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.
Probably the easiest way here is to take the well-trodden Dales High Way track westwards, under the bypass from Addingham, and along the old Roman Road. After 1.7 miles (2.7km) you’ll reach the Heights Lane country road. Stop here! Walk back on yourself along the track for maybe 50 yards and look in the field to your right (south) between 10-20 yards in the short grass and there, somewhere under your feet next to a modern stone, you’ll see peeking up at you (probably somewhat covered on the whole by the soil) a long flat stone. That’s what you’re looking for.
Archaeology & History
This old stone had been sought after by various groups and people for many years and I was fortunate to relocate it about thirty years ago, laid down and all-but-hidden beneath the grasses. The stone appears to have been buried nearly 100 years earlier, because when Harry Speight (1900) wrote about it in 1900 he described it as still upright. In more recent years, it seems that the farmer has put a replacement stone next to its position with the letters “JC” cut into it. You can see it in the above photo.
First mentioned in the 16th century and included in boundary perambulation records of 1709, and again in 1781, someone during that period turned it into a milestone, etching the words “To Skipton 3 m. To Addingham 2 m.” It stood by the old Roman road, but its considerable erosion and shape is decidedly prehistoric. Nearly 6 feet long, it is now laid in the earth and almost completely covered over. A sure case for resurrection.
Bennett, Paul, The Old Stones of Elmet, Capall Bann: Milverton 2001.
Speight, Harry, Upper Wharfedale, Elliott Stock: London 1900.
Nothing has previously been written of this site. Its existence came to light during one of umpteen enquiries I’d made with a well-known and very respected local lady, born and bred in Killin (sadly, a dying breed), who is known as a fount of knowledge regarding the history of the area. We were talking about the ancient sites and folklore of the neighbourhood and, amidst being her usual helpful self she asked, “have you been to the Coin Tree? The place where we leave offerings to the spirit of the place?”
“No, I’ve never heard of the place.”
“We keep it quiet, ” she said, “for obvious reasons.”
I knew what she meant. The Fairy Tree at Aberfoyle is a case in point: littered with plastic pentagrams, children’s toys and so-called “offerings” of all kinds that have made it little more than a dumping ground for pseudo-pagans and new-age nuts that needs to be cleaned regularly by local folk.
Anyhow, our informant proceeded to give us directions to find the place, going out of the village, but asked that if we were to write about it, to keep its location quiet, “as the place is still used by us”—i.e., old locals. After a slow trek along one of the roads out of the village we saw nothing that stood out. Eventually we came across a fella relaxing in his garden and asked him if he knew anything about an old tree where offerings were made. He gave us that look that olde locals do, to work out whether you’re a tourist or not and, after telling him what we’d been told and who had told us —that seemed to do the trick!
“You’d mean the Fairy Oak I s’ppose? Aye,” he said, “gerrin the car and I’ll drive y’ down to it.”
So we did. A short distance back along the road that we’d come down he stopped and walked along a to large oak tree beside the road. We’d walked straight past it—but in truth it’s not a conspicuous tree and unless you were shown where it was, you’d miss it as easily as we did (and I’m usually damn good at finding such things!). We thanked the fella for taking us to see it and he drove back home to leave us with out thoughts.
Embedded into the tree—some of them barely visible where the bark had grown over them—were clusters of old coins all around its trunk; some of them very old. These had been inserted into the tree as offerings in the hope that the little people, or the genius loci would bring aid to that which was asked of it.
In a field across the road there’s a large “fairy-mound” hillock: one of Nature’s creations, but just the sort of place where many little people are said to live in many an old folk-tale. Some such mounds are old tumuli, but this aint one of them. It’s possible that it had some relationship with the tree where the fairy folk are said to reside but, if it did, our informants didn’t seem to know.
The important thing to recognise here is that in some of the small villages and hamlet in our mountains, practices and beliefs of a world long lost in suburbia are still alive here and there… But even these are dying out fast, as most incomers have no real attachment to the landscape that surrounds them. Simply put: they see themselves as apart from the landscape as opposed to being a part of it.
