From Doune, take the A84 road to Callander. As you pass through the hamlet of Buchany, keep your eyes peeled a few hundred yards on as the road dips down and swerves gently right, for the road sign of Drumloist (or Moist as some locals keep amending!) which goes up to the right. It’s a small single track road that zigs and zags slowly uphill. After exact one mile you reach a small track on your right (there one left too). Carefully park hereby (don’t block the gate!). Across the road, go through the gate on your right and walk along the edge of the field until you reach the burn. Go across it, and then across the field, through the gate and you’ll see it ahead of you. In the tick season (summer) treat the brackens as possessed by a plague and avoid it!
Archaeology & History
A curiously forgotten place, hidden from sight, this large rounded grass-covered mound with small upright stones around one side, seems timeless amidst the open fields. It seems alone, but the denuded chambered tomb of Ballachraggan is just visible 1.4 miles to the northwest on the near-horizon; and there’s a hidden cairnfield just a half-mile away. This cairn measures 18 yards (N-S) by 16 yards (E-W) and stands 7-8 feet high when you look at it from its southern side. The top of the mound is a mix of stone and grass with a slight dip in the middle, perhaps by someone in ages past digging, albeit only slightly—perhaps scared away by the old folk buried herein.
One of the most notable aspects of this site is the complete silence. On my last two visits hereby, a fusion of mists from the low cloud above and the breathing Earth below gave an atmosphere the likes of which lived when this tomb was first built. On one occasion hereby, no vehicles for several hours gave the silence a curious atmosphere (those of you who like sitting in the rain with the wilderness will know what I mean). To me this is a gorgeous site…
Healing Well (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – SE 45 21
Archaeology & History
The waters of the once-renowned Organn Well goes down in history as being one of the first wells in Britain whose waters were used in a town pump. Written minutes from an early council meeting described how people gathered in the market place to discuss the objective of making such a pump in the times of Queen Elizabeth 1, in 1571. It was completed a year later and, some 450 years on, this old relic can still be seen. The Well used to be found off Penny Lane (now Wakefield Road), some 4-500 yards to the southwest and as such it’s exact position has been difficult to locate. But the fact that the waters were piped such a distance strongly suggests that the water supply from the Well was damn good – and most probably damn refreshing too! The old charter told us, in that wonderfully dyslexic manner of the period,
“…that a conduit in the Markett Place with lead pipes leading to water from Organ Well to the said conduit shall bee cleansed and repayred at the charge and contribution of severall inhabitants of the Towne and espetially by those that fetch water from the same conduit. And according to the auncient custome of the said Towne, whoe shall not beare theire p’t of the chardge p’portionable to what water they from the same at the discretion of the Majo’ for the time being and his brethren shall be debarred from the benefitt of the said conduit except they shall be poore people. And likewise that none shall receive any water from the said conduite for to brewe or steep barley w’thall at such time or times as others have need the same for meat water and water to washe w’hall, but onely at such times as there is water to spare over and besides what is convenient for meat and washing.”
More than two hundred years later the water pump was in dire need of attention, as George Fox (1827) told:
“Being in a ruinous state about the year 1810 and the supplies of water being insufficient for the public use; a clause was inserted in the act of parliament… wherein the pump, its pipes, and all other appurtenances belonging to it were vested in the power of the commissioners of the streets, who where bound to see it kept in proper repair.”
And so the water from the Organn Well continued to supply the townsfolk.
The etymology of this well—along with another of the same name near Harrogate—truly puzzled me for a long time; that was until I came across, quite by accident, records from early texts on herbalism. As a result, it seems very likely that it derives its name from the old English ‘organe,’ which, according to Stracke (1974) and others relates to both varieties of the indigenous herb marjoram (Origanum vulgare and O.marjorana) — a grand medicinal plant that’s pretty common in northern England (I used to go out gathering it each year in my younger days). There were obviously profuse supplies of this herb growing in and around the well and, as all good herbalists will tell you, when they grow by an old spring or well, their medicinal properties are much better than normal. The waters and the plant obviously had a good symbiosis; or, as the old women who’d collect the waters and the herbs in days prior to the pump would have told us, “the spirits of the water here are good”, or words to that effect…
Fox, George, The History of Pontefract in Yorkshire, J.Fox: Pontefract 1827.
Padgett, Lorenzo, Chronicles of Old Pontefract, Oswald Homes: Pontefract 1905.
Stracke, J. Richard (ed.), The Laud Herbal Glossary, Rodopi: Amsterdam 1974.
In spite of this site being covered over some time in the 1950s, it is still retained on the modern Ordnance Survey maps. It was shown on the first one in 1860, but its literary history goes back much further. We find it described by the Minister for Maybole — one William Abercrummie — in his short 17th Century work named A Description of Carrict. He noted several springs in Maybole township, with this one of possessing the usual hallmarks of both christian and peasant customs alike:
“Another spring there is called St. Helens well or by a curt pronuntiation St. Emus for St. Antonies well, it is about a myle and ane halfe from Mayboll on the road to Aire a litle north of Balachmont. It is famous for the cure of unthriving children, to which at the change of the quarter especially at May-day there is a great resort of people from all quarters, and at a good distance.”
This piece was repeated in several 19th century works, including one by William Roberston (1891), who commented on the traditions themselves, saying:
“This can unquestionably be traced as a remnant of the ancient superstition that miracles were wrought at Holy Wells; which all the anathemas of the Reformed Kirk could not for a time obliterate from the minds of the common people. The records of the Kirk-session bear witness to the prevalence of applying to Saints’ Wells for the cure of bodily infirmities on stated occasions; particularly, when the Saint or Angel was understood to ‘move the waters.’ Pins, pieces of the dress of the patient, or such small trifles, were left at the well – the remains, no doubt, of the offerings formerly made to the Clergy – and in token that the disease was transferred from the sufferer to the rags, thus offered to the Genius loci. Numerous traces of this prevailing superstition could easily be cited.”
When the Ordnance Survey dudes wrote about the site in the Name Book in 1857, all they could tell us was that it was, “a beautiful spring of excellent water” but was said to have “no medicinal properties.”
Despite this sacred well now being covered over, there is surely a case to be made here for it to be restored back to its former glory, for all to visit and see. Local historians, pagans and Christians alike — join forces and gerrit sorted!
MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
This curiously-named old water source may have an equally curious history behind it – albeit forgotten. Shown on the 1854 OS-map of the area and giving its s name to Dudwell Lane, we can see how an old path led from the road to the well and nowhere else.
It’s the word “dud” that holds our attention here; for if we hasten to the immensely erudite Joseph Wright (1900) in his gigantic survey of northern dialect, we find that the word relates to “a rag, piece of cloth; pl. clothes, esp. shabby, ragged, or dirty clothing.” This is echoed in another Yorkshire dialect work by Morris (1892) who told that the word meant “clothes (or) rags.” Several other Victorian writers tell us variations on this meaning (one adds old shoes to the list!), but in all instances it relates to dud being a rag, whereas the plural duds are rags or scruffy clothes. Naathen (to use another old dialect word), those of us who know a thing or two abaat olde wells are very very familiar with their association to old rags that were hanged on the surrounding trees as offerings to the spirits of the water—the genius loci—to aid in the hope or desire of something, or merely as respect to the waters for their beneficient properties. (this sometimes occurred ritually at set times in the calendar)
The Dud Well was obviously of considerable local repute, for just a couple of years after it was shown on the earliest OS-map, a local bailiff called Samuel Rhodes built The Dudwell house close to the waters, which he named “in honour of the magnificent and never-failing spring of pure, bright, sparkling water in the wells close by.”
There is a possible alternative meaning to the word dud, which is that some dood called ‘Duda’ left his name here! This seems much more speculative and unlikely than the use of a local dialect term. Hopefully a local historian amongst you might perhaps be able to find out more.
Morris, M.C.F., Yorkshire Folk-Talk, Henry Frowde: London 1892.
Wright, Joseph, English Dialect Dictionary – volume 2, Henry Frowde: London 1900.
