Travelling from Milnathort on the A91, in Gateside village, turn right down Old Town, and after the left bend in the road, park up. Access to the field where the Well is situated is through the gate on land next to the easternmost house on the south side of Old Town. Ask at the house first. Walk down the field towards the Chapel Den burn, and the ruins of the Well will be seen next to the burn just before the line of bushes that cross the field.
Archaeology and History
In his brief description of Strathmiglo parish, Hew Scott (1925) wrote:
“At Gateside…there was a chapel of St Mary, with Our Lady’s Well beside it.”
It was described in the nineteenth century Ordnance Survey Name Books by an informant:
“A small spring well on the north side of the Mill Dam. Supposed to have been used in the days of Popery as holy water and for other purposes when the building supposed to have been St Mary’s Chapel was in existence.”
Another informant wrote:
“…a Romish chapel is supposed to have been erected in this village and is borne out in a great measure by names of objects adjoining, namely Chapel Den, Chapel Well.”
“According to Doctor Small…it is stated, ‘The ancient name of this village called in old papers the Chapelton of the Virgin, changing its name at the Reformation.'”
This latter statement would seem to imply that the part of modern-day Gateside south of the main road (the north side was known as ‘Edentown’) was a pilgrimage centre of the Cult of the Virgin. The chapel was erected by the monks of Balmerino to whom it was known as ‘Sanct Mary’s of Dungaitsyde’. It was highlighted as the Chapel Well on the 1856 OS-map.
While no trace of the chapel remains, the Well is evidenced by some low ruins of what had once been a red sandstone structure, and it was just possible to make out in the field the line of the pilgrim’s path to the well. But what a lovely serene place next to the burn! An ideal spot to meditate or daydream… The spring no longer flows, and a manhole in the field probably indicates the water supply has been diverted, perhaps to serve the long since closed Gateside Distillery?
Scott, Hew, Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae – Volume V, Oliver & Boyd: Edinburgh 1925.
From the tourist-infested (but lovely) town of Callander, look west to the largest of the nearby mountains — that’s where you’re heading! You can keep along the A84 road out of the town for 4-5 miles (past the Falls and Pass of Leny) till you reach the parking spot on your left. Cross the river and go up into the signposted woodland. Keep walking up thru the trees until the rocky mass emerges above you. You can either keep to the path and follow the long walk round the mountain, or go straight up the crags above you. The top’s in sight!
Getting up here is no easy task if you’re unfit — but it’s well worth the effort for the journey alone! And in bygone centuries it seems, local people made it a particular pilgrimage at specific times during the year. Even the name of this great hill has some supposed affinity with holy issues; though some modern english etymologists put a dampener on such things. In Charles Rogers’ (1853) excellent Victorian exposition, he told that,
“Benledi is an abbreviation of the Celtic Ben-le-dia, signifying the hill of God.”
But whether the old heathens who named most of these ancient mountains would echo his oft-repeated derivation is another thing altogether! However, there are other decidedly pre-christian events that used to be enacted here, for the summit of Ben Ledi was, tradition tells, where the sun god was worshipped. It would seem, however, that this tradition is a somewhat watered-down version of it as a site of cosmological and social renewal. (see Eliade 1974) For akin to the annual pilgrimage that happens upon Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland, here upon Ben Ledi,
“For three days and three nights…the inhabitants of the district in those primitive times convened, at the period of summer solstice, on the summit of the mountain, to join in the rites of heathen worship.”
More recent lore tells the date of such sacred gatherings was Beltane. Also a short distance to the north of the summit of Ben Ledi is a small loch known as Lochan-nan-corp. Mr Rogers again tells us that,
“Here two hundred persons, who were accompanying a funeral from Glenfinglas to the churchyard of St. Bride, suddenly perished; the ground had been covered with snow and the company were crossing the lake on the ice, when it at once gave way.”
It seems a most unusual event. But the tale itself implies that a corpse route passed by the way of this high summit, down to the heathen chapel of St. Bride at the bottom of its eastern face: a huge undertaking in itself with probably archaic origins. Does anyone know owt more about this?
Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Princeton University Press 1974.
Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
Roger, Charles, A Week at Bridge of Allan, Adam & Charles Black: Edinburgh 1853.
Not too difficult to find really. Get to the northern part of the road which encircles Arthur’s Seat and when you get to St. Margaret’s Loch (near St. Margaret’s Well), look up the slopes where you see the remains of St. Anthony’s Chapel. You need to head up the footpath here and you’ll get to a large-ish ovoid boulder, with a small circular trough into which the waters run (the drawing of the place here, with the rock in the lower-left, just in front of the fella walking towards it, is just right!). You’re here!
