St John’s Well, Dunrobin, Golspie, Sutherland

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NC 8505 0081

St Johns Well, 1879 map

Archaeology & History

Very little has been written of this site due to the fact that little seems to known about it.  A few of the usual ‘official’ on-line catalogues mention it but information on the site is truly scant.  It is shown on the earliest Ordnance Survey map of the region and the same cartographers describe it in the Ordnance Name Book (1873), saying briefly how St John’s Well,

“Applied to a very deep pump well situated in the court of the ancient portion of “Dunrobin Castle”.  No information respecting the dedication or origin of this name can be obtained in the District.”

But an earlier reference than this is cited in Fraser’s (1892) work, telling us that,

“In the midst of the court within the castle there is one of the deepest draw-wells in Scotland, all lined with ashlar-work, which was built and finished before the house was begun.  The well was known as that of St. John.  In the year 1512 sasine (i.e. delivery of feudal property) of the earldom and castle was taken at the well.  At other times sasine was taken at the castle, at its gates, or near the well.”

Subsequent to this, we read in Cumming’s (1897) definitive folklore work of the region how,

“(it) looks as if there had been a chapel of St. John on Drumrabyn.  In that case it may have been one dependent upon Kileain (=Kirk of John) on Loch Brora, which was only ½ a mile further than Kilmalin.”

Having not visited the castle, I’m unsure whether or not the well can still be seen.  Does anyone know…?

References:

  1. Cumming, Anna & Bella et al, Golspie – Contributions to its Folklore, David Nutt: London 1897.
  2. Fraser, William, The Sutherland Book – volume 1, Edinburgh 1892.

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

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Clach Mhallaichte, Cromarty, Ross & Cromarty

Legendary Rock:  OS Grid Reference – NH 7949 6746

Also Known as:

  1. Clach Mallach
  2. Clach na Mallachd
  3. Clackmalloch Rock
  4. Stone of Cursing

Archaeology & History

Stone shown on 1880 map

This large boulder found off the Cromarty coast, was highlighted on the 1880 OS-map of the region.  It is one of the ancient boundary stones of the township.

Folklore

We know from the vast array on the folklore of stones that many were imbued with magickal abilities, some of which were witnesses to vows and others to make curses from.  This large boulder off the coast of Cromarty was, according to Donald MacKenzie (1935), a place where the latter used to be done.  He told us:

“At Cromarty there is a big boulder known as the Clach na Mallachd (‘Stone of Cursing’).  Curses were delivered when an individual stood or knelt bare-kneed upon it.”

In an earlier account by the Ordnance Survey lads in one of their Name Books, they gave the following tale that had been narrated to them:

“A large stone Situate at the Low Water, and forming one of the boundary Stones of the burgh, the reason of its having this name is, that a young lad while Sitting on it was overwhelmed by the advancing tide and drowned, his mother when told of it, cursed the stone, hence the name Clach Mallach (Accursed Stone)”

References:

  1. MacKenzie, Donald A., Scottish Folk-lore and Folk Life, Blackie: Glasgow 1935.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


St. Bennet’s Well, Cromarty, Ross & Cromarty

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NH 7923 6502

Archaeology & History

St Bennets Well 1880 map

An old church dedicated to St Bennet once existed on the hill above where this spring of water emerges, but little is now left of the building.  Thankfully the holy well hasn’t quite followed in the footsteps of the church.  Miss Riley (1935) told us that it can be found “near the high-water mark…situated at the foot of a beautiful little glen which runs inland from the coast” – and from all accounts it is still there.

Shown on the 1880 OS-map of the region, the dedication to St Bennet is obscure.  Mr Pullan (1927) suggested it derived from the 6th century St Benedict of Nursia, but this is improbable.  The Royal Commission lads thought it more likely derived from “a Celtic foundation.”

Folklore

The earliest description I’ve found regarding the traditions surrounding this well are by Hugh Miller (1835).  He wrote:

“It is not yet twenty years since a thorn-bush, which formed a little canopy over the spring of St. Bennet, used to be covered anew every season with little pieces of rag, left on it as offerings to the saint, by sick people who came to drink of the water.”

But the tradition didn’t die out, as evidenced by a short article by Miss M.D. Riley (1935) in Antiquity journal where she gave us further valuable information about its folk history, saying:

“In order to insure the fulfilment of the wish it is essential that the wisher should drink the water and leave something of his personal attire.  When the writer visited the spot there was a heterogeneous collection of ‘rags’ hanging on the branches.

“Mr Francis Scott tells me that the site is locally supposed to be the place of judgement.  It is close to the ruins of St Bennet’s Chapel and the ground is said to be cursed as it was stoeln by the Church. Even at the present day the owner has to provide each year at Christmas-tide 8 cwt of oatmeal free for the poor of the parish.  This has been operative since 1630 and though the owner has tested the matter in the highest court of law in Scotland, his appeal was not allowed.”