The history of the site is scanty to say the least. It first seems to have been recorded when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in the 1840s, although they left no record as to why the site was given such a dedication. It’s a decidedly pre-christian title as the name “old Wife” is usually indicative in northern counties as being related to the primal Earth deity of northern England and lowland Scotland (when we reach the Highlands and Ireland, She becomes known—amongst other names—as the cailleach). However, apart from its name we have no additional information. Neither the holy wells writer Edna Whelan (1989; 2001), nor hydrolatry researcher Graeme Chappell were been able to find anything about the place in their own researches. And so we must go on name alone…
The waters bubble up into a small stone-lined chamber with the words Nattie Fontein carved into the lintel. This is something of a mystery in itself, for, as Edna Whelan (1989) told,
“it would be most unusual for the word fonten to be used for a spring in North Yorkshire: ‘keld’ is the local word. The rather roughly inscribed word may be a corruption of Fons Natalis, the name of a Celtic water nymph.”
Graeme Chappell (2000) meanwhile, noticed in a visit to the site in June 1999,
“that the N and A in “NATTIE” are carved in such a way that the word could be read as “MATTIE FONTEIN” perhaps meaning “Mother Fountain”. This might then be another reference to the Old Wife?”
He then goes on to note how,
“the latin word ‘natalis‘ meaning ‘birth’ and its link with the roman Festival ‘Dies Natalis Sol Invictus‘ (day of the birth of the unconquered sun) which took place on the 25th December. Natalis also gave rise to the welsh word ‘Nadolig‘ – meaning Christmas.”
This Yuletide element has an intriguing relationship with the name of the well; for to the west of Yorkshire’s borders into Cumbria there was annual gathering known as Old Wives’ Saturday that took place on the first Saturday after Christmas, or first Saturday of the New Year in a person’s house or inn, where a feast was had to bring in the New Year; but there is no known written lore of such a tradition here.
Nowadays the old tradition of hanging rags on the trees surrounding the well as offerings to the spirit of the place (known as memaws in parts of Yorkshire, and clooties in Scotland) has become a regular practice of those who hold such sites as sacred in their own way. Whelan mentioned seeing memaws here in the 1908s, but the Northern Antiquarian contributor Jon Barker told that, “The rags are a comparatively recent addition to the well, it is not a tradition there. When I used to go in the ’60s therewere no rags.”
On an even more curious note: very recently (from when this profile was written), the Northern Antiquarian contributor and photographer James Elkington visited Old Wives’ Well for the first time. It was a grey overcast day and when he arrived here, there was a woman ahead of him at the head of the well. I’ll let him tell the rest of it in his own words:
“In front of the well was a lady dressed in what looked like a white nighty, she had her back to me. There was a candle lit nearby, and her hands were in the water moving slowly about like she was washing something. She had long dark shoulder length hair. As I was about 25 feet away I was sure she wasn’t aware of me, and I thought it would make a good photograph. I quietly put my bag on the ground and got my camera out, and looked up and…she was gone! I couldn’t have taken my eye off her for more than 5 or 6 seconds. I looked all around and there was no sign of her. Even if she had legged it through the woods I would have seen her. I think it was then that I realized that I may have had ‘an encounter’. I quickly took three pics of the Well and got the hell out of there!”
He rang me once he had regained his senses in a somewhat emotional state and recounted over and over what had just happened. Whether this was a visual manifestation of the genius loci of the we can’t say. But such encounters are not unknown at numerous sacred water sites all over the world. We can only hazard a guess that this is what he was fortunate to encounter.
Just a few hundred yards north is the old Mauley or Malo Cross, which may or may not have had some mythic relationship with our Old Wives…
From Fortingall take the road into the legendary Glen Lyon. About 8 miles along, a short distance past the Adamnan’s Cross standing stone, you reach the tiny hamlet of Camusvrachan. On your left is a singular dirt-track, past some cottages. Go along here and over the river bridge until you reach the junction on the other side. From here, turn right and a half-mile on when you reach the farm and manor-house on your right, park up. From here you’ll see a track going uphill. Walk straight up and after a half-mile or so, keep your eyes peeled to your right. You cannot fail to see this impressive giant on the slopes above you!
Archaeology & History
This is a truly mighty monolith! — a beauty no less! Standing upon a rocky ridge nearly halfway along the glen, the landscape it looks across is, without doubt, some of the finest in the British Isles. To our ancestors who, until just two hundred years ago peopled this and nearby glens in great numbers, this great stone would have been well known and had old myths told of it. Today we have only bare fragments.
To give an ‘archaeological survey’ of any kind to this site would seem somewhat of an anathema, as it is generally deemed to be little other than one of Nature’s incredible creations. We’ll come to that in a minute. But what is quite certain is that a line of very old and very low-lying walling runs from up the slope and almost straight down to Clach na Sgoltadh. You can see it pretty clearly in the photograph below. The walling stops at the giant stone and continues no further downhill from the other side of the giant upright.
