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

 

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  57.658824, -4.025735 St Bennet\'s Well

Holy Well of Isle Maree, Loch Maree, Ross & Cromarty

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NG 9310 7236

Also known as:

  1. Canmore ID 12049
  2. Mourie
  3. St. Maelrubha’s Well

Getting Here

Loch Maree, looking south. Painting © Bryan Islip
Loch Maree, looking south. Painting © Bryan Islip.

We were up here again in July 2009, but I’ve still not been across onto the island itself — just stared from the lochside, dying to swim across and spend a night or three alone on the island amidst this legendary landscape.  Basically, get to Talladale on the A832 (halfway between Gairloch and Kinlochewe), then walk up to the loch-side to your right (east) for a mile till you reach the small wooded outcrop.  Look north, betwixt the two isles and its the one in the middle with the Crag of the Bull and Maire’s Cairn rising up the mountain face behind.  But you can reach it via a boat trip from one of the local harbours.  Staying there overnight however, would seem more troublesome.  It seems that a winter visit seems best!

Folklore

This ‘holy well’ has a prodigious occult history which, sez my nose, is still maintained by one or two old Highland folk up here.  This small island (one of many in this long loch) was the Isle of the Druids in old days: legend telling it to be the teaching ground of these shady priests. Even the Iona druids came here. The main relics on on the island are the old holy well, accompanied by an old legendary tree into which all local people flocked and wedged coins at least once in their life. This devotional rite eventually took its toll, with so many of the coins covering the old tree with metallic scales to a height of nine feet, eventually killing it.

The well itself was said to cure insanity — no doubt the remedial quality given to the waters after neophyte druids had spent many days of ritual solitude here, eventually sipping its life-giving fluid to revive them from their ordeal.

It eventually became sanctified by the Church: legend saying it was St. Maelrubha (the same dood who turned the healthy Applecross heathens into church-goers) who was the guilty party.  Indeed, the name Maree itself, was proclaimed as deriving from this old saint, though local lore tells it to derive from the pagan ‘ane god Mourie.’

Elizabeth Sutherland (1985) reported that remains of the sacred tree were still visible. It is also said that no-one makes ritual commemmoration here anymore. Hmmmm… don’t always believe what you read.

In the 18th century, when Thomas Pennant visited this sacred well, he described that,

“in the midst is a circular dike of stones… I expect the dike to have originally been druidical, and that the ancient superstition of paganism had been taken up by the saint (Maelrubha) as the readiest method of making a conquest over the minds of the inhabitants.”

References:

  1. Dixon, John, Gairloch in North-west Ross-Shire, Co-op: Edinburgh 1886.
  2. MacKenzie, Kenneth C., Loch Maree: The Jewel in the Crown, privately printed 2002.
  3. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  4. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  5. Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, MDCCLXXII, John Monk: Chester 1774.
  6. Polson, Alexander, Gairloch, George Souter: Dingwall 1920.
  7. Sutherland, Elizabeth, Ravens and Black Rain, Constable: London 1985.
  8. Watson, W.J., Place-Names of Ross and Cromarty, Northern Counties Printing: Inverness 1904.

* This beautiful painting is one of many done by local artist, Bryan Islip.  It is taken from his 2010 Calendar, Scotland’s Wester Ross, and is available direct from him. If you’d like to know more, or want copies of his calendar or other artworks, email him at:  pico555@btopenworld.com – or check his website at www.picturesandpoems.co.uk

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Painting © Bryan Islip

 

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  57.693334, -5.473033 Holy Well of Maree