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Holy Wells of Scotland

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 0 comments

Healing wells have a long tradition in Scotland. At one point, there was estimated to be over 600 of them operating in every corner of the country. Each had its own distinct history attached and were associated with different saints or specific ailments that they could cure. Rickets, gout, lunacy, blindness, infertility and yes, even hangovers could be cured if you knew where to go and the correct offering to make.

The clootie well on the Black Isle is probably one of the best known examples in the country. Traditionally visitors would leave small scraps of cloth at these sites, as the cloth degraded then the sick would heal. The sheer scale of the ritual offerings around the well here mean that the atmosphere is one of 21th century weirdness rather than pagan spirituality. An old pair of tights tied to a tree branch may not be what the original visitors had in mind but custom dictates that anyone removing an offering will befall the fate of the original pilgrim so the tradition endures.

For those wanting a somewhat more authentic experience, there are a large number of alternative spots to visit. Wells with equally strange customs that are slightly off the beaten track. Historical sights whose remote location seem to contribute to the spiritual atmosphere you get when you ritually taste some spring water, the same way our ancestors would have done hundreds of years ago. It is up to each individual visitor to decide for themselves whether to drink of a sacred spring or not. It is worth noting that inclusion here does not guarantee that the waters meet 21st century health and safety standards. It is up to the afflicted pilgrim to weigh up whether the merits of the supposed cure are worth the risk (albeit small).

The most celebrated healing well in Skye is Loch Siant Well on the road between Staffin and Flodigarry. Invalids would circle the spring three times in a clockwise direction after drinking the water and would then make an offering of scraps of clothing, coloured threads, pins or coins. The guardian of this well is a sacred trout which swims in the lochan into which the spring drains. It is for this reason that locals would never fish here despite the obvious abundance of trout in the loch. In addition no wood would ever be cut from the area near the spring which means it can be found today in the middle of a hazel copse. Unlike more popular spots there is currently no visible evidence of cloth scraps and coins and it is believed that the water is safe to drink.

Well guardians could come in many shapes and forms. Tobar-na-glas a Coille (The Well in the Grey Wood) is what is known as a pin well and can be found beside the old military road near the top of the hill dividing the glens of Corgarff and Glengairn. Anyone taking a sip of water from this well had to drop into it a pin or other piece of metal. If this was not done, and if at any time afterwards the same person attempted to draw water again from it, the spiteful spirit guardian would get annoyed, resist and hunt the ungrateful till they eventually died of thirst. Be warned!

In addition to pin wells there also exists, in the south of Scotland, what is still known as a cheese well. On Minchmoor, in Peeblesshire, an ancient cattle droving route across Scotland an offering of cheese would allow travellers to pass unmolested thanks to the protection of the fairies. This is on the route of the Southern Upland Way and it now appears to have coins left as offerings by walkers instead of cheese. One can only wonder what impact this has had on the taste of the waters.

Maelrhuba’s Well is situated on Isle Maree in Wester Ross and was for a time one of the most famous in Scotland. It is named after the Irish saint who founded a monastery at nearby Applecross and who later made his home on the island. This was already the location for Druidical sacrifices of bulls and other livestock, a practice that was permitted to continue by the church and which lasted right up until the 18th century. The adjacent shore is still called in Gaelic Creag nan Tarbh, ‘Cliff of the Bull’, recalling these ancient rituals.

If insanity (or lunacy as it was known then) is your affliction then this is the place to come to be cured. Merely drinking the water from the well is not sufficient though – the afflicted should be bound, then thrown from a boat and towed round the island three times clockwise.

Upon landing, the patient would be taken to the well and given some of its water to drink; then an offering was made by nailing a rag or a ribbon to the tree, or by driving a coin firmly into it edgewise. Coins that fall out of “the money tree” are a sign of wishes that will not be granted. The original oak tree, now much decayed died many years ago because of copper poisoning but that has not stopped pilgrims using any other close by. A local tradition that is still observed asserts that nothing must ever be taken from the island, be it even a pebble from the shore, lest the insanity formerly ‘cured’ there return to the outside world.

Journeys to the well on the island continued throughout the 19th century. It became so famous that in 1877, Queen Victoria visited and also left a coin behind as per tradition. It is not recorded whether she was bound and towed behind a boat.

Whether the well at Burghead is technically a holy well or not is still open to conjecture. The truth is that this remarkable and ancient site has presented historians with one of the country’s most intriguing unresolved archaeological problems. The monument, uncovered in the 19th century consists of a flight of steps leading down to an underground chamber, within which is sunk a large pool fed by springs. The work is unique in Scotland and to this day nobody can say for sure who built it or why. The monumental character of the work suggests it was more than just a source of water, it must have been imbued with considerable importance either religious or secular. Was it a shrine to Celtic water deities, a place of ritual drowning, or a Pictish cult centre, later sanctified by St. Columba and used for baptisms?

Snippets of evidence tantalisingly point to every one of these theories. The traditional fire ceremony known as The Burning of the Clavie takes place nearby every year and lends credence to the enduring strength of pagan belief in the area. This is backed up by excavations at the nearby Pictish hill fort that uncovered detailed stone panels with 5th century bull carvings. Apparently evidence of a pagan bull cult celebrating strength and aggression. Whatever the real origins and purpose, a visit provides a stark contrast to the peace and solemnity of some of the more pastoral wells in the Highlands.

The well has not been the scene of any ritual activity for some time but just the thought of drinking from a tank where vengeful Pictish cultists ritually drowned their enemies is enough to override any desire some might have as to what the spring actually tastes like.

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