St. Maha’s Well, Buchanan, Stirlingshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 4573 9180

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 43475
  2. Saintmaha Well

Getting Here

St Maha's Well on 1865 map

St Maha’s Well on 1865 map

Bittova walk to reach this one.  From The Square in Drymen village, take the long Old Gartmore Road north for 1.4 miles (2.25km) until you reach the West Highland Way track. Turn left and walk along the track for 1.75 miles (2.8km), making sure that you note crossing the large burn as a guide before your next turn, right, uphill and further north. About 400 yards up, you emerge from the forestry plantation and onto the open moorland. Walk about 200 yards (185m) up the track then walk left, right into the boggy moorland. Keep your eyes peeled for a small standing stone on the heath about 130 yards along, and just below this is a stone-lined spring of water.

Archaeology & History

St Maha's Well

St Maha’s Well, near Drymen

This little-known healing spring of water, high upon the moors overlooking the southern isles of Loch Lomond and the mountains beyond, is in a beautiful (if boggy) setting.  We visited here on a somewhat wet day, amidst a wealth of Nature’s downpours in previous days giving us the masks of grey overcast skies and soaking grounds.  Despite this, the setting is gorgeous and, if we’d have visited on a sunny day, the feel and views would be outstanding.  This mighthave been one of the reasons that this particular spring of water was chosen to be sanctified.  Certainly it has an ancient history, if christian tales are anything to go by…

Although listed in the parish of Buchanan, the well resides on the hills above the village of Balmaha more than 2 miles to the west, on the shores of Loch Lomond; and Balmaha is thought to have its origins enwrapped with an early christian characters of some prominence.  The element maha derives, said Watson (1926) from the Scottish Gaelic ‘Mo-Thatha’, from the earlier Irish name Tua, meaning “the silent one.”  The character known as St. Maha gives his name to the village and according to H.G. Smith (1896),

Bal maha may most probably retain the memory of St Mochai or Macai; Latin, Maccaeus, also known as St Mahew, a companion to St Patrick, to whom the church of Kilmahew in Cardross was dedicated.  Mahew lived at Kingarth in Bute, and Buchanan formed part of the district superintended by Kingarth.  He was a poet, physician, and noted in his day for his mathematical learning… (St Mahew’s day was 11 April).”

Close-up of the waters and stone surround

Close-up of the waters and its stone surround

It seems therefore probable that this poet-healer character underlies the old name at this well.  St. Maha’s attributes as a poet and healer would suggest he was trained in archaic techniques before declaring himself as ‘christian.’  In the landscape nearby are other early Irish christian traditions, pasted onto much earlier heathen ingredients.

When Mr Smith (1896) wrote about the well, the remains of an old tree still grew above the waters onto which local people left memaws and offerings for the resident spirit, maintaining the animistic traditions of popular culture that still endure.  He wrote:

“St Maha’s Well is in an upper field of the farm of Crietihall.  It was of old a healing well, and in the memory of man pieces of cloth used to be fastened to a tree which overshadowed it, votive offerings by the pilgrims who sought the saint’s favour.”

…Although in truth, “the saint’s favour” is mere window dressing for the more archaic and natural feel of the site: what John Michell (1975) would have termed the “resident Earth spirit.”

The well is surrounded by a small arc of stone masonry, which the ever-reliable Royal Commission (1963) lads tell us, “measures 2ft by 3ft internally and stands about 1ft above the surface of the water.”  Just above the well itself is a small rise with a standing stone at its edge—probably medieval in origin.  Barely three feet tall, it sits upon an overgrown arc of stones that curves around the hillock reaching down towards the well and was obviously a small building of some sort in previous centuries.  Its precise nature is unknown, but it has been suggested to have either been an earlier well-house or surround, or perhaps the remains of a hermit’s cell—even St. Maha himself—that has fallen away over time.  Without an excavation, we may never know what it was!

Little Leo by the little stone

Little Leo by the little stone

Aisha with Leo, shortly before he threw himself in!

Aisha with Leo, shortly before he threw himself in!

Whatever the origin behind the small standing stone and the overgrown scatter of rocks, one of our adventurers on the day we visited—little Leo—was fascinated by it, almost attaching himself to it and stroking his way round and round the old stone with playful endurance.  And then, when he got to see the sacred spring below, became so taken by it that he simply sat down in the waters without as much as making a gasp, despite the cold!  Aisha (his mum) would pick him up, only for him to walk right back over and sit himself right back into it again!  It was both comical and fascinating to watch and he seemed quite at home in the pool, despite being drenched and cold.  Indeed, he took exception to being lifted out of the water—and simply plonked himself back in it again!

Folklore

The Canmore website tells some intriguing folklore about the place, saying:

“The well is still a focus of local cult, and is visited by people who leave offerings in the water. A man dying recently in a local hospital refused to drink any water except water taken from this well.”

References:

  1. Edlin, Herbert L. (ed.), Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, HMSO: Edinburgh 1973.
  2. Johnston, James B., The Place-Names of Stirlingshire, R.S. Shearer 1904.
  3. Michell, John, The Earth Spirit: Its Ways, Shrines and Sanctuaries, Thames & Hudson: London 1975.
  4. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  5. Nicholson, A. & Beaton, J.M., “Gaelic Place-Names and their Derivations,” in Edlin’s Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, HMSO: Edinburgh 1973.
  6. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments Scotland, Stirling – volume 1, HMSO: Edinburgh 1963.
  7. Smith, H. Guthrie, Strathendrick and its Inhabitants from Early Times, James Maclehose: Glasgow 1896.
  8. Watson, W.J., The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland, Edinburgh 1926.

Acknowledgements:  Many thanks to Aisha Domleo, Lara Domleo, Leo (the stone-hugger) Domleo, Unabel Gordon, Nina Harris, Paul Hornby and Naomi Ross for their help and attendance in finding and falling about this ancient sacred well. A damn good wet day all round!

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.094013, -4.481383 St Maha\'s Well

An Sithean, Lawers, Kenmore, Perthshire

Legendary Hill:  OS Grid Reference – NN 6806 3976

Getting Here

An Sithean on 1862 OS-map

Take the A827 road on the north-side of Loch Tay between Killin and Kenmore, and roughly halfway along you’ll find the tiny hamlet of Lawers.  Go down into the hamlet itself and, amidst the remains of the old trees where now are houses, nestled on a rise in the land with burns (streams) on either side, remains of the fairy mound of An Sithean still lives…

Folklore

Remnants of the legends of little people are legion in the Scottish mountains.  Sadly, many of them died when the English arrived and culled the population in ‘The Clearances’ of the 19th century – none moreso than in the area surrounding Loch Tay.  But thankfully, in the latter-half of the 19th century, a local man called James MacDiarmid (1910), took it upon himself to write down many of the old stories told by the remaining locals – as well as narrate those he remembered as a boy, as told by the elders around him.  Whilst tales of ‘fairies’ and other such creatures are thought by city-minds to be little other than fantasies, mountain-folk cosmologies differ greatly to those who are disconnected from the natural world.  Genius loci abound, and animism is the basic plinth integral to communities in the hills, where the world is much much more real.  This is one such tale…

“Not many years ago there lived in the neighbourhood of Killin a man who was in the habit of recounting his wonderful adventures with the white horse of the fairies.  When coming home one night from Kenmore market, and just as he was passing Sithean, Lawers, he heard most enchanting music proceeding from the knoll.  Unable to resist the temptation, he gradually went nearer and nearer the fairies’ place of abode, till at last he was fairly among them.  They received him most kindly, and on parting gave him one of their white horses to carry him home.  His steed went through the air at a speed almost equalling that of lightning, and in a few minutes he found himself above a house at Clifton, Tyndrum, some twenty-five miles westward from Lawers.  Happening to shout “ho!” when he was right above the chimney, the fairy horse threw him off its back, and down he dropped feet foremost through the wide, old-fashioned chimney, and alighted in the midst of a wedding party, much to their surprise and alarm. He continued in their pleasant company till daylight, when he returned home at his leisure, thanking the fairies for the pleasure they had so unexpectedly given him!”

