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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter IX - Witness of Water


Recovery from Illness—Hydromancy—Mirror—Juno's Pool—Prediction and Cure—Methods of Augury—Portents of Death—Water like Blood—Springs and National Annals—Heritable Jurisdictions — Water and Witchcraft — Devil's Mark —Water Ordeal—Abbey of Scone—Elgin Orderpot—Witch's Stone—Repeal of Penal Statutes--Witchcraft in the North—Insanity—Wild Murdoch.

"Am I likely to recover?" is a question on many a patient's lips. "Ask your doctor;" and if the case looks serious, "Have a consultation" is the answer nowadays. Formerly, the answer was "Go to a consecrated well," or "Get some one else to go in your stead, and you will get a reply." There is no reason to believe that every sacred spring was credited with this power; but many undoubtedly were. Hydromancy has been a favourite mode of divination. "The conscious water" could predict the future, and questions connected with health were laid before it for its decision. The Greeks dipped a mirror into a well, and foretold health or sickness from the appearance of the watery lines on its surface. A pool in Laconia, sacred to Juno, revealed approaching good or evil fortune respectively, by the sinking or floating of wheaten cakes thrown into it, and auguries were also drawn from the movements of stones when dropt into it. Springs, therefore, deserved the respect shown to them by the confiding public. Indeed they not only told of recovery; they supplied the medicine required to ensure it, and were thus doctors and druggists combined. Sometimes the omen was unpropitious. In many cases the prophecy would work out its own fulfilment. There was a well in the Island of Lewis that caused either instant death or recovery to the patient who tested its virtues: but a speedy fulfilment like this was exceptional. St. Andrew's Well at Shadar, in Lewis, was much esteemed for its power of augury. A tub, containing some of its water, was taken to the house of the patient, and a small wooden dish was placed on the surface of the water. If this dish turned sunways, it showed that the patient would recover; but if in an opposite direction, that he would die. In reference to this instance, Mr. Gomme, in his "Ethnology in Folklore," observes, "I am inclined to connect this with the vessel or cauldron so frequently occurring in Celtic tradition, and which Mr. Nutt has marked as 'a part of the gear of the oldest Celtic divinities' perhaps of divinities older than the Celts." On one occasion two parishioners of Fodderty, in Ross-shire, consulted Tobar-na-domhnuich in that parish in behalf of a sick friend. When they placed their pitcher on the surface of the water, the vessel moved round from south to west, as in the last instance, and they hastened back to their friend with the good news. This was in the year 1832. About the same time, a woman brought her sick child to be bathed in the well, but was surprised and not a little terrified to see a strange creature, with glaring eyes, leap into it as she approached. Love for her child made her brave. Overcoming her fear, she dislodged the creature, and bathed the little invalid. In the end, however, she must have regarded the appearance of the creature as a bad omen, for the child did not recover. The usual way of consulting the spring in question was to draw water from it before sunrise, and to convey the water to the invalid's house. The patient was then immersed in it, and if it remained clear the circumstance pointed to recovery; but if it assumed a brownish colour, the illness would end in death. In former times a shirt was thrown into St. Oswald's Well, in Yorkshire, by way of augury. The floating of the shirt foretold returning health. The sinking foretold death. When a portion of an invalid's clothing was flung into the Dow Loch, in Dumfriesshire, the same rule held good. As may be noticed, the augury in these two cases was the reverse of that in the case of Juno's pool above alluded to.

There were other ways in which wells acted the prophet. If a certain worm in a spring on the top of a particular hill in Strathdon was found alive, the patient would recover. A well at Ardnacloich in Appin contained a dead worm, if the patient's illness would prove fatal; but a living one, if otherwise. The Virgin's Well, near the ancient church of Kilmorie on the shores of Loch Ryan in Wigtownshire, had an ingenious way of predicting the future. If the patient, on whose account the water was sought, would recover, the fountain flowed freely; but if the malady would end in death, the water refused to gush forth. Montluck Well, in the grounds of Logan in the same county, got the credit of acting on a similar principle. When speaking of this spring, Symson says, "it is in the midst of a little bog to which several persons have recourse to fetch water for such as are sick, asserting (whether it be truth or falsehood I shall not determine) that if the sick person shall recover, the water shall so bubble and mount up when the messenger dips in his vessel, that he will hardly get out dry shod by reason of the overflowing of the well; but if the sick person be not to recover, there shall not be any such overflowing in the least." We find a belief in the south-west of England corresponding to this in the south-west of Scotland. Gulval Well, in Fosses Moor there, was resorted to by persons anxious to know the fate of absent friends. If the person inquired about was (lead, the water remained perfectly still; if sick, it bubbled, though in a muddy fashion; but if well, it sent out a sparkling gush. Mr. Hunt mentions the case of a woman, who, with her babe in her arm, consulted the spring about her absent husband, under the guidance of an aged female who acted as the guardian of the well. "Obeying the old woman's directions, she knelt on the mat of bright green grass which grew around, and, leaning over the well so as to see her face in the water, she repeated after her instructor:

'Water, water, tell me truly,
Is the man I love truly
On the earth, or under the sod,
Sick or well,—in the name of God?'

Some minutes passed in perfect silence, and anxiety was rapidly turning cheeks and lips pale, when the colour rapidly returned. There was a gush of clear water from below, bubble rapidly followed bubble sparkling brightly in the morning sunshine. Full of joy, the young mother rose from her knees, kissed her child, and exclaimed, 'I am happy now!' " At Barenton in Brittany is a spring still believed in by the peasantry. A pin is dropt into the well, and if good fortune is in store, the water sends up bubbles; but if not, it remains quite still. The quantity of water in St. Maelrubha's Well on Innis-Maree varied from time to time. When a patient was brought for treatment and there was a scanty supply, the omen was considered unfavourable; but when the water was abundant, the saint was deemed propitious, and the hope of recovery was consequently great.

The fly at St. Michael's Well in Banffshire was looked upon as a prophet. In the "Old Statistical Account of Scotland" we read, that, "if the sober matron wished to know the issue of her husband's ailment, or the love-sick nymph that of her languishing swain, they visited the Well of St. Michael. Every movement of the sympathetic fly was regarded in silent awe; and as he appeared cheerful or dejected, the anxious votaries drew their presages." At Little Conan in Cornwall is a spring, sacred to Our Lady of Nants. It was at one time resorted to on Palm Sunday by persons anxious to know whether they would outlive the year. A cross, made of palm, was thrown into the water. If it floated, the thrower would survive the twelvemonth; but if it sank, he would die within that time. Maidens used to visit Madron Well in the same county on May morning to forecast their matrimonial fate. They took two pieces of straw, about an inch in length, and placing them crosswise fastened them together with a pin. The cross was then thrown into the spring. The rising bubbles were carefully counted, for they corresponded in number with the years that would elapse before the arrival of the wedding-day.

Portents of death were sometimes furnished by lochs and springs. At Harpham in Yorkshire there is a tradition that a drummer lad in the fourteenth century was accidentally drowned in a certain spring by a St. Quintin--Lord of the Manor. Ever afterwards the sound of a drum was beard in the well on the evening before the death of one of the St. Quintin family. Camden, in his "Britannia," tells of a sheet of water in Cheshire called Blackmere Lake, lying in the district where the Brereton family had lands, and records the local belief that, just before any heir of that house died, trunks of trees were seen floating on its surface. Water occasionally gave warning by turning red like blood. A certain fountain, near the Elbe, in Germany, was at one time believed to do this, in view of an approaching war. St. Tredwell's Loch, in Papa-Westray, Orkney, has already been referred to, in connection with its habit of turning red, whenever anything remarkable was about to happen to a member of the Royal Family. When the Earl of Derwentwater was beheaded, in 1716, the news spread that the stream flowing past his estate of Dilston Hall in Northumberland ran with blood. The same was said of the river at Bothel, in the parish of Topenhow, in Cumberland, on the occasion of the execution of Charles I., in 1649. There was at one time a well. in Canterbury Cathedral. After the assassination of Thomas h Becket the sweepings of his blood and brains from the floor were thrown into it, and more than once afterwards the water turned red and effected various miraculous cures. Lady Wilde, in her "Ancient Legends of Ireland," narrates how one of the holy wells of Erin lost its efficacy for curing purposes through having been touched by a murderer. The priest of the district took some of its water and breathed on it thrice in the name of the Trinity, when, lo! a mysterious change came over it, and it appeared red like blood! The murderer was captured and handed over to justice, and the well once more began to work cures.

Some springs seemed anxious to be behind the scenes (though before the event) in connection with various incidents in British annals. A spring at Warlingham, in Surrey, rises before any great event in our country's history. At any rate it did so before three great events in the seventeenth century, viz., the Restoration, the Plague, and the Revolution. The famous Drumming Well at Oundle, in Northamptonshire, was also specially active in the seventeenth century. By making a sound like the beating of a drum, it announced the approach of a Scottish army, and gave warning of the death of Charles II. In the same century a pool in North Tawton parish, Devonshire, even though dry in summer, became full of water at the driest season before the death of a prince, and remained so till the event happened. Two centuries earlier a certain well at Langley Park, in Kent, had a singular way of foretelling the future. In view of a battle it became dry, though rain fell heavily. If there was to be no fighting, it appeared full of water, even during the greatest drought. A spring at Kilbarry, in the island of Barra, Outer Hebrides, served the same purpose, but its mode of augury was different. In this case, as Dalyell records in his "Darker Superstitions," drops of blood appeared in prospect of war; but little bits of peat, if peace was to remain unbroken. Walcott mentions, in his "Scoti-Monasticon," that there was at Kilwinning, in Ayrshire, "a sacred fountain which flowed in 1184, and at other times, before a war or trouble, with blood instead of water for eight successive days and nights." When Marvelsike Spring, near Brampton Bridge, in Northamptonshire, overflowed its customary limits, people used to interpret its conduct as signifying approaching dearth, the death of some great person, or some national disturbance. In these days, when so keen an interest is taken in the proceedings of Parliament, it is a pity that there is no spring in our land capable of announcing the probable date of a dissolution. Such a spring would relieve the public mind from much uncertainty, and would benefit the trade and commerce of the country.

Heritable jurisdictions were abolished in Scotland soon after the Stuart rising of 1745. This privilege, enjoyed till then by many landowners north of the Tweed, was popularly known as the " right of pit and gallows," the pit being for the drowning of women and the gallows for the hanging of men. In 1679, a certain woman, Janet Grant by name, was convicted of theft in the baronial court of Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstone, held at Drainie, in Elginshire, and was sentenced to be drowned in Spynie Loch. In this and other similar cases water was used as a means of execution. In the case of witchcraft it was called in as a witness in the trial. The criminal proceedings for the detection and punishment of so-called witches form a painfully dark chapter in Scottish history. As Mr. W. H. Davenport Adams pointedly puts it, in his "Witch, Warlock, and Magician," "The common people for a time might have been divided into two classes, `witches and witchfinders." The same writer observes, " Among the people of Scotland, a more serious-minded and imaginative race than the English, the superstition of witchcraft was deeply rooted at an early period. Its development was encouraged not only by the idiosyncracies of the national character, but also by the nature of the country and the climate in which they lived. The lofty mountains, with their misty summits and shadowy ravines, their deep obscure glens, were the fitting homes of the wildest fancies, the eeriest legends, and the storm—crashing through the forests, and the surf beating on the rocky shore, suggested to the ear of the peasant or fisherman the voices of unseen creatures--of the dread spirits of the waters and the air." A favourite method of discovering whether an accused person was guilty or not, was that technically known as pricking. It was confidently believed that every witch had the " devil's mark " somewhere on her person. The existence of this mark could be determined: for if a pin was thrust into the flesh with the result that neither blood came, nor pain was felt, the spot so punctured was the mark in question. This showed, without doubt, that the accused was guilty of the heinous crime laid to her charge. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, in his "History of Witchcraft in Scotland," gives instances of the finding of the " devil's mark." He mentions the case of Janet Barker, a servant in Edinburgh, who acknowledged that she possessed this particular mark between her shoulders. A pin was stuck into the spot and remained there for an hour without her being aware of its presence. Such, at least, was the way of stating the case in 1643. With this simple test at command it is not easy to understand why water should have been required to give evidence. But so it was. Among various nations the water-ordeal has been in fashion. It was specially popular in Scotland a couple of centuries ago. Part of the bay at St. Andrews is still styled the Witches' Lake, recalling by its name the crude notions and cruel practices of our ancestors. A pool in the Carron, near Dunnottar Church in Kincardineshire, at one time served a similar purpose.

