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Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs
Chapter VIII - Some Wonderful Wells

Wells Wonderful as to Origin—Tre Fontane—Springs where Saints were Beheaded—St. Alban's Spring—Covenanter's Spring—St. Vynning's Spring—Scottish and English Hagiology-- .Springs from Graves—Cuthbert—Milburga—Mysterious Lakes—HellHole at Tunstall — King Henry's Well—Bringing Sea to Morpeth -- Plymouth Water supply — Fitz's Well — Good Appetite—Dogs' Well—Singular Springs in Lewis and Barray —Well in the Wall — Toubir-ni-Lechkin —Power of Wells over Lower Animals — Black Mere —Well at Gillsland —Intermittent Springs—Powbate Well—St. Ludvan's Well—St. Keyne's Well.

THE epithet wonderful may fitly be applied to whatever springs are endowed by popular credulity with mysterious properties. Those already considered have been mainly associated with the removal or prevention of disease. It is now proposed to glance at certain other characteristics.

Some springs are wonderful as to their origin. Who does not know the legend connected with Tre Fontane, in the vicinity of Rome, where water bubbled up at the three places touched by St. Paul's severed bead? We do not recollect any Scottish instance of a well coming into being in this way; but in England we have St. Osyth's Well in Essex, where that saint was beheaded by the Danes, and in Wales, St. Winifred's Well in Flintshire. Concerning the latter, Chambers, in his "Book of Days," thus writes :—" Winifred was a noble British maiden of the seventh century; a certain Prince Cradocus fell in love with her, and, finding his rough advances repulsed, cut off the lady's head. Immediately after doing this, the prince was struck dead, and the earth, opening, swallowed up his body. Meanwhile, Winifred's head rolled down the hill; where it stopped, a spring gushed forth—the blood from the head colouring the pebbles over which it flowed, and rendering fragrant the moss growing around." Sweden has its St. Eric's Spring at Upsala, marking the place where Eric, the king, was beheaded about the middle of the twelfth century. St. Oswald's Well at Winwick, in Lancashire, is said to indicate the spot where that famous Northumbrian king received his death-wound when fighting against Penda, the pagan ruler of Mercia. On a hill in Hertfordshire, a fountain arose to quench the thirst of Alban, England's proto-martyr, who suffered there about 300 A.D. According to a Kincardineshire tradition, a spring in Dunnottar Castle miraculously appeared for behoof of the Covenanters, who were confined there in 1685. In Holywood parish, Dumfriesshire, (so called from its oak forest, sacred even in pre-Christian times), a fountain sprang up at the intercession of Vynning, the patron of a well at Kilwinning, in Ayrshire. In Scottish hagiology, fountains usually gush forth to supply water for baptism. In English legends they spring up as a tribute to spots where the corpses of saintly persons have rested. Thus, water issued from the graves of Ethelbert at Marden, in Herefordshire, and of Withburga at East Dereham, in Norfolk, and also from that of Frideswide at Oxford. St. Frideswide's Fair at the last-mentioned place was a noted holiday in the middle ages. It lasted a week, and, during its continuance, the keys of the city were in the keeping of the prior, having been handed over by the mayor, who ceased for the time to be responsible for the peace of the burgh. At Trondhjem, in Norway, a spring arose to mark the spot where King Olaf was buried, about the middle of the eleventh century.

Cuthbert was greatly honoured by the gushing forth of springs, both during his lifetime and after his death. While at Lindisfarne, he was seized with a desire for still greater retirement, and accordingly withdrew to Farne Island, one of the Fern group, two miles distant from Bamborough, and six from Lindisfarne. This island was then haunted by evil spirits; but these he drove away, as Guthlac did from the marshes of Crowland, in Lincolnshire. Cuthbert set about building a cell in Farne Island, and, with the help of angels, the work was satisfactorily completed. Unfortunately, there was no fresh water to be had; but the want was soon supplied. In response to the saint's prayers, a spring arose in the floor of his cell. Bede says, "This water, by a most remarkable quality, never overflowed its first limits, so as to flood the floor, nor yet ever failed, however much of it might be taken out; so that it never exceeded or fell short of the daily wants of him who used it for his sustenance." The miracle did not end here. When Eistan of Norway was ravaging the coast of Northumberland in the twelfth century, he landed on Farne Island and destroyed the property of the hermits, whose retreat it then was. The spring, unwilling to give help to the robber bands, dried up. Thirst, accordingly, compelled them to quit the island. No sooner had they left than the spring reappeared and gladdened the spot once more. After Cuthbert's death, his body was carried from place to place for safety. In his "History of St. Cuthbert," Archbishop Eyre remarks, "There is a legendary tradition, that when the bearers of St. Cuthbert's body journeyed northwards from Yorkshire and came to Butterby, near Croxdale, they set down the coffin on the right bank before crossing the river, and immediately a saline spring burst out upon the spot. After fording the river they again rested the coffin, and a spring of chalybeate water rose up where they had laid down the body. A third time the weary travellers, struggling up the rugged pass, were compelled to lay their precious burden on the ground, and a sweet stream of water gushed out of the rock to refresh them." Prior to this, Cuthbert's relics had rested a while at Melrose. Tradition says that, on resuming their wanderings, they floated down the Tweed in a stone coffin as far as Tillmouth, on the English Border. The fragments of a sarcophagus, said to be the coffin in question, are still to be seen there beside the ruins of St. Cuthbert's Chapel. This incident is thus referred to in "Marmion":-

