St. Francis’ Well, Dundee, Angus

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 4007 3046

Also Known as:

  1. Grey Friar’s Well

Archaeology & History

Site shown on 1776 map

This is another one of Dundee’s lost holy wells (see also the Lady Well, the Nine Wells, St Clement’s Well, St Mary’s Well and Sinavey Well), around which the town was first built.  Its cold fresh waters were located less than a hundred yards north of the old Houff graveyard in the middle of town, or where Alex Maxwell (1884) described as upon “the sunny slopes of the Gray Friars’ meadows.”

Maxwell told us that this sacred site was the most favoured of the the holy wells in the area, having been dedicated to St Francis of Assisi by the monks who built the  medieval Grey Friars monastery, whose ruins lie beneath the Houff graveyard.  After the destruction of the priory in the 16th century, the holy well and surrounding meadows came under the ownership of the local council.  The well had become ruinous and so was repaired back to its old condition, but a few decades later had become very neglected again and was ordered to be closed.  It was mentioned in several early land rental documents, including this from 1630 which told,

“That haugh or meadow lying on the south side of the Tentour Hill, and on the east side of the meadow called Monorgan’s croft, togidder with the lands lying about St. Francis’ well, were set for the yearly penny mail of fifty-ane pounds.”

The most extensive description of it came from Alex Maxwell’s own pen, and I reproduce it here in full.  He began by speaking of the other holy wells of Our Lady and St. Clement’s in Dundee, but told us that,

“The most important of them was the Gray Friars’ well, which came out of the rising ground westward from where the High School is built, and had been dedicated to the honour of St. Francis, the founder of the order — a man of exalted character, whom Dean Milman calls “most blameless and gentle.”  The water, which ran perennially and was of singular purity, had no doubt been highly venerated in the days of the old Church, and it continued to be much esteemed, and even to maintain somewhat of its traditional sanctity, long after the memory of the good man whose name it bore had become forgotten.

“When the Friars’ house was in ruins, and the gardens laid waste, St. Francis’ well did not escape unharmed.  One austere iconoclast—James Patrie was his name—had probably been offended at its sculptural reminiscences of the old faith, and he cast it down.  When arraigned to answer for this,

“he confest and grantit that he took down the common well callit the Friar well, quhilk servit the haill town with guid and wholesome water, and referrit him in the Bailies’ and Council’s will thereanent; and they being advisit with his offence, declarit that he sail pay for the reparation of the said well and common warks the soum of ten pounds; always, gif he big and repair the well as Weill as it wes of before with lime mortar, or Pasch next, this pain to be remitted; otherwise, the day past and the well nocht biggit, to pay the said soum but favour.”

James, however, proved contumacious; the day did pass, and the well still lay in ruins.  But he got further time, for the Council not yet having possession of the monastic lands, had not chosen to act arbitrarily, and 

“James Patrie was ordained to repair the Friar well conform to the last act, under the pain contenit thereintil, betwix the date hereof and Whitsunday;”

and he probably then proceeded to restore it into good condition, as we do not find any other ordinance on the matter.  He had not, however, erected it very substantially; for, before thirty years had elapsed, the structure was again ruinous, and the Council resolved

“that St. Francis’ well be of new biggit and made close, so that na common access be had thereto.”

“The meadow land of the Gray Friars which lay around the well, formed a pleasant open space for the use of the old burgh, and it was always held in much regard. Early in last century, the water from the Lady well was impounded and conveyed in pipes for supplying other cisterns throughout the town ; but St. Francis’ spring, which was softer and purer, was left undisturbed to flow down the grassy slope in its natural course ; and when the place became appropriated for homely purposes, and upon

“Its verdant braes,
The lasses used to wash and spread their claes,”

“the gossiping naiads made the meadow very lively as they plashed in the brimming basins of the Friars’ old well, or filled their pitchers at the fresh fountain, or sprinkled the water in crystal showers over their snowy linen. About the time that the ground was sacrificed for the erection of buildings, a dyer in the neighbourhood sank a well which evidently reached the source of the spring and drained it off. Years afterwards, when the place had been overbuilt, he ceased to use his well, and the stream, returning to its old course, found access into the lower part of a church which now covers the site of the fountain, much to the dismay of the deacons. The water was then carried off elsewhere, and will be seen no more ; and the remembrance of those virtues which belonged to the once famous well will soon have passed away.”

In Christian lore, St Francis’ festival day was October 4.

