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.”
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.
Hiley, M.D., “Rag-Wells,” in Antiquity, volume 9:4, December 1935.
Were it not for the valuable records in the Scottish Statistical Accounts, we’d have lost all knowledge of this site. It was described in notes by by Colin Baxter (1793), where he told us:
“About 200 yards west from the church of Monivaird, a barrow was opened some years ago, in which two urns were found, each containing a stone of a bluish colour, very hard about four inches long, and of a triangular shape, somewhat resembling the head of an axe.”
The site was subsequently mentioned in the Ordnance Survey Name Book of the parish, with some additional bits of information:
“In the year 17–, there was found, about one hundred yards to the westward of the old church of Monzievaird, a barrow containing a stone-coffin, in which were inclosed two coarse earthen urns, the one filled with burnt bones, the other containing the bones of the head. Of these, the under jawbone and the teeth were very entire. In the stone coffin was also found a stone hatchet, bluish-coloured, very hard, about four inches long, and of a triangular shape, a remain which proves the barrow of very remote antiquity – prior to the use of iron. The stone hatchet is preserved at Ochtertyre.”
No traces remain of the site; and although the stone axes came to be in the possession of Sir William Murray of Ochtertyre, the urns and other remains have long since been lost.
The name of ‘St Serf’s Water’ derives from it this area being dedicated to St Servanus in early times; the holy well of St Serf could be found a short distance south from where this tomb was built.
Baxter, Colin, “United Parishes of Monivaird and Strowan,” in Statistical Account of Scotland – volume 8, William Creech: Edinburgh 1793.
A mile to the west side of Crieff, in the grounds of the 18th century mansion known as Ochtertyre House, could once be seen the little-known sacred well of St Serf. Sadly its waters seem to have disappeared beneath the rising waters of the loch known as St Serf’s Waters—which is a pity, as the place was of importance in the annual traditions of the local people, who left offerings to the spirit of the place, as was common in days of olde. It was described in Mr Porteous’ (1822) account of Monzievaird parish, in which he told that,
“Nigh to this place is St Serf’s Well, and the moor whereon St Serf’s market is held. He was the tutelary saint of the parish of Monivaird. This well is a plentiful spring of water. About sixty years ago, our people were wont, on Lammas day, to go and drink it, leaving white stones, spoons, or rags, which they brought with them; but nothing except the white stones now appear, this superstitious practice being quite in oblivion. It has been useful in a strangury, as any other very cold water would be; for a patient, taking a tub full of it immediately from the well, plunging his arms into it, which were bare to the elbows, was cured.
“St Serf’s fair is still kept on the 11th of July, where Highland horses, linen cloth, etc., both from the south and north, are sold.”
Although the well is deemed to be ‘lost’, it is possible that its waters might be seen after a good drought. Please let us know if that happens.
St. Serf was said to have been a hermit and tutor of the more renowned St. Mungo.
Take the road to Auchlyne from Killin which follows the north side of the River Dochart, and on the edge of the village the stone will be seen on the left hand side behind a hedge, opposite the entrance to ‘Springburn’.
Archaeology & History
The chair is mentioned in Rev. Gillies’ exemplary work, In Famed Breadalbane (1938):
‘St. Fillan would appear to have had a great liking for stone seats. Besides the one already mentioned…there is..a..flat stone on the top of a knoll about a mile to the west of the village, and on the north side of the river, on which he is said to have sat and taught‘
Two local ladies told us that the Chair had recently been uncovered from the vegetation. It is a flattish earth-fast slab of rock, which has on the right hand side a seat indentation, which faces the river bank about 12 feet away. Its proximity to the river bank would seem to limit its use as a preaching pulpit, and yet, well over a millennium after the death of Fillan, his ‘Chair’ is still remembered. Did the Chair serve another purpose, a purpose that long preceded Fillan and Christianity?
Here at Killin we are in an area of Scotland where Christianity was for long a veil worn very lightly over long-held ancient animistic beliefs and customs. Indeed in the early nineteenth century, missionaries were sent in the face of considerable local opposition by the Haldanes into Gaelic speaking Breadalbane to try to convert the locals to Christianity.