The tradition of giving offerings to the spirit of this well was still recorded in 1966.

References:

  1. Hiley, M.D., “Rag-Wells,” in Antiquity, volume 9:4, December 1935.
  2. Innies, Cosmo, Origines Parochiales – volume 2:2, W.H. Lizars: Edinburgh 1855.
  3. Miller, Hugh, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; the Traditional History of Cromarty, William Nimmo: Edinburgh 1835.
  4. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  5. Pullan, L., The Banner of St Boniface, London 1927.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Fairies’ Cradle, Cromarty, Ross & Cromarty

Legendary Rock (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NH 792 651

Archaeology & History

In the ruins St Bennet’s Chapel, along with his accompanying holy well (NH 7923 6502), could once be seen a curiously shaped rock which, according to tradition has been destroyed.  In Mr Innes’ (1855) major history work he mentioned this Fairies Cradle in passing.  Not far from here and close to the coast, is a curiously-shaped boulder with several natural cupmarks (at NH 9150 6497).

Folklore

In Hugh Miller’s (1878) definitive local history work, Scenes and Legends, we have our main description of this once important site.  It existed,

“near the chapel itself, which was perched like an eyry on a steep solitary ridge that overlooks the Moray Firth, there was a stone trough, famous, about eighty years before, for virtues derived also from the saint, like those of the well. For if a child was carried away by the fairies, and some mischievous unthriving imp left in its place, the parents had only to lay the changeling in this trough, and, by some invisible process, their child would be immediately restored to them. It was termed the fairies’ cradle; and was destroyed shortly before the rebellion of 1745, by Mr. Gordon, the minister of the parish, and two of his elders.”

The story of children here being carried away by littlepeople and then restored by an impish offering, is a play on the site being a healing stone.  There are numerous other “curing stones” found elsewhere in Scotland, but with their own respective traditions—like the Measles Stone at Fearnan, the Whooping Cough Stone near Killin, and many others.

If anyone knows anything more about this lost “curing stone”, please let us know.

References:

  1. Alston, David, “The Old Parish Church of Cromarty,” Cromarty, May 2005.
  2. Innies, Cosmo, Origines Parochiales – volume 2:2, W.H. Lizars: Edinburgh 1855.
  3. Miller, Hugh, Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; the Traditional History of Cromarty, William Nimmo: Edinburgh 1878.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Ardjachie Farm, Tain, Ross & Cromarty

Cup-Marked Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NH 746 845

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 14736
  2. Tain Museum Stone

Getting Here

Ardjachie Stone, Tain

Ardjachie Stone, Tain

No longer in its original position; the stone can now be found if you visit the Tain & District Museum, just off Tower Street, in towards St Duthus’ Church.  The stone is upright around the side of the buildings adjacent, probably more accessible if you walk down Castle Brae, keeping your eyes peeled to your left. Otherwise, just ask the helpful people at the Museum.

Archaeology & History

Ardjachie CR Taylor 2004001

Ardjachie Carving (after Mark Taylor 2004)

An intriguing stone with what may be a long and fascinating history behind it…. It was only rediscovered in the 1960s, when the farmer at Ardjachie (2½ miles northwest of Tain town centre) came across it in one of his fields.  It’s not large or notable in any way, other than it possessing a couple of really peculiar symbols etched amongst a mass of otherwise standard neolithic and Bronze Age cup-marks.  These other symbols are (as seen in Mark Taylor’s drawing, right) a very distinct ‘spoked wheel’ and what looks like a right-angled ‘tool’ or set-square of some sort.  These symbols have brought with them notions from academics who are claim it has Pictish provenance.  However, we must be very cautious of this idea….

The first written account of the stone was by Ellis Macnamara (1971) who gave a detailed description of the carving:

“Boulder found on Ardjachie Farm, now in Tain Museum.  The boulder, of probably local old red sandstone, is uncut and very irregular in shape but has two principal faces; the maximum length is 1.7m; maximum width is 0.65m and on the maximum thickness is some 0.35m.  The carvings are all on one face, which is much weathered; the opposing face is conspicuously less smooth so that it is possible that this stone was never set upright.  The weathered face is covered with at least 30 ill-defined cup markings scattered over nearly the whole surface, though grouped towards one end; the average diameter of these cup markings is about 3 to 4cm, depth about 1.5cm.  There are several indistinct lines among the cup markings and there is among the thickest cluster of cup markings a symbol like a ‘wheel’, with the outer ‘rim’ drawn as a fairly perfect circle, with a diameter at the outer edge of some 17cm.  The ‘wheel’ has twelve ‘spokes’ and a single inner circle, or ‘hub’, with a diameter at the outer edges of about 4 or 5cm.”

