Saints and Holy Wells


By Thomas Frost


Among the results of the preaching of the Gospel to the ignorant and superstitious in the early ages of the Church there must, unfortunately, be included a considerable mixture of pagan beliefs and customs with the new religion, some of which have survived even to our own time. The sacred character ascribed to a great number of wells or springs both in England and Scotland may be traced back, in numerous instances, to pagan rites observed at them in pre-Christian ages. Some of these, as at Drumlanrig, in Dumfries county, and at Tully Beltane, in the Highlands of Perthshire, have near them a circle of stones, resembling those supposed to be associated with Druidism; and of the latter, Jamieson says in his “Scottish Dictionary,”—“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,” as he calls the circle of upright stones.

In the little island in Loch Maree, in the county of Ross, is a well or spring traditionally associated with St. Maelrubha, who is said to have been a monk of the monastery of Bangor, in Ireland, and to have founded a church at Applecross, in the same county, in 673. Pennant, who visited Innis Maree in 1772, says:—“In the midst is a circular dike of stones,... I suspect the dike 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.” The probability of this appears from old Kirk Session records of an annual custom in Applecross of sacrificing a bull to “Mourie” on the saint’s day. This custom survived until the latter half of the seventeenth century, when it was denounced as idolatrous.

In the island of Lewis, one of the Hebrides, are the ruins of a chapel formerly dedicated to St. Mulvay, near which is a spring, the water of which was supposed to be of singular efficacy in curing diseases of the brain. The patient was made to walk seven times round the ruins, and was then sprinkled with water from the spring. In others of the Hebrides, and along the west coast, there are many wells named after St. Columba. Almost every well in Scotland is, indeed, named after some mediæval saint, many of them of only local fame, and very few having a place in the ecclesiastical kalendar. St. Ronan’s Well, from the association with it of Scott’s novel of that name, is the best known to the general reader. It has been identified with the mineral well at Innerleithen, in the county of Peebles, which long enjoyed good repute as a curative agent in diseases of the eye and the skin, and also in dyspepsia.

The church of St. Fergus, in Buchan, commemorates an Irish missionary of the eighth century, in whose memory a well in the parish of Kirkmichael, in Banffshire, is named. Concerning this spring, Dr Gregor, in his “Folk Lore of the North-east of Scotland,” says:—“Easter Sunday and the first Sunday in May were the principal Sundays for visiting it, and many from the surrounding parishes, who were affected with skin diseases or running sores, came to drink of its water, and to wash in it. The hour of arrival was twelve o’clock at night, and the drinking of the water and the washing of the diseased part took place before or at sunrise. A quantity of the water was carried home for future use. Pilgrimages were made up to the end of September, by which time the healing virtues of the water had become less. Such after-visits seem to have begun in later times.”

The best known of several wells named after St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, is beside the road from Maybole to Ayr, and about two miles and a half from the former place. It used formerly to be much resorted to on the 1st of May, for the benefit of sickly children. St. Iten’s Well, at Cambusnethan, in Lanarkshire, at one time was held in good repute as a cure for asthma and skin diseases. Martin, in a description of the Hebrides, written about 1695, mentions a well named after the same saint in the Isle of Eigg, which was regarded by the natives as a panacea for “all the ills that flesh is heir to.” He gives a curious, and in view of the connection of holy wells with pagan beliefs and customs, an interesting account of the dedication of this well by a priest called Father Hugh.

“He obliged all the people to come to this well,” he says, “and then employed them to bring together a great heap of stones at the head of the spring by way of penance. This being done, he said mass at the well, and then consecrated it; he gave each of the inhabitants a piece of wax candle, which they lighted, and all of them made the Dessil,—going round the well sun-ways, the priest leading them; and from that time it was accounted unlawful to boil any meat with the water of this well.”

St. Fillan’s Well, at the foot of a green hill in the parish of Comrie, was formerly much frequented on the 1st of May and the 1st of August by persons in quest of health, who walked or were carried three times round it, from east to west, following the course of the sun. This done, they drank of the water of the spring, deposited a white stone on the saint’s cairn, and departed, leaving some rag of linen or woollen as an offering.