Walk diagonally down the slope about 30 yards south-east from the stone and you’ll find a small but distinctly man-made ring of stones, low to the ground, with an entrance on its northeastern side. It’s somewhat of a puzzle as it’s too small for a hut circle (I laid down in it in various ways and found you’d have to lie foetal all night if you were to use it as your own little abode), and it equally too small as an animal pen – unless it was for just one animal, which is most unlikely. The small circular construction wouldn’t seem to be prehistoric, but it would be good to know what it is.
So, we do have some very slight archaeological association with the site, albeit minimal, with the very ancient walling that leads to the stone being the most intriguing.
The stone is generally attributed to be a geological creation. I certainly cannot say, as I have no expertise in the subject. However, in the opinion of just about everyone with whom I’ve visited this stone, I seem to be the only one who doesn’t think it’s man-made. A number of people have each insisted to me that it’s been stood upright by humans due to the quite distinct ‘squaring’ of the upright stone, particularly at the north-facing base. —and been seemingly bemused at my own lack of conviction. It does look as if it could have been cut and squared just as they all say but, let me repeat, I’m no expert at geology, and so all I can say is that I simply don’t know one way or the other. (useless prick that I am!)
“Perhaps a stone mason might know?” someone suggested—which seemed to be a good idea. Certainly a stone mason would surely be able to tell if it had been cut and dressed at the base, where it fits into the large earthfast rock….
Cue Chris Swales: a reputable stone mason from near Skipton, North Yorkshire. Chris and his friends took a week long whistle-stop tour in and around the Loch Tay region and thought they’d visit Glen Lyon. I heard about this and so asked him if he’d have the time to visit this stone giant and, if possible, let us know his opinion: is is a natural obelisk, or does it look to have been erected by humans? I told him my opinion and that of the geologists who give it an entirely natural provenance.
It was a few weeks later when he got back in touch and I asked him if he’d been up to Clach na Sgoltadh.
“I did,” he said. “it’s bloody impressive Paul. And what a gorgeous landscape too. I’d love to go there again.”
“Aye, it is Chris. And what did you think of the giant stone then? In your opinion is it man-made or natural?”
“Well I don’t know for certain Paul,” he said, “but in my opinion I’m 95% sure that it’s man-made.” He said it plain as day, just like a typical daan-to-Earth Yorkshireman. Chris isn’t into any the energy ley-line stuff, so his words carry more weight than those who wanna spice-up a site by projecting their own beliefs onto a place. As a result, I was somewhat taken aback by his words.
“What—are you sure Chris?!” I asked.
“Like I said – I’m not 100% sure Paul. I can’t really say it 100% – but I’m 95% certain that people cut and dressed the base of that stone and put it there. If it’s natural, then I’d like to know how they think that’s the case. I’m willing to be shown otherwise, but in my opinion, on the whole, it’s man-made. People stuck that stone there!”
It would be great to get another stone mason’s opinion about this site; and it would definitely be good to read a geological viewpoint, but I’m not aware of any papers regarding this stone. (does anyone know of any?) For my part: I can only reiterate that I’m ‘unsure’ whether or not this is man-made. I’m simply not qualified to give an objective opinion.
The curious thing is: if this isNature’s handiwork, then it would have been held in greater reverence to our ancestors than if it had been erected by people. Impressive creations of Nature were always deemed to be inhabited by genius loci of truly archaic potency. And in these deep impressive mountains, where the names of nature spirits still abound, this—without doubt!—would have been a place of considerable awe and sanctity. May it remain as such…
Looking to the west immediately uphill and behind Clach na Sgoltadh is the rising rounded hill of Creag nan Eildeag. Legend has it that the great Celtic hero Fionn stood atop of this crag and fired one of his arrows at the stone, splitting it in half and leaving the stone as we see it today.
In a small cleft in the stone, quartz deposits can be seen along with an effigy of the Virgin Mary. However, the title of the Praying Hands of Mary is a modern attribution and has no historical or mythic veracity.
Stewart, Alexander, A Highland Parish; or, The History of Fortingall, Alex MacLaren: Glasgow 1928.
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.