Horley Green Spa, Halifax, West Yorkshire

Healing Well:  OS Grid Reference – SE 10263 26561

Also Known as:

  1. Horley Green Well
  2. Spa Well

Archaeology & History

William Alexander’s 1840 sketch of the Spa house

The historian William Addison (1951), in his history on the subject, told how “the spas began as holy wells”; and although no direct accounts are left of early dedications here, the remnants of Mayday traditions tell us there were more archaic goings-on before the waters were taken by the aristocrats.  Once it had been designated as a spa, the waters were covered and a typical Spa House constructed over them.  From hereon, for more than a century, the waters were accessible only to those with money who wished their ailments to be treated.

Between the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th century, the Horley Green Spa was a very prominent ingredient in the history of Calderdale.  A chalybeate or iron-bearing spring, its waters were directed into a large underground cistern covered by metal.  Thomas Garnett (1790) was the first to write about it, telling us:

“The Horley Green water is quite pellucid—sparkles when poured out of one glass into another—and has a sharp, aluminous, styptic taste, not unlike ink. The taste is not unpleasant when the water is taken from the springhead and drank immediately.”

He went on to espouse the waters to be good in healing bone and rheumatic diseases, giving many first-hand accounts from people in Yorkshire and beyond who used the waters here with apparent success, including one case of curing diabetes!  Its reputation was later reinforced in a book by William Alexander (1840), who told us how,

“I unhesitatingly affirm that the Horley Green Spa possesses a very strong claim to be regarded as a powerful tonic and chalybeate.”

By the time those words were written, it had already gained a considerable reputation and many were those who’d received treatment.

Spa House on 1894 map

A years after Alexander, the roving doctor A.B. Granville (1841) visited Horley Green—who described it as “a renowned steel-water Spa”.  But at the same time he reported how its popularity had started to decline.  But, via one Mr West, he did leave us with a greater chemical analysis of the Horley Green waters in an attempt, once more, to certify and prove its curative properties.  Their results found the waters to possess, in varying quantities, lime, magnesia, silica, iron oxide, sulphur and silica—all of which further attributed the science of its medicinal actions.   A number of case histories of the people cured here can be found in the works of Granville, Garnett and Alexander.

The well-house that stood here eventually fell into disuse.  When it was eventually restored as someone’s home in the the late 20th century, the disused spring was found beneath the foundations, filled with stones.

Folklore

Horley Green’s spa well came about as a result of local people visiting the site around Beltane, probably for centuries before the aristocrats and early pharmacists took their hand to the place.  But once the spa became renowned, people could only gather here “on the first Sundays in the month of May,” with Sunday being that legendary ‘day of the lord’ crap, to which the people would abide to save them from prosecution.  It is obvious though that it had been used as a place of magick thanks to the snippets of lore which have found their way into local history books.  We read how, at 6am, people gathered here, to such an extent that the roads were completely crowded.  Those who arrived first were given bags of nuts: an archaic traditional motif found at many pre-christian wells in Britain.  Occultists and ritual magickians amongst you will note the time when folk frequented the well, at 6am: the time when many nature-spirits are invoked for full effects.  We find this time echoed in the ritual gatherings at Lady or St. Anne’s Well in Morley, just a few miles to the east.

References:

  1. Addison, William, English Spas, Batsford: London 1951.
  2. Alderson, Frederick, The Inland Resorts and Spas of Britain, David & Charles: Newton Abbot 1973.
  3. Alexander, William, The Horley Green Mineral Water, Leyland & Son: Halifax 1840.
  4. Alexander, William, “On the Mineral Springs of the Parish of Halifax,” in Proceedings Geological & Polytechnic Society, West Riding, Yorkshire, volume 1, Edward Baines: Leeds 1849.
  5. Crabtree, John, Concise History of the Parish and Vicarage of Halifax, Hartley & Walker: Halifax 1836.
  6. Garnett, Thomas, Experiments and Observations on the Horley-Green Spaw, near Halifax, George Nicholson: Bradford 1790.
  7. Granville, A.B., Spas of England, Henry Colburn: London 1841.
  8. Hembry, Phyllis, The English Spa 1560-1815, Athlone Press: London 1990.
  9. Short, Thomas, The Natural, Experimental and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters of Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, privately printed: London 1724.
  10. Short, Thomas, A General Treatise on Various Cold Mineral Waters in England, privately printed: London 1765.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

River Barvas, Barvas, Lewis

Sacred River:  OS Grid Reference – NB 351 494

Folklore

As with traditions found all over the world, rivers and lakes had spirits, gods and rituals attached to them.  Despite us believing that no such things ever occurred in Britain and the rest of the so-called ‘civilized’ world, such things were once common.  One of the annual rites performed at the Hebridean river at Barbhas (Barvas)—and described by Alexander Fraser (1878)—is just one such example:

“The natives of Barvas had a peculiar custom on the first day of May, of sending a man across the river at (the) dawn of day to prevent any females from crossing it first, as that would hinder the salmon from ascending the river all the year through.” (Fraser 1878)

The importance of the salmon, both as an important food source and equally as a ‘sacred animal’, is known in myths and legends throughout the British Isles.  To the legendary hero-figure Finn, it played a part of him gaining supernatural wisdom, and this quality is integral to the fish itself who ate the hazelnuts of knowledge and gained such power.  In this same short piece of folklore, the time of year when the ritual should be enacted on the River Barvas is Beltane, which is renowned as the prime period in the annual cycle/calendar relating to fertility.  This element relates to maintaining the fecundity of the river and the salmon where, in this case, men crossing the waters symbolically fertilizes them to ensure the annual return of the fish.  It would be interesting to known when this custom finally died out.

References:

  1. Fraser, Alexander, Northern Folk-lore on Wells and Water, Advertiser Office: Inverness 1878.
  2. Ross, Anne, Pagan Celtic Britain, RKP: London 1967.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Water End Maypole, North Mymms, Hatfield, Hertfordshire

Maypole (removed):  OS Grid Reference – TL 2296 0410

Getting Here

On the east side of Warrengate Road, approached from Welham Green via Dixons Hill Road, or from Brookmans Park via Bradmore Lane.

Archaeology & History

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A 1920 photograph of the Public House. The Maypole was believed to have been in the garden grounds to the rear.

The exact position of the pole is not marked on the 1896 25″ OS map, as it is probable that it had been removed by the middle of the nineteenth century (like the majority of the permanent Hertfordshire maypoles), but local belief in the 1950s and 60s was that it had been in the garden of the Old Maypole (originally known as ‘The Maypole’) public house, which adjoined the smithy in Warrengate Road, Water End.  The public house is stated to have been built around 1520, with later additions, but is now a private house.

The population of Water End and nearby Welham Green was predominantly employed in agriculture, domestic service and straw plaiting, but the area’s proximity to London probably speeded the demise of the ancient traditions like maypole dancing .

Maypole North Mymms

The 1896 OS 25″ map, showing the garden ground to the rear of the public house

Doris Jones-Baker writes: “The old Hertfordshire maypoles, on May Day decorated with ribbons and a bunch of spring flowers at the top, were described as being ‘as high as the mast of a vessel of a hundred tons, painted often in a diagonal or spiral pattern from bottom to top in yellow and black, or often in vertical stripes of red, white and blue’”

Interestingly, the rear of the public house garden adjoins the Swallow Holes, a geological feature where the intermittent flowing waters of the Mimmshall Brook disappear into the chalk in as many as 15 sink holes. Hertfordshire has an ancient tradition of ‘woe-waters’ related to the local geology, where the flowing or not of a stream or spring was seen to herald ‘sorrow to come’. From personal memory the Mimmshall Brook is normally a dry stream bed which can in winter suddenly turn into a raging torrent, flooding the land behind The Old Maypole. Any tradition of it having been a woe-water has though been lost. But it is just possible that long ago the coming of May Day was also seen to herald the end of flooding of the Mimmshall Brook and may explain the siting of the pole.

The last year that people danced is not recorded, but the local maypole tradition continued; this writer remembers ribbon dancing as a very small child to a fiddle accompaniment around a maypole erected at the nearby, but long demolished Waterend C.E. Primary School, which closed in 1960.

Folklore

As well as Maypole dancing, Hertfordshire had a rich tradition of May day ritual and song, which despite the county’s proximity to London, survived long enough for some of it to be recorded for posterity. While there does not seem to be any ritual recorded for North Mymms, the following was recorded at nearby Hatfield. “On may morning, dressed in white and holding bunches of Hawthorn or, in late seasons, blackthorn blossoms the children sang door to door a local version of the May song, which began:

‘A bunch of May I bring unto you
And at your door I stand,
Come pull out your purse,
You’ll be none the worse
And give the poor Mayers some money….’”

References:

  1. North Mymms Local History Society, North Mymms Pictures From The Past, Welham Green, 2002
  2. Jones-Baker, Doris, The Folklore of Hertfordshire, B.T.Batsford, London, 1977
  3.  Kingsford, Peter, North Mymms People in Victorian Times, Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire, Privately Published, 1986

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian 


Gomersal Maypole, West Yorkshire

Maypole (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – SE 2068 2672

Archaeology & History

As in countless villages and towns across the British Isles, Gomersal also once had its maypole near or at the village centre.  We don’t know when the first maypole was erected in the village and many local sites were openly destroyed by rampant christian puritans and similar idiots.  It stood not far from the Moor Lane Well and was described by the regional historian H.A. Cadman (1930), who told:

“The Maypole was at the top of Moor Lane and one can imagine the welkin echoing to the very old song:

‘Come lasses and lads take leave of your dads
And away to the maypole hie.
For every fair has a sweetheart there
And the fiddlers standing by.
For Willy shall dance with Jane
And Johnny has got his Joan.
To trip it, trip it, trip it, trip it,
Trip it up and down.’

Yet as with maypoles up and down the land, testosterone-fuelled Springtime fall-outs happened.  Mr Cadman told:

“Very often May Day gatherings ended up with fights.  Great jealousy always existed between the inhabitants of Great Gomersal, Little Gomersal and Spen.  There is a tradition which has been handed down that the last Maypole in this district stood on Liversedge Green.  This Maypole was demolished in a fight by the Gomersalians and there is a similar tradition about the Maypole on Cleckheaton Green, so as Mr Frank Peel says, “It is evident that ancient inhabitants of Gomersal were more pugnacious than their neighbours.”  I have no evidence when the Gomersal Maypole ceased to exist, but there is abundant evidence to prove that there was one in Gomersal, the proof being that the vane is now in Batley Museum.  It is in the form of a fish.”

If anyone has any further information on this important relic, or its history, please let us know.

References:

  1. Cadman, H. Ashwell, Gomersal, Past and Present, Hunters Armley: Leeds 1930.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Strand Maypole, Westminster, London, Middlesex

Maypole (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – TQ 3073 8092

Archaeology & History

This huge traditional monument was once a sight to behold!  It stood close to where an ancient stone ‘cross’ once lived.  But—alas!, with the intrusion of the incoming christians bringing a profane ‘religion’ that belongs to countries far from here, its destruction was imposed.  They destroyed so many of our ancient monuments with their hatred and ignorance… But thankfully we have some good accounts of this long-forgotten relic of London’s real history.

In A.R. Wright’s (1938) account of it, he called this “the most famous maypole in England” and it stood taller than even the great maypole that’s still raised at Barwick-in-Elmet, in Yorkshire.

There seems to have been three maypoles on this same site – the first of which was standing before the destruction of Strand’s ancient cross, where local jurisdictions and early village meetings took place.  We don’t know the date when the first maypole was erected, but it was shown on a local plan of the area “which Anthony van den Wyngaerde issued in 1543…in front of the old church of St. Mary le Strand, which was demolished in 1549.”   According to Mr Hone (1826), it could be found a door or two westward beyond “where Catherine Street descends into the Strand.”

In Edward Walford’s (1878) massive tome, he gave us perhaps the best and most extensive account of the site, telling:

“The Maypole, to which we have already referred as formerly standing on the site of the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, was called by the Puritans one of the “last remnants of vile heathenism, round which people in holiday times used to dance, quite ignorant of its original intent and meaning.” Each May morning, as our readers are doubtless aware, it was customary to deck these poles with wreaths of flowers, round which the people danced pretty nearly the whole day.  A severe blow was given to these merry-makings by the Puritans, and in 1644 a Parliamentary ordinance swept them all away, including this very famous one, which, according to old Stow, stood 100 feet high.

