Additional Info

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Share

Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter II - How Water became Holy


Change from Paganism to Christianity --- Columba -- Spirits of Fountains — Hurtful Wells — Stone Circles — Superstitions regarding them—Standing Stones and Springs—Innis Maree—Maelrubha--Influence of early Saints—Names of Wells—Stone-coverings—Sacred Buildings and Springs—Privilege of Sanctuary — Some Examples — Freedstoll — Preceptory of Torphichen and St. John's Well—Cross of Macduff and Nine-wells.

WE come next to ask how water became holy in the folklore sense of the word. Fortunately we get a glimpse of springs at the very time when they passed from pagan to Christian auspices. The change made certain differences, but did not take away their miraculous powers. We get this glimpse in the pages of Adamnan, St. Columba's biographer, who narrates an incident in connection with the saint's missionary work among the Picts in the latter half of the sixth century. Adamnan tells us of a certain fountain "famous among the heathen people, which the foolish men, having their senses blinded by the devil, worshipped as God. For those, who drank of this fountain, or purposely washed their hands or feet in it, were allowed by God to be struck by demoniacal art, and went home either leprous or purblind, or at least suffering from weakness or other kind of infirmity. By all these things the pagans were seduced and paid divine honour to the fountain." Columba made use of the popular belief in the interests of the new faith, and blessed the fountain in the name of Christ in order to expel the demons. He then took a draught of the water and washed his hands and feet in it, to show that it could no longer do harm. According to Adamnan the demons deserted the fountain, and many cures were afterwards wrought by it. In Ireland more than a century earlier, St. Patrick visited the fountain of Findmaige, called Sian. Offerings were wont to be made to it, and it was worshipped as a god by the Magi of the district.

It is difficult to determine exactly from what standpoint our pagan ancestors regarded wells. The nature-spirits inhabiting them, styled demons by Adamnan, were malignant in disposition, if we judge by the case he mentions; but we must not therefore conclude that they were so in every instance. Perhaps it is safe to infer that most of them were considered favourable to man, or the reverse, according as they were or were not propitiated by him. Even in modern times, some springs have been regarded as hurtful. The well of St. Chad, at Lichfield, for instance, causes ague to anyone drinking its water. Even its connection with the saint has not removed its hurtful qualities. In west Highland Folk-Tales allusion is made to poison wells, and such are even yet regarded with a certain amount of fear. In the article on the parish of Kilsyth in the "Old Statistical Account of Scotland," it is stated that Kittyfrist Well, beside the road leading over the hill to Stirling, was believed to be noxious. Successive wayfarers, when tired and heated by their climb up hill, may have drunk injudiciously of the cold water, and thus the superstition may have originated.

Stone circles have given rise to much discussion. They are perhaps best known by their popular name of Druidical temples. Whatever were the other purposes served by them, there is hardly any doubt that they were primarily associated with interments. Dr. Joseph Anderson has pointed out that a certain archaeological succession can be traced. Thus we find first, burial cairns minus stones round them, then cairns plus stones, and finally, stones minus cairns. At one time there was a widely-spread belief that men could be transformed into standing stones by the aid of magic. This power was attributed to the Druids. There are also traditions of saints thus settling their heathen opponents. When speaking of the island of Lewis, Martin says, " Several other stones are to be seen here in remote places, and some of them standing on one end. Some of the ignorant vulgar say that they were men by enchantment turned into stones. Such monoliths are still known to the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of Lewis as Fir Chreig, i.e., false men, We learn from the "New Statistical Account of Scotland" that the two standing stones at West Skeld, in Shetland, were believed by the islanders to have been originally wizards or giants. Close to the roadside on Maughold Head, in the Isle of Man, stands an ancient runic cross. A local tradition states that the cross was once an old woman, who, when carrying a bundle of wool, cursed the wind for hindering her on her journey, and was petrified in consequence.