As we have seen, the sinking or the floating of an object thrown into water in cases of sickness told of death or recovery. In like manner innocence or guilt could be determined in the case of persons accused of sorcery. If the person sank, she was innocent; but guilty, if she floated. King James VI.—a great authority on the subject—explains why this was so. In his "Daemonologie," he says, "As in a secret murther, if the dead carcase be at any time thereafter handled by the murtherer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were raging to the Heaven for revenge of the murtherer (God having appointed that secret supernatural sign for trial of that secret unnatural crime), so that it appears that God bath appointed (for a supernatural sign of the monstrous impiety of witches) that the water shall refuse to receive them in her bosom that have shaken off them the sacred water of baptism and wilfully refused the benefit thereof." The Abbey of Scone, in Perthshire, founded by Alexander I., in 1114, received from him a charter confirming the right of using the water-ordeal for the detection of witchcraft. The place of trial was a small island in the Tay, half-way between the abbey and the bridge of Perth. According to the practices, common at such trials, the accused was thrown into the water, wrapped up in a sheet, and having the thumbs and the great toes fastened together. The chances of life were certainly not great under the circumstances, for, if the poor creature floated, she had soon to exchange water for fire. The stake was her goal. If she sank, the likelihood was that she would be drowned. Bundled up in the manner described, she was scarcely in a position to rescue herself; and the bystanders were in no humour to give a helping hand. Close to the town of Elgin was once a witch-pool, known as the Order Pot, so called from its having been the place of ordeal. Through time it was filled up, mainly with rubbish from the ruins of the cathedral, in fulfilment, it was believed, of the prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer that

"The Order Pot and Lossie grey
Shall sweep the Chanonry kirk away."

In the seventeenth century a woman who was accused of having brought disease on a certain man through her sorceries was thrown into the pool. She sank, and the crowd, who had collected to witness the trial, exclaimed, " To Satan's kingdom she hath gone." The incident is of interest since the view of her case, then taken, was contrary to the one usually held, as explained above. Perhaps the people standing by thought that the devil was so eager to get his own, that he would not lose the chance of securing his victim at once. Elginshire has another memorial of the black art in the form of The Witch's Stone at Forres. It consists of a boulder about a yard in diameter and probably marks the spot where unhappy females convicted of witchcraft were executed. About the year 1790 some one wished to turn the stone to good account for building purposes and broke it into three pieces. The breaker, however, was compelled to put it together again, and the iron then used to clasp it is still in position. Legend accounts for the breakage in a less prosaic way. When the boulder was being carried by a witch through the air in her apron, the apron-string broke, and, as a result, the stone was broken too. The spot was formerly reckoned ill-omened. It would be too much to say that belief in the black art has vanished from the Highlands; though, fortunately for the good sense of our age, as well as for those who live in it, witch pools are not now in requisition. Pennant bears witness to the fact that belief in witchcraft ceased in Perthshire soon after the repeal, in 1736, of the penal statutes against witches. In more northern districts it continued a vital part of the popular creed till much later. The Rev. Donald Sage mentions, in his "Memorabilia Domestica," that the Rev. Mr. Fraser, minister of Killearnan in Ross-shire, about 1750, was much troubled with somnolency even in the pulpit. He was in consequence thought to be bewitched—a notion that he himself shared. Two women were fixed on, as the cause of his unnatural slumbers. It was believed that they had made a clay image representing the minister and had stuck pins into it. Certain pains felt by him were ascribed to this cause. Had it not been for the Act of 1736, it would doubtless have fared ill with the supposed witches.

Witches, however, were not alone in their power of floating. According to a popular belief in the north-west Highlands, insane people cannot sink in water. Sir Arthur Mitchell, in the "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland," volume iv., refers to the case of a certain madman—Wild Murdoch by name—concerning whom strange stories were told. He was born on the small island of Melista, near the coast of Lewis, used only for occasional habitation in connection with the pasturing of cattle. Anyone born in the island is believed to become insane. The superstition about not sinking was certainly put to a severe test in Wild Murdoch's case. "It is said," remarks Sir Arthur, "that his friends used to tie a rope round his body, make it fast to the stern of the boat, and then pull out to sea, taking the wretched man in tow. The story goes that he was so buoyant that he could not sink; `that they tried to press him down into the water;' that he could swim with a stone fastened to him; that when carried to the rocky holms of Melista or Greinan, round which the open Atlantic surges, and left there alone, he took to the water and swam ashore."


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