On the Restoration, however, a new and loftier one was set up amid much ceremony and rejoicing. From a tract printed at the time, entitled The Citie’s Loyaltie Displayed,’ we learn that this Maypole was 134 feet high, and was erected upon the cost of the parishioners there adjacent, and the gracious consent of his sacred Majesty, with the illustrious Prince the Duke of York:

“This tree was a most choice and remarkable piece; ’twas made below bridge and brought in two parts up to Scotland Yard, near the king’s palace, and from thence it was conveyed, April 14, 1661, to the Strand, to be erected. It was brought with a streamer flourishing before it, drums beating all the way, and other sorts of musick.  It was supposed to be so long that landsmen could not possibly raise it.  Prince James, Duke of York, Lord High Admiral of England, commanded twelve seamen off aboard ship to come and officiate the business; whereupon they came, and brought their cables, pullies, and other tackling, and six great anchors. After these were brought three crowns, borne by three men bareheaded, and a streamer displaying all the way before them, drums beating and other musick playing, numerous multitudes of people thronging the streets, with great shouts and acclamations, all day long. The Maypole then being joined together and looped about with bands of iron, the crown and cane, with the king’s arms richly gilded, was placed on the head of it; a large hoop, like a balcony, was about the middle of it.  Then, amid sounds of trumpets and drums, and loud cheerings, and the shouts of the people, the Maypole, ‘far more glorious, bigger, and higher than ever any one that stood before it,’ was raised upright, which highly did please the Merrie Monarch and the illustrious Prince, Duke of York; and the little children did much rejoice, and ancient people did clap their hands, saying golden days began to appear.”

A party of morris-dancers now came forward, “finely decked with purple scarfs, in their half-shirts, with a tabor and a pipe, the ancient music, and danced round about the Maypole.”

The setting up of this Maypole is said to have been the deed of a blacksmith, John Clarges, who lived hard by, and whose daughter Anne had been so fortunate in her matrimonial career as to secure for her husband no less a celebrated person than General Monk, Duke of Albemarle, in the reign of Charles II., when courtiers and princes did not always look to the highest rank for their wives.

…Newcastle Street, at the north-east corner of the church of St. Mary-le-Strand, was formerly called Maypole Alley, but early in the last century was changed to its present name, after John Holles, Duke of Newcastle, the then owner of the property, and the name has been transferred to another place not far off. At the junction of Drury Lane and Wych Street, on the north side, close to the Olympic Theatre, is a narrow court, which is now known as Maypole Alley, near which stood the forge of John Clarges, the blacksmith, alluded to above as having set up the Maypole at the time of the Restoration.

As all earthly glories are doomed in time to fade, so this gaily-bedecked Maypole, after standing for upwards of fifty years, had become so decayed in the ground, that it was deemed necessary to replace it by a new one.  Accordingly, it was removed in 1713, and a new one erected in its place a little further to the west, nearly opposite to Somerset House, where now stands a drinking fountain.  It was set up on the 4th of July in that year, with great joy and festivity, but it was destined to be short-lived. When this latter Maypole was taken down in its turn, Sir Isaac Newton, who lived near Leicester Fields, bought it from the parishioners, and sent it as a present to his friend, the Rev. Mr. Pound, at Wanstead in Essex, who obtained leave from his squire, Lord Castlemaine, to erect it in Wanstead Park, for the support of what then was the largest telescope in Europe, being 125 feet in length.  It was constructed by Huygens, and presented by him to the Royal Society, of which he was a member. It had not long stood in the park, when one morning some amusing verses were found affixed to the Maypole, alluding to its change of position and employment. They are given by Pennant as follows:

“Once I adorned the Strand,
But now have found
My way to Pound
On Baron Newton’s land;
Where my aspiring head aloft is reared,
T’ observe the motions of th’ ethereal Lord.
Here sometimes raised a machine by my side,
Through which is seen the sparkling milky tide;
Here oft I’m scented with a balmy dew,
A pleasant blessing which the Strand ne’er knew.
There stood I only to receive abuse,
But here converted to a nobler use;
So that with me all passengers will say,
‘I’m better far than when the Pole of May.'”

Along with the Strand Cross, this old maypole would have been on the ancient ley (not one of those ‘energy lines’ invented by New Age fantasists) that was first described first by Alfred Watkins (1925)—running from St. Martins-in-the-Field to St. Dunstan’s in Fleet Street. The alignment and maypole was subsequently described in greater detail in Devereux & Thomson’s (1979) work on the same subject, and again by Chris Street. (2010)

The nature of the maypole (and the nearby cross, it has to be said), may have been representative of an omphalos in early popular culture (before the christians of course)—which would put the original ritual function of the place far far earlier than is generally considered.  This is something that Laurence Gomme (1912) propounded in one of his London works and cannot be discounted.

