About 50 yards away from the Royal Promenade on the east-side of Parliament Street, there used to the flowing water of this old holy well, later becoming one more of Harrogate’s spa wells. It was first recognized as a medicinal spring about 1792 when Thomas Garnett (1794) uncovered it beneath the overgrowth of vegetation surrounding the spring-head. In doing so, it became evident that at some time in the past it had been used by local people as,
“a wall was discovered round the spring, but whether this had been built with an idea of its being a medicinal water, or with an intention of collecting water for cattle, I cannot determine.”
Chalybeate (iron-bearing) in nature, the waters were analyzed by Adam Hunter (1830) in the 1820s and, although possessed of soluble iron, had less than its medicinal compatriots nearby, meaning that its fortifying qualities weren’t quite as good. He told us how,
“it had been known (by locals) for many years, but at no time much used internally; it had acquired some celebrity however as a wash for sore eyes, for which purpose it was well adapted. As chalybeate water has long been a favourite popular remedy for a wash in various weaknesses, and chronic affections of the eyes, it is proper to state that (the nearby) John’s Well, the Tewit Spa, or the succeeding one at Starbeck, are the only three chalybeates which can at present be recommended for that purpose.”
A few years after Hunter had been here, the well was destroyed “by the making of a highway drain.” Jennings 1981)
St George (saint’s day – April 23) was one of the christian dragon-killers. There is no known tradition of the saint or festivities that may once have occured here.
Garnett, Thomas, A Treatise on the Mineral Waters of Harrogate, Thomas Gill: Leeds 1794.
Hunter, Adam, The Waters of Harrogate and its Vicinity, Langdale: Harrogate 1830.
Jennings, Bernard, A History of the Wells and Springs of Harrogate, Interprint: Harrogate 1981.
Very little is now known about this sacred site that was once found “a few hundred yards east from the New Church at Low Harrogate.” (Hunter 1830) Even most of travellers and medical experts who wrote about the numerous Harrogate wells in the 18th and 19th century bypassed its quietude; and by the time Mr Hunter wrote about it in his great descriptive catalogue, its healing or medicinal qualities had been forgotten.
He told that “the spirit in the water…or that with which it is infused, has long been most actively engaged in adding real or fancied comforts to the (Harrogate) Fair, and is now in much more general use” than the two other holy wells in the town. It was, he said, “the best water for making tea and more extensively used for that purpose than any in the neighborhood of Harrogate.” It would also appear to have been built over at some time in the not-too-distant past…
St Ann (saint’s day – July 26) was a giant in early christian and Islamic myths. An apocryphal figure, She was the Great Mother of the mother of Christ—the Virgin Mary—and was Herself a Virgin until, in Her old age, after seeing a bird feeding a chick, decided She wanted a child and so eventually gave birth to Mary. An old woman giving birth when the Springtime appears (when birds and other animals become fertile) is the same motif found in the lore of the Cailleach in Ireland and Scotland (and parts of northern England). Pre-christian lore at this old well would seem evident here.
Hunter, Adam, The Waters of Harrogate and its Vicinity, Langdale: Harrogate 1830.
A site whose main claim to fame is its legendary nature. Seemingly buried or destroyed around the end of the 19th century, there have been suspicions that the stone might have had cup-marks on it (see Folklore below), but we’re not sure. Modern lore tells that when roadworks were done here in the 1950, a large stone was uncovered. A local man who was passing by told that he’d seen the Crawey Stone in his youth and that the stone they’d uncovered was one and the same.
The story that used to be told amongst local people was thankfully preserved in an article by the pseudonymous “Mormond” (1889) in Scottish Notes & Queries. He told that:
“In the parish of New Deer, and in a field near the Old Castle of Fedderat, there is a large boulder of ten or twelve tons known as the Crawey Stone. I am unable to say if it still occupies its old site, or if it has been broken up for building purposes. The legend connected with this stone used to be well known in the parish, and a version of it appeared in The Aberdeen Magazine some 70 or 80 years ago. This version is substantially the same as the legend known in the district, and relates how a Crawford, the lord of the castle and lands, one day “as he looked o’er his castle wa’ ” — a phrase which often occurs in old ballads — observed a crunkled carl (old woman or witch, PB) inspecting the stone and afterwards successfully lifting up one end clear of the ground. Not to be conquered by such a shabby looking stranger, the laird, who was famed for his athletic powers, went out and challenged the carl; but on attempting to lift the boulder, burst a blood vessel; and the carl, who stood by watching him, suddenly disappeared in a flash of fire taking the remains of the laird along with her. The tradition is that the laird was not mourned for in the district, and the moral drawn was “He couldna hae expected ony ither en’.” When passing the boulder going to school, the legend was often referred to, and some indentations on it pointed out as the marks of the ill man’s fingers made at the time the superhuman feat was accomplished.”
These finger marks have been taken as possible cup-markings. They might have been, but we simply don’t know; they may just have been curious natural markings that gave rise to this animistic creation myth. Another tale told that the markings were due to an old giant in the neighbourhood who used the rock as a putting stone and rolled it to the spot where it used to stand. Giants are always attached to indigenous creation myths, some of which go back thousands of years.
“a large Stone of a roundish shape, built on an old fence, forming a side of the Public road leading from New Deer to Brocklay. Tradition asserts that it has been the putting Stone of a Giant in ancient times. There are Several holes in the Stone said to be the finger marks of the Giant.”
The history of the site is scanty to say the least. It first seems to have been recorded when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in the 1840s, although they left no record as to why the site was given such a dedication. It’s a decidedly pre-christian title as the name “old Wife” is usually indicative in northern counties as being related to the primal Earth deity of northern England and lowland Scotland (when we reach the Highlands and Ireland, She becomes known—amongst other names—as the cailleach). However, apart from its name we have no additional information. Neither the holy wells writer Edna Whelan (1989; 2001), nor hydrolatry researcher Graeme Chappell were been able to find anything about the place in their own researches. And so we must go on name alone…
The waters bubble up into a small stone-lined chamber with the words Nattie Fontein carved into the lintel. This is something of a mystery in itself, for, as Edna Whelan (1989) told,
“it would be most unusual for the word fonten to be used for a spring in North Yorkshire: ‘keld’ is the local word. The rather roughly inscribed word may be a corruption of Fons Natalis, the name of a Celtic water nymph.”
Graeme Chappell (2000) meanwhile, noticed in a visit to the site in June 1999,
“that the N and A in “NATTIE” are carved in such a way that the word could be read as “MATTIE FONTEIN” perhaps meaning “Mother Fountain”. This might then be another reference to the Old Wife?”
He then goes on to note how,
“the latin word ‘natalis‘ meaning ‘birth’ and its link with the roman Festival ‘Dies Natalis Sol Invictus‘ (day of the birth of the unconquered sun) which took place on the 25th December. Natalis also gave rise to the welsh word ‘Nadolig‘ – meaning Christmas.”
This Yuletide element has an intriguing relationship with the name of the well; for to the west of Yorkshire’s borders into Cumbria there was annual gathering known as Old Wives’ Saturday that took place on the first Saturday after Christmas, or first Saturday of the New Year in a person’s house or inn, where a feast was had to bring in the New Year; but there is no known written lore of such a tradition here.
Nowadays the old tradition of hanging rags on the trees surrounding the well as offerings to the spirit of the place (known as memaws in parts of Yorkshire, and clooties in Scotland) has become a regular practice of those who hold such sites as sacred in their own way. Whelan mentioned seeing memaws here in the 1908s, but the Northern Antiquarian contributor Jon Barker told that, “The rags are a comparatively recent addition to the well, it is not a tradition there. When I used to go in the ’60s therewere no rags.”