St Fillan and other saints had it seems become the named facilitators for healing at ancient places on behalf of the incoming religion from the Middle East. To the west of Killin, there are the St Fillan’s Pools at Auchtertyre near Tyndrum, where he is reputed to have cured madness but which continued to be used for that purpose until the late eighteenth century at least. There are stones for preventing measles and whooping cough near Killin that are still known and pointed out. So what of our chair?
There is a nineteenth century story of a chair of St Fiacre (Irish born like Fillan) at the village church of St Fiacre near Monceaux in France being used to ‘confer fecundity upon women who sit upon it ‘. The shape and proximity to the river may otherwise suggest St Fillan’s Chair was a birthing Chair? Maybe some very old locals still know the true story of this Chair, but would they tell it?
Anon., Phallic Worship – a Description of the Mysteries of the Sex Worship of the Ancients, privately Printed: London 1880.
Approaching the site from the north, walk along the Lane Head track, and along the path south-eastwards, then turn right onto the main footpath until coming to the stream. Follow the stream up the fell to the large clump of reeds, then follow your ears until you locate the spring! Or you can approach it along the main footpath from the Oakenclough – Galgate road. The well and the path to it
are on access land.
Archaeology & History
Fortunately recorded by the Ordnance Survey on their 1846 6″ map Lancashire XL, the story of St Ellen’s Well was taken up sixty years later by local holy wells historian Henry Taylor (1906):
“The site of this holy well is marked on the ordnance map at a lonely spot on Harris Fell, five hundred feet above the sea-level, four and a half miles in a north-easterly direction from the town of Garstang.
“Mr. A. King has kindly examined the site. He writes, 4th August, 1902: “We had no difficulty in locating the spot…. There is no outward indication of the place being used for curative means, and there is no stonework at all. It is a beautifully cold spring which is at the side of ‘Bonny Pad’, a pathway leading across the moor from Harris End, and it was grown around with rushes…. All I can glean about it is that one of the oldest inhabitants, when asked if he knew of it, replied, ‘It will be th’ holy well, you mean.'”
The original dedication of this remote holy well was clearly to St. Helen, and its presence next to the Bonny Pad or path may indicate a pre-Christian dedication to a local cognate of the Celtic Elen Luyddog, Elen of the hosts or ways. The Bonny Pad is shown but not not named on the 1846 map, and follows a broadly southwest to northeast direction from Harris End (again not named on the 1846 map) up to Grizedale Head on the southern edge of the Catshaw Vaccary. It was perhaps an ancient route used by farmers to take their animals up onto the fell for the summer, and return them to the lowlands in the autumn.
The western portion of Bonny Pad is not shown on the modern map and St Ellen’s Well is not marked, and both have it seems passed out of local memory. An elderly farmer I encountered on my way up to the fell had never heard of the Well.
It is certainly worth the walk if only for the delightful sound of this powerfully flowing spring, the water is pure and cold, and it commands a fine view over the Lancashire plain to the coast.
Taylor, Henry, The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Sherratt & Hughes: Manchester 1906.
Wise, Caroline, “Elen of the Roads of Country and Town”, in Finding Elen – The Quest for Elen of the Ways, edited by Caroline Wise, Eala Press: London 2015.
Shown on the 1864 OS map of the area as a ‘Well’ just at the front of St Bride’s Chapel—now a very pleasant old cottage—peasants and pilgrims would stop for both refreshment and ritual here as they walked down High Kype Road. Although the chapel was described in church records of January 1542 as being on the lands of Little Kype, close to the settlement of St Bride, there seems to be very little known about the history or traditions of the well. If anyone has further information on this site, please let us know.
Bride or Brigit has her origins in early British myth and legend, primarily from Scotland and Ireland. Her saint’s day is February 1, or the heathen Imbolc (also known as Candlemas). Although in christian lore St. Bride was born around 450 AD in Ireland and her father a Prince of Ulster, legend tells that her step-father (more probably a teacher) was a druid and her ‘saintly’ abilities as they were later described are simply attributes from this shamanic pantheon. Legends—christian and otherwise—describe Her as the friend of animals; possessor of a magickal cloak; a magickian and a healer; and whose ‘spirit’ or genius loci became attached to ‘sacred sites’ in the natural world, not the christian renunciation of it. St Bride was one of the primal faces of the great prima Mater known as the Cailleach: the greater Gaelic deity of Earth’s natural cycles, whose changing seasons would also alter Her names, faces and clothes, as Her body moved annually through the rhythms of the year. Bride was (and is) ostensibly an ecological deity, with humans intrinsically a part of such a model, not a part from it, in contrast to the flawed judaeo-christian theology.
Paul, J.B. & Thomson, J.M., Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum: The Register of the Great Seal of Scotland AD 1513 – 1546, HMGRH: Edinburgh 1883.
Very little seems to be known about this apparently lost site, deemed to be an authentic holy well in Francis Jones’ (1954) fine survey: the ‘Ellen’ in question here being the legendary St Helen. It was highlighted on the first OS-map of the area in 1869 and subsequently included in the Royal Commission’s huge Pembrokeshire (1925) tome, but when they came to visit the site they reported that “it could not be traced, nor any information obtained about it.” Has it truly fallen back to Earth, or do any local historians and antiquarians know where it is…?
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales 1954.
Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Wales, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales & Monmouthshire: VII – County of Pembroke, HMSO: London 1925.
This long lost ‘holy well of St Brigit’ (Tobar Bhride) has been mentioned—purely in literary repetition—by such folklore giants as F.M. MacNeill and others, but none of them give any additional information about it than that first mentioned by Alexander Stewart’s (1890) in his fascinating article on magical stones. Indeed, knowledge of this well’s very existence was only preserved thanks to a ritual incantation that was recited to imbue and maintain healing properties of one such magickal stone, known as the Charm Stone of Keppoch. It
“was an oval of rock crystal, about the size of a small egg, fixed in a bird’s claw of silver, and with a silver chain attached, by which it was suspended when about to be dipped.”
It was dipped in water taken from the sacred well of St Brigit, somewhere not far from Keppoch. The incantation made over the stone was in Gaelic, obviously, but the english translation is:
“Let me dip thee in the water,
Thou yellow, beautiful gem of Power!
In water of purest wave,
Which (saint) Bridget didn’t permit to be contaminated.
In the name of the Apostles twelve,
In the name of Mary, virgin of virtues,
And in the name of the high trinity
And all the shining angels,
A blessing on the gem,
A blessing on the water, and
A healing of bodily ailments to each suffering creature.”
On the east side of the river, just a few hundred yards away, could once be found the Fuaran na Ban-Tighearna, or the Well of Her Ladyship. In this sense, the term ‘ladyship’ refers to the “wife of a baronet or knight.” (Dwelly 1918) The idea that it may refer to Bride in Her guise as a ‘lady’ is linguistically improbable here (though not impossible). Also, if this fuaran did have a geomythic relationship with Bride, we would expect to find a Cailleach in the nearby landscape, which we don’t.
An interesting piece of folklore that may relate to this well is described by the great Scottish landscape wanderer, Seton Gordon. (1948) Although he makes no mention of a Bride’s Well, there is the tale of a missing bride up Glen Roy, of which Keppoch sits below. “It was in earlier times,” he wrote,
“that the Maid of Keppoch was taken by the fairies in Glen Roy. She was an Irish girl, little more than a child, and had become the wife of MacDonell of Keppoch. But the wedding rejoicings were scarcely over when the bride, wandering into the oak woods which still clothe the lower slopes of Glen Roy, disappeared mysteriously. It was believed that, like the Rev Robert Kirk…she had been spirited away by the fairies. If indeed she was abducted by the Little People they held her closely, for from that day to this no trace has been found of the fair Maid of Keppoch.”
St Bride of course was Irish, like the Maid of Keppoch. And just a mile up Glen Roy from Keppoch House we find the Sron Dubh and Sithean, or Ridge of the Dark Fairy Folk. There are several burns (streams) running either side and below this fairy haunt, but I can find none with Bride’s name. Someone, somewhere, must know where it is…
Gordon, Seton, Highways and Byways in the Central Highlands, MacMillan: London 1948.
Dwelly, Edward, The Illustrated Gaelic English Dictionary – volume 1, Fleet Hants 1918.
Stewart, Alexander, “Notice of a Highland Charm-Stone,” in Proceedings Society Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 24, 1890.
Take the A823 road out of Dunfermline south towards Rosyth. A half-mile before you hit the motorway roundabout, at the roundabout where Carnegie Avenue takes you east, turn west and park up along the road where the modern business park lives. 30-40 yards from the roundabout, set back on the pavement, you can’t really miss the huge flat slab of stone, covered in cup-markings, resting on a stone plinth with ‘St Margaret’s Stone’ stamped on it!
Archaeology & History
On the 1856 OS-map of this area, St Margaret’s Stone is shown at the roadside just above a farm of the same name, a short distance away from its present location. In October 1879, Alexander Stewart (1889) told us that funds were raised and steps taken to properly fix and preserve this ancient ‘resting-place’ of Queen Margaret on the Queensferry Road. It was quite a few years later before it was moved the few hundred yards further to its present location.
Early writers tell us that originally its position in the landscape was on the crest of one of the rises in the land between Dunfermline and the sea, making it visible for some considerable distance. This would seem to have been a deliberate placement. In my mind, and in accordance with the placement of many a prehistoric tomb, St Margaret’s Stone may originally have been part of a neolithic or Bronze age cairn, long since gone. The size and shape of the rock implies it too, with similarities here of the impressive cist or gravestone found inside the Netherlargie North cairn at Kilmartin. However, this wasn’t the thought of the prodigious Scottish historian, William Skene. He thought that St Margaret’s Stone originally stood upright, being a Pictish-style standing stone that was mentioned in the first Statistical Account of the area. The brilliant Scottish antiquarian, John Stuart (1856)—who gave us an illustration of the ‘standing stone’ in question—told us:
“It has been supposed by some that “St. Margaret’s Stone,” a block now lying on the side of the highway leading from Inverkeithing to Dunfermline, and about midway between these places, can be identified with the standing stone referred to in the Statistical Account. Mr Skene has noted below a sketch of St. Margaret’s Stone:- “The sculpture upon this stone has been lately chipped off in mere wantonness, so as to leave few traces of the subject recorded upon it.” He farther states that it formerly stood erect, and was called “The Standing Stone.” According to Mr. Skene’s measurement, St. Margaret’s stone is about nine feet and a half in length, one foot in thickness, and four feet broad at the widest end, and broken off to a narrow point at the other.”
In this instance, Skene was confusing St Margaret’s Stone with the lost Pictish monolith (left) that used to exist nearby, which had carved horse figures and other memorial designs upon it and which he thought had faded away. Whereas the large slab we are looking at here, and which Skene visited and measured, is covered on one side by a gathering of prehistoric cup-markings—much earlier than any Pictish or early christian carvings. At first glance, it seems that some of these cups may well be natural, but it has to be said that some of them are distinctly man-made. And if we were to believe the archaeo-accounts of the stone, the cupmarks are only to found on one side of the stone. Which aint true. As we can see here, a number of cupmarks run along the edge of the stone. We cannot say for sure whether all of them are artificial, but they certainly look like it! Also, on the other side of the flat surface, one or two single cups are visible. It would be good if we could get an artist to give us a detailed impression of the prehistoric carvings without the modern engraving of St Margaret’s Stone etching on the main face. (is there anybody out there!?)
The Royal Commission (1933) lads visited the stone in 1925 and, several years later in their write-up, told us simply:
“This stone…stands with its main axis due north and south and measures 8 feet 6 inches, by 4 feet 7 inches, by 1 foot 6 inches. On one side the entire surface is cup-makred, the markings varying in size from 1¼ inches to 3¼ inches and having an average depth of from ½ to ¾ inch.”