References:

  1. Allen, Thomas, The History and Antiquities of London, Westminster, Southwark – volume 4, Cowie & Strange: London 1829.
  2. Devereux, Paul & Thomson, Ian, The Ley Hunter’s Companion, Thames & Hudson: London 1979.
  3. Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
  4. Gomme, Laurence, The Making of London, Clarendon: Oxford 1912.
  5. Hone, William, The Every-Day Book – volume 1, William Tegg: London 1826.
  6. Street, Christopher E., London’s Ley Lines, Earthstars: London 2010.
  7. Walford, Edward, Old and New London – volume 3, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.
  8. Watkins, Alfred, The Old Straight Track, Methuen: London 1925.
  9. Wright, A.R., British Calendar Customs: England – volume 2, Folklore Society: London 1938.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian 


Maypole, Hemswell, Lincolnshire

Maypole: OS Grid Reference – SK 92954 90947

Historic photo from Church Street
Historic photo from Church Street

Also Known as:

  1. English Heritage ID: 196736

Getting Here

In Hemswell Village at the junction of Church Street and Maypole Street.

History & Archeaology

According to a 2010 report in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, the Hemswell villagers,

“claim to be the hosts to one of the oldest maypole celebrations in the world, dating back to at least 1660”.

The then clerk to the parish council, Dianne Millward is quoted as saying:

“Hemswell is widely regarded in historical circles as having one of the oldest if not the oldest celebrations for May Day. We have pictures of the pole being prepared for the big day in the very early 1900s.”

Hemswell maypole on 1906 map

This writer has not yet been able to independently verify these claims.

May Day is still celebrated in the village with dancing around the maypole and an accompanying fete. Recent online photographs show that it is now only children, in ‘historic’ fancy dress who ribbon-dance around the Pole.

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian


The Maypole, Alconbury, Huntingdonshire

Maypole (removed):  OS Reference Number TL 18554 75972

Getting Here

Maypole Square, outlined in red on the 1901 OS map
Maypole Square, outlined in red on the 1901 OS map

Maypole Square forms the junction of High Street, Church Way and Chapel Street in the centre of the village.

Archaeology & History

The Alconbury Maypole had passed out of living memory by 1942, but was historically attested by the ‘Maypole Square’ in the centre of the village.

Folklore

C.F. Tebbutt wrote in 1950:

“At Alconbury, it is remembered that about 1890 an old soldier, who lived in the corner house (east end) of the row of cottages facing Maypole Square, used to dig holes in the road opposite the row and set up May bushes there on May day”.

References:

  1. C.F.Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk and their Folklore”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VI, part V, 1942.
  2. C.F.Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk and their Folklore II”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VII, part III, 1950.

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian


The Maypole Tree, Little Paxton, Huntingdonshire

Maypole & Ritual Tree (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference TL 18831 62757

Getting Here

Imposing trunk of The Maypole Tree, right background
Imposing trunk of The Maypole Tree, right background

The road layout of the village has changed since the destruction of the Tree, but its approximate position was on the north side of the present High Street, at the junction with the east side of St James’ Road.

Archaeology & History

The Little Paxton Maypole Tree was a very late survival of a tradition where Mayday revellers danced around an actual tree rather than a symbolic tree in the form of a maypole.  It was described as “a tall straight elm tree” that stood in front of what was then the village Post Office, and from what may be the only surviving photograph, it appears that only the very substantial trunk survived of what was clearly a very old tree.

The 1887 6" OS Map, showing the Maypole Tree outlined in red
The 1887 6″ OS Map, showing the Maypole Tree outlined in red

A Miss Ethel Ladds, who had been born in Little Paxton, recalled in the early 1940s:

I remember the old tree very well, it was always called ‘the Maypole’, but I don’t know any more about it, except that they used to dance round it“.

The St Neots Advertiser recorded that the Maypole Tree was blown down in a great gale on 24th March 1895.

Folklore

While this writer has been unable to find direct folklore relating to the Little Paxton Maypole Tree, it may be worth remarking that botanically the Elm tree is a cousin of the Stinging Nettle, the Hop and Cannabis.  Another Elm Tree used for May revels was the Tubney Elm, near Fyfield in Berkshire and recorded by Matthew Arnold, in his ‘Scholar Gipsy’.

References:

  1. C.F. Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk And Their Folklore”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire & Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VI, Part V, 1942
  2. C.F. Tebbutt, “Huntingdonshire Folk And Their Folklore”, in Transactions of the Cambridgeshire & Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Volume VII, Part III, 1950
  3. Gerald Wilkinson, Epitaph For The Elm, Arrow Books, London, 1979

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian 


St. Fillan’s Chair, Dundurn, Comrie, Perthshire

Legendary Rock:  OS Grid Reference – NN 7081 2325

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 24876
  2. Dundurn
  3. Fillan’s Chair
  4. St. Fillan’s Bed

Getting Here

Dundurn, near St. Fillans
Dundurn, near St. Fillans

Not hard to find. Between the small towns of Comrie and St. Fillans along the A85 road, keep your eyes peeled for the small but rocky crags that rise in front of the background of dramatic mountains not far from the roadside to the south. It looks truly majestic even on a dull day. Just as you reach the eastern edge of St. Fillans village, take the small road over the river-bridge and go to the golf club. Walk past the golf club itself, keeping along the track that leads you to Dundurn hill.  It’s easy enough. Then climb to the very top of the hill where you’ll find this curious, large, flat bed-like rock right in front of you!

Archaeology & History

The rocky bed or 'chair' of St Fillan
The rocky bed or ‘chair’ of St Fillan

The archaeological data for St. Fillan’s Chair relates more to the folklore practices of the people upon Dundurn hill than anything else and ostensibly little can be said by such students. The place is more satisfying for geologists than archaeologists, who would adore the rocky fluctuations and geophysical propensities with greater verve than any archaeologist could muster! For this rocky bed-shaped feature is a fascinating structure whose only potential interest to archaeologists are what may be a couple of reduced cup-marks on the top of the stone (and even then, such potential rock art is more the province of religious historians and anthropologists than archaeologists).

Small quartz offerings left on St Fillan's Chair at Beltane
Small quartz offerings left on St Fillan’s Chair at Beltane
The view of the Chair from below
The view of the Chair from below

But this ‘bed’ or ‘chair’, as it was locally known, was – and it seems, still is – important in the social history of the area, as its folklore clearly tells.  The ‘chair’ plays an important part in the holistic role of Dundurn as a hill, a fort, a healing centre, an inauguration site, and very probably an omphalos: a sacred centre whereupon the ordination of shamans, kings and the cosmos as a whole was brought to bear here… (these features will be explored in greater depth when I write a singular profile of Dundurn as a ‘fort’).

Folklore

Looking west over St Fillan's Chair
Looking west over St Fillan’s Chair

The character of St. Fillan was described by James Cockburn (1954) as “an Irish Pict” and the “son of a King – his father being Angus mac Nadfraich who died in battle in 490 AD.”  Quite an important dood in his day! The relationship this early christian figure had with this Chair was in its supposedly curative properties.  Yeah…you read it right: curative properties!  As with countless rocks all over the world, some of Nature’s outcrop boulders were imbued with a spirit of their own and, when conditions and/or the cycle of the spirit ‘awoke’, healing attributes could be gained from the place. And such was the case at St. Fillan’s Chair, especially on Beltane morning (May 1).  And some element of this traditional pilgrimage is still done; for when the author Marion Woolley and I visited the site on Mayday 2013, it was obvious that some people had been up earlier that Beltane morning and left some offerings of quartz stones on the top end of the bed.

The earliest written reference of this medicinal virtue was told in the Old Statistical Account of Perthshire (1791):

The rock on the summit of the hill, formed, of itself, a chair for the saint, which still remains. Those who complain of rheumatism in the back, must ascend the hill, sit in this chair, then lie down on their back, and be pulled by the legs to the bottom of the hill. This operation is still performed, and reckoned very efficacious.

More than a hundred years later, the sites was still being used and was described in similar vein in MacKinlay’s (1893) excellent study:

“On the top of green Dunfillan, in the parish of Comrie, is a rocky seat known in the district as Fillan’s Chair. Here, according to tradition, the saint sat and gave his blessing to the country around. Towards the end of last century, and doubtless even later, this chair was associated with a superstitious remedy for rheumatism in the back. The person to be cured sat in the chair, and then, lying on his back, was dragged down the hill by the legs. The influence of the saint lingering about the spot was believed to ensure recovery.”

The origins of this dramatic rite were probably pre-christian in nature and we should have little doubt that St. Fillan replaced the figure of a shaman or local medicine woman of some sort. The ritual “dragging down the hill” may be some faint remnant of initiation rites…

…to be continued…

References:

  1. Cockburn, James H., The Celtic Church in Dunblane, Friends of Dunblane Cathedral 1954.
  2. Eliade, Mircea, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, Spring: Woodstock 1995.
  3. Finlayson, Andrew, The Stones of Strathearn, One Tree Island: Comrie 2010.
  4. Hunter, John, Chronicles of Strathearn, David Philips: Crieff 1896.
  5. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  6. Shearer, John, Antiquities of Strathearn, David Philips: Crieff, 1883.
  7. Skene, William F., Celtic Scotland (3 volumes), Edmonston & Douglas: Edinburgh 1876-1880.
  8. Toulson, Shirley, Celtic Journeys in Scotland and the North of England, Fount: London 1995.

Links:

  1. Nataraja’s Foot: The Curious Incident of Dundurn

© Pual BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


St. Corbet’s Well, Touch, Stirlingshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 738 925

Archaeology & History

This little-known holy well on the northeastern edges of the Touch Hills is another part of our ancient heritage that may well have been lost.  All that now remains are the literary remnants telling of this once important site, around which local socio-religious elements occurred from time to time.  When the local historian J.S. Fleming (1898) wrote about the site, it had already disappeared, and was himself fortunate to recover information relating to its former existence. He told:

“My attention has been drawn to an article which appeared in the Stirling Journal of 31st October, 1834, describing what is claimed to be a Holy Well dedicated to Saint Corbet, or probably Saint Cuthbert.  The well was situated in Touch Glen, not far from Gilmour’s Lynn, and was, even at that time, reduced to a spring one foot deep and three or four feet in circumference, surrounded by boggy ground.  The writer states that there were people then alive who had resorted to this Well in their younger days.  Its virtues were restricted to one hour in the year, and that the hour of sunrise on the first Sabbath of May; the supposition being that by drinking of its waters at the Well by the adventurous pilgrims to such a wild and lonely spot at early sunrise, the devotee was assured of the preservation of his life during that year.  We have never come across this Saint’s name, but Saint Cuthbert had an altar in the Rude Kirk (High Church of Stirling) and, as for the Well, from its diminishing condition in 1834, its site no doubt has long been obliterated.”

It is possible that some remnant of the waters here can still be found, or are known about, by dedicated local practitioners—but without their aid, this sacred site may be forever lost…

Folklore

In Thomas Frost’s (1899) essay on the holy wells of Scotland, he echoed what Mr Fleming had told, saying:

“Of St. Corbet’s Well, on the top of the Touch Hills…it was formerly believed that whoever drank its water before sunrise on the first Sunday in May was sure of another year of life, and crowds of persons resorted to the spot at that time, in the hope of thereby prolonging their lives.”

This restorative folklore element, implicit in the nature of water itself, was obviously related to the cycles of renewal in the social activity of our peasant ancestors, as found in every culture all over the world. (Eliade 1959; 1989)

One account relating to the disappearance of St. Corbet’s Well told that it fell back to Earth as the spirit of the site was insulted by profane practices.  Janet & Colin Bord (1985) told that:

“This theme, of real or imagined insult to the well causing it to lose its power, move its location, or cease flowing altogether, is widespread.  St. Corbet’s Well on the Touch Hills (Stirling) was said to preserve for a year anyone who drank from it on the first Sunday in May, before sunrise, and it was visited by great crowds at the height of its popularity.  But the drinking of spirits became more popular than the drinking of well water, so St. Corbet withdrew the valuable qualities of the water, then eventually the water itself stopped flowing.”

References:

  1. Andrews, William (ed.), Bygone Church Life in Scotland, W. Andrews: London 1899.
  2. Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Granada: London 1985.
  3. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, Harcourt, Brace & World: New York 1959.
  4. Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Arkana: London 1989.
  5. Fleming, J.S., Old Nooks of Stirling, Delineated and Described, Munro & Jamieson: Stirling 1898.
  6. Frost, Thomas, “Saints and Holy Wells,” in Bygone Church Life in Scotland (W. Andrews: Hull 1899).
  7. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  8. “W.H.”, “St Corbet’s Well,” in The Stirling Antiquary, volume 3, 1904.

AcknowledgementsWith thanks to Ray Spencer for pointing out the Sacred Waters reference. Cheers Ray!

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian