The first that I read of this place was in an article of the Scottish Ecclesiastical Society journal, on the parish history of Horndean. Standing originally at the edge of the ruined remains of the old churchyard, the author W.S. Moodie (1915), told that a long lost,
“grim relic of olden days is said to have existed here till fifty years ago. This was the Witches Stone—an upright pillar with a hole in it, to which the bodies of the poor unfortunates were fastened after they had been glede, while the faggots were piled around.”
A perusal in the Royal Commission inventory (1915) of the same year told that it had been moved several miles northeast to Paxton Cottage (NT 9279 5229) in the adjacent village. It was described as being,
“about 4 feet 6 inches in height above the ground, some 2 feet in breadth, tapering towards the upper end, and about 7 inches thick. Near the top are two perforations, not quite on the same level, about 2 inches in diameter at the surface on either side, constricted towards the Centre, and about 9 inches distant from centre to centre.”
Is this old stone still in existence…?
Moodie, W. Steven, “Ladykirk, or the Kirk of Steill, Berwickshire,” in Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, 4:3, Aberdeen 1915.
Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Berwick, HMSO: Edinburgh 1915.
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.
By the side of the stream known as St Andrew’s Burn, in the small wooded glen to the rear (west) of the Crosslaw Caravan Park (right by the side of the A1107 road), you can still find the flowing waters of this all-but-forgotten holy well that was dedicated to Scotland’s patron saint, god knows how long ago! The first description I’ve come across relating to the site is in William King’s (1858) early work on Coldingham Priory, where he told that,
“In a dean a little westward from the village, and on the border of the property of Bogangreen, is a spring of excellent water, called St Andrew’s Well, from which the monastery was supplied by leaden conduits, portions of which are occasionally turning up to view. These pipes are thick and well made.”
Fifty years later when Adam Thomson (1908) penned his magnum opus on Coldingham parish, the well was still in a good state of affairs. Hereby there grew much chamomile which, he thought, “the monks were wont to cultivate for the healing of the sick.”
St Andrew’s feast day is November 30 and is known as Anermas.
Hunter, William K., History of the Priory of Coldingham, Sutherland & Knox: Edinburgh 1858.
At the beginning of the 19th century, William Hargrove (1818) described the scant remains of some old walling along old Haver Lane (renamed as Green Lane and now known as The Stonebow) which were the remains of a building, long gone, and which,
“tradition informs us (was) a religious house, which formerly stood here, called Holy-Priests; and though the site of it is not known, the report is greatly strengthened by the appearance of the walls just mentioned, and by the circumstance of a deep draw-well which now remains, being still called Holy-Priests Well.”
Some suggest that this water source may still exist beneath one of the buildings hereby, but the landscape here has been so badly mutilated over the last two hundred years that it’s very unlikely.
Hargrove, Willliam, History and Description of the Ancient City of York – volume 2, part 2, W. Alexander: York 1818.
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.
Holy Well (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – SK 589 790
Also Known as:
Archaeology & History
Once to be seen in the ancient landscape immediately northwest of Worksop Priory by the old Mill Pond, this sacred well has sadly been built over, but memory of it is still retained in Priorswell street-name and, previously, the Priorwell Brewery. Not much has been written about it, but thankfully the historian John Holland (1826) gave us a short account, saying:
“There is a spring, now enclosed, called the “Priorwell,” and a meadow, of four acres, denominated from the same; and from which, it might be presumed, that the canons would draw their supplies of water, was it not for the convenient proximity of the river, which they must have had to ford for that purpose. It was “formerly”, says Parkyns, in his Monastic and Baronial Remains, “celebrated for miraculous cures; but since monastic deceptions have unveiled themselves, votaries no longer offer, and consequently cures are no longer performed.” This may have been the case: more recently the well has been resorted to by persons having sore eyes, in the cure of which, it is said to be efficacious, and has probably the common virtue of fresh cool spring-water.”
Holland, John, The History, Antiquities and Description of the Town and Parish of Worksop, J. Blackwell: Sheffield 1826.
Parkyns, George I., Monastic and Baronial Remains – volume 1, Longmans Hurst: London 1816.
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.
Highlighted on the 1858 OS-map, two-thirds the way up the High Street, this long forgotten sacred well was described by the Ordnance Survey lads in their Name Book (1856) as “an excellent spring”—and no doubt an ever-flowing one, even in the greatest of droughts. But it had already been destroyed when they came here. It was mentioned in passing by William Chambers’ (1856), who described it as a “public fountain” dedicated to old Mungo, a.k.a. St Kentigern. But its position in the High Street wasn’t where it originally emerged. Local tradition told it was once on the slopes of Venlaw immediately north of the town, possibly making it into the folklore category of “Wells that Move”—usually because the spirit of the place has been offended.
But in truth, little is known about its mythic history. Its origin seems, as with so many ancient sites, entangled in what Dr Gunn (1908) in his definitive work on the history of Peebles church explained, the heathen “superstitious regard for fountains”, pre-dating the christian dedications. St Mungo himself, said Gunn,
“is remembered in Peebles to-day by his holy well upon the slopes of Venlaw, hallowed by its use in the Sacrament of Baptism.”
It’s profane history tells simply that, in 1728, its waters were piped into the trough on High Street for public use. It became damaged sometime in the early 19th century, but some remains of the stonework were found when roadworks were done here in 1845. It would be good if we could recover further information about this important holy well.
Chambers, William, A History of Peeblesshire, W. & R. Chambers: Edinburgh 1864.
Long since gone, there are very few references to this once sacred site, which seemed to comprise of three sacred wells next to each other, each with its own formal dedication. This would have made it one fuck of an important place in early- and pre-christian times. But even when Thomas Colby (1837) and his mates surveyed the area, it seems like it was on its last legs. He told that:
“As connected with the ancient history of Derry the sacred springs, called St. Columb’s Wells, claim some notice in this place. They are, or rather were, three in number — for one has been dried up, or diverted from its original locality — and are situated near the Roman Catholic chapel, outside the wall. It appears from the Irish annals that each of these wells had its peculiar name, one being called Tobar Adamnam, another Tobar Martain, and the third Tobar Colum — but the two former names are now quite forgotten, and the springs are popularly called St. Columb’s Wells. They are regarded with much superstitious veneration by the Roman Catholic peasantry, but no celebration of St. Columb’s festival is now held at them.”
The wells were found very close to St. Columba’s bullaun stone, which possessed its own healing abilities. The two sites had symbiotic ceremonial relationships with each other, doubtless performed in bygone centuries on St. Columba’s old festival date of June 9.
Colby, Thomas, Ordnance Survey of the County of Londonderry, HMG: Dublin 1837.
Doherty, William, Derry Columbkille, Brown & Nolan: Dublin 1899.
To be found in the grounds of Belmont House School, just 1¾ miles (2.8km) north of Derry’s otherColumba’s Stone, this is one of the many petroglyphic “footprints” that folklore ascribes to Ireland’s saint Columb/Columba/Columbkille (and other variants). Said to have originally been carved at the great fortress of Grianan of Aileach, 4½ miles (7.2km) to the west, this great block of stone—roughly 6 feet square on top—has the distinct sculpturings of two feet, each about 10 inches long, etched into its sloping surface. Archaeologically speaking, there’s little more to say about the stone; but its traditions are another thing altogether and are of considerably greater importance…
Like the carved footprint on top of Dunadd in Argyll with its association of tribal initiations, the traditions relating to this footprint follows the same path, so to speak. It was H.P. Swan (1938) who gave us a good summary of the olde lore here, telling that,
“It is almost absolutely certain that it was brought from the Grianan of Aileach after its destruction, probably by an O’Doherty for his own installation. If so, the task of removal was no joke, for the stone weighs some seven tons. It was the “crowning stone” of the Kinel-Owen, or, in other words, the stone upon which the chieftains of the great O’Neill clan were inaugurated. They reigned in Aileach for many centuries.
“At his installation, as supreme head of the clan, the newly-chosen chief was placed upon this stone, his bare feet in the footmarks; a peeled willow wand was put into his hand, as an emblem of the pure and gentle sway he should exercise over his tribe; an oath was administered to him by the chief ecclesiastic in the neighbourhood, that he should preserve inviolable the ancient custom of his country, and deliver the succession peaceably to his tanist (successor); after which, descending from the stone, he turned himself thrice backwards and thrice forwards, to signify that he was ready to meet all foes, from whatever quarter they might come; and was then, with wild acclamations, hailed as their chief by his assembled clan.
“At the time of Ireland’s conversion to christianity by St Patrick, that holy man visited the Grianan (about AD 443), where this stone had been so used for centuries before; Owen was then King; he was converted from Paganism to the new faith and baptised by Patrick; at the same time, the saint consecrated this stone, and blessed it as the crowning-stone of the Kinel-Owen for ever. Time, however, has proved his blessing futile, as may be read in the account of the Grianan, which was deserted by the Kinel-Owen after its destruction by the O’Briens in 1101.”
The ritual described here cannot be taken lightly, nor seen as a presentation of fiction, for its ingredients are found echoed in kingship rites in many cultures.
Swan, Harry Percival, The Book of Inishowen, William Doherty: Buncrana 1938.