Half-way between the bays of Portankill and East Tarbet, on the coast of Wigtonshire, are the ruins of St. Medan’s chapel, within which are three natural cavities in the rock, which at high water are filled by the tide. Sickly children used to be brought to the larger hole to be bathed, and this is still done occasionally, though faith in such matters, as in so many others, seems to be lessening. Dr Trotter, who visited the place in 1870, had the ceremony described to him by an eye-witness as follows:—“The child was stripped naked, taken by one of the legs, and plunged head-foremost into the big well until completely submerged; it was then pulled out, and the part held on by was dipped in the middle well, and then the whole body was finished by washing the eyes in the smallest one, altogether very like the Achilles and Styx business, only much more thorough. An offering was then left in the old chapel, on a projecting stone inside the cave behind the west door, and the cure was complete.”

There is nothing certain known about this St. Medan, though there are wonderful legends concerning her in the Aberdeen Breviary and elsewhere. Concerning the chapel in Wigtonshire, Dr Trotter thinks that “the well was the original institution; the cave a shelter or dwelling for the genius who discovered the miraculous virtues of the water, and his successors; and the chapel a later edition for the benefit of the clergy, who supplanted the old religion by grafting Christianity upon it; St. Medana being a still later institution.”

St. Catherine’s Well, at Liberton, near Edinburgh, has been regarded for centuries as a remedy for diseases of the skin, and is still frequented by persons suffering from them. It derives its name from a tradition, preserved by Boece, in his chronicle of Scotland, that the spring rose miraculously from a drop of oil brought from the tomb of St. Catherine of Alexandria on Mount Sinai, and this story was considered to be countenanced by the fact that drops of oil are often observable on the surface, a phenomenon now regarded as due to the decomposition of coal, or bituminous shale, in seams below. Boece says that Queen Margaret, the wife of Malcolm III., built a chapel near the spring, and dedicated it to St. Catherine; but this chapel, some remains of which were still standing at the close of the last century, was dedicated to St. Catherine of Sienna, not to her sister saint of Alexandria. Before the Reformation, the nuns made an annual visit to the well, three miles from their convent, in solemn procession, a ceremony due perhaps to the coincidence of name.

James IV. made an offering in this chapel in 1504, and when James VI. returned to Scotland in 1617, he visited the well, and, as Sir Daniel Wilson relates in his “Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time,” he “commanded it to be enclosed with an ornamental building, with a flight of steps to afford easy access to the healing waters; but this was demolished by the soldiers of Cromwell, and the well now remains enclosed with plain stone-work, as it was partially repaired at the Restoration.”

St. Bernard’s Well, a sulphurous spring in the valley below Dean Bridge, Edinburgh, is traditionally associated with the sainted Abbot of Clairvaux. Its medicinal virtues appear to have escaped notice, however, until 1789, when the property on which it is situated came into the possession of Lord Gardenstone, who erected a handsome Grecian edifice over the spring, set up within it a statue of Hygeia, and appointed an attendant to dispense the water at a very trifling charge. The place then became a popular resort for the purpose of drinking the water, and in 1889 the statue of the Roman goddess, having become decayed, was replaced by one in marble, by the generosity of the late William Nelson, who also restored the temple and made the surroundings more attractive.

On Soutra Hill, the westernmost point of the Lammermoor range, there once stood a hospital founded by Malcolm IV., for the reception of poor travellers, and dedicated to the Trinity. Only a small portion of the building now remains, but near it is a spring known as Trinity Well, which in former times was much frequented on account of the healing virtues attributed to it. A similar reputation was enjoyed for a long time by St. Mungo’s Well, on the west side of the hill named after that famous Scottish saint, in the parish of Huntley, Aberdeenshire.

There were springs also which were reputed to preserve from disease those who partook of their water. The virtues of St. Olav’s Well, in the parish of Cruden, in Aberdeenshire, are recorded in the couplet—

St. Olav’s Well, low by the sea,
Where pest nor plague shall never be.