Subsequent to Macnamara’s description, it’s been suggested that there are cup markings on both sides of the stone; but the ones on the other side are a little less certain.  The stone itself almost typifies the cup-marked cist covers we find scattered all over the country—yet no burial or other structure was noted upon its discovery in the fields.  It’s an oddity on various levels…

Close-up of spoked-wheel

Close-up of spoked-wheel

Close-up of spoked-wheel

Close-up of spoked-wheel

The spoked-wheel symbol and, moreso, the right-angled element, have led some to speculate that the symbol was carved in Pictish times; but there are problems with this on two levels at least.  The cup-marks we know are neolithic or Bronze Age in origin, and their design always inclines to abstract non-linear forms, screwing egocentric analysis. But the ‘spoked wheel’ is more linear in nature. But as acclaimed petroglyph researchers from George Coffey (1912) to Martin Brennan (1983) show, this spoked wheel occurs in neolithic Ireland; and the identical symbol occurs in prehistoric carvings at Petit Mont in France (Twohig 1981), at Cairnbaan in Argyll (Royal Commission 2008) and there’s even a partial spoked-ring on the Badger Stone on Ilkley Moor!  We have no need to jump into Pictish times to account for its origin and unless we have direct archaeological evidence to prove this, the academic Pictish association must be treated with a pinch of salt. It is nevertheless scarce amongst neolithic and Bronze Age carvings in Britain.   Maarten van Hoek (1990) suggested it to be a variant on the ‘rosette’ design, also neolithic in origin.  On the whole the symbol is interpreted as being the sun—which it may well be.

If you look carefully at the images above you can see, to the right of the ‘wheel’, a cup-marking surrounded by a ring of six-cups.  It is possible that this may be an older variant of the spiked-wheel solar symbol.  All speculation of course.  The other peculiar element here is the curious right-angled design, below the ‘sun’.  This symbol in particular is quite different from the early cup-marks and may have been carved at a much later date.  In which case, this raises the potential for a continuity of tradition here… which mightjust bring in the Picts!

A closer look at the carving

A closer look at the stone

But the general problem with a Pictish assignment is that of the Picts themselves.  If we ascribe the current anglocentric belief that the Picts only existed between the 3rd and 9th centuries (because we only have written records of them during that period), we are assuming the rather naive philosophy that anything before written history did not exist: a sort of blind-man’s Schrodinger’s Cat ideology, only really accepted by pseudo-historians.  But if the Picts didhave something to do with this carving, we may indeed be talking about a continuity of tradition from the ancient past into the written period.  Such an idea would be no problem in developed tribal cultures with an animistic cosmology—and that’s assuming that this stone was deemed as ‘special’ in some form or another to the local people. But all these are uncertainty principles in themselves and we may never know for sure…

There are no adjacent monuments to where Ardjachie’s stone came from, and apart from a scatter of flints found a hundred yards or so closer to the beach, other archaeological remains are down to a minimal.  Its isolation is peculiar.  There are however, a number of springs of water a few hundred yards away, just across the main A9 road, two of which have left their old names with us as the Cambuscurrie Well and the Fuaran nan Slainte, or fountain/spring of Healing (the modern Glenmorangie whisky gets it waters hereby!).  Although we must be careful not to assign every example of prehistoric rock art with the material, the mythic association between petroglyphs and water cannot be understated, and although such an association at Ardjachie is conjectural, it cannot go unnoticed.

References:

  1. Brennan, Martin, The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland, Thames & Hudson: London 1983.
  2. Coffey, George, New Grange and other Incised Tumuli in Ireland, Hodges Figgis: Dublin 1912.
  3. McHardy, Stuart, A New History of the Picts, Luath: Edinburgh 2012.
  4. Mack, Alastair, Symbols and Pictures: The Pictish Legacy in Stone, Pinkfoot Press: Brechin 2007.
  5. Macnamara, Ellen, “Tain, Ardjachie Farm: Cup Markings and Incised Symbol”, inDiscovery & Excavation Scotland, 1971.
  6. Macnamara, Ellen, The Pictish Stones of Easter Ross, Tain & District Museum 2010.
  7. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Pictish Symbol Stones: A Gazetteer, Edinburgh 1999.
  8. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Kilmartin – Prehistoric and Early Monuments, HMSO: Edinburgh 2008.
  9. Scott, Douglas, The Stones of the Pictish Peninsulas of Easter Ross and the Black Isle, Historic Hilton Trust 2004.
  10. Twohig, Elizabeth Shee, The Megalithic Art of Western Europe, Clarendon: Oxford 1981.
  11. van Hoek, M.A.M., “The Rosette in British and Irish Rock Art,” in Glasgow Archaeological Journal, volume 16, 1990.

Acknowledgements:  Huge thanks to Mark Taylor for use of his fine drawing in this site profile; copies of his work with Ellen Macnamara being available for sale from the Tain Museum.  Many thanks to the staff at Tain Museum for their help; and many thanks again to Prof Paul Hornby in the venture to this curious old petroglyph.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian