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Behold the Hebrides
Hebridean Well-Lore

TO psychic, superstitious folks like the Hebrideans the well of water was an unfailing source of pleasure as well as of pride and enchantment. The tiniest island in the Hebrides possesses at least one well with which some quaint, mysterious belief has at one time or another been associated. And so to this day in the remoter parts of the Western Isles many queer superstitions have survived, which are as weird as they are interesting. Even in places where the inhabitants in recent times have become more enlightened by social and religious changes of a minor character, we still find the persistence of ancient custom and belief; for, although the actual superstitions may long be dead, the well and the particular virtue ascribed to it linger on indefinitely in legend and in story.

The lore of Hebridean wells is enormous. In a large island like Skye there are scores of wells, each probably having its own legend. On the ancient beliefs connected with the wells of the Island of Skye alone volumes might be written.

In the days of old the islanders resorted to their wells in times of trouble and distress; and, by performing some simple ceremony, they sought relief from all sorts of ailments and distempers. A well near the village of Borve, in Harris, was long held to be efficacious in cases of loss of appetite, for example. Even if one had eaten but an hour previously, a sip of water from this well readily restored the appetite alike of the native and the stranger.

When Martin visited Loch Siant in Skye, he found that the most celebrated well in the island was believed by the natives to be a specific against all diseases. He tells us that the inhabitants obliged themselves by a vow to go to the well and ‘make the ordinary tour round it, called dessil (deasil, in Gaelic), which is performed thus: They move thrice round the well, proceeding sunways from east to west, and so on. This is done after drinking of the water; and, when one goes away from the well, it is a never-failing custom to leave some small offering on the stone which covers the well.’

Till within comparatively recent times pilgrimages were made here; and, after a little ceremony had been observed, an offering was left for the Spirit of the Well. Although a little loch and stream in the neighbourhood abounded with trout and salmon, the people would not touch one of them, for they were regarded as holy fishes. Another well nearby was esteemed because it was reputed to remove all distempers instantly. Its water was considered to be the lightest and ‘wholesomest’ in all the Isle of Skye; and we are told that in time of war the inhabitants were able to exist for many weeks by drinking this water together with small pieces of dulse.

Then, in the south of Skye there is a sacred well known as Tobar a’ Bric, or the Well of the Trout. Many centuries ago it contained one solitary trout, which the natives were very careful not to injure in any way; and, though they often caught it in their pails by mistake, they always replaced it in the well with extreme care and diligence.

Near the Butt of Lewis is a well, the water of which was considered a remedy for insanity. Patients going there to be cured were first of all required to walk seven times round the Temple of St Molochus, the ruins of which stand a few yards away. It was called Teampull Mor in Gaelic, meaning the Great Temple. But this name must have referred only to its holiness, because, au contraire, the place was very small. Having journeyed round seven times, he who sought relief from madness was besprinkled with water, which was conveyed in a little jar from St Ronan’s Well. This jar was entrusted to the hereditary custody of a family whose early ancestors were designated ‘the clark of the temple.’ After the patient had been sprinkled over with water, he was laid to rest on the site of the altar, where, if he slept soundly, he was bound to recover from his malady. St Andrew’s Well, in Lewis, was also consulted in cases of illness. From it a tub of water was borne to the bedside of a sick person. There a plate or a saucer was placed gently on the surface of the water. If the utensil moved round sun-wise, the invalid was sure to recover; and, conversely, if it sank or moved round the other way, nothing but death could be expected.

In a churchyard close to the shore of Loch Torridon there is a well wherein for hundreds of years ‘three stones have been perpetually whirled round and round.’ By conveying one of these stones in a pail of water to a person afflicted with any kind of illness, a cure was effected whenever the patient placed his hand in the pail and touched the stone. But, alas! one fine day an old woman tried to cure her goat in this way; and, when she replaced the stone in the well again, it no longer whirled, but sank to the bottom, where it has remained motionlessly ever since.

In Islay there is a well called Tobar na Cnabar, meaning, in the old language, the well that sallied about from place to place. Tradition has it that this well was originally located in the Island of Colonsay; but an imprudent woman washed her hands in it, whereupon it immediately dried up, its waters having found their way to Islay, where the natives consecrated them with processions and made visits to the well at regular intervals, finding it to be a remedy for all their troubles.

The most celebrated well in Jura was noted for the fact that its water was lighter by one-half than any other water in the island, with the result that one could consume large quantities of it without feeling the least uncomfortable It was, moreover, a certain preventive against sea-sickness to whomsoever drank of it. There are two wells in Eigg, which were reputed to be efficacious against ailments. Martin speaks of one called Fivepennies, which, he says, never failed to cure the natives. If a stranger should lie at this well during the night he woke up with some deformity in the morning. But the inhabitants were immune from such deformities, even if they should have lain there for several nights. The other well is called St Catherine’s Well. It is situated at the opposite end of the island, and was believed to be a catholicon for all diseases.

In some islands it was customary to resort to the well in order that favourable winds might be sent to convey relatives safely home, or to enable the fishermen to reach the fishing-grounds. On the Isle of Gigha, the burying-place of the MacNeils, there is such a well. To it the MacNeils were wont to go when their galleys were wind-bound; and by stirring the water with a cane a favourable wind arose and conducted them whither they wished to sail.

This well was called Tobar Mor, and was covered over with a flat stone, because the natives feared that one day it might flood the island. No one was permitted to remove this stone unless he were especially authorised to do so. The captains of foreign ships which were wind-bound here used to give the natives a piece of money in order that they might be allowed to consult the oracle as to the direction of the wind; and we are told that all strangers were accustomed to leave at the well a coin or a pin as a token of their esteem.

Sacred wells were very common all over Scotland. A glance through old kirk-session records reveals that it was the practice to impose fines on those who desecrated holy wells.

In the seventeenth century, however, severe restrictions were placed on well-worship, for in 1638 the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland formally discredited all superstitions associated with wells. In spite of this, less than twenty years later, the Presbytery of Dingwall found it necessary to issue stern orders against the practice of visiting wells in Wester Ross for the purpose of consulting their waters.

So persistent was the belief in the power of holy water at this time that the Privy Council found itself obliged to select commissioners ‘to wait at Christ’s Well in Menteith on the first day of May, and to seize all who might assemble at the spring and imprison them in Doune Castle.’

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