From Muthill, go up Thornhill Street out of the village for nearly 1½ miles. You’ll have just passed the double hairpin bend, crossed the rivulet, then reached the large old farmhouse of Lurgs. From here, turn right and after just over half-a-mile you reach Struthill where, running by the side of the house, is a small trackway. Ask the folks at the house, who are most helpful, and walk down the track for nearly 400 yards and go through the first gate on your right, crossing the field until it dips down to the burn. The boggy marshy mass running from near the top of the slope is what you’re looking for!
Archaeology & History
Shown on the 1863 map as the Chapel Well, the dedication of the waters to St. Patrick coincided with a chapel that once stood here, also in his name. Very low faint remains of the chapel, completely overgrown, can still be made out amidst the rushes. It’s one of two holy wells in Muthill parish that are dedicated to St. Patrick.
Very little of any real spring of water can be seen nowadays. Indeed, the site today is merely a much overgrown bog-of-a-well whose water oozes down the slope into the Juncus rushes, trickling into the adjacent burn. I had a drink of the water from the slopes, which tasted OK and did me no harm whatsoever.
The most important aspects of this site was its use by local people and the attributes it was given. We know not how far back such folklore goes, but it would have been many many centuries, if not millenia. Water worship (if that’s the right word) is the most archaic of all traditional forms of veneration. This place was no exception. In John Shearer’s (1883) excellent local history work, he gave the following account of the site:
“About a quarter of a mile west from the Mill of Steps, upon a height on the right bank of the Machany, are to be seen the ruins of a small chapel. When other places of Popish worship were thrown down after the Reformation, the Presbytery of Auchterarder ordered it to be demolished about 1650 to repress the superstitions practised at this place of resort. West from the chapel is an excellent spring which was held in great veneration in those dark ages of superstition, when the ignorant and credulous populace were deceived by the crafty priests who stood below the spreading branches of an ancient ash which grew near the fount, pronouncing a benediction on the weary pilgrims as they drank of the waters. And as it was celebrated for its healing qualities in many different distempers, numbers yearly visited it from a great distance to benefit by its virtues with as much devotedness as the Mahometan pilgrims visit the tomb of their Prophet. Insanity was also cured here. Several persons testified before the Presbytery of Stirling, in 1668, that having carried a woman thither, they staid two nights at a house hard by the well. The first night they bound her twice to a stone at the well, but she came into the house to them being loosed without any help. The second night they bound her again to the same stone and she returned loosed. And they also declared that “she was mad before they took her to the well, but since that time she is working and sober in wits.”
“This well was still celebrated in the year 1723 and votive offerings were left, but no one then surviving appeared to appreciate the virtues of the stone. Small offerings were given in coin and thrown into the well and those who had no coin brought white stones which were laid in regular order along the declivity where the water runs to the river. Coins have been of late found in the well and the white stones are still to be seen. The officiating priest generally resided at Drummond Castle. Within the last sixty years, several of the gentry have come in their carriages to inspect these relics which were held in so great reputation in ancient times. The chapel and well are about one mile south west from Muthill.”
MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
Various ways to get here. From Peebles take the A72 road west to Kirkurd, but after 4 miles turn left onto B712. Several miles down, go past Stobo village and before crossing the bridge over the River Tweed, turn left up minor road leading to Dreva and Broughton. The track into Altarstone Farm is about a mile along and the stone is across the road from there. The other way is going south along the A701 from Broughton village, where you take the left turn towards Stobo. Go along here for just over 3 miles where you reach the woodland (park here where the small track goes into the woods). A coupla hundred yards further along is Altar Stone Farm on your right and the stone is above the verge on your left.
