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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter VII - Water Cures


Trying different Springs—Curing all Diseases—Fivepennies Well —Water and Dulse—Special Diseases—Toothache-Sore Eyes—Blindness—Headaches and Nervous Disorders—Deafness----Whooping—cough—Goat—Sores-----Ague ---Sterility--Epilepsy--Sacrifice of a Cock—St. St. Tegla's Well — Insanity — Severe Treatment — Innis-Maree — Struthill — Teampull-Mar — Holy Pool — Fillan's History and Relics —Persistence of Superstition.

SOME people apply to different doctors in succession, in the hope that new professional advice may bring the coveted boon of health. For the same reason visits were paid to different consecrated wells. On the principle that "far fowls have fair feathers," a more or less remote spring was resorted to, in the hope that distance might lend special enchantment to its water. Certain springs had the reputation of healing every ailment. A spring of this kind is what Martin calls "a catholieon for all diseases." He so styles various springs in the Western Isles, and one in the Larger Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. Fivepennies Well, in Eigg, had some curious properties. "The natives told me," he says, "that it never fails to cure any person of their first disease, only by drinking a quantity of it for the space of two or three days; and that if a stranger lie at this well in the night-time, it will procure a deformity in some part of his body, but has no such effect on a native; and this, they say, hath been frequently experimented." A noted fountain in the Orkney group was the well of Kildinguie in the Island of Stronsay. It is situated not far from the beach. To reach it one has to walk over a long stretch of sand. Its fame at one time spread over the Scandinavian world, and even Denmark sent candidates for its help. Besides drinking the water, health-seekers frequently ate some of the dulse to be found on the shore. A local saying thus testified to the advantages of the combined treatment: "The well of Kildinguie and the dulse of Guiyidn can cure all maladies except black death." In the Island of Skye is a spring called Tobar Tellibreck. The natives, at one time, held that its water, along with a diet of dulse, would serve for a considerable time instead of ordinary food.

Other springs were resorted to for particular complaints. Toothache is distressingly common, and commonly distressing; but, strange to say, very few wells are specially identified with the ailment. Indeed, we know of only three toothache wells in Scotland. One is in Strathspey, and is known as Fuaran Fiountag, signifying the cool refreshing spring. The second is in the parish of Kenmore, at the foot of Loch Tay. The third is in Glentruim, in Inverness-shire. Another well at Kenmore was resorted to for the cure of sore eyes. In the parish of Glass, close to the river Deveron, is an ancient church dedicated to St. Wallach. Some thirty yards below its burying-ground is a well, now dry, except in very rainy weather. Its water had the power of healing sore eyes. The water of St. John's Well, at Balmanno, in the parish of Mary-kirk, Kincardineshire, was a sovereign remedy for the same complaint. Beside the road close to the farmhouse of Wester Auchleskine, at Balquhidder, in Perthshire, once stood a large boulder containing a natural cavity. The water in this hollow was also noted for the cure of sore eyes--the boulder being called in consequence Clach-nan-Sul, i.e., the stone of the eyes. In 1878, by order of the road trustees, the boulder was blasted, on the ground that it was a source of danger to vehicles in the dark, and its fragments were used as road metal. The Dow Well, at Innerleithen, was formerly much visited for the restoration of weak sight. A well in Cornwall, dedicated to St. Ludvan, miraculously quickened the sense of sight. In Ireland, a spring at Gougou Barra, between Glengariff and Cork, is believed by the peasantry to cure blindness. In 1849, Miss Bessie Gilbert, a daughter of the late Bishop Gilbert of Chichester, who had lost her sight when a child, visited the spring along with some of her relatives. Curiosity, however, was her only motive. Her biographer relates that "the guide besought Bessie in the most earnest and pathetic manner to try the water, saying that he was sure it would restore her sight, and entreating her brothers and sisters to urge her to make use of it."

Headaches and nervous disorders were cured by water from Tobar-nim-buadh or the Well of Virtues in St. Kilda.. Deafness was also cured by it. At the entrance to Munlochy Bay, in the Black Isle of Cromarty, is a cave known in the neighbourhood as Craig-a-Chow, i.e., the Rock of Echo. Tradition says that in this cave a giant once lived. If not the retreat of a giant, it was, at any rate, of smugglers. What specially concerns us is that it contains a dripping well, formerly much in request. Its water is particularly cold. Like the St. Kilda spring, it was believed to remove deafness. Of Whooping-cough Wells, a noted one was at Straid, in Muthill parish, Perthshire. Invalids came to it from considerable distances. Early in the present century a family travelled from Edinburgh to seek its aid. The water was drunk immediately after sunset or before sunrise, and a horn from a live ox had to convey it to the patient's lips. This was not an uncommon practice. Perhaps it may have been due to some vague notion, that life from the animal, whence, the horn came, would be handed on, vi the spoon and the water, to the invalid. The Straid horn was kept by a woman in the immediate neighburhood, who acted as a sort of priestess of the well. A well at the Burn of Oxhill, in the parish of Rathven, Banffshire, had a local celebrity for the cure of the same complaint. Sufferers from gout tried the efficacy of a spring in Eckford parish, Roxburghshire, styled Holy Well or Priest's Well. A spring in the churchyard of Logiepert parish, Forfarshire, removed sores, and another•in Martin's Den, in the same parish, was reckoned anti-scorbutic. Another noted Forfarshire spring was in Kirkden parish, with the reputation of curing swellings of the feet and legs. Lochinbreck Loch, in Balmaghie parish, Kirkcudbrightshire, was visited from time immemorial for the cure of ague. Indeed, there was hardly a bodily ailment that could not be relieved by the water of some consecrated spring.

Springs were sometimes believed to cure female barrenness. Wives, anxious to become mothers, formerly visited such wells as those of St. Fillan at Comrie, and of St. Mary at Whitekirk, and in the Isle of May. In this connection, Mr. J. R. Walker, in his article in the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," volume v. (new series), observes, "Many of the wells dedicated to 'Our Lady,' i.e., St. Mary (Virgin Mary) and to St. Brigid, the Mary of Ireland, were famous for the cure of female sterility, which, in the days when a man's power and influence in the land depended on the number of his clan or tribe, was looked upon as a token of the divine displeasure, and was viewed by the unfortunate spouses with anxious apprehension, dread, doubt, jealousy, and pain. Prayer and supplication were obviously the methods pursued by the devout for obtaining the coveted gift of fertility, looked upon, by females especially, as the most valuable of heavenly dispensations; and making pilgrimages to wells under the patronage of the Mother of our Lord would naturally be one of the most common expedients."