With superstitions thus clinging to standing-stones it is not to be wondered that springs in their neighbourhood should have been regarded with special reverence. In the " Old Statistical Account of Scotland" allusion is made to Tobir-Chalaich, i.e., Old Wife's Well, situated near a stone circle in the parish of Keith, Banffshire, and to another well not far from a second circle in the same parish. The latter spring ceased to be visited about the middle of last century. Till then offerings were left at it by persons seeking its aid. The writer of the article on the island of Barry, Inverness-shire, in the same work, says, "Here, i.e., at Castle-Bay, there are several Druidical temples. Near one of these is a well which must have been once famous for its medicinal quality, as also for curing and preventing the effects of fascination. It is called Tobbar-nam-buadh or the Well of Virtues." Under the heading "Beltane," in "Jamieson's Scottish Dictionary," the following occurs:—"A town in Perthshire, on the borders of the Highlands, is called Tillie (or Tullie) Beltane, i.e., the eminence or rising ground of the fire of Baal. In the neighbourhood is a Druidical temple of eight upright stones, where it is supposed the fire was kindled. At some distance from this, is another temple of the same kind, but smaller, and near it a well still held in great veneration. On Beltane morning, superstitious people go to this well and drink of it, then they make a procession round it, as I am informed, nine times; after this, they in like manner go round the temple." Gallstack Well, at Drumlanrig, in Dumfriesshire, is near a group of standing stones. From examples like the above, we may infer that some mysterious connection was supposed to exist between standing stones and their adjacent wells. In the Tullie Beltane instance indeed, stones and well were associated together in the same superstitious rite.

A striking instance of Christianity borrowing from paganism is to be seen in the reverence paid to the well of Innis Maree, in Loch Maree, in Ross-shire. This well has been famous from an unknown past. It is dedicated to St. Maelrubha, after whom both loch and island are named. Maelrubha belonged to the monastery of Bangor, in Ireland. In the year 673, at the age of thirty-one, he settled at Applecrossan, now Applecross, in Ross-shire, and there founded a church as the nucleus of a conventual establishment. Over this monastery he presided for fifty-one years, and died a natural death in 722. A legend, disregarding historical probabilities, relates that he was slain by a band of pagan Norse rovers, and that his body was left in the forest to be devoured by wild beasts. His grave is still pointed out in Applecross churchyard, the spot being marked by a pillar slab with an antique cross carved on it. For centuries after his death he was regarded as the patron saint, not only of Applecross, but of a wide district around. Pennant, who visited Innis Maree in 1772, thus describes its appearance: "The shores are neat and gravelly; the whole surface covered thickly with a beautiful grove of oak, ash, willow, wicken, birch, fir, hazel, and enormous hollies. In the midst is a circular dike of stones, with a regular narrow entrance, the inner part has been used for ages as a burial-place, and is still in use. I suspect the dyke to have been originally Druidical, and that the ancient superstition of Paganism had been taken up by the saint, as the readiest method of making a conquest over the minds of the inhabitants. A stump of a tree is shown as an altar, probably the memorial of one of stone; but the curiosity of the place is the well of the saint; of power unspeakable in cases of lunacy." Whatever Pennant meant by Druidical, there is reason to believe that the spot was the scene of pre-Christian rites. In the popular imagination the outlines of Maelrubha's character seem to have become mixed up with those of the heathen divinity worshipped in the district. Two circumstances point to this. Firstly, as Sir Arthur Mitchell remarks in the fourth volume of the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," "The people of the place speak often of the God Mourie instead of St. Mourie, which may have resulted from his having supplanted the old god." Secondly, as the same writer shows, by reference to old kirk session records, it was customary in the parish to sacrifice a bull to St. Mourie. This was done on the saint's day, the 25th of August. The practice was still in existence in the latter half of the 17th century, and was then denounced as idolatrous.

We thus see that the sacredness of springs can be traced back through Christianity to paganism, though there is no doubt that in some instances it took its rise from association with early saints. In deciding the question of origin, however, care must be taken, for, as already indicated, the reverence anciently paid to wells led to their selection by the early missionaries. The holy wells throughout the land keep alive their names. An excellent example of a saint's influence on a particular district is met with in the case of St. Angus, at Balquhidder, in Perthshire. In his "Notes in Balquhidder" in the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," vol. ix. (new series), Mr. J. Mackintosh Gow remarks, " Saint Angus, the patron saint of the district, is said to have come to the glen from the eastward, and to have been so much struck with its marvellous beauty that he blessed it. The remains of the stone on which he sat to rest are still visible in the gable of one of the farm buildings at Easter Auchleskine, and the turn of the road is yet called 'Beannachadh Aonghais' (Angus's blessing). At this spot it was the custom in the old days for people going westward to show their respect for the saint by repeating, 'Beannaich Aonghais ann san Aoraidh' (Bless Angus in the oratory or chapel), at the same time reverently taking off their bonnets. The saint, going west, had settled at a spot below the present kirk, and near to a stone circle, the remains of which, and of the oratory, persons now living remember to have seen." After alluding to another stone circle in a haugh below the parish church manse, Mr. Gow mentions that this haugh is the stance of the old market of Balquhidder, long a popular one in the district. It was held on the saint's day in April and named Feill-Aonghais, after him. In the immediate neighbourhood there is a knoll called "Torn Aonghais," i.e., Angus's hillock. In the grounds of Edinchip there is a curing well called in Gaelic, "Fuaran n'druibh chasad," i.e., the Whooping-cough Well, beside the burn "Alt cean dhroma." "It is formed of a water-worn pot hole in the limestone rock which forms the bed of the burn, and is ten or twelve inches in diameter at the top and six inches deep. There must be a spring running into the hollow through a fissure, as no sooner is it emptied than it immediately refills, and contains about two quarts of water. The well can easily be distinguished by the large moss-covered boulder, round and flat, like a crushed ball, and about seven feet in diameter, which overshadows it, and a young ash tree of several stems growing by its side." This well was famous for the cure of whooping-cough, and children were brought to it till within recent years. The water was given in a spoon made from the horn of a living cow. When the patients could not visit the spring in person, a bottleful of the healing liquid was taken to their homes, and there administered. The district round the lower waters of Loch Awe, now comprising the united parishes of Glenorchy and Inishail was held to be under the patronage of Connan. There is a well at Dalmally dedicated to him. According to a local tradition he dwelt beside the well and blessed its water.

In addition to springs named after particular saints, there are some bearing the general appellation of Saints' Wells or Holy Wells. There are Holy Rood and Holy Wood Wells, also Holy Trinity and Chapel Wells. There are likewise Priors', Monks', Cardinals', Bishops', Priests', Abbots', and Friars' Wells. Various springs have names pointing to no ecclesiastical connection whatever. To this class belong those known as Virtue Wells, and those others named from the various diseases to be cured by them. On the Rutherford estate, in the parish of West Linton, Peebles-shire, there is a mineral spring called Heaven-aqua Well. Considering the name, one might form great expectations as to its virtues. There is much force in the remarks of Dr. J. Hill Burton, in his "Book Hunter." He says, "The unnoticeable smallness of many of these consecrated wells makes their very reminiscence and still semi-sacred character all the more remarkable. The stranger in Ireland, or the Highlands of Scotland, hears rumours of a distinguished well, miles on miles off. He thinks he will find an ancient edifice over it, or some other conspicuous adjunct. Nothing of the kind. He has been lured all that distance, over rock and bog, to see a tiny spring bubbling out of the rock, such as he may see hundreds of in a tolerable walk any day. Yet, if he search in old topographical authorities, he will find that the little well has ever been an important feature of the district ; that century after century it has been unforgotten; and, with diligence he may perhaps trace it to some incident in the life of the saint, dead more than 1200 years ago, whose name it bears." There are a few wells with a more or less ornamental stone covering, such as St. Margaret's Well, in the Queen's Park, Edinburgh, and St. Michael's Well, at Linlithgow. St. Ninian's Well, at Stirling, and also at Kilninian, in Mull; St. Ashig's Well, in Skye; St. Peter's Well, at Houston, in Renfrewshire; Holy Rood Well, at Stenton, in Haddingtonshire; and the Well of Spa, at Aberdeen, also belong to this class.

As already indicated, standing stones and the wells near them were associated together in the same ritual act. A curious parallelism can be traced between this practice and one connected with Christian places of worship. Near the Butt of Lewis are the ruins of a chapel anciently dedicated to St. Mulvay, and known in the district as Teampull-mor. The spot was till quite lately the scene of rites connected with the cure of insanity. The patient was made to walk seven times round the ruins, and was then sprinkled with water from St. Ronan's Well hard by. In Orkney it was believed that invalids would recover health by walking round the Cross-kirk of Wasbister and the adjoining loch in silence before sunrise. In some instances sacred sites were walked round without reference to wells, and, in others, wells without reference to sacred sites. But when the two were neighbours they were often included in the same ceremony. In the early days when Christianity was preached, the structures of the new faith were occasionally planted close to groups of standing stones, and it may be assumed that in some instances, at least, the latter served to supply materials for building the former. Even in our own day it is not uncommon for Highlanders to speak of going to the clachan, i.e., the stones, to indicate that they are going to church. The reverence paid to the pagan sites was thus transferred to the Christian, and any fountain in the vicinity received a large share of such reverence.

