In the middle of the 19th century the opening to a prehistoric souterrain used to be in evidence on the north-side of the single track road running past old Skerray Mains house. It was mentioned in Hew Morrison’s (1883) historical guide, albeit briefly and without ambiguity:
“Below the house of Skerra Mains is an artificial cave that enters from below the road and extends 40 or 50 yards in length. Two urns were found it when it was discovered but they soon crumbled away on being exposed to the air.”
More than thirty years later, the Royal Commission (1911) lads ventured to check it out, only to find that it had just recently been covered up:
“At the farm of Skerray Mains is an earth-house, the mouth or entrance to which was recently exposed by the farmer. It is situated about 15 feet distant from the northeast window of the dwelling-house, and is now entirely covered over again.”
Of the old locals I met here, only one of them remembers hearing of it, but the precise location of its entrance had been forgotten. Surely it aint gonna be toooo difficult to find it again?
Highlighted on the 1858 OS-map, two-thirds the way up the High Street, this long forgotten sacred well was described by the Ordnance Survey lads in their Name Book (1856) as “an excellent spring”—and no doubt an ever-flowing one, even in the greatest of droughts. But it had already been destroyed when they came here. It was mentioned in passing by William Chambers’ (1856), who described it as a “public fountain” dedicated to old Mungo, a.k.a. St Kentigern. But its position in the High Street wasn’t where it originally emerged. Local tradition told it was once on the slopes of Venlaw immediately north of the town, possibly making it into the folklore category of “Wells that Move”—usually because the spirit of the place has been offended.
But in truth, little is known about its mythic history. Its origin seems, as with so many ancient sites, entangled in what Dr Gunn (1908) in his definitive work on the history of Peebles church explained, the heathen “superstitious regard for fountains”, pre-dating the christian dedications. St Mungo himself, said Gunn,
“is remembered in Peebles to-day by his holy well upon the slopes of Venlaw, hallowed by its use in the Sacrament of Baptism.”
It’s profane history tells simply that, in 1728, its waters were piped into the trough on High Street for public use. It became damaged sometime in the early 19th century, but some remains of the stonework were found when roadworks were done here in 1845. It would be good if we could recover further information about this important holy well.
Chambers, William, A History of Peeblesshire, W. & R. Chambers: Edinburgh 1864.
At the edge of the ruins known as the Bishop’s Palace, up the slope behind the ruined church in Stow, could once be seen the waters of the Bishop’s Well which, wrote Thomas Wilson (1924), fed the palace hereby and was used by the clergy. Apart from a barely discernible circular depression at the edge of the old manse ruins, no trace of this site remains.
Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Counties of Midlothian and West Lothian, HMSO: Edinburgh 1929.
Wilson, Thomas, The Stow of Wedale, Aberdeen Newspapers 1924.
Long since gone, there are very few references to this once sacred site, which seemed to comprise of three sacred wells next to each other, each with its own formal dedication. This would have made it one fuck of an important place in early- and pre-christian times. But even when Thomas Colby (1837) and his mates surveyed the area, it seems like it was on its last legs. He told that:
“As connected with the ancient history of Derry the sacred springs, called St. Columb’s Wells, claim some notice in this place. They are, or rather were, three in number — for one has been dried up, or diverted from its original locality — and are situated near the Roman Catholic chapel, outside the wall. It appears from the Irish annals that each of these wells had its peculiar name, one being called Tobar Adamnam, another Tobar Martain, and the third Tobar Colum — but the two former names are now quite forgotten, and the springs are popularly called St. Columb’s Wells. They are regarded with much superstitious veneration by the Roman Catholic peasantry, but no celebration of St. Columb’s festival is now held at them.”
The wells were found very close to St. Columba’s bullaun stone, which possessed its own healing abilities. The two sites had symbiotic ceremonial relationships with each other, doubtless performed in bygone centuries on St. Columba’s old festival date of June 9.
Colby, Thomas, Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry, HMG: Dublin 1837.
Doherty, William, Derry Columbkille, Brown & Nolan: Dublin 1899.
To be found in the grounds of Belmont House School, just 1¾ miles (2.8km) north of Derry’s otherColumba’s Stone, this is one of the many petroglyphic “footprints” that folklore ascribes to Ireland’s saint Columb/Columba/Columbkille (and other variants). Said to have originally been carved at the great fortress of Grianan of Aileach, 4½ miles (7.2km) to the west, this great block of stone—roughly 6 feet square on top—has the distinct sculpturings of two feet, each about 10 inches long, etched into its sloping surface. Archaeologically speaking, there’s little more to say about the stone; but its traditions are another thing altogether and are of considerably greater importance…
Like the carved footprint on top of Dunadd in Argyll with its association of tribal initiations, the traditions relating to this footprint follows the same path, so to speak. It was H.P. Swan (1938) who gave us a good summary of the olde lore here, telling that,
“It is almost absolutely certain that it was brought from the Grianan of Aileach after its destruction, probably by an O’Doherty for his own installation. If so, the task of removal was no joke, for the stone weighs some seven tons. It was the “crowning stone” of the Kinel-Owen, or, in other words, the stone upon which the chieftains of the great O’Neill clan were inaugurated. They reigned in Aileach for many centuries.
“At his installation, as supreme head of the clan, the newly-chosen chief was placed upon this stone, his bare feet in the footmarks; a peeled willow wand was put into his hand, as an emblem of the pure and gentle sway he should exercise over his tribe; an oath was administered to him by the chief ecclesiastic in the neighbourhood, that he should preserve inviolable the ancient custom of his country, and deliver the succession peaceably to his tanist (successor); after which, descending from the stone, he turned himself thrice backwards and thrice forwards, to signify that he was ready to meet all foes, from whatever quarter they might come; and was then, with wild acclamations, hailed as their chief by his assembled clan.
“At the time of Ireland’s conversion to christianity by St Patrick, that holy man visited the Grianan (about AD 443), where this stone had been so used for centuries before; Owen was then King; he was converted from Paganism to the new faith and baptised by Patrick; at the same time, the saint consecrated this stone, and blessed it as the crowning-stone of the Kinel-Owen for ever. Time, however, has proved his blessing futile, as may be read in the account of the Grianan, which was deserted by the Kinel-Owen after its destruction by the O’Briens in 1101.”
The ritual described here cannot be taken lightly, nor seen as a presentation of fiction, for its ingredients are found echoed in kingship rites in many cultures.
Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.
St Columbkille’s place in Irish history was considerable and, said Maghtochair (1867), he was said to have “founded more than one hundred churches and religious houses.” His feet, also, have been carved or burned into a number of rocks scattering the Irish landscape. Not to be confused with his ‘feet’ that are carved near Londonderry, the ones here have been classed in the archaeological inventories as a bullaun and, wrote Brian Lacy (1983) in the Donegal Archaeological Survey, can be found on,
“A 2m long ledge of rock outcrop containing two depressions, c.0.33m in diameter x ).1m deep. They are known locally as St. Columbkille’s footprints.”
As can be seen in the above photo, the ‘footprints’ seem to have been artificially outlined at some time long ago, to make them more notable.
Lacy, Brian, Archaeological Survey of County Donegal, Donegal County Council 1983. p.307
Maghtochair, Inishowen – Its History, Traditions and Antiquity, Journal Office: Londonderry 1867.
Sconce, James, “Cup-Marked Stones,” in Transactions of the Edinburgh Field Naturalists, volume 5, 1907.
Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.
Highlighted on the 1865 OS-map, this lost water source was located between the Brechin cathedral/round tower and the curiously-named St. Michael’s Mount, whose history seems to be lost. It would seem to be the well which Ruth & Frank Morris (1981) name as the ‘Ancient Well’ in their survey.
The reason behind this site being classified as a sacred (or holy) well is based on the tradition that the Culdees had a religious convent here in the 12th century and, according to David Black (1839),
“This convent is believed to have stood a little to the west of the present parish church, in the gardens now belonging to the kirk-session, still called “the College Yards.” A small well of delightfully pure water in these gardens receives the name of the College Well, and is reported, by tradition, to have been the well of the Culdee convent.”
On the issue of St. Michael, students of folklore will know that, in the christian cult, he was an early dragon-slayer. His annual commemoration day is September 29. One of his shamanistic functions “relates to the very old tradition of Michael as the receiver of the souls of the dead.” (Attwater 1965)
Black, David D., The History of Brechin, Alexander Black: Brechin 1839.
Gibson, Colin, Folklore of Tayside, Dundee Museum c.1968.
In William Addison’s (1951) standard work on the history and development of Spa Wells, he told us that “the spas began as holy wells”; yet in spite of him listing the Wigglesworth Spa in his work, such “holiness” wasn’t a feature found here and, sadly, we have no written records that tell of any. But that doesn’t mean to say it had no sense of importance or animistic sacrality to local people. The earliest written record we have of this Sulphur Well is to be seen on the stone-work at the top of the small well-house, where the year “1666” was carved, marking the year when the structure was built under the directions of a local rich dood. But earlier knowledge of these healing waters would have been passed to the land-owner by local people, as indicated in Thomas Short’s (1765) words where he told that “it has been used time out of mind.”
Mr Short (1724) makes mention of this Sulphur Well in his gigantic early work, but only in its similarity in both taste and smell to the Sulphur Well at Harrogate and letting us know that, “I have tried carefully” the waters of the two sites. We had to wait another forty years before he gave us a more detailed account of the medicinal properties here. He wrote,
“Now come we to a sulphur water of a very peculiar nature, such as I never met with or heard of in England besides, and deserves to be much more strictly examined and enquired into, viz. Wigglefworth Spaw, near Settle, in the parish of Long-Preston. It has been used time out of mind, and more formerly than at present, because it is little known; rains and drought affect it not. Country people drink four or five pints of it in a morning to vomit them, and six or seven pints to purge them. The water is very black, smells strong of sulphur, has a very small stream, but stagnates not, bubbles not, but springs up; it is always covered with a white scum, (and) dies all in its course white. It rises out of a great stone soil, near much lime-stone, at the foot of a hill. It tastes salt, yet curdles not soap, and boils with milk. A phial glass, one third part full of it, well corked, and tied down with a bladder, and set in the cold water to be evaporated; when the water began to boil, it was taken out and poured a little of it on solution of silver, which turned black and curdled. The phial was corked again, and set half an hour longer in the boiling water, it still turned solution of silver black. It was corked a third time, and set half an hour longer in the boiling water, then tried, but was not so black as before, and caused little curdling. This last stood all night, next day its precipitation was blackish; the water was clear above. This is the only blackish sulphur water I have met with (as Rippon is a greenish yellow) and retains its sulphur the longest, from its contained oil.”
Consistent with other writers of his time, Mr Short then wrote at length on how the Wigglesworth waters reacted to various chemical tests, many of which were done in order to indicate the veracity, or otherwise, of any medical qualities. He also made comparative studies between this and the sulphur wells at Harrogate and elsewhere, and concluded that the Wigglesworth Spa would successfully deal with the following ailments or conditions:
“Sloth, idleness, too violent slavish exercise or labour, too great affluence, or plenty of nourishing rich high foods, spices, forced meats, acrid, stimulant and aromatic viands; the earthy viscid dregs of fermented liquors, or the parching, drying, shriveling spirits of wine, sugar, fruits, grain, or fermented liquors, as well as poverty and unwholesome diet, irregular hours, etc, are the parents of many diseases, whose cure lies in relieving oppressed nature from the unwieldy load (brought upon her by indolence, gratifying the vitiated taste, intemperance and debaucheries) by cleansing and rousing the vessels, restoring the juices to a healthy state; rectifying and establishing the secretions and excretions of the body, and restoring vigour and activity to the fibres, vessels and solids. To the above causes of diseases, we may add pride, luxury, sensuality, inverting the natural course of time, turning day to night, and night to day. These give birth to many chronic diseases, as well as acute, from acidities, crudities, viscidities in the stomach, communicated thence to the bowels, and so to the whole habit; hence are vitiated juices, great obstructions, and a long train of diseases affecting sundry parts of the body, and therein the whole nervous system, with hypo, hysterics, melancholy, costiveness, or looseness, suppression of natural necessary discharges, etc., which require thinning, relaxing, resolving, opening, or invigorating remedies.”
For about two centuries this well had a very favourable reputation. It’s therefore slightly curious as to why the great spa-writer, A.B. Granville, in his visit to this part of Ribblesdale to seek out some of the medicinal springs in the 1830s (including a petrifying well), made no mention of our Sulphur Well. Whether this down to his patronizing attitude towards local people isn’t known, but it certainly wouldn’t have helped him in Yorkshire! One might suggest it was due to the fact that the spa had fallen into disuse, but this wasn’t the case as, subsequent to Granville’s visit, the local writer William Howson (1850) later told that,
“In the woody dingle to the north of the village is a sulphurous spring, protected by a neat and antique stone canopy bearing the date 1666, and the initials of Sir Richard Sherburne and Isabella his wife, a daughter of John Ingleby of Lawkland Hall. Of this well, Dr (John) Murray the well-known analytical chemist says, ” It is a most valuable and unusually strong sulphuretted water, and as far as I have examined mineral waters, second to none.” From his analysis and that of Dr. Garnett it appears that a gallon of the water contains seventeen cubic inches of sulphuretted hydrogen, four of azote, and a small portion of carbonic acid, sulphate of magnesia in the proportion of seventy five grains to a gallon, a considerable quantity of muriate of soda, and a minute proportion of carbonate of lime.”
(The aforementioned Dr Garnett was a renowned 18th century authority on medicinal wells in Yorkshire, best known for his works on the spa wells of Halifax (1791) and Harrogate (1791, 1792), along with some in Scotland.)
Messrs Short (1765) and Howson (1850) mentioned other medicinal springs very close by, including the Chalybeate Well in the field immediately north on the other side of the stream.
Addison, William, English Spas, Batsford: London 1951.
Brown, G.H., Walks, Drives and Excursions around Settle, Craven Printing: Settle 1880.
A mile south of Kislingbury village, just by the roadside is the old Hill Farm. In times gone by—as the early OS-maps show—a trackway led from here, westwards, for just a few hundred yards, until it reached the old farm of Hollowell Hill, all trace of which has long since gone. The farm owed its name to the existence of a holy well mentioned briefly in 14th century records in the Cartulary of St. Andrews, Northampton, where it was described as Halywellhille, or the Holy Well on a hill. All trace of it seems to have been lost. A ‘Spring’ that is shown on the 1885 map, a few hundred yards south of the old farm, seems to be the closest contender, but it seems more likely that the well was adjacent to, or beneath the farm-building.
Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F.M., The Place-Names of Northamptonshire, Cambridge University Press 1975.
In Thomas Short’s (1765) description of the once-renowned Wigglesworth Sulphur Well, he mentioned briefly that there were “some (other) chalybeates near it.” Thankfully 85 years later, with the aid of William Howson (1850) who gave us a marginally better description, we were able to locate the whereabouts of one of them! From the Sulphur Well, this one could be found,
“two hundred yards above, on the other side of the rivulet there is a chalybeate spring, but (it was) of no unusual strength.”
In fact it’s a little closer to being 300 yards than 200—but that’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things! The place in question was marked on the 1852 OS-map, marked simply as a “Well.” …This iron-bearing spring would have been a good pick-me-up and, as with all such wells of this nature, fortifies the blood and the immune system. Mr Howson also told us that “ferrugineous springs, stronger than this, are of frequent occurrence in the neighbourhood,” echoing Short’s earlier remark. Sadly, it seems that all trace of this Well has disappeared.