of the pilgrims during the continuance of the patron, and cooked by them on the top of the mound. Last century, in Ireland, the custom of carrying the water of famous wells to distant parts, and there selling it, was not unknown. A correspondent of the "Gentleman's Magazine" mentions that about 1750 this was done in connection with a miraculous spring near Sligo; and that, some years earlier, the water of Lough Finn was sold in the district, where he lived, at sixpence, eightpence, and tenpence per quart, according to the different success of sale the carriers had on the road. A thatched cottage stood close to the site of St. Margaret's Well at Restalrig, and was inhabited by a man who carried the water of the spring to Leith for sale.

Mr. William Andrews, in his "Old Time Punishments," tells of booths having been set up beside a Lincolnshire gibbet in 1814, to supply provisions for the crowds who came to see a murderer hanging in chains there. Less gruesome were the fairs at one time held in the neighbourhood of springs, though even they had certain unpleasant concomitants, which led in the end to their discontinuance. In the united parish of Dunkeld and Dowally is Sancta Crux Well, at Crueshill. Till towards the middle of the present century, it was such a popular resort, that tents were set up and refreshments sold to the pilgrims. Alcohol was so freely partaken of that drunken brawls often ensued, and right-minded people felt that the gathering would be more honoured in the breach than in the observance. St. Fillan's Fair, at Struan, took place on the first Friday after New Year's Day (O.S.). It was held on a spot close to the church, and not far from St. Fillan's Well. It is now discontinued, but its stance is still known as Croft-an-taggart, i.e., The Priest's Croft. The Well Market, now held at Tomintoul, in Kirkmichael parish, Banffshire, but formerly beside Fergan Well, has already been referred to. Writing in April, 1892, a correspondent, who has resided in the parish for nearly half-a-century, mentions the following particulars concerning the spring:--"The healing virtue of its water is still believed in, especially on the first Sunday of May, when parties still gather and watch the arrival of Sunday morning with special care, many of them remaining there the whole night and part of the Sabbath. Whoever first washes in the water or drinks of it is cured of any disease or sore with which they may be troubled." Our correspondent adds:—"The annual market of the district was held at Fergan Well, and the foundations of the tents or booths where goods were sold are still visible: and very probably there was a kind of mountain dew partaken of stronger than the water that now flows from Fergan Well." We shall have something more to say about fairs in the next chapter.

Though modern enlightenment has not entirely abolished the practice of resorting to consecrated springs, it has, as a rule, produced a desire for secrecy on the part of the pilgrims. When superstitous motives are absent, and springs are visited merely from curiosity or love of frolic, there is no sense of shame, and hence no need for concealment. But when the pilgrims regard the practice as a magical rite, they usually prefer to keep the rest of the world in the dark as to their doings. Sir Arthur Mitchell truly remarks in his "Past in the Present"—"It is well enough understood that the business is not a Christian one, and that the engaging in it is not a thing which it would be easy to justify. There is a consciousness that it has not been gone about as an empty, meaningless ceremony, but that it has involved an acknowledgment of a supernatural power controlling human affairs and influenced by certain rites and offerings—a power different from that which is acknowledged by Christians. Hence it happens that there is a difficulty in getting people to confess to these visits, and, of course, a greater difficulty still in getting them to speak, freely and frankly, about the feelings and beliefs which led to them."


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