Epilepsy, with its convulsions and cries, seldom fails to arrest attention and call forth sympathy. In times less enlightened than our own, the disease was regarded with awe as of supernatural origin; and remedies, always curious and sometimes revolting, were tried in order to bring relief. We may assume that the water of consecrated springs was used for this purpose; but, as far as we know, no Scottish fountain was systematically visited by epileptic patients. After enumerating a variety of folk-cures for the disease in question, Sir Arthur Mitchell, in an article on Highland Superstitions bearing on Lunacy in the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," volume iv., remarks, "For the cure of the same disease, there is still practised in the North of Scotland a formal sacrifice—not an oblique but a literal and downright sacrifice—to a nameless but secretly acknowledged power, whose propitiation is desired. On the spot where the epileptic first falls a black cock is buried alive, along with a lock of the patient's hair and some parings of his nails. I have seen at least three epileptic idiots for whom this is said to have been done." The same writer adds, "Dr. G , of N--, informs me that some time ago he was called on to visit a poor man belonging to the fishing population who had suddenly died, and who had been subject to epileptic seizures. His friends told the doctor that at least they had the comfort of knowing that everything had been done for him which could have been done. On asking what remedies they had tried, he was told that, among other things, a cock had been buried alive below his bed, and the spot was pointed out." This sacrifice of a cock in Scotland is of special significance, for it formed a distinctive feature of the ritual once in vogue in Wales at the village of Llandegla, Denbighshire. St. Tegla's Well there, was believed to possess peculiar virtue in curing epilepsy. Pennant gives a minute account of the ceremony as practised in his days. The following is a summary:—"About two hundred yards from the church rises a small spring. The patient washes his limbs in the well, makes an offering into it of fourpence, walks round it three times, and thrice repeats the `Lord's Prayer.' These ceremonies are never begun till after sunset. If the afflicted be of the male sex, he makes an offering of a cock; if of the fair sex, a hen. The fowl is carried in a basket, first round the well, after that into the churchyard, when the same orisons and the same circumambulations are performed round the church. The votary then enters the church, gets under the communion table, lies down with the Bible under his or her head, is covered with the carpet or cloth, and rests there till break of day, departing after offering sixpence, and leaving the fowl in the church. If the bird dies, the cure is supposed to have been effected, and the disease transferred to the devoted victim." As regards the cock or hen, the ceremony in this case was quite as much a sacrifice as in the Scottish example. St. Tegla merely took the place of the pagan divinity who had been first in the field, and to whom offerings had been made. In former times, sacrificing a living animal was also resorted to occasionally to cure disease in cattle. An ox was buried alive in a pit, and the pit having been filled with earth, the other members of the herd were made to walk over the spot. In 1629, Isabel Young, spouse to George Smith, portioner of East Barnes, Haddingtonshire, was tried for witchcraft. From her indictment we learn that she was accused, inter aria, of having buried a "quick ox, with a cat and a quantity of salt," in a pit as a sacrifice to the devil, the truth being that a live ox had been so treated by her husband as a charm to cure his cattle, which were diseased. A remarkable circumstance bearing on this point is alluded to by Mr. A. W. Moore in his "Surnames and Place-names of the Isle of Man," under the heading of Cabbal-yn-Oural-Losht, i.e., Chapel of the Burnt Sacrifice. "This name," he tells us, "records a circumstance which took place in the nineteenth century, but which, it is to be hoped, was never customary in the Isle of Man. A farmer, who had lost a number of his sheep and cattle by murrain, burnt a calf as a propitiatory offering to the Deity on this spot, where a chapel was afterwards built. Such facts point to the same notion as that already indicated in connection with St. Tegla's Well, viz., that disease is due to some malignant being, whose favour is to be sought by the offering up of a living creature.

In no department of medical science have methods of treatment changed more within recent years than in that of insanity. Enlightened views on the subject now prevail among the educated classes of society; and the old notion that a maniac can be restored to mental health by treating him like a criminal, or by administering a few shocks to his already excited nerves, is fortunately a thing of the past. At least it no longer holds sway in. our lunatic asylums. In the minds of the ignorant and credulous, however, the old leaven still works. Lady Wilde, in her "Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland," alludes to a method of treatment in fashion till lately among the peasantry there. When anyone showed signs of insanity `a witch-doctor' was called in. This potent individual sprinkled holy water about the room and over the patient; and after uttering certain incantations—understood by the by-standers to be `Latin prayers '—proceeded to beat him with a stout cudgel. In the end the ravings of the lunatic ceased, or as it was put, "the devil was driven out of him." In Cornwall, at St. Nun's Well, the expulsive power of a new terror used to be tried. According to Carew, the modus operandi was as follows:--"The water running from St. Nun's Well fell into a square and enclosed walled plat, which might be filled at what depth they listed. Upon this wall was the frantic person put to stand, his back towards the pool, and from thence, with a sudden blow in the breast, tumbled headlong into the pond; where a strong fellow, provided for the nonce, took him and tossed him up and down, alongst and athwart the water, till the patient, by foregoing his strength, had somewhat forgot his fury. Then was he conveyed to the church, and certain masses said over him, upon which handling, if his right wits returned, St. Nun had the thanks; but if there appeared small amendment, he was bowsened again and again, while there remained in him any hope of life or recovery." North of the Tweed the treatment was hardly less soothing. When a lunatic was being rowed over to Innis Maree to drink the water of St. Maelrubha's Well there, he was jerked out of the boat by the friends who accompanied him. A rope had previously been tied round his waist, and by this he was pulled back into the boat; but before he could gather together his all-too-scattered wits, he was in the water again. As a rule this was done, not once or twice, but repeatedly, and in the case of both sexes. Such was the method up to a comparatively recent date. Pennant thus describes what was done in 1772:—"The patient is brought into the sacred island; is made to kneel before the altar, viz., the stump of a tree—where his attendants leave an offering in money; he is then brought to the well and sips some of the holy water; a second offering is made; that done, he is thrice dipped in the lake; and the same operation is repeated every day for some weeks." This towing after a boat to cure insanity was not an isolated instance. Early in the present century, the wife of a man living at Stromness in Orkney, went mad through the incantations of another female believed to be a witch. The man bethought him of the cure in question, and, out of love for his afflicted wife, dragged her several times up and down the harbour behind his boat. Mr. R. M. Fergusson, who mentions this case in his "Rambles in the Far North," says that the woman "bobbed about behind the boat like a cork, and remained as mad as ever."

The well at Struthill, in Muthill parish, Perthshire, once had a considerable reputation for the cure of insanity. It was customary to tie patients at night to a stone near the spring, and recovery would follow if they were found loose in the morning. An adjoining chapel was ordered to be demolished in 1650 by the Presbytery of Auchterarder, on the ground of its being the scene of certain superstitious rites, but the spring continued to be visited till a much later date. At Teampull-mor in Lewis, in addition to walking round the ruins, and being sprinkled with water from St. Ronan's Well, the insane person was bound and left all night in the chapel on the site of the altar. If he slept, he would recover; but if he remained awake, there was no hope of a cure. In the Struthill and Teampull-mbr instances, as well as that of Strathfillan mentioned below, the binding of the patient was an essential part of the treatment; and in two at least of the cases the loosening of the bonds was reckoned an omen of good. The mysterious loosening of bonds used to be an article of common belief. Dalyell, in his "Darker Superstitions of Scotland," remarks, "Animals were sometimes liberated supernaturally. In the Isle of Enhallow, a horse tied up at sunset would wander about through the night; and while the kirk session took cognisance of a suspected witch who had exercised her faculties on a cow, the animal, though firmly secured, was found to be free, and in their vicinity when the investigation closed."

The Holy Pool of St. Fillan was famous for the cure of various diseases, but specially of insanity. It is referred to in "Marmion" as

"St. Fillan's blessed well
Whose springs can frenzied dreams dispel
And the craz'd brain restore."

It is not, however, a well, but a pool, in the river Fillan, about two miles lower down than Tyndrum. To correctly estimate the reverence paid to this sacred pool, we must glance at the influence, exerted by Fillan on the district during his life-time, and afterwards by means, of his relics. The saint flourished in the early eighth century. He was born in Ireland. His father was Ferodach, and his mother was Kentigerna, daughter of a prince of Leinster. She afterwards came to Scotland and led the life of a recluse, on Inch Cailleach, an island in Loch Lomond. According to the Aberdeen Breviary, Fillan was born with a stone in his mouth, and was at once thrown into a lake where he was ministered to by angels for a year. He was then taken out and baptised by Bishop Ybarus, and at a later date received the monastic habit from Muna, otherwise called Mundus. Devoting himself to solitary meditation he built a cell close to Muna's monastery. On one occasion, a servant went to call him to supper, and looking through a chink in the wall, saw the saint busy writing, his uplifted left hand throwing light over the book in lieu of a candle. Whatever may be thought of the incident, few will deny its picturesqueness. In competent hands it might be made the subject of a striking picture. Fillan afterwards went to Lochalsh, where he dedicated a church to his uncle Congan, the founder of the monastery of Turriff, in Aberdeenshire. We next find Fillan in the principal scene of his missionary work, viz., in Glendochart, in that portion of the glen anciently called Siracht, and now Strathfillan. This area formed a separate parish till 1617, but was then united to the parish of Killin. Fillan arrived with seven serving clerics, and tradition says that he built his church at a spot, miraculously pointed out to him. The neighbourhood was, and is full of interest. " Glendochart," writes Mr. Charles Stewart in " An GaidiLeal," " is not celebrated for terrific mountain scenery like Glencoe or the Coolins, but has a grandeur of a different character. Lofty mountains, clothed, here in heather, there in green ; cloudy shadows frequently flitting across their sides, and serried ridges of multiplied lines and forms of varied beauty, and along their sides strangely shaped stones and boulders of rocks deposited by the ancient glaciers. Along the strath there are stretches of water, its course broken occasionally by lochs; sometimes wending its way slowly and solemnly through green meadows, and anon rushing along as at the celebrated bridge of Dochart, at Killin, with fire and fury."