Archaeology & History
Archaeologically speaking, there’s nowt much to say about this site apart from the usual tedium of its measurements and the rock-type. I’ll give the latter a miss, but the stone stands at nearly five feet high and nearly as broad; with its upper face relatively smooth and the top of it pretty flat. A section from the top of this stone was cut and sliced off a few centuries ago and this was said to have been taken to Stobo church a few miles away, where it was fashioned into a stone font for baptisms. If this is true, then it’s possible that this was once an authentic prehistoric standing stone, but we’ll probably never know for certain. Also on top of the stone you can see a number of geophysical scratches, one of which looks as if it may have been worked by human hands and which has some relevance to the folklore of the stone.
It is shown on the 1859 OS-map of the area and was mentioned in the Ordnance Name Book where they told how it was “supposed to have formed the Altar of a druids Temple or some such object,” but they could find no local verification of such lore at the time of their visit… or at least, no one was telling them anything about it…
This fascinating bit of rock—or possible sliced standing stone—is of note due to its association with that old shaman of shamans known as Merlin! Near the end of His days, when He’d truly retired from the world of men and wandered, they say, mad amidst the great lowland forests, an old christian dood by the name of Kentigern—later known as St Mungo—who’d been trying to convert our old magickian away from the animistic ways of Nature. Legend says that He succeeded. The old Scottish traveller Ratcliffe Barnett (1925) wrote:
“Merlin is the real genius of Drumelzier. Dumelzier means the Ridge of Meldred, a pagan prince of the district. And it was Meldred’s shepherds that slew Merlin the bard. The heathen bard was present at the battle of Arthuret in the year 573, when the christian army gained a victory over the Heathen Host. Merlin fled to the forest of Caledon at Drumelzier and there ever after the old Druid spent his life among the wild hills with a repute for insanity. This poet priest was doubtless heart-broken at the defeat of his pagan friends. The old order was changing. But the christian king had brought his friend, St Kentigern or Munro, to preach the gospel in upper Tweedside at Stobo. One day Kentigern met a weird-looking man and demanded who he was. “Once I was the prophet of Vortigern (Gwendollen). My name is Merlin. Now I am in these solitudes enduring many privations.”
“So Kentigern preached the gospel to the old nature worshipper and won him to Christ. Up yonder, at the east end of the Dreva road, you will find the rude Altar Stone where, it is said, Kentigern received the Druid into the christian church and dispensed the sacrament. But in those dark days of the faith, the Druids and their pagan adherents fought hard against the new religion. So immediately after the admission of Merlin to the Church, the shepherds of Meldred sought him out, stoned him to death on the haugh of Drumelzier, and there, where the Powsail Burn falls quietly into Tweed, Merlin the Martyr was buried. For long his grave was marked by a hawthorn tree.”
These shepherds were said to have stoned him and then threw his body upon a sharp stake and then into the stream. (stone – wood – water)
If there is any hint of truth in this tale, it is unlikely Merlin would have given himself over to the christian ways unless—as any shaman would—he knew of his impending death. In which case it would have done him no harm to pretend a final allegiance to the unnatural spirituality that was growing in the land. But whatever he may have been thinking, it is said that this Altar Stone was where he made such a deed.
An equally peculiar legend—variations of which are found at a number of places in the hills of northern England and Scotland—speaks of another shamanic motif, i.e., of humans changing into animals and back. For here, legend tells, an old witch was being chased (by whom, we know not) across the land. She’d turned herself into the form of a hare and, as she crossed over the Altar Stone, her claws dug so deeply into the rock that they left deep scars that can still be seen to this day. From here, the hare scampered at speed downhill until reaching the River Tweed at the bottom, whereupon transforming itself back into the form of the witch, who promptly fled into the hills above on the far side of the river.
One final thing mentioned by Barnett (1943) was the potential oracular property of the Altar Stone:
“You have to only place your hand on top of this rude altar, shut your eyes, and if you have the gift you will see visions.”
Ardrey, Adam, Finding Merlin, Mainstream 2012.
Barnett, Ratcliffe, Border By-Ways and Lothian Lore, John Grant: Edinburgh 1925.
Buchan, J.W. & Paton, H., A History of Peeblesshire – volume 3, Glasgow 1927.
Crichton, Robin, On the Trail of Merlin in a Dark Age, R. Crichton 2017.
Glennie, John Stuart, Arthurian Localities, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1869.
Moffat, Alistair, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, Phoenix: London 1999.
Rich, Deike & Begg, Ean, On the Trail of Merlin, Aquarian: London 1991.
Wheatley, Henry B., Merlin, or, The Early History of King Arthur – 2 volumes, Trubner: London 1865.
Acknowledgements: Big thanks for use of the 1st edition OS-map in this site profile, Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland.
A most curious place: this ‘Well of the Dragon’ as it was first called (on the 1852 OS-map) and subsequently the ‘Pendragon Well’ (on the 1922 map) just off Pendragon Lane, seems to have been forgotten in both folklore and history. I grew up round here and no legends of dragons were known, either in my life, nor that of the old folks I knew; nor any pub of that name that might account for it.
Equally unexplained is the name of the adjacent ‘Pendragon Lane’, which has been known as that for some 175 years. We have no Arthurian myths anywhere in West Yorkshire that remains in folk memory—and certainly nothing hereby that accounts for it.
As for possible landscape associations (i.e., serpentine geological features), nothing in the vicinity has any bearing on the name. Indeed, the only thing of any potential relevance was the former existence of a healing rock known as the Wart Stone, some 100 yards to the east at Bolton Junction. Such stones are usually possessed of naturally-worn ‘bowls’ of some sort on top of the rock—akin to large cup-markings—into which water collected that was used to rid the sufferer of warts or similar skin afflictions. But such an association seems very unlikely.
The only thing we can say of this Dragon Well is that probably, in times gone by, a folktale or legend existed of a dragon in the neighbourhood that had some association with the waters here. Dragons are invariably related to early animistic creation myths, and this site may have been all that remained of such a forgotten tale. The nearest other place in West Yorkshire with dragon associations is six miles northwest of here on the south-side of Ilkley Moor. In Britain there are a number of other Dragon Wells, the closest of which is in South Yorkshire.
Pretty easy to find unless the vegetation takes over! From Fearnan take the road to Fortingall. Just as you’re going out of Fearnan, in the walling by the very last house on the right-hand side of the road is this large earthfast boulder. Y’ can’t miss it!
Archaeology & History
I first visited the Clach an Tuirc – or the Boar’s Stone – in 1981 when I stayed at Fearnan for a few weeks and, after clambering on top, looked down on the several simple cupmarks. Forty years later, I returned with a camera!
First highlighted on the 1862 OS-map, Fred Coles (1910) made a brief note of the petroglyph in one of his megalithic surveys, but only noticed a single cup, saying:
“Near Cromraor, close to the cottage at Clash na Tuirc, stands the large boulder bearing that name, the Boar Stone. Its highest point is about six feet above the road, and bears one very distinct cup-mark.”
But there are several cup-markings on top of the stone, just as William Gillies (1938) described.
Not far from here tradition tells of a legendary figure who is known today only as the Lady of Lawers (whom tradition asserts to have been a member of the Stewart family, from Appin, Argyll – they of the daemonic Red Book of Appin). She made various prophecies, one of which said “that when Clach an Tuirc, the Boar’s Stone at Fearnan, would topple over, a strange heir would come to Balloch.” Though as the stone still aint toppled, we’re still waiting… (let’s just hope this doesn’t augur more of those selfish tories into our mountains who bring with them their mantras of “gerrof mah land”)
Coles, Fred, “Report on Stone Circles Surveyed in Perthshire (Aberfeldy District),” in Proceedings Society Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 44, 1910.
Gillies, William A., In Famed Breadalbane, Munro Press: Perth 1938.
MacMillan, Hugh, ‘Notice of Two Boulders having Rain-Filled Cavities on the Shores of Loch Tay, Formerly Associated with the Cure of Disease,’ in PSAS 18, 1884. ???
Yellowlees, Walter, Cupmarked Stones in Strathtay, Scotland Magazine: Edinburgh 2004.
The earliest OS-map of this area shows this well a hundred yards or so northwest of an old church and just a few yards east of the stream that is now in woodland; but unlike today, when the early survey was done there were no trees, enabling a clear view of the waters. When Myles Ronan (1927) wrote of the place, he told that it was still visible. The site was added to the Grogan & Kilfeather (1997) county inventory where they suggested it’s probable relationship with the legendary St Brigid. This seems highly probable. Does anyone know if the Well is still there?
Grogan, Eion & Kilfeather, Annaba, Archaeological Inventory of County Wicklow, Stationery Office: Dublin 1997.
Ronan, Myles V., “The Ancient Churches of the Deanery of Arklow”, in Journal Royal Society Antiquaries, Ireland, December 1927.
Whether you take the A836 or A838 into Tongue (through truly beautiful wilderness), make sure you go into the village itself—and then keep going, south, along the tiny country road. Nearly 2½ miles along, note the small loch of Lochan na Cuilce on your right. A few hundred yards past this, on the other side of the road (barely visible at first) is Lochan Hakel. Walk around to the south-side of the loch until you find the Lochan Hakel 1 carving. Then look up at the rock right above you. That’s the one!
Archaeology & History
In James Simpson’s (1867) primary work on British petroglyphs, he mentions this site as being in the lands of “Ribigill, near Tongue”, although it is a little further to the south. A certain “Mr Mitchell” had come across it in one of his many rambles in the hills. Simpson told that he had:
“discovered cups and circles upon a large stone, about nine feet square, apparently lying in its original position, close to the edge of a loch, which contains the remains of an old castle… The surface of the stone shows eighteen or twenty round cup excavations, about an inch deep. There is a ring of ‘hollow around each cup.'”
Although there aren’t rings around every cup, a great number of clear and impressive rings exist around many of them and are, thankfully, still reasonably visible amidst the mass of lichens.
Around the same time as Mr Simpson’s description, James Horsburgh (1868) wrote about the carving, telling us:
“On the edge of the precipitous bank of the loch, and exactly opposite the island, there is a large boulder with a flat top, and on this there are a number of cups and rings… This stone is not generally known. Old Ross, the gamekeeper at Tongue, first told me of it, and he and I scraped off the moss and exposed the whole. He thought it was for playing some game. On the left of the stone, on a bit separated by a crack, there is a sort of a figure which appears to have been formed by cutting away the stone around it and leaving it in relief, and also some artificial cutting on the right, a sort of circular groove.”
A better description of the carving came near the beginning of the 20th century, when the Scottish Royal Commission (1911) lads included the site in their inventory. They told:
“At the S end of Lochan Hacoin, to the SE of the islet on the top of the bank, is a large earth-fast boulder, on the flat upper surface of which are a number of cup and ring marks placed irregularly over it. The total number of undoubted markings is thirty-four, of which those surrounded by a ring number eleven. No cup with a double ring round it is observable. The best defined cup-mark measures 3″ across by 1¼” deep, and the enclosing ring is 7″ in diameter. Eight of the markings are well defined; the others less noticeable. At the S end there is a boss or projection, roughly rectangular, measuring 12″ x 6″. A sketch of this stone, made about the year 1866 by Mr James Horsburgh, is preserved in the library of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.”
Does anyone know if this drawing still exists?
In Horsburgh’s essay on the prehistoric remains of the area, he said how local people told that the cup-and-rings “were made by the high heels of a fairy who lived in the castle” on the island of Grianan about 40-50 yards away.
Close-Brooks, Joanna, Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: The Highlands, HMSO: Edinburgh 1995.
Simpson, James, Archaic Sculpturings of Cups, Circles, etc., Upon Stones and Rocks in Scotland, England and other Countries, Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1867.
Acknowledgments: Huge thanks to Sarah MacLean for guiding me to this carving, and also for the kind use of her photos in this site profile. Cheers Sarah! And to Donna Murray again, for putting up with me whilst in the area! Also – Huge thanks for use of the 1st edition OS-map in this site profile, Reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of Scotland.