St. Helen’s Well, Maybole, Ayrshire

Holy Well (covered):  OS Grid Reference – NS 31322 13423

Archaeology & History

Site on the 1860 OS-map

In spite of this site being covered over some time in the 1950s, it is still retained on the modern Ordnance Survey maps.  It was shown on the first one in 1860, but its literary history goes back much further.  We find it described by the Minister for Maybole — one William Abercrummie — in his short 17th Century work named A Description of Carrict.  He noted several springs in Maybole township, with this one of possessing the usual hallmarks of both christian and peasant customs alike:

“Another spring there is called St. Helens well or by a curt pronuntiation St. Emus for St. Antonies well, it is about a myle and ane halfe from Mayboll on the road to Aire a litle north of Balachmont.  It is famous for the cure of unthriving children, to which at the change of the quarter especially at May-day there is a great resort of people from all quarters, and at a good distance.”

This piece was repeated in several 19th century works, including one by William Roberston (1891), who commented on the traditions themselves, saying:

“This can unquestionably be traced as a remnant of the ancient superstition that miracles were wrought at Holy Wells; which all the anathemas of the Reformed Kirk could not for a time obliterate from the minds of the common people.  The records of the Kirk-session bear witness to the prevalence of applying to Saints’ Wells for the cure of bodily infirmities on stated occasions; particularly, when the Saint or Angel was understood to ‘move the waters.’  Pins, pieces of the dress of the patient, or such small trifles, were left at the well – the remains, no doubt, of the offerings formerly made to the Clergy – and in token that the disease was transferred from the sufferer to the rags, thus offered to the Genius loci.  Numerous traces of this prevailing superstition could easily be cited.”

When the Ordnance Survey dudes wrote about the site in the Name Book in 1857, all they could tell us was that it was, “a beautiful spring of excellent water” but was said to have “no medicinal properties.”

Despite this sacred well now being covered over, there is surely a case to be made here for it to be restored back to its former glory, for all to visit and see.  Local historians, pagans and Christians alike — join forces and gerrit sorted!

References:

  1. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  2. Mitchell, Arthur (ed.), Geographical Collections Relating to Scotland Made by Walter Macfarlane – volume 2, T. & A. Constable: Edinburgh 1906.
  3. Robertson, William, Historic Ayrshire; Being a Collection of Historical Works Treating of the County of Ayr, Thomson Brothers: Edinburgh 1891.
  4. Walker, J. Russel, “‘Holy Wells’ in Scotland,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.17 (New Series, volume 5), 1883.

Acknowledgements:  The map accompanying this site profile is Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

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