The same writer mentions that three spots, where Fillan was wont to teach the natives of the Strath, are still pointed out, viz., at the upper end of Glendochart, where the priory was afterwards built, halfway down the glen at Dun-ribin, and at the lower end at Cnoca-bheannachd, i.e., Hill of the Blessing, near Killin. Fillan instructed the people in agriculture, and built mills for grinding corn. Out of compliment to him, the mill at Killin was idle on his festival, (Jan. 9th), as late as the middle of the present century. Indeed there was a superstition in the district that it would not be lucky to have it working on that day. Fillan also instituted fairs for the sale and barter of local produce. His fair is still held at Killin in January. The miraculous element in his history did not end with his life. He seems to have died somewhere about Lochearn, and his body was brought back to Glendochart, by way of Glen Ogle. When the bearers reached the point where Glendochart opens upwards and downwards, a dispute arose as to the destination of their burden. Some wished the saint's body to be buried at Killin and others at Strathfillan. Behold a marvel! When they could not agree, they found that instead of one coffin there were two, and so each party was satisfied.

Robert Bruce's fight with the followers of Macdougall of Lorne took place near St. Fillan's Church, at a spot, afterwards named Dalrigh or the King's Field. On that occasion, an earnest prayer was addressed to the saint of the district, and through his intercession victory came to Bruce. So at least runs the legend. After his success at Bannockburn, the King in gratitude founded St. Fillan's Priory, in Strathfillan, and endowed it with the neighbouring lands of Auchtertyre, and with the sheep-grazing of Beinmhannach or the Monk's Mountain, in Glenlyon. Indeed, if tradition speaks truth, Bruce had a double reason to be grateful to Fillan, for the victory at Bannockburn, was attributed to the presence in the Scottish camp, of a relic of the saint, said to be an arm-bone set in silver. The relic, however, as Dr. John Stuart shows, in the twelfth volume of the " Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," was probably his Coig-gerach or pastoral staff, popularly, but erroneously called his Quigrich. It is said to have been kept at Auchlyne, in a chapel called Caipal-na-Faraichd, and when the chapel was burnt to have been rescued by a person, either then, or afterwards, called Doire or Dewar, whose descendants became its custodiers. The subsequent history of the relic is curious. In 1782 it was at Killin in the keeping of Malice Doire. In 1818 it was taken to Canada, where it remained for some sixty years. Through the patriotic zeal of Sir Daniel Wilson it was then sent back to Scotland, and now forms one of the treasures in the National Museum of Antiquities, at Edinburgh.

The sanctity of Fillan thus distilled like a fertilising dew over the district of Glendochart. We need not, therefore, be surprised that, in days darker than our own, a thriving crop of superstitions was the result. It is certainly a striking testimony to the enduring influence of the saint, that the pool, believed to have been blessed by him, retained its fame till within the memory of persons still living. Possibly the pool was reverenced even before his time. Towards the end of last century, as many as two hundred persons were brought annually to the spot. The time selected was usually the first day of the quarter, (O.S.), and the immersion took place after sunset. The patients, with a rope tied round their waist, were thrown from the bank into the river. This was usually done thrice. According to previous instructions, they picked up nine stones from the bottom of the stream. After their dip they walked three times round three cairns in the immediate neighbourhood, and at each turn added a stone to the cairn. An English antiquary, who visited the spot in 1798, writes, "If it is for any bodily pain, fractured limb or sore, that they are bathing, they throw upon one of these cairns that part of their clothing which covered the part affected; also, if they have at home any beast that is diseased, they have only to bring some of the meal which it feeds upon and make it into paste with these waters, and afterwards give it to him to eat, which will prove an infallible cure; but they must likewise throw upon the cairn the rope or halter with which he was led. Consequently the cairns are covered with old halters, gloves, shoes, bonnets, nightcaps, rags of all sorts, kilts, petticoats, garters, and smocks. Sometimes they go as far as to throw away their halfpence."

After the ceremony at the cairns the patient was led to the ruins of St. Fillan's Chapel, about half a mile away, and there tied to a stone with a hollow in it, large enough to receive the body, the unfortunate person being fastened down to a wooden framework. The patient was then covered with hay, and left in this condition all night. As at Struthill, if the bonds were found loose in the morning, he or she would recover; but if not, the case was counted hopeless, or at least doubtful. As the writer of the article on the parish, in the "New Statistical Account of Scotland," shrewdly observes, "The prospect of the ceremony, especially in a cold winter evening, might be a good test for persons pretending insanity." At the time when he wrote, viz., in 1843, the natives of the parish had ceased to believe in the efficacy of the holy pool, but it was still visited by invalids from a distance. It was usual, after the fastening process already described, to place St. Fillan's bell on the head of the patient by way of helping on the cure. This bell is quadrangular in shape. Its size and appearance are thus described by Dr. Joseph Anderson in his "Scotland in Early Christian Times": "It is an elegant casting of bronze, stands twelve inches high and measures nine by six inches wide at the mouth. The ends are flat, the sides bulging, the top rounded. In the middle of the top is the loop-like handle, terminating where it joins the bell in two dragonesque heads with open mouths." The bell weighs eight pounds fourteen ounces. In the fifteenth century the relic seems to have been held in special honour, for it graced the coronation of James IV. in 1488. After the Reformation, it was locked up for some time, to prevent its use for the superstitious purpose alluded to above. But, as a rule, it lay on a tombstone in the Priory graveyard, protected only by the reverence paid to it in the district. There was a belief that, if carried off, it would return of its own accord, ringing all the way. In 1798 this belief was put to a severe test, for in that year the English antiquary, already quoted, removed the relic. "In order," he says, "to ascertain the truth or falsehold of the ridiculous story of St. Fillan's bell, I carried it off with me, and mean to convey it, if possible, to England. An old woman, who observed what I was about, asked me what I wanted with the bell, and I told her that I had an unfortunate relation at home out of his mind, and that I wanted to have him cured. 'Oh, but,' says she, `you must bring him here to be cured, or it will be of no use.' Upon which I told her he was too ill to be moved, and off I galloped with the bell back to Tyndrum Inn." The bell was taken to England. About seventy years later, its whereabouts was discovered, and it was sent back to Scotland. Like the crozier of the same saint, it is now in the Antiquarian Museum at Edinburgh.

If we may believe a local tradition, the Holy Pool lost its miraculous virtue in the following manner, though, after what the English antiquary mentioned about its water being mixed with meal, and given to diseased cattle, we see no reason why it should have been so particular. A farmer who had a mad bull thought that, if the sacred water could heal human ills, it would be efficacious also in the case of the lower animals. So he plunged his infuriated beast into the stream. What was the effect on the bull we do not know: but since then the virtue has departed from the water. Except for a pleasure dip on a hot summer's day, no one need now apply at the Holy Pool.

The unbroken reputation of such health resorts, for centuries, is certainly remarkable. Strathfillan kept up its fame for over a thousand years. At Gheel, in Belgium, for fully twelve hundred years, successive generations of lunatics sought relief at St. Dympna's Well. We must not be too hard on the ages before our own; for, though in some respects dark, in other respects they had a good deal of light. Nevertheless, severe things might be said about them. From a present-day point of view, it might be argued that those, who took their insane friends to get cured in the manner described, required, like the patients themselves, a little rearrangement of their wits.


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