Usually, tales such as this relate to the existence of prehistoric cairns or tumuli (burial sites), but no such archaeological remains have ever been known to live here.  Equally curious is how the man in this tale wasn’t kept in the timeless realms, beloved of faerie-land, where reveries with them would take decades from a man’s life, even though it only felt like one night.  This would imply

I’ve come across old locals who still speak, not just of the little-folk, but of other hauntings in this beautiful part of Loch Tay.  May the land not be cursed by the fools who put their idea of ‘development’ in front of the genius loci here; lest madness and ill-fortune will prevail…

References:

  1. MacDiarmid, James, “More Fragments of Breadalbane Folklore,” in Transactions of the Gaelic Society Inverness, volume 26, 1910.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

An Sithean

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An Sithean 56.531275, -4.146816 An Sithean

Clach na h’ Iobairte, Kinloch Rannoch, Perthshire

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NN 61702 58975

Clach na h-Iobairte, looking south
Clach na h-Iobairte, looking south

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 24576
  2. Chieftain’s Grave
  3. Clach na h-Iobairte
  4. Clach na h-Jobairte
  5. Craiganour Stone
  6. Craig-na-Odhar
  7. Stone of Sacrifice
  8. Stone of the Offering

Getting Here

Standing stone shown on the 1867 OS-map
Standing stone shown on the 1867 OS-map

From the gorgeous village of Kinloch Rannoch, take the road along the north side of Loch Rannoch for about 2½ miles.  As you go along the road, for a good mile or so it is wooded. Where the woods stop and the first field appears on your right, stop!  You’ll see the standing stone perched erotically at an angle above you.

Archaeology & History

Clach na h-Iobairte, looking east
Clach na h-Iobairte, looking east

A fascinating site in a quite beautiful setting, typical of the Highlands.  This stone of many names is a curiously-shaped monolith: like an erect stone penis at the edge of the field when seen from the roadside, calling out to christians and pagans alike, to be castigated or rubbed—whatever the religious preference of the surveyor!  Leaning over at a slight angle, the stone is still nearly six feet tall and lives upon a large and equally prehistoric stone cairn about 30 feet across.  This cairn, it is said, has been added to by locals when the field was cleared of stone and piled on top of the old tomb.  No excavations have been done here, nor at the large ‘hut circle’ in the same field about 50 yards away.

Folklore

So far I have only found a short narrative of this stone in the pages of T.R. Barnett’s (1944) loving account of the Perthshire hills, where he tells that, close by the stone at Aulich, was once

“a famous smith, said to be in league with the devil, and he made the finest claymores in Rannoch.”

References:

  1. Barnett, T. Ratcliffe, The Road to Rannoch and the Summer Isles, John Grant: Edinburgh 1944.
  2. Cunningham, A.D., A History of Rannoch, privately printed 2004.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  56.701917, -4.260306 Clach na h’ Iobairte

Clach na Boile, Kinloch Rannoch, Perthshire

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NN 66983 57984

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 24556
  2. Clach na Voile
  3. Stone of Fury

Getting Here

Clach na Boile & its rocky landscape

From the lovely village of Kinloch Rannoch, take the south road over the river that heads (eventually) to Aberfeldy.  3-400 yards along, another small road meets with the one you’re on, on your right. Stop here! Then look across at the field ahead of you, on your left, and you’ll see a small standing stone amidst the green.  That’s it!

Archaeology & History

This is a small, squat but impressive standing stone, less than 4 feet tall, set amidst a beautiful landscape which catches the eye in every direction.  Found close to the remains of several prehistoric cairns, it seems probable that funerary associations would have happened here, although direct evidence is lacking.

Folklore

Clach na Boile, looking south

Although I can find nothing specific to account for the Gaelic meaning (“stone of fury”) of the monolith, on the other side of the road in the trees is the old house of Innerhadden, where a curious ghost story told how an old inhabitant there was helped by the spirit of one who died in the Battle of Culloden. (Cunningham 1989)

References:

  1. Cunningham, A.D., Tales of Rannoch, Perth & Kinross District Library 1989.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  56.694610, -4.173595 Clach na Boile