References:

  1. Maxwell, Alexander, The History of Old Dundee, David Douglas: Edinburgh 1884.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Lady Well, Dundee, Angus

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 4026 3072

Also Known as:

  1. Our Lady’s Well

Archaeology & History

Lady Well on 1776 map

One of at least five sacred wells that could once be visited in Dundee: like its compatriots they have all fallen under the hammer of the Industrialists and flow no more.  Our Lady’s Well could once be seen, said Maxwell (1884), “flowing from under the Chapelshade Braes,” its waters “bright and sparkling,” but today it has been drained and laid to rest beneath the road.  Its memory however, has been preserved in the modern place-names of the Ladywell Roundabout and the nearby Ladywell Avenue.

The well was mentioned as far back as 1409 when, as Alex Lamb (1895) found, it was referred to in a contract between the Constable of Dundee and the burgesses.  It flowed freely until the beginning of the 18th century when, as Maxwell told us, “the water from the Lady well was impounded and conveyed in pipes for supplying other cisterns throughout the town.”  Previously, the water from here was one of many springs and burns that fed the larger Castle Burn down to the sea.

References:

  1. Lamb, Alexander C., Dundee: Its Quaint and Historic Buildings, G. Petrie: Dundee 1895.
  2. Maxwell, Alexander, The History of Old Dundee, David Douglas: Edinburgh 1884.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Mary’s Well, Dundee, Angus

Holy Well (lost):  OS Grid Reference – NO 401 301 (approximation)

Archaeology & History

Cited just once in the “Register of the Great Seal” (Registrum Magni Sigilli) in the year 1512 CE, this Fontis Beate Marie, or Well of St. Mary has long since disappeared.  Its exact location in the city has been forgotten, but it seems likely to have been close to St. Mary’s Church.  Further research is needed.

Links:

  1. Saints in Scottish Place-Names

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Clement’s Well, Dundee, Angus

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 4035 3024

Also Known as:

  1. Bishop’s Well
  2. Saint’s Well

Archaeology & History

One of at least five sacred wells that formerly existed in old Dundee, this one dedicated to St. Clement was associated with the ancient church, also of his name.  It could be found a short distance south of the church—itself long gone—”rising out of a knoll overhanging the river bank,” wrote Alexander Maxwell (1884) and possessing considerable renown to local people.  This great Dundee historian found several early references to it in old council registers: one of which, from 1589, described a conflict regarding the building of a school on land owned by Andro Renkyne.  And it was on this piece of land where St. Clement’s Well emerged.  The school was built and then Rankyne built a gable up to the edge of the school but, in doing so, cut off his own access to the holy well.  This somewhat short-sighted action of Renkyne’s was subsequently remedied in 1607 by Dundee Council.   Maxwell told us:

“The Council “grantit him licence to strike furth ane windok in the north side wall of his tenement in St. Clement’s kirkyard, near to the well in the schoolhouse closs, or within the bounds of the said well, to the effect he may draw water furth of the well to his awn service, with this provision that he hald the windok continually close, except at sic time as the water is drawn thereat, and that he close up the windok with stane wark quhenever he beis requirit.”

The waters—”reputed to have sovereign virtues”— were protected and covered by an old well-house.  When Alex Lamb (1895) came to write about it he told that it was of a circular form with “unmistakable traces of splendid workmanship.”  On its stone roof was what seemed to be a somewhat crude carving of a bishop and because of this it acquired the name “Bishop’s Well.”  Another title given it by some locals was the Saint’s Well.

In the middle of the 19th century the remains of the well-house could still be seen, albeit in a state of neglect between the school building and Renkeyne’s house.  But their end was nigh.  Maxwell continued:

“When the buildings were demolished a few years ago, the saint’s old well — its water yet pelucid and fresh — was discovered at the angle where the school joined to Andro’s house. Above it was the window which he struck furth for drawing water; but it had long before been built up and the purpose of it forgotten, and its curiously recessed position and uncouth masonry only served as a puzzle for ingenious antiquaries.”

Subsequently he lamented the demise of the well telling how it had “been covered over by the extension of the Townhouse.”

Folklore

Alexander Maxwell (1891) told how the church was used as a shrine by local people and fishermen, as St. Clement of Rome had been cast into the sea chained to an anchor and so became the patron saint of sailors.  He thought such properties, “would, no doubt, be in request for the supply of ships.”

St. Clement himself was a very early, first century saint, said to have died in 99 CE.  His festival date is 23 November.

References:

  1. Lamb, Alexander C., Dundee: Its Quaint and Historic Buildings, G. Petrie: Dundee 1895.
  2. Maxwell, Alexander, The History of Old Dundee, David Douglas: Edinburgh 1884.
  3. Maxwell, Alexander, Old Dundee, David Douglas: Edinburgh 1891.

Links:

  1. Canmore notes on St Clement’s Well

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian