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.
This stone has very similar qualities to the one found upon Mullach-geal, ⅔ of a mile to the west, as a place where ritual magick was performed. And, just like the Mullach-geal stone, we only have an approximate position of its whereabouts: “behind the village”, as Mr Sands (1878) said. The same words were used by other St Kildan writers when it came to describing the whereabouts of Tobar Childe, so we must assume it to be reasonably close to the old well.
Mr Sands seems to be the first person to write about it, telling us,
“At the back of the village is a stone, which does not differ in external appearance from the numerous stones scattered around, but which was supposed to possess magical properties. It is called Clach an Eolas, or Stone of Knowledge. If any one stood on it on the first day of the quarter, he became endowed with the second sight — could “look into the seeds of Time,” and foretell all that was to happen during the rest of the quarter. Such an institution must have been of great value in Hirta, where news are so scanty. To test its powers I stood on it on the first day of Spring (old style) in the present year, but must acknowledge that I saw nothing, except two or three women laden with peats, who were smiling at my credulity.”
Charles MacLean (1977) mentioned the stone a hundred years later, but seems to have just copied this earlier description. Does anyone up there know its whereabouts?
MacLean, Charles, Island on the Edge of the World, Canongate: Edinburgh 1977.
This is a most intriguing site, whose exact location seems to have been forgotten. It was first mentioned in Macaulay’s History of St Kilda (1764) as being one of four stone altars that the islanders used for worship. Three of them were related to the early christian figure of St. Brendan, whose well and chapel remains are on the south-side of the island. However, this fourth stone altar possessed a purely magickal and heathen function. Macaulay initially gives the location as being “on top of a hill to the southwest” of St. Brendan’s chapel; but subsequently tells us it was upon “Mulach-geall” which is a mile NNW. It was an important place to the people of Hirta and its exact position needs to be found and, hopefully, the altar still exists.
Despite Macaulay’s conflicting directions of how to get here (a common feature of early writers), he wrote:
“I have already made mention of one St. Kilda altar, that in Brendans Chapel. There are no less than four more in the island, of which three lie at considerable distances from the holy places. There is one particularly on the top of a hill to the south-weft (sic), dedicated according to tradition to the God who presides over Seasons; The God of thunder, lightning, tempests and fair weather. To avert the terrible judgments inflicted by this mighty Divinity, the ancient St. Kildians offered propitiatory sacrifices on this altar, sacrifices of different forts, much like the old Pagans, who offered a black sheep to Winter, or the Tempest, and a white one to the Spring… The place where the people of this island, offered their victims to Taranis, is called Mulach-geall, that is to say, the White eminence or hill…”
More than a hundred years later, Seton (1878) made mention of it, but added no further details.
The invocation to Nature’s elements is something we find echoed at some sites further east, such as the Well of the North Wind on Iona and its compatriot Well of the South Wind. At both these places, so-called ‘pagan’ rituals were used to both placate and invoke the gods and spirits of the wind. This one on St Kilda possessed additional magickal prowess. But where is it? Have we lost it, or is it sleeping somewhere on the edge of Mullach-Geal…?