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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter XVIII - Wishing Wells


Fulfilment of Wishes by Divination--Love Charms—Hallow E'en Rites, &c.—Wishing Tree—Wishing Holes—St. Govan's Chapel and Well—Walsingham Wells—Wishing Stone in St. John's Well—Healing Wells and Wishing Wells—St. David's Well—Bride's Well—Marriage—Special Times for Wishing—St. Warna and Wrecks—Wishing Well at West Kilbride—St. Anthony's Spring.

To bring about the accomplishment of a cherished desire by means of certain rites has been a favourite mode of divination. By this method it was thought that destiny could be coerced, and the wish made the father of its own fulfilment. The means were various; but, underlying them all, was the notion that the doing of something, in the present, guaranteed the happening of something in the future. A mere wish was not sufficient. A particular spot, hallowed by old associations, had to be visited, and a time-honoured ceremony observed. But the ritual might be of the simplest. It was perchance to some rustic gate that the village maiden stole in the gathering gloaming, and there, with beating heart, breathed the wish that was to bring a new happiness into her life. Love charms, indeed, form an important group of wishing superstitions. To this class belong Hallow E'en rites, such as eating an apple before a mirror, and sowing hemp seed. These rites gave the maiden a vision of her destined husband. In the one case, she saw his face in the glass, and in the other, she saw him in the attitude of pulling hemp. The dumb-cake divination, on the Eves of St. Mark and St. John, also belongs to the same class of charms. Not more than three must take part in the mystical ceremony. Concerning the cake, an English rule says:-

"Two make it,
Two bake it,
Two break it,

and the third must put it under each of their pillows, but not a word must be spoken all the time." Fasting on St. Agnes's Eve was requisite on the part of any maiden, who sought on that festival to have a vision of her bridegroom to be. According to an old Galloway custom, a maiden pulled a handful of grass when she first saw the new moon. While she pulled she repeated the rhyme:-

"New moon, new moon, tell me if you can,
Gif I have a hair like the hair o' my gudeman."

The grass was then taken into the house, and carefully examined. If a hair was found amongst the grass, it would correspond in colour with the hair of the coming husband. In connection with all such charms, it is certainly true what an old song says that "love bath eyes."

Her Majesty the Queen visited Innis Maree in September, 1877. When describing her visit, Mr. Dixon, in his "Gavrloch," says:—"She fixed her offering in the wishing tree, a pleasantry which most visitors to the island repeat, it being common report that a wish silently formed, when any metal article is attached to the tree, will certainly be realised. It is said that if anyone removes any offering that has been fixed on the tree, some misfortune, probably the taking fire of the house of the desecrator, is sure to follow." On a hill near Abbotsbury, in Dorset, stands St. Catherine's Chapel. In its south doorway are wishing holes. The knee is placed in one of the holes, and the hands in the two above; and in this posture the visitor performs the wishing ceremony. Half-way down the cliff near Stackpole Head, in Pembrokeshire, is an ancient structure of rude masonry styled St. Govan's Chapel, at one time the retreat of some recluse. Professor Cosmo Innes, in the third volume of the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," gives an account of a visit to the spot, and adds:—"The curious part of St. Govan's abode is his bed, or rather his coffin, for it is a vertical interstice between two immense slabs of rock, into which a body of common size can be forced with some difficulty, the prisoner remaining upright. The rock is polished by the number of visitors fitting themselves into the saint's bed of penance, and the natives make you feel in the inner surface the indentures caused by the ribs of the saint ! " The polishing is mainly due to the fact that the space has for long been used for wishing purposes. Those who desire to test the efficacy of the spell must turn themselves round within the hollow and think of nothing else during the process, except what they are wishing fora rather difficult test under the circumstances! Close to the chapel is St. Govan's Well, under a covering of stone-work. The spring had formerly a great reputation as a health resort. Beside the remains of the once splendid monastic buildings at Walsingham, in Norfolk, are wishing wells consisting of two small circular basins of stone. In pro-Reformation times they were much resorted to for the cure of disease. Being close to St. Mary's Chapel, they were appropriately dedicated to the Virgin, to whom the gift of healing was ascribed. Since then they have been popular as wishing wells. The necessary ritual is thus described by Brand in his "Popular Antiquities":—"The votary, with a due qualification of faith and pious awe, must apply the right knee, bare, to a stone placed for that purpose between the wells. He must then plunge to the wrist each hand, bare also, into the water of the wells which are near enough to admit of this immersion. A wish must then be formed, but not uttered with the lips, either at the time or afterwards, even in confidential communication to the dearest friend. The hands are then to be withdrawn, and as much of the water as can be contained in the hollow of each is to be swallowed. Formerly the object of desire was most probably expressed in a prayer to the Virgin. It is now only a silent wish, which will certainly be accomplished within twelve months, if the efficacy of the solemn rite be not frustrated by the incredulity or some other fault of the votary."

Pennant tells of a cistern connected with St. John's Well, near Moxley Nunnery, at one time much used for bathing. Near these, and below the surface of the water, was a piece of rock called the Wishing Stone. Anyone who kissed this stone with firm belief in the efficacy of the charm would have his desire granted. In this case the power of securing the fulfilment of wishes went hand in hand with the power of curing diseases. Generally speaking, however, as in the case of Walsingham just mentioned, the former power supersedes the latter. In other words, healing wells are transformed into wishing wells. When such is the case, they are, as far as folklore in concerned, in the last stage of their history. In the wood, clothing the steep hill of Weem, in Perthshire, is St. David's Well, said to be named after a former laird who turned hermit. The spring has a considerable local fame, and many have been the wishes silently breathed over its water. Part of an ancient stone cross lies at its margin, and on it the visitor kneels while framing his or her wish. Visitors to wishing wells commonly drop into the water a coin, pin, or pebble, thus keeping up, usually without being aware of the fact, the custom of offering a gift to the genius loci. The Rev. Dr. Gregor thus describes what was dropped into the Bride's Well, in the neighbourhood of Corgarff, Aberdeenshire:—"This well was at one time the favourite resort of all brides for miles around. On the evening before the marriage, the bride, accompanied by her maidens, went 'atween the sun an' the sky' to it. The maidens bathed her feet and the upper part of her body with water drawn from it. This bathing ensured a family. The bride put into the well a few crumbs of bread and cheese, to keep her children from ever being in want."

Desires of any kind may be cherished at wishing-wells, but there is no doubt that matters matrimonial usually give direction to the thoughts. According to a Yorkshire belief, whoever drops five white pebbles into the Ouse, near the county town, when the minster clock strikes one on May morning, will see on the surface of the water whatever he or she wishes. Near Dale Abbey, in Derbyshire, is a certain holy well. To get full advantage of its help, one has to go between the hours of twelve and three on Good Friday, drink the water thrice, and wish. There is no doubt about the meaning of the following lines from the Bard of Dimbovitza, a collection of Roumanian Folk-Songs:-

"There, where on Sundays I go alone,
To the old, old well with the milk-white stone,
Where by the fence, in a nook forgot,
Rises a Spring in the daisied grass,
That makes whoso drinks of it love—alas!
My heart's best beloved, he drinks it not,"

In Sir Walter Scott's "Pirate" one of the characters expresses the wish that providence would soon send a wreck to gladden the hearts of the Shetlanders. At the other extremity of Britain, viz., in the Scilly Isles, the same hope was at one time cherished. St. Warna, who had to do with wrecks, was the patron saint of St. Agnes, one of the islands of the group. She had her holy well, and there the natives anciently dropped in a crooked pin and invoked the saint to send them a rich wreck.

It would be useless to attempt to give a list of Scottish wishing-wells; but the following may be mentioned. There is one in West Kilbride parish, Ayrshire, close to a cave at Hunterston. There is another at Ardmore, in Dumbartonshire. At Rait, in Perthshire, is St. Peter's Wishing-well. In the united parishes of Kilcalrnonell and Kilberry, in Argyllshire, is the ancient ecclesiastical site of Kilanaish. "Near the burial-ground," Captain White tells us, "is its holy well, where it is proper to wish the usual three wishes, which, on my last visit to the place, our party, including one lady, devoutly did." The same writer gives the following particulars about another Argyllshire spring:--"Near the Abbey of Saddell, Kintyre, is a fine spring of the class known throughout Scotland as Wishing-wells, which has always borne the name of Holy-well. It had the usual virtues and wishing powers ascribed to it. A pretty little pillar with cross cut upon it which has been mistaken for one of ancient date is scooped out into a small basin to catch the drip of the water. It was erected by a Bishop Brown, when residing at Saddell, in the beginning of the present century, to replace another one that had formerly stood there. Beside it, flows a stream called Alt-nam-Manach (the Monk's Burn), and this, with the spring, no doubt formed the water supply of the monastery."

St. Anthony's Well, beside St. Anthony's ruined Chapel, near Edinburgh, is probably the best known of Scottish wishing-wells. Its sanative virtues have already been alluded to, but it is nowadays more noted for its power of securing the fulfilment of wishes than the recovery of health. A pleasant picture of the romantic spot is given by Sir Daniel Wilson in his "Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time":—"The ancient Hermitage and Chapel of St. Anthony, underneath the overhanging crags of Arthur's Seat, are believed to have formed a dependency of the preceptory at Leith, and to have been placed there, to catch the seaman's eye as he entered the Firth, or departed on some long and perilous voyage; when his vows and offerings would be most freely made to the patron saint, and the hermit who ministered at his altar. No record, however, now remains to add to the tradition of its dedication to St. Anthony; but the silver stream, celebrated in the plaintive old song, `O waly, waly up yon bank,' still wells clearly forth at the foot of the rock, filling the little basin of St. Anthony's Well, and rippling pleasantly through the long grass into the lower valley." The song in question gives expression to the grief of Lady Barbara Erskine, wife of James, Marquis of Douglas, in the time of Charles II., in connection with her desertion by her husband-

1. O waly, waly up the bank
And waly, waly down the brae,
And waly, waly yon burnaide,
Where I and my love wont to gae I
I lean'd my back unto an aik,
I thoucht it was a trusty tree;
But first it bow'd, and syne it brak:
Sae my true love did lichtly me.

2. O waly, waly, but love be bonnie
A little time while it is new;
But when it's auld, it waxes cauld,
And fades away like morning dew.
O wherefore should I busk my heid,
Or wherefore should I kame my hair?
For my true love has me forsook,
And says he'll never love me mair.

3. Now Arthur's Seat shall be my bed.
The sheets shall ne'er be pressed by me.
St. Anton's Well shall be my drink
Since my true love has forsaken me.
Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blaw,
And shake the green leaves aff the tree?
O gentle death! when wilt thou come?
For of my life I am wearie!

4. 'Tie not the frost that freezes fell
Nor blawing snaw's inclemencle;
'Tis not sic cauld that makes me cry,
But my love's heart's grown cauld to me.
When we came in by Glasgow toun
We were a comely sicht to see;
My love was clad in the black velvet,
And I mysel in cramasie.

5. But had I wilt, before I kissed,
That love had been sae ill to win,
I'd lock'd my heart in a case of gold,
And pinn'd it wi' a siller pin.
Oh ! oh ! if my young babe were born,
And set upon the nurse's knee.
And I mysel were dead and gane,
And the green grass growing over me!"

Fortunately, the associations of St. Anthony's Well have not all been so sad as the above. Many a hopeful moment has been passed beside its margin. A little girl from Aberdeenshire, when on a visit to friends in Edinburgh, made trial of the sacred spring. She was cautioned not to tell anyone what her wish was, else the charm would have no effect. On her return home, however, her eagerness to know whether the wish had, in the meantime, been fulfilled, quite overcame her ability to keep the secret. Her first words were, "Has the pony come?" St. Anthony must have been in good humour with the child, for he provided the pony, thus evidently condoning the breach of silence in deference to her youth. Surely there must be something in wishing-wells, after all, besides water.


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