Holy Well: OS Grid Reference – NH 7923 6502
Archaeology & History
An old church dedicated to St Bennet once existed on the hill above where this spring of water emerges, but little is now left of the building. Thankfully the holy well hasn’t quite followed in the footsteps of the church. Miss Riley (1935) told us that it can be found “near the high-water mark…situated at the foot of a beautiful little glen which runs inland from the coast” – and from all accounts it is still there.
Shown on the 1880 OS-map of the region, the dedication to St Bennet is obscure. Mr Pullan (1927) suggested it derived from the 6th century St Benedict of Nursia, but this is improbable. The Royal Commission lads thought it more likely derived from “a Celtic foundation.”
The earliest description I’ve found regarding the traditions surrounding this well are by Hugh Miller (1835). He wrote:
“It is not yet twenty years since a thorn-bush, 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.”
But the tradition didn’t die out, as evidenced by a short article by Miss M.D. Riley (1935) in Antiquity journal where she gave us further valuable information about its folk history, saying:
“In order to insure the fulfilment of the wish it is essential that the wisher should drink the water and leave something of his personal attire. When the writer visited the spot there was a heterogeneous collection of ‘rags’ hanging on the branches.
“Mr Francis Scott tells me that the site is locally supposed to be the place of judgement. It is close to the ruins of St Bennet’s Chapel and the ground is said to be cursed as it was stoeln by the Church. Even at the present day the owner has to provide each year at Christmas-tide 8 cwt of oatmeal free for the poor of the parish. This has been operative since 1630 and though the owner has tested the matter in the highest court of law in Scotland, his appeal was not allowed.”
The tradition of giving offerings to the spirit of this well was still recorded in 1966.
- Hiley, M.D., “Rag-Wells,” in Antiquity, volume 9:4, December 1935.
- Innies, Cosmo, Origines Parochiales – volume 2:2, W.H. Lizars: Edinburgh 1855.
- Miller, Hugh, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; the Traditional History of Cromarty, William Nimmo: Edinburgh 1835.
- Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
- Pullan, L., The Banner of St Boniface, London 1927.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian