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.
Take the A701 road from the east end of Princes Street south—down North Bridge, South Bridge, Nicolson Street, onto Liberton Road and then Liberton Gardens—towards Penicuik. 3¾ miles along, in the parish of Liberton itself, where the A701 is called Howden Hall Road, keep your eyes peeled for the turning into the Toby Carvery on your left. Park up and walk across the grass and look behind the trees ahead of you (if you can’t find it, ask the people in the pub). .
Archaeology & History
Located south of Liberton village—a few hundred yards west of the long-gone chapel erected by St. Margaret in honour of St. Catherine—this famous holy well is now in the grounds of a public house and is easily accessed. It has been described by many historians through the centuries, from Matthew Mackaile’s (1664) short work to more recent tourist guides. When the local historian George Good (1893) told about it, local lore still spoke of the old church. “These lands,” he wrote,
“belonged to a very ancient chapel dedicated to St. Catherine, which stood with its burying-ground near the modern mansion of St. Catherine’s. All trace of this chapel has disappeared, but at the end of last century its ruins were still extant. It was reputed to be the most ancient place of worship in the parish, and the ground around the chapel was consecrated for burials. Hither came annually in solemn procession the nuns from the Convent of Sciennes, a foundation due to the piety of one of the St. Clairs of Rosslyn, who may possibly have also been connected with the origin of the Chapel of St. Catherine.”
Its relationship with the world-famous Roslyn Chapel, less than 4 miles to the south, remains (to my knowledge) unproven, but it’s an association that would not be unlikely. This aside, St Catherine’s Well has a long history. Described in Hector Boece’s Latin text Scotorum Historia (1526), we have one John Bellenden to thanks for a wonderful translation into early english under the title of The History and Chronicles of Scotland in 1536. Herein one of the later editions we read, in that quaint old dyslexia:
“Nocht two miles fra Edinburgh is ane fontane dedicat to Sanct Katrine, quhair sternis of oulie springs ithandlie with sic abundance that howbeit the samin be gaderit away, it springis incontinent with gret abundance. This fontane rais throw ane drop of Sanct Katrine’s oulie, quhilk was brocht out of Monte Sinai, fra her sepulture, to Sanct Margaret, the blissit Quene of Scotland. Als sone as Sanct Margaret saw the oulie spring ithandlie, by divine miracle, in the said place, sche gart big ane chapell thair in the hounour of Sanct Katrine. This oulie has anr singulare virteu agains all maner of kankir and skawis.”
In the middle of the 17th century, its medicinal virtues were brought to the attention of the surgeon Matthew Mackaile who, in 1664, wrote:
“In the paroch of Libberton, the church whereof lyeth two miles southward from Edinburgh, there is a well at the Chapel of St. Catherine’s, which is distant from the church about a quarter of a mile, and is situate toward the south-west, whose profundity equaleth the length of a pike, and is always replete with water, and at the bottom of it there remaineth a great quantity of black oyl in some veins of the earth. His Majesty King James VI, the first monarch of Great Britain, of blessed memory, had such a great estimation of this rare well, that when he returned from England to visit his ancient kingdom of Scotland in anno 1617, he went in person to see it, and ordered that it should be built with stones from the bottom to the top, and that a door and a pair of stairs should be made for it, that men might have the more easy access into its bottom for getting of the oyl. This royal command being obeyed, the well was adorned and preserved until the year 1650, when that execrable regicide and usurper, Oliver Cromwell, with his rebellious and sacrilegious complices, did invade this kingdom, and not only defaced such rare and ancient monuments of Nature’s handiwork, but also the synagogues of the God of nature.”
This historical appraisal has been echoed by other writers and is very probably accurate. Some years after Cromwell and his murderers had desecrated the land and people in this area, the well was again repaired to its former condition and slowly, quietly, people began traditionally using the site for ritual and healing once more. But over the next two hundred years, probably through religious persecution by the Church, the site was used less and less and, by the time Thomas Muir (1861) visited and wrote about it, the well-house had become “dilapidated”. A few years later when the holy wells writer J.R. Walker (1883) visited the place, he found that not only was it still,
“celebrated for the cure of cutaneous diseases, (but) it is still visited for its medicinal virtues”; and was “now carefully protected and looked after.”
In James Begg’s (1845) account of the well for the Statistical Account, he told:
“At St. Catherine’s is a well which contains a quantity of mineral oil or petroleum, obtained most probably from the spring flowing over some portion of the coal beds. This bitumous matter floats copiously on the surface of the water, and is also partially dissolved in it. The spring is reckoned medicinal by the country people, and may have some slight efficacy in cutaneous eruptions…
“At St Catherine’s, there is the famous well, before alluded to, anciently called the Balm Well. Black oily substances constantly float on the surface of the water. However many you remove they still appear to reside in this well, and it was much frequented by persons afflicted with cutaneous complaints. The nuns of the Sheens made an annual procession to it in honour of St Catharine. King James VI visited it in 1617, and ordered it to be properly enclosed and provided with a door and staircase, but it was destroyed and filled up by the soldiers of Cromwell in 1650. It has again been opened and repaired, and is now in a good state of preservation.”
The “nuns of the Sheens” who made the annual pilgrimage here were the nuns of St. Catherine’s of Sienna, in Italy! This crazy-sound journey is more than one thousand miles long and its nature and origin needs exploring in greater depth. A number of curiously-named ‘Caty’ wells seem to relate to this incredible venture, whose scope will hopefully be covered in a future essay.
It would have been more than just the healing properties of the oily waters that called the nuns across their incredible journey, but they would, no doubt, have been of considerable mythic importance. All of the early writers comment about it and seem confident in its abilities. As the Liberton historian George Good (1893) said,
“…there can be little doubt that its waters had a healing tendency. Oils when rubbed on the skin have often been found to produce most beneficial results in skin diseases. The tarry substance or petroleum mixture discovered in this spot was no doubt due to the presence of the coal or shale strata of the district. The existence of the oil-works at Straiton and elsewhere cannot fail to throw a light upon the history and peculiarities of the so-called Balm Well of St. Catherine’s, which even yet has an occasional visitor.”
This oily substance was examined for medical potential by Dr. George Wilson in the mid-19th century, who found:
“The water from St Katherine’s Well contains after filtration, in each imperial gallon, grs. 28.11 of solid matter, of which grs. 8.45 consist of soluble sulphates and chlorides of the earths and alkalies, and grs. 19.66 of insoluble calcareaous carbonates.”
I am not aware of any modern accounts of cures attached to St Catherine’s waters, but have little doubt that some people will have found it useful….
The architecture of the small well-house covering the waters would seem insubstantial, but the Royal Commission (1929) account told:
“The well is housed within a tiny vaulted structure. The Renaissance front is relatively modern, but it contains a door lintel, probably quite unconnected with the structure, on which is inscribed the date 1563 within recessed panels flanking a central panel, which contains a shield flanked by the initials A.P. The shield bears a saltire, in the sinister quarter of which is a Latin cross placed horizontally, i.e., with the shaft towards the fess point (? a merchant’s mark); the upper quarter contains a much worn object resembling a broad arrow, point uppermost.”
The iron-clad door is locked, as the visitor will see. Please enquire at the hotel regarding it being opened to look inside. Upon our visit here in June 2017, the waters, as in J.R. Walker’s (1883) day, were still bubbling up and were quite high, but it looked as if the inside needed cleaning. For a change, we didn’t drink the water…..
Although various writers have posited that the oily waters are probably due related to the nearby coalfields, legend tells otherwise:
“It owes its origin, it is said, to a miracle in this manner: St. Katherine had a commission from St. Margaret, consort of Malcolm Canmore, to bring a quantity of oil from Mount Sinai. In this very place, she happened, by some accident or other, to lose a few drops of it, and, on her earnest supplication, the well appeared as just now described.” (Thomas Whyte 1792)
Banks, M. MacLeod, British Calendar Customs: Scotland – volume 1, Folklore Society: London 1937.
Begg, James, “Parish of Liberton“, in New Statistical Account of Scotland – volume 1: Edinburgh, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1845.
From Lochgilphead, take the A816 road north for several miles (towards the megalithic paradise of Kilmartin), keeping your eyes peeled for the road-signs saying “Dunadd.” Turn left and park-up. Instead of walking up the craggy fortress, follow the road-track to the house and, alongside the River Add, you’ll see the standing stone in the well-mown garden on your right.
Archaeology & History
As a monolith within the Kilmartin Valley complex, this is a slight, almost gentle standing stone, missed by most when they visit the other larger sites in Argyll’s Valley of the Kings. Set upright close to the gentle winding River Add and only a few yards from the ancient ford that bridged the waters beneath the shadow of Dunadd’s regal fortress, the late great Alexander Thom (1971) wrote about it in his exploration of lunar alignments found at other nearby standing stones. This one however, was 3° out to have any astronomical validity.
Described only in passing by a number of writers, the greatest literary attention it has previously been afforded was by the Royal Commission lads (1988), whose notes on it were short:
“An irregularly-shaped block of stone, 1.35m high and 1.35m in girth at the base, is situated 25m S of Dunadd farmhouse, it is aligned NNW and SSE, and the top the SSE edge appear to have been broken off.”
…My first visit here was when I lived north of Kilmartin and each time I found the same ‘gentle’ feeling, in all different weathers: a most unusual phenomenon, as there tends to be changes in psychological states between rain, sunshine, frosts, dark night and mists. But there was a consistency of subtlety; a regularity in genius loci—probably due to its proximity to the River Add, the lowland tranquility below the crags. It’s a wonderful little place. Well worth visiting if you go to Dunadd.
Campbell, Marion, Mid-Argyll: An Archaeological Guide, Dolphin Press: Glenrothes 1984.
Lane, Alan & Campbell, Ewan, Dunadd: An Early Dalriadic Capital, Oxbow: Oxford 2000.
Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Argyll – Volume 6: Mid-Argyll and Cowal, HMSO: Edinburgh 1988.
Ruggles, Clive L.N., “A critical examination of the megalithic lunar observatories,” in Ruggles & Whittle, Astronomy and Society in Britain, BAR: Oxford 1981.
Ruggles, Clive L.N., Megalithic Astronomy, BAR: Oxford 1984.
From Brodick, walk up the Glencloy dirt-track towards the friendly Kilmichael Hotel but turn off on the left shortly before hand, up another footpath, crossing the stream until you eventually reach the derelict house which was built into the edges of this old tomb. Upon the small rise above here, at the edge of the forestry commission trees, you’ll notice the overgrown ruins of the old tomb.
Archaeology & History
The remains here are somewhat overgrown and ramshackled, but I still like this place and in my younger days used to spend a lot of time here. It can get quite eerie in some conditions and seems to validate some of the folklore said of it. The site was described in Balfour’s (1910) magnum opus as:
“Situated in Glen Cloy, on the moor above Kilmichael House, close to a cottage called Glenrickard. There are no traces of a cairn or of a frontal semicircle. The chamber is formed of rather light flags, with their upper edges nearly on the same level, so that the monument is more like a series of cists than a chamber. The roof and end stone have gone; there are two portal stones, but the gap between them is only 7 inches. The chamber is directed N and S, with the portal to the south. There have been three compartments, but they are rather smaller than usual, the third from the portal being only 3 feet 10 inches long by 2 feet 2 inches broad. Two feet 6 inches from this compartment is another cist, which is possibly a short cist representing a secondary interment, and 10 feet farther north is a second ruined cist placed at a different angle. This last has the appearance of a short cist, but it is not carefully constructed and differs little from the component compartments of the chamber. The structure is anomalous, and may perhaps be regarded as representing a phase of degeneration in the transitional period.”
Audrey Henshall (1972) later descried the site in greater details in her own magnum opus and told that “two rude clay urns of the primitive flower-pot pattern (were) found in the chamber”, along with “calcined bones, said to have been in the two vessels.”
Said by local people to be haunted, the spirit of the tomb was said to have been disturbed upon the building of the derelict house below it. Ghosts of a middle-aged couple and young child have been seen in the house; whilst the spirit of the site can generate considerable fear to those who visit the place when it is ‘awake.’ To those who may visit this out-of-the-way tomb, treat the site with the utmost respect (and DON’T come here and hang a loada bloody crystals around the place in a screwy attempt to “clean” the psychic atmosphere of the place. If you’re that sort of person, don’t even go here! The spirit of the place certainly wouldn’t want you there).
Balfour, J.A., The Book of Arran: Archaeology, Arran Society: Glasgow 1910.
Henshall, Audrey Shore, The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 2, Edinburgh University Press 1972.