Of St. Corbet’s Well, on the top of the Touch Hills, in Stirlingshire, it was formerly believed that whoever drank its water before sunrise on the first Sunday in May was sure of another year of life, and crowds of persons resorted to the spot at that time, in the hope of thereby prolonging their lives. Water for the font was often taken from holy wells, and it was believed in the middle ages that persons baptised with water from Trinity Well, at Gask, in Perthshire, would never be attacked by the plague. Baptisms in St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, were at one time performed with water taken from the saint’s spring; and, before the Reformation, the font at Airth, in Stirlingshire, is said to have been supplied from a well dedicated to the mother of Christ, near Abbeyton bridge.

Passing over a number of springs with reputed medicinal properties, but not associated with any hagiological tradition, we find it stated by Mr J. R. Walker, in a communication to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, that “many of the wells dedicated to ‘Our Lady’ 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.”

Some saints’ wells were believed to have the power of foretelling whether the patients on whose behalf they were invoked would recover,—a superstition which may be traced to Greek paganism of a time thousands of years before the Christian era. St. Andrew’s Well, at Shadar, in the island of Lewis, was reputed to possess this power. A vessel filled with water from the spring was taken to the patient’s abode, and a small wooden dish placed on the surface. If this turned towards the east, it was held to denote that the patient would recover; but if in the opposite direction that he would die. “I am inclined,” says Mr Gomme, “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.” The Virgin’s Well, near the ancient church of Kilmorie, in Wigtonshire, was also reputed to possess this power. If the patient on behalf of whom the prophetic power of the well was sought would recover, the water flowed freely; but in the contrary case it failed to well up.

Votive offerings have been mentioned as made to the saints to whom wells were dedicated, and thus became holy. At Montblairie, in Banffshire, shreds of linen and woollen were hung on the bushes beside a consecrated well, and farthings and halfpence were thrown into the water. Miller, in his “Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland,” notices a similar custom as practised in the vicinity of Cromarty, his native town. He says, “It is not yet twenty years since a thorn, which formed a little canopy over the spring of St. Bennet, used to be covered anew every season with little pieces of rag, left on it as offerings to the saint by sick people who came to drink of the water.”

St. Wallach’s Bath, in Strathdeveron, is a cavity in the rock, about three feet in depth, into which water flows from a spring several yards higher up, the overflow trickling over the edge into the stream, about four feet below. Down to the beginning of the present century, large numbers of weakly children used to be brought to this bath to be strengthened by immersion in it, and some small article of the child’s clothing was hung on a neighbouring tree. The spring was resorted to for the cure of sore eyes, and pins were offered to the Saint, being left in a hollow of a stone beside the well. At the end of May, which was the season for the visit, the hollow was often full of pins. Sir Arthur Mitchell, describing the holy well on Innis Maree in a communication to the Scottish Society of Antiquaries, says, “Near it stands an oak tree, which is studded with nails. To each of these was originally attached a piece of the clothing of some patient who had visited the spot. There are hundreds of nails, and one has still fastened to it a faded ribbon. Two bone buttons and two buckles we also found nailed to the tree. Countless pennies and halfpennies are driven edgeways into the wood.” A more recent visitor, surprised at finding what appeared to be a silver coin fixed in the tree, took the trouble to examine it, and found it spurious.

Coins were more usually, however, thrown into the well, and Mr Patrick Dudgeon, who in 1870 had the well of St. Querdon, in Troqueer parish, Kirkcudbrightshire, cleaned out, observes in an article contributed to the transactions of the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History Society, that several hundreds of coins were found at the bottom—nearly all being the smallest copper coins, dating from the reign of Elizabeth to that of George III., but chiefly Scottish issues of James VI., Charles I., and Charles II. He mentions also having been told by old residents that they remembered seeing rags and ribbons hung on the bushes around the well.