On an even more curious note: very recently (from when this profile was written), the Northern Antiquarian contributor and photographer James Elkington visited Old Wives’ Well for the first time. It was a grey overcast day and when he arrived here, there was a woman ahead of him at the head of the well. I’ll let him tell the rest of it in his own words:
“In front of the well was a lady dressed in what looked like a white nighty, she had her back to me. There was a candle lit nearby, and her hands were in the water moving slowly about like she was washing something. She had long dark shoulder length hair. As I was about 25 feet away I was sure she wasn’t aware of me, and I thought it would make a good photograph. I quietly put my bag on the ground and got my camera out, and looked up and…she was gone! I couldn’t have taken my eye off her for more than 5 or 6 seconds. I looked all around and there was no sign of her. Even if she had legged it through the woods I would have seen her. I think it was then that I realized that I may have had ‘an encounter’. I quickly took three pics of the Well and got the hell out of there!”
He rang me once he had regained his senses in a somewhat emotional state and recounted over and over what had just happened. Whether this was a visual manifestation of the genius loci of the we can’t say. But such encounters are not unknown at numerous sacred water sites all over the world. We can only hazard a guess that this is what he was fortunate to encounter.
Just a few hundred yards north is the old Mauley or Malo Cross, which may or may not have had some mythic relationship with our Old Wives…
Shown on the 1864 OS map of the area as a ‘Well’ just at the front of St Bride’s Chapel—now a very pleasant old cottage—peasants and pilgrims would stop for both refreshment and ritual here as they walked down High Kype Road. Although the chapel was described in church records of January 1542 as being on the lands of Little Kype, close to the settlement of St Bride, there seems to be very little known about the history or traditions of the well. If anyone has further information on this site, please let us know.
Bride or Brigit has her origins in early British myth and legend, primarily from Scotland and Ireland. Her saint’s day is February 1, or the heathen Imbolc (also known as Candlemas). Although in christian lore St. Bride was born around 450 AD in Ireland and her father a Prince of Ulster, legend tells that her step-father (more probably a teacher) was a druid and her ‘saintly’ abilities as they were later described are simply attributes from this shamanic pantheon. Legends—christian and otherwise—describe Her as the friend of animals; possessor of a magickal cloak; a magickian and a healer; and whose ‘spirit’ or genius loci became attached to ‘sacred sites’ in the natural world, not the christian renunciation of it. St Bride was one of the primal faces of the great prima Mater known as the Cailleach: the greater Gaelic deity of Earth’s natural cycles, whose changing seasons would also alter Her names, faces and clothes, as Her body moved annually through the rhythms of the year. Bride was (and is) ostensibly an ecological deity, with humans intrinsically a part of such a model, not a part from it, in contrast to the flawed judaeo-christian theology.
Paul, J.B. & Thomson, J.M., Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum: The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland AD 1513 – 1546, HMGRH: Edinburgh 1883.
From Pickering, take the A169 towards Whitby. When you get to the Car Park at the ‘Hole-of-Horcum’ – (you can’t miss it), park the car and walk North along the side of the road towards Whitby. After 60 yds, take the track East. Follow this for approximately a mile until the track splits. Take the concrete track left towards the farmhouse of ‘Newgate Foot’. Go through the yard past the house on the right, and you will come to a stream and a gate and there, ahead of you, rises Blakey Topping…
Archaeology & History
The giant hill of Blakey Topping was recorded as early as 1233 CE and in a simplistic style just means the ‘black mound’; but this derivation has additional ingredients, implying it as a ‘black meeting-place’ or moot. Black in the etymological sense also implies ‘shining’ and it may also relate to the northern airt of black (meaning death, darkness, north, etc), when you’re stood at the ruined stone circle 400 yards to the south. But I’m speculating here…
Several 19th century antiquarians suggested there may have once been a cairn on top of the hill, but others who’ve explored this idea seem to have put it to bed.
This great hill is well recognised amongst local people and, to this day, its animistic creation myths and other folklore elements are still spoken. When the photographer James Elkington recently visited the nearby standing stones, he bumped into the old farmer who told him how his father had seen the faerie-folk on the hill many years back. And its modern reputation as a gorgeous site adds to such lore, which dates way back.
In Frank & Harriett Elgee’s (1933) archaeology work, they narrated the old creation myth that local people used to tell of this great hill,
“A witch story related by a native 25 years ago attempts to explain two conspicuous natural features two miles apart on Pickering Moor; Blakey Topping, an isolated hill, and the Hole of Horcum, a deep basin-shaped valley. The local witch had sold her soul to the devil on the usual terms, but when he claimed it, she refused to give it up, and flew over the moors, with the devil in hot pursuit. Overtake her he could not, so he grabbed up a handful of earth and flung it at her. he missed his aim and she escaped. The Hole of Horcum remains to prove where he tore up the earth and Blakey Topping where it fell to the ground.
“From our point of view the significance of this story lies in the fact that between the Hole and the Topping there is a Bronze Age settlement site at Blakey Farm, with its stone circle. The rough trackway leading from the Hole to the circle is known as the Old Wife’s Way, presumably also marking the witch’s flight. This, together with other Old Wife’s Ways, preserves as it were Bronze Age church tracks”.
A relative variation on this tells that the Hole of Horcum was made by the local giant, Wade. He was having a row with his wife, Bell, and got so angry that he scooped out a lump of earth and threw it at her. The huge geological feature known as the Hole of Horcum is the dip left where he scooped out the earth, and Blakey topping, the clod itself, resting in situ where it landed. A christian appropriation of the story replaces Wade and his wife with their ‘devil’: a puerile element unworthy of serious consideration.
In more recent times, the old geomancer Guy Ragland Phillips (1976; 1985) found that a number of alignments, or leys (known as a ‘node’), centred on Blakey Topping: twelve in all, reaching out and crossing numerous holy wells, prehistoric tumuli, standing stones, etc. The precision of the alignments is questionable, yet the matter of the hill being a centre-point, or omphalos, would seem moreso than not.
Elgee, F. & H.W., The Archaeology of Yorkshire, Methuen: London 1933.
Phillips, Guy Ragland, Brigantia, RKP: London 1976.
Phillips, Guy Ragland, The Unpolluted God, Northern Lights: Pocklington 1987.
Smith, A.H., The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire, Cambridge University Press 1928.
Close to the centre of that corporate money-laundering place of homo-profanus that is the City of London, was once a site that represents the antithesis of what it has become. Tacked onto the southeastern side of St. Bride’s church along the appropriately-named Bride Lane, the historian Michael Harrison (1971) thought the Holy Well here had Roman origins. It “was almost certainly,” he thought,
“in Roman times, the horrea Braduales, named after the man who probably ordered their construction: Marcus Appius Bradua, Legate of Britain under Hadrian, and the British Governer in whose term of office the total walling of London was, in all likelihood, begun.”
This ‘Roman marketplace of Bradua’ that Harrison describes isn’t the general idea of the place though. Prior to the church being built, in the times of King John and Henry III, the sovereigns of England were lodged at the Bridewell Palace, as it was known. Mentioned in John Stow’s (1720) Survey of London, he told:
“This house of St. Bride’s of later time, being left, and not used by the Kings, fell to ruin… and only a fayre well remained here.”
The palace was eventually usurped by the building of St. Bride’s church. The most detailed account we have of St. Bride’s Well is Alfred Foord’s (1910) magnum opus on London’s water supplies. He told:
“The well was near the church dedicated to St. Bridget (of which Bride is a corruption; a Scottish or Irish saint who flourished in the 6th century), and was one of the holy wells or springs so numerous in London, the waters of which were supposed to possess peculiar virtues if taken at particular times. Whether the Well of St. Bride was so called after the church, or whether, being already there, it gave its name to it, is uncertain, more especially as the date of the erection of the first church of St. Bride is not known and no mention of it has been discovered prior to the year 1222. The position of the ancient well is said to have been identical with that of the pump in a niche in the eastern wall of the churchyard overhanging Bride Lane. William Hone, in his Every-Day Book for 1831, thus relates how the well became exhausted: ‘The last public use of the water of St. Bride’s well drained it so much that the inhabitants of the parish could not get their usual supply. This exhaustion was caused by a sudden demand on the occasion of King George IV being crowned at Westminster in July 1821. Mr Walker, of the hotel No.10 Bridge Street, Blackfriars, engaged a number of men in filling thousands of bottles with the sanctified fluid from the cast-iron pump over St. Bride’s Well, in Bride Lane.” Beyond this there is little else to tell about the well itself, but the spot is hallowed by the poet Milton, who, as his nephew, Edward Philips records, lodged in the churchyard on his return from Italy, about August 1640, “at the house of one Russel a taylor.”
In Mr Sunderland’s (1915) survey, he reported that “the spring had a sweet flavour.”
Sadly the waters here have long since been covered over. A pity… We know how allergic the city-minds of officials in London are to Nature (especially fresh water springs), but it would be good if they could restore this sacred water site and bring it back to life.
Bride or Brigit has her origins in early British myth and legend, primarily from Scotland and Ireland. Her saint’s day is February 1, or the heathen Imbolc (also known as Candlemas). Although in christian lore St. Bride was born around 450 AD in Ireland and her father a Prince of Ulster, legend tells that her step-father (more probably a teacher) was a druid and her ‘saintly’ abilities as they were later described are simply attributes from this shamanic pantheon. Legends—christian and otherwise—describe Her as the friend of animals; possessor of a magickal cloak; a magickian and a healer; and whose ‘spirit’ or genius loci became attached to ‘sacred sites’ in the natural world, not the christian renunciation of it. St Bride was one of the primal faces of the great prima Materknown as the Cailleach: the Gaelic deity of Earth’s natural cycles, whose changing seasons would also alter her names, faces and clothes, as Her body moved annually through the rhythms of the year. Bride was (and is) ostensibly an ecological deity, with humans intrinsically a part of such a model, not a part from it, in contrast to the flawed judaeo-christian theology.
Foord, Alfred Stanley, Springs, Streams and Spas of London: History and Association, T. Fisher Unwin: London 1910.
Gregory, Lady, A Book of Saints and Wonders, Colin Smythe: Gerrards Cross 1971.
Harrison, Michael, The London that was Rome, Allen & Unwin: London 1971.
McNeill, F. Marian, The Silver Bough – volume 2, William MacLellan: Glasgow 1959.
From Abernethy village, go west along the A913 road for half-a-mile, then turn left up the long and winding Glenfoot road up the Abernethy Glen. About a mile up on your left-side is Craigden Farm and, just a bit past this, the forestry plantation. Just before the trees, cut up the field and head uphill, passing the near forest of gorse, until you reach the huge detached house of Turflundie. In the field immediately east, right up against the barbed-wire fence where it meets the depleted forestry, a very small trickle of water emerges beneath a small pile of rocks. You’re here!
Archaeology & History
The trickling waters are on the other side of this fence
Long since thought to have been lost, the trickling remains of this old Well of the Devil are, in fact, still running beneath the pile of stones just over the barbed-wire fence on the edge of the forestry section. A cluster of other worn rounded rocks scatter the ground just to the rear of where the water first comes out of the ground, suggesting, perhaps, that a small well-house covered the spring; but this is me being speculative, as there’s no mention of this in the early writings of the Ordnance Survey lads, nor is one shown on the first OS-map of the area in 1860. And you’ll see on the OS-map how the well is slightly lower than where it presently trickles, but this is down to the fact that the source of it was piped-off at sometime in the not-too-distant past, as evidenced by remains of such piping laying just over the barbed-wire fence close to the source. In truth, unless you’re hardcore, there’s very little to see.
The dedication of this water-site to the christian ‘devil’ is obviously a corruption of its original traditional name, which may have simply been to the Bodach, or ‘Old Man’ in Gaelic and northern British lore. The bodach‘s consort is the great prima Mater of the northern realms known as the Cailleach, but I can find no dedication to Her anywhere nearby. The best we have are the ‘Witches Graves’ a half-mile to the northwest, below the edge of the geological ridge overlooking Abernethy, where folklore tells us 22 women were murdered and buried by the local christians several centuries ago.
Take the same route as if you’re visiting the small Carlin Stone (a few hundred yards further along): along the B822 road between Kippen and Fintry, stop at Balafark farm and cross the road above the farm to take the track into the forest. 1km along, note the small green track, off the main central track, slightly up on the rise on your right, which bends round and then goes (eventually) to the other side of the forest. Once you reach the gate at its edge, walk left 285 yards (261m) along the fence.
Archaeology & History
The Wife and the Carlin on the 1865 OS-map
Described in the Ordnance Survey’s (1870) Book of Reference (volume 47) as “a flat rock on the boundary between Perth and Stirling,” the rock is certainly not flat—and any geographical relationship it had with Perth has long since gone. Instead, the stone in question here is an upright one—although it’s not much more than two feet tall. However, on the other side of the present-day fence there is a small flat stone in the ground; but it is the moss-covered upright that is our ‘Wife with the Bratty Plaid.’ A smaller curious-looking quartz-lined stone also lies next to this old Wife…
The Wife, looking east
The Wife, looking west
Marked on the ancient boundary line, this small but sturdy standing stone probably has a prehistoric pedigree, although we cannot be certain without an excavation. It is shown on the earliest OS-maps from the 1860s, but we have no notifications from any literary sources telling the tale behind the stone’s fascinating name: meaning simply, the ‘wife wearing the tartan shawl.’ When Marion Woolley and I came here the other day, we tried to see if a simulacrum of such a figure was hiding in the moss-covered upright—but unlike the notable simulacrum at MacBeth’s Stone, we struggled somewhat here. It was possible, from certain angles (if we didn’t stand on our heads and poke each other in the eyes!) to see this ‘wife in a shawl’, but twas a struggle…
There’s every likelihood that whatever the old tale once was about this petrified ancestral stone, it would have had some mythic relationship with the Old Wife known as the Carlin, or cailleach, a few hundred yards to the west, at the Carlin Stone. As yet however, their histories remain hidden in the sleep of the Earth…
From Gargunnock village, take the road west towards Leckie, and then just before the right-angled bend in the road down towards the A811, bear sharp left, and then immediate right below the farmhouse along what looks like a private road taking you onto the Watson House mansion. About 500 yards along, with trees either side of you, look down the small steep slope where a small burn (stream) is visible. Get down there and, where the waters bend away changing direction to head north, look carefully for a small spring of water emerging, just a few yards south of the stream itself, beneath a young tree.
Archaeology & History
Lady Bettys Well on 1860 map
This all-but-forgotten water source is, thankfully, still running with clear waters below the wooded slopes. It is highlighted on the first OS-map of the region in 1860, 50-60 yards east of a small but once-picturesque waterfall (now spoiled by a mass of industrial waste, dumped hereby). Little seems to be known about its mythic history and, quite possibly, may have had something to do with our old cailleach. May have…. I say this purely in relation to what was said about the site by the Ordnance Survey lads at the end of the 1850s when they visited the site and enquired as to its name and nature. They told:
“A Small Spring issuing from under a rock like the mouth of a drain having no appearance of a Well. It took its name (Betty) from an old woman who lived adjacent some two hundred years ago; there is no tradition or Antiquity connected with it – nothing more nor less than an Old woman’s well, but is well known in the neighbourhood by the name. Situated at the base of Craigmakessoch and about 10 chains north west of Leckie house.”
Water emerging by the roots
Although ‘Betty’ is obviously a shortening of Elizabeth, it’s the Old Woman’s bit that brings up the cailleach element, which may or may not be valid. The small crag beneath which the spring still rises is known as ‘Craigmakessoch’, which Prof Paul Hornby thought might derive from a forgotten attribution to the little-known St. Makessog or Kessog. (are there any local folk who can clarify things?)
Were it not for the pollution due to the dumping here (in an otherwise beautiful place), it looks like the waters would still be drinkable – but we all decided to give it a miss…