In former times, both south and north of the Tweed, churches and churchyards were regarded with special veneration as affording an asylum to offenders against the law. In England the Right of Sanctuary was held in great respect during Anglo-Saxon times, and after the Norman Conquest laws were passed regulating the privileges of such shelters. When a robber or murderer was pursued, he was free from capture if he could reach the sacred precincts. But he had to enter unarmed. His stay there was only temporary. After going through certain formalities he was allowed to travel, cross in hand, to some neighbouring seaport to quit his country for ever. In the reign of Henry VIII., however, a statute was passed forbidding criminals thus to leave their native land on the ground that they would disclose state secrets, and teach archery to the enemies of the realm. In the north of England, Durham and Beverley contained noted sanctuaries. In various churches there was a stone seat called the Freedstoll or Stool of Peace, on which the criminal, when seated, was absolutely safe. Such a seat, dating from the Norman period, is still to be seen in the Priory Church at Hexham, where the sanctuary was in great request by fugitives from the debatable land between England and Scotland. The only other Freedstoll still to be found in England is in Beverley Minster. The Right of Sanctuary was formally abolished in England in the reign of James I., but did not cease to be respected till much later. Such being the regard in the middle ages for churches and their burying-grounds, it is easy to understand why fountains in their immediate neighbourhood were also reverenced. Several sanctuaries north of the Tweed were specially famous. In his "Scotland in the Middle Ages," Professor Cosmo Innes remarks, "Though all were equally sacred by the canon, it would seem that the superior sanctity of some churches, from the relics presented there, or the reverence of their patron saints, afforded a surer asylum, and thus attracted fugitives to their shrines rather than to the altars of common parish churches." The churches of Stow, Innerleithen, and Tyningham were asylums at one time specially favoured. The church on St. Charmaig's Island, in the Sound of Jura —styled also Eilean Mor or the Great Island—was formerly a noted place of refuge among the Inner Hebrides. So much sanctity attached to the church of Applecross that the privileged ground around it extended six miles in every direction. In connection with his visit to Arran, Martin thus describes what had once been a sanctuary in that island: "There is an eminence of about a thousand paces in compass on the sea-coast in Druim-cruey village, and it is fenced about with a stone wall; of old it was a sanctuary, and whatever number of men or cattle could get within it were secured from the assaults of their enemies, the place being privileged by universal consent." The enclosure was probably an ancient burying-ground.

The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, otherwise known as the Knights of Rhodes, and also as the Hospitallers, received recognition in Scotland as an Order about the middle of the twelfth century. They had possessions in almost every county, but their chief seat was at Torphichen, in Linlithgowshire, where the ruins of their preceptory can still be seen. This preceptory formed the heart of the famous sanctuary of Torphichen. In the graveyard stands a stone, resembling an ordinary milestone with a Maltese cross carved on its top. All the ground enclosed in a circle, having a radius of one mile from this stone, formed a sanctuary for criminals and debtors. Other four stones placed at the cardinal points showed the limits of the sanctuary on their respective sides. At some distance to the east of the preceptory is St. John's Well, "to which," the writer of the article in the "New Statistical Account of Scotland" says, "the Knights of St. John used to go in days of yore for a morning draught; " and he adds, "whether its virtues were medicinal or of a more hallowed character tradition can not exactly inform us, but still its waters are thought to possess peculiar healing powers, if not still rarer qualities which operate in various cases as a charm." Perhaps no Scottish sanctuary has been more talked about than the one at Ho]yrood Abbey, intended originally for law-breakers in general, but latterly for debtors only. De Quincey found a temporary home within its precincts. Through recent legislation, chiefly through the Debtors (Scotland) Act of 1880, the sanctuary has been rendered unnecessary, and its privileges, though never formally abolished, have accordingly passed away.

In a pass of the Ochils, near Newburgh, overlooking Strathearn, is a block of freestone three and a half feet high, four and a half feet long, and nearly four feet broad at the base. This formed the pedestal of the celebrated cross of Macduff, and is all that remains of that ancient monument. The shaft of the cross was destroyed at the time of the Reformation, in the sixteenth century. In former days the spot was held to be a privilege and liberty of girth. When anyone claiming kinship to Macduff, Earl of Fife, within the ninth degree committed slaughter in hot blood and took refuge at the cross, he could atone for his crime by the payment of nine cows and a colpindach or year-old cow. Those who could not make good their kinship were slain on the spot. Certain ancient burial mounds, at one time to be seen in the immediate neighbourhood, were popularly believed to be the graves of those who thus met their death, and a local superstition asserted that their shrieks could be heard by night. A fountain, known as the Nine Wells, gushes out not far from the site of the cross, and in it tradition says that the manslayer who was entitled to claim the privilege of sanctuary washed his hands, thereby freeing himself from the stain of blood.


Return to Book Index Page