Dr Macgeorge, describing St. Thenew’s Well, in his “Old Glasgow,” states, “It was shaded by an old tree, which drooped over the well, and which remained until the end of the last century. On this tree the devotees who frequented the well were accustomed to nail, as thank-offerings, small bits of tin-iron—probably manufactured for that purpose by a craftsman in the neighbourhood—representing the parts of the body supposed to have been cured by the virtues of the sacred spring, such as eyes, hands, feet, ears, and others.”

Pilgrimages to saints’ wells were a well-observed custom until they were, after the Reformation, prohibited both by the Church and Parliament. In an Act of 1581, allusion is made to the perverse inclination to superstition, “through which the dregs of idolatry yet remain in divers parts of the realm by using of pilgrimage to some chapels, wells, crosses, and such other monuments of idolatry, as also by observing of the festal days of the Saints sometime named their patrons in setting forth of bon-fires, singing of carols within and about kirks at certain seasons of the year.” In accordance with this enactment, the Kirk Session of Falkirk, in 1628, ordered several persons who had made a pilgrimage to a holy well to appear in church on three appointed Sundays, clad in the garb of penitents. A warning was also issued that persons doing the like in future would be fined in addition to the penance, and in default, would be put in ward and fed on bread and water only for eight days.

In the following year, the Privy Council made an order “that commissioners cause diligent search at all such parts and places where this idolatrous superstition is used, and to take and apprehend all such persons of whatsomever rank and quality whom they shall deprehend going in pilgrimage to chapels and wells, or whom they shall know themselves to be guilty of that crime, and to commit them to ward, until measures be adopted for their trial and punishment.” But though pilgrimages in bodies were checked, individual visits to holy wells continued. In 1630, the Kirk Session of Aberdeen fined a woman for sending her child to be washed in St. Fittack’s Well, in the parish of Nigg, on the opposite side of the Dee, and she and her nurse were ordered to acknowledge the offence before the session.

In course of time, such “offences” came to be regarded more leniently. Fines gradually ceased to be inflicted, and penance to be enjoined. In three cases entered in the Kirk Session records of Airth, in Stirlingshire, in 1757, the persons cited were merely admonished. But old customs have wonderful vitality, and holy wells are still frequented. Sir Arthur Mitchell remarks, in “The Past in the Present,” that he has seen at least a dozen wells “which have not ceased to be worshipped,” though he adds that the visitors are now comparatively few. Mr Campbell of Islay says, in his “Tales of the West Highlands,” “Holy healing wells are common all over the Highlands, and people still leave offerings of pins and nails and bits of rag, though few would confess it. There is a well in Islay where I myself have, after drinking, deposited copper caps amongst a hoard of pins and buttons and similar gear placed in chinks in the rocks.”

Some of the wells once resorted to by great numbers of persons have disappeared in consequence of changes of the surface. The growth of towns, railways, agricultural improvements, have each had their part in the obliteration of spots formerly deemed sacred. The Pilgrims’ Well, at Aberdour, in Fifeshire, which for centuries attracted crowds, is now filled up. The like end has come to the Abbot’s Well at Urquhart, in Elginshire. St. Mary’s Well at Whitekirk, in Haddingtonshire, has also ceased to exist, the water having been drained off. Near Drumakill, in the parish of Drymen, Dumbartonshire, there was once a famous spring dedicated to St. Vildrin, and near it was a cross, with a figure of the Saint upon it in relief. Between thirty and forty years ago the cross was broken up, and the fragments used in the construction of a farm-house; and shortly afterwards the spring was drained into a stream.

There was formerly a holy well beside the lonely cross-road from Abbeyhill to Restalrig, near Edinburgh, and in the middle ages it attracted a great number of pilgrims. It appears to have been originally dedicated to the Holy Rood, but it afterwards became known as St. Margaret’s Well, and Mr Walker thinks that the dedication may have been changed in connection with the translation of Queen Margaret’s remains in 1251, on the occasion of her canonisation. There was a small Gothic building over the spring until the North British Railway Company acquired possession of the site and built a station upon it. The covering was then taken down, stone by stone, and rebuilt above St. David’s spring, on the northern slope of Salisbury Crags. The water of St. Margaret’s Well found another channel, and thus one more of Scotland’s holy wells ceased to exist.