Archaeology & History
Tradition tells that the remains of St. Anthony’s Chapel was built on the northern ridge by Arthur’s Seat, “mainly for guardianship of the holy well named after the saint” — which sounds rather like the christianization story of a heathen site. Francis Grose (1797) told that “this situation was undoubtedly chosen with an intention of attracting the notice of seamen coming up that Frith; who, in cases of danger, might be induced to make vows to its tutelar saint.” If this was the case, it sounds even more like a site that had prior heathen associations. Grose also told us that just a short distance from the chapel, were the remains of an old hermitage:
“It was partly of masonry worked upon the natural rock. At the east end there are still two niches remaining; in one of which formerly stood a skull, a book, an hour-glass, and a lamp, which, with a mat for a bed, made the general furniture of the hermitage.”
I like the sound of the place! Just up my street! Little other archaeological info has emerged from this tiny spot — but the healing waters of the well would obviously have been of importance to our indigenous inhabitants (anyone who wants to think otherwise is simply a bit dim!) as there is a wealth of archaeological sites and relics all round Arthur’s Seat.
A number of writers have described this old well, which has sun-lore, healing properties, and Beltane rites surrounding its past. Local people of all social classes frequented this ancient spring, particularly on that most favoured of heathen days, Beltane. The site was of considerable mythic importance with a certain order about it. As Hone (1839) said:
“…the poorer classes in Edinburgh poured forth at daybreak from street and lane to assemble on Arthur’s Seat to see the sun rise on May-morning. Bagpipes and other musical intruments enlivened the scene, nor were refreshments forgotten. About six o’ clock a crowd of citizens of the wealthier class made their appearance, while the majority of the first-comers returned to the town. At nine o’ clock the hill was practically deserted.”
Another early account describing St. Anthony’s Well is from an article in the great PSAS journal of 1883. Here, J.R. Walker wrote:
To an incident which showed that the faith and belief in the healing virtues of the wells is still strong, the writer was but a few months ago an eye-witness. While walking in the Queen’s Park about sunset, I casually passed St. Anthony’s Well, and had my attention attracted by the number of people about it, all simply quenching their thirst, some possibly with a dim idea that they would reap some benefit from the draught. Standing a little apart, however, and evidently patiently waiting a favourable moment to present itself for their purpose, was a group of four. Feeling somewhat curious as to their intention, I quietly kept myself in the back ground, and by and by was rewarded. The crowd departed, and the group came forward, consisting of two old women, a younger woman of about thirty, and a pale, sickly-looking girl — a child of three or four years old. Producing cups from their pockets, the old women dipped them in the pool, filled them, and drank the contents. A full cup was then presented to the younger woman, and another to the child. Then one of the old women produced a long linen bandage, dipped it in the water, wrung it, dipped it in again, and then wound it round the child’s head, covering the eyes, the youngest woman, evidently the mother of the child, carefully observing the operation, and weeping gently all the time. The other old woman not engaged in this work was carefully filling a clear flat glass bottle with the water, evidently for future use. Then, after the principal operators had looked at each other with an earnest and half solemn sort of look, the party wended its way carefully down the hill
Earlier still we find more lore of the place in Wilson’s Edinburgh  where he told:
“The ancient Hermitage and Chapel of St. Anthony, underneath the hangings of Arthur’s Seat, are velieved to have formed a dependency of the preceptory at Leith, and to have been placed there, to catch the seaman’s eyes as he entered the Firth, or departed on some long and perilous voyage; when his voews and offerings would be most freely made to the patron saint, and the hermit who ministered at his altar. No record, however, now remains to add to the tradition of its dedication to St. Anthony; but the silver stream, celebrated in the plaintive old song, ‘O waly, waly, up yon bank,’ still wells clearly forth at the foot of the rock, filling the little basin of St. Anthony’s Well, and rippling pleasantly through the long grass into the lower valley.”
Votive offerings made here eventually turned the waters into a simply wishing well for incomers, even in Victorian times (oh how the locals must have hated such trangression…). The great Scottish holy wells writer J.M. MacKinlay (1893) told in his day the tale of,
“a little girl from Aberdeenshire, when on a visit to Edinburgh, made trial of the sacred spring. She was cautioned not to tell anyone what her wish was, else the charm would have no effect. On her return home however, her eagerness to know whether the wish had…been fulfilled, quite overcame her ability to keep the secret. Her first words were, ‘Has the pony come?’ St. Anthony must have been in good humour with the child, for he provided the pony, thus evidently condoning the breach of silence in deference to her youth.”
In the middle of the 20th century, the great folklorist F.M. MacNeill (1959) wrote:
“Even in Edinburgh, little bands of the faithful may be seen making their way through the King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat, and, as in the eighteenth century:
On May-Day, in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anton’s spring,
Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring,
To weet their een,
And water clear as crystal spring,
To synd them clean.”
And when Ruth and Frank Morris (1982) got round to their excellent survey, they found that this old well was still being used “by youths and maidens, who come to wash their faces with the dew on May Day mornings, a wish at St. Anthony’s being a part of the ritual.” But this final remark may have the simple prosaic coincidence of them observing people like I, when younger, who frolicked with girlfriends around May morning, in the grasses near the old well — though at the time I knew nothing about the old sacred waters on the slopes just above us!