"Seven years Saint Cuthbert's corpse they bore.
They rested them in fair Melrose:
But though, alive, he loved it well,
Not there his reliques might repose;
For, wondrous tale to tell!
In his stone coffin forth he rides
(A ponderous bark for river tides),
Yet light as gossamer it glides,
Downward to Tillmouth cell."

A Shropshire legend narrates that, on one occasion, Milburga, who is still remembered in the name of Stoke St. Milborough, was riding in all haste to escape from certain enemies. She fell at length exhausted from her horse; but, at her command, the animal struck a stone with his hoof, and water gushed out for her refreshment. In a neighbouring field some men were sowing grain, and the saint prophesied that in the evening they would gather the ripe corn. She instructed them to tell her enemies, on their arrival, that she had passed when the crop was being sown. The miracle duly happened, and Milburga's foes were disconcerted in consequence. Shropshire and Yorkshire have strange traditions about the sudden appearance of lakes, sometimes overwhelming human dwellings. In the latter case, the tops of houses are said to be visible through the water. Additional picturesqueness is occasionally given, by the introduction into the story of vanished bells, sending forth from the depths their soft cadences. At Tunstall, in Norfolk, a boggy piece of ground, locally known as Hell-Hole, is marked by frequently rising bubbles. The devil once carried off the bells of the church, and, when pursued, plunged into the marsh. The bubbles are due to the bells sinking lower and lower into the abyss. Such beliefs about lakes form an interesting supplement to Scottish superstitions.

When Henry VI. was in hiding in Bolton Hall, in Yorkshire, he wished to have a bath in the hot summer weather. His host, anxious to supply what was lacking to the comfort of the royal fugitive, used a hazel twig in his garden, in the hope of discovering water. The indications being favourable, a well was dug, and the king was enabled to cool himself to his heart's content. The spring still bears the king's name. Michael Scott, who was born in Fife in the thirteenth century, and was regarded by his contemporaries as a dabbler in the black art, had a pupil in the north of England who undertook a marvellous feat, viz., to bring the sea up the Wansbeck river to Morpeth. Certain incantations were gone through, and the magician started from the coast, followed by the tide. All went well till within about five miles from the town, when he became alarmed by the roaring of the water, and looked back. So the spell was broken, and Morpeth remained inland. This recalls the story accounting for the introduction of a good water-supply into Plymouth. When there was a scarcity in the sixteenth century, Sir Francis Drake, the naval hero, rode up to Dartmoor, and uttered some magical words over a spring there. He immediately turned his horse and galloped back to the town, followed by a copious stream.

Certain wells could put in a good claim to the title of wonderful on the ground of the effects they were able to produce. If a spring could act as a sign-post to guide the wayfarer, who had strayed from his path, it might surely be classed among marvels! This is what a certain well on Dartmoor, in Devonshire, could do, at least in the sixteenth century. A man of the name of Fitz and his wife, when crossing the moor in the year 1568, lost their way. They lighted on the well in question, drank its water, and found the lost track without the least difficulty. In gratitude, Fitz afterwards raised a memorial of stone over the well "for the benefit of all pixy.-led travellers." In Germany, before a meal, the ceremony of wishing one's friend a good appetite is still kept up. Such a salutation must have been unnecessary in the Island of Harris, at least in Martin's time, for he tells us of a spring, then lately discovered, that could produce an appetite whenever wanted. "The natives," he says, "find by experience that it is very effectual for restoring lost appetite; all that drink of it become very soon hungry though they have eat plentifully but an hour before." A small quantity of its water might with advantage be added to the contents of the "loving cup" at the Lord Mayor's banquets, and on other festive occasions both in, and out of the Metropolis. Martin speaks of another marvel in Harris. "A large cave in the face of a hill hath," he says, " two wells in it, one of which is excluded from dogs, for they say that if a dog do but taste of the water, the well presently dryeth up; and for this reason, all such as have occasion to lodge there take care to tie their dogs that they may not have access to the water. The other well is called the Dogs' Well, and is only drunk by them." The student of folklore cannot fail to find Martin a congenial companion, as he records a variety of quaint Hebridean customs that might have been passed over in silence by a more matter-of-fact writer. When in the Island of Lewis, he was told of a fountain at Loch Carloway "that never whitened linen," though the experiment had been often tried. In connection with his visit to Barray, he says, "The natives told me there is a well in the village Tangstill, the water of which, being boiled, grows thick like puddle. There is another well, not far from Tangstill, which, the inhabitants say, in a fertile year, throws up many grains of barley in July and August. And they say that the well of Kilbar throws up embryos of cockles, but I could not discern any in the rivulet, the air being at that time foggy." This reminds one of the Well in the Wall in Checkly parish, Staffordshire, said to throw out small bones like those of chickens and sparrows all the year round except in the months of July and August. Toubir-ni-Lechkin, in Jura, rising on a hill near Tarbert, was a noted fountain. Martin mentions that its water was counted " lighter by one half " than any other water in the island, and that a great quantity of it might be drunk at one time without causing inconvenience. He further says, "The river Nissa receives all the water that issues from this well, and this is the reason they give why salmons here are in goodness and taste far above those of any other river whatever."

The power of some wells over the lower animals was remarkable. A spring at Harpham, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, dedicated to St. John of Beverley, was believed to subdue the fiercest animal. A raging bull, when brought to it, became as gentle as a lamb. A spring of this kind would indeed be a great boon in the country to timid, town-bred tourists when crossing fields where there are cattle. To the margin of such a spring they could retreat and there feel safe. Black Mere, at Morridge, near Leek, in Staffordshire, was credited with the power of frightening away animals. Cattle would not drink its water, and birds would not fly over it. A mermaid was believed to dwell in its depths. A reminiscence of this belief is to be found in the name of "The Mermaid," a wayside inn in the neighbourhood frequented by sportsmen. Some wells keep a sharp look-out on the use made of their water. A certain spring at Gilsland, in Cumberland, wished to dispense its favours freely, i.e., without making the public pay for them. The proprietor of the ground, however, resolved to turn, what he counted, an honest penny, and built a house over the spring for the sale of the water. The fountain, much aggrieved at this, forthwith dried up. The house, not being required, was taken down, and the benevolent water once more made its appearance.

Intermittent springs have been observed from an early date, and strange notions have been formed about them. They are usually associated in their ebbing and flowing with some particular river. In some instances such a connection can be only imaginary, notably in the case of the Keldgate Springs at Cottingham, in Yorkshire, thought to be influenced by the river Derwent twenty miles away. An ebbing and flowing well at the foot of Giggleswick Scar, near Settle, in the same county, was represented by Michael Drayton under the poetic guise of a nymph flying from the pursuit of an unwelcome lover. Gough, in his edition of Camden's "Britannia," of date 1806, has the following about a spring near Paisley:—"Bishop Gibson says that in the lands of Newyards, near Paisley, is a spring which ebbs and flows with the tide though far above any ground to which the tide comes. Mr. Crawford, in his `History of the Shire of Renfrew,' applies this to a spring in the lands of Woodside, which is three miles from the Clyde, and half-a-mile from Paisley bridge, and the ground much higher than the river." The name of Dozmare Lake, in Cornwall, signifies in Cornish a drop of the sea, the lake having been so called from a belief that it was tidal. The absurdity of the belief is proved by the fact that the sheet of water is eight hundred and ninety feet above the sea. The lake is said to be unfathomable, and has for a haunting spirit a giant who is doomed to empty it by means of a limpet shell.

A singular superstition is, or was till quite lately, cherished in Peeblesshire, that Powbate Well, close to Eddlestone, completely fills with its water the high hill on whose top it is situated. Chambers, in his "Popular Rhymes of Scotland," gives the following particulars about the spring:—"The mouth, called Powbate E'e, is covered over by a grate to prevent the sheep from falling into it; and it is supposed that, if a willow wand is thrown in, it will be found some time after, peeled at the water-laugh, a small lake at the base of the hill supposed to communicate with Powbate. Of course the hill is expected to break some day like a bottle and do a great deal of mischief. A prophecy, said to be by Thomas the Rhymer, and bearing evident marks of his style, is cited to support the supposition:

'Powbate, an ye break,
Tak' the Moorfoot in yore gate;
Moorfoot.and Mauldelie,
Huntlycote, a' three,
Five kirks and an Abbacie!"

In explanation of this prophecy Chambers remarks: "Moorfoot, Mauldslie, and Huntlycote are farm-towns in the immediate neighbourhood of the hill. The kirks are understood to have been those of Temple, Carrington, Borthwick, Cockpen, and Dalkeith; and the abbacy was that of Newbottle, the destruction of which, however, has been anticipated by another enemy."

The Scottish imagination, in attributing wonderful properties to springs, has not gone the length of ascribing to any the power possessed by St. Ludvan's Well in Cornwall. This fountain has been already referred to as the giver of increased sight. But it had the still more marvellous power of preventing any one baptised with its water from being hanged by a hempen rope. Nor have we heard of any spring north of the Tweed that could be a match for another Cornish well, viz., that of St. Keyne, familiar to readers of Southey. Whoever, after marriage, first drank of its water would be the ruler of the house. On one occasion a bridegroom hurried to make sure of this right, but was chagrined to find that he had been anticipated: his bride had taken a bottleful of the water with her to church.

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