When the Scottish petroglyph writer and explorer, Ron Morris (1968) came to the site, he gave it an equally brief description, merely telling us:
“On standing stone (8 1/2 feet high, 4 1/2 feet wide), built in to roadside fence, over 80 cups, up to 4in in diam, 3/4in deep, some run together as rough dumbells.”
It’s well worth checking out!
When the Saxon Queen Margaret landed on the shores just west of Queensferry at Rosyth Castle (NT 1087 8200), legend reputes that she and her entourage made Her way north towards Dunfermline. Halfway along the ancient track She rested at this large stone, which thereafter gained its name. Subsequebt to this, Margaret was said to use the stone as a seat and would go to rest there upon occasions. The tale probably has some germ of true in it. Additional elements were also said of the great rock:
“The large stone here is associated with St Margaret and was visited by women who hoped to conceive or sought a successful birth. The eight-foot high stone is said to mark the resting place of St Margaret when she journeyed between Queensferry and Dunfermline. Margaret had eight successful pregnancies and probably needed to rest quite a few times on her travels!”
The fertility aspects of the rock were not the only pre-chritian virtues attached to it. We also find that oft-cited motif of rocks moving of their own accord: in this case, as J.B. MacKie (1905) told us, local people had always
“been told that the stone rose from its bed and whirled thrice round in the air every time it heard the cock at the adjoining farm crow.”
Cocks crowing are symbolic of sunrise, obviously. Whether the rest of the short theme is a folk memory of the stone becoming animated when something in the sky occurred – at sunrise perhaps, in accordance with many an alignment found in the ancient tombs up and down the country.
Holy Well (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – SE 308 336
Archaeology & History
This is one of three wells that were dedicated to St Peter in the Leeds district. The first of them, near the city centre, was described by the northern antiquarian Ralph Thoresby (1715) as being in St. Peter’s Square—which has now been completely built over, but was situated “at the bottom or west end of High Street,” (Bonser 1974) about 50 yards west of the modern Quarry Hill buildings. It was well known in the area in early times with a good curative reputation due seemingly to its sulphur content. Mr Thoresby told that us, it
“is intensely cold and very beneficial for such as are afflicted with rheumatic pains, or weakness, rickets, etc, for which reason it is much frequented by such, who might otherwise have recourse to St. Mungus or Mongah, as it is more truly writ. This Spring, according to St Anselms Canon, which forbad a credulous attributing any reverence, or opinion of holiness to fountains…must either have been of great antiquity, or have had the bishop’s authority.”
Local folk of course, would have long known the goodness of this water supply long before any crude bishop. The well either possessed a very large stone trough or it had been fashioned and added to by locals, as Thoresby reported “trying the cold bathing of St Peter’s.” He took his youngest child there, Richard, to help him overcome an osteopathic ailment. In his diary entry for April 8, 1709, he wrote:
“Was late at church, and fetched out by a messuage from the bone-setter (Smith, of Ardsley), who positively affirms that one part of the kneebone of my dear child Richard, has slipped out of its proper place; he set it right and bound it up; the Lord give a blessing to all endeavours! We had made use of several before, who all affirmed that no bone was wrong, but that his limp proceeded rather from some weakness, which we were the rather induced to believe, because warm weather, and bathing in St. Peter’s Well, had set him perfectly on his feet without the least halting, only this severe Winter has made him worse than ever.”
It later became at least one of the water supplies for Maude’s Spa close by. As usual with health-giving waters at this period in the evolving cities, money was to be made from them and local folk had to find their supplies from other sources. St Peter’s Sulphur Baths (as it was called) were built on top of it in the 19th century and, said Bonser “flourished until the early years of the (20th) century.”
Although I can find no notices of annual celebrations or folklore here, St. Peter’s Day is June 29 — perhaps a late summer solstice site, though perhaps not.
It would be good if Leeds city council would at least put historical plaques in and around the city to inform people of the location of the many healing and holy wells that were once an integral part of the regions early history. Tourists of various interest groups (from christian to pagan and beyond) would love to know more about their old sacred sites and spend their money in the city.