Holy Well (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – TA 032 222
Archaeology & History
Not far from the middle of this small town there lived, many centuries ago, a sacred spring of water dedicated to St. Catharine. Described in local field-names from 1697 (as St. Catherin’s Well), all trace of it has long since vanished. Indeed, even when Henry Ball (1856) wrote about it, local knowledge of it had already fallen into obscurity. He could merely tell us that,
“At the end of Newport, in what was called “the Colony,” was St. Catharine’s Well, and the road from thence to Finkle lane was named Catharine street.”
St Catharine’s festival date—known as Cattern Day in some parts of England—is November 25.
Take the A701 road from the east end of Princes Street south—down North Bridge, South Bridge, Nicolson Street, onto Liberton Road and then Liberton Gardens—towards Penicuik. 3¾ miles along, in the parish of Liberton itself, where the A701 is called Howden Hall Road, keep your eyes peeled for the turning into the Toby Carvery on your left. Park up and walk across the grass and look behind the trees ahead of you (if you can’t find it, ask the people in the pub). .
Archaeology & History
Located south of Liberton village—a few hundred yards west of the long-gone chapel erected by St. Margaret in honour of St. Catherine—this famous holy well is now in the grounds of a public house and is easily accessed. It has been described by many historians through the centuries, from Matthew Mackaile’s (1664) short work to more recent tourist guides. When the local historian George Good (1893) told about it, local lore still spoke of the old church. “These lands,” he wrote,
“belonged to a very ancient chapel dedicated to St. Catherine, which stood with its burying-ground near the modern mansion of St. Catherine’s. All trace of this chapel has disappeared, but at the end of last century its ruins were still extant. It was reputed to be the most ancient place of worship in the parish, and the ground around the chapel was consecrated for burials. Hither came annually in solemn procession the nuns from the Convent of Sciennes, a foundation due to the piety of one of the St. Clairs of Rosslyn, who may possibly have also been connected with the origin of the Chapel of St. Catherine.”
Its relationship with the world-famous Roslyn Chapel, less than 4 miles to the south, remains (to my knowledge) unproven, but it’s an association that would not be unlikely. This aside, St Catherine’s Well has a long history. Described in Hector Boece’s Latin text Scotorum Historia (1526), we have one John Bellenden to thanks for a wonderful translation into early english under the title of The History and Chronicles of Scotland in 1536. Herein one of the later editions we read, in that quaint old dyslexia:
“Nocht two miles fra Edinburgh is ane fontane dedicat to Sanct Katrine, quhair sternis of oulie springs ithandlie with sic abundance that howbeit the samin be gaderit away, it springis incontinent with gret abundance. This fontane rais throw ane drop of Sanct Katrine’s oulie, quhilk was brocht out of Monte Sinai, fra her sepulture, to Sanct Margaret, the blissit Quene of Scotland. Als sone as Sanct Margaret saw the oulie spring ithandlie, by divine miracle, in the said place, sche gart big ane chapell thair in the hounour of Sanct Katrine. This oulie has anr singulare virteu agains all maner of kankir and skawis.”
In the middle of the 17th century, its medicinal virtues were brought to the attention of the surgeon Matthew Mackaile who, in 1664, wrote:
“In the paroch of Libberton, the church whereof lyeth two miles southward from Edinburgh, there is a well at the Chapel of St. Catherine’s, which is distant from the church about a quarter of a mile, and is situate toward the south-west, whose profundity equaleth the length of a pike, and is always replete with water, and at the bottom of it there remaineth a great quantity of black oyl in some veins of the earth. His Majesty King James VI, the first monarch of Great Britain, of blessed memory, had such a great estimation of this rare well, that when he returned from England to visit his ancient kingdom of Scotland in anno 1617, he went in person to see it, and ordered that it should be built with stones from the bottom to the top, and that a door and a pair of stairs should be made for it, that men might have the more easy access into its bottom for getting of the oyl. This royal command being obeyed, the well was adorned and preserved until the year 1650, when that execrable regicide and usurper, Oliver Cromwell, with his rebellious and sacrilegious complices, did invade this kingdom, and not only defaced such rare and ancient monuments of Nature’s handiwork, but also the synagogues of the God of nature.”
This historical appraisal has been echoed by other writers and is very probably accurate. Some years after Cromwell and his murderers had desecrated the land and people in this area, the well was again repaired to its former condition and slowly, quietly, people began traditionally using the site for ritual and healing once more. But over the next two hundred years, probably through religious persecution by the Church, the site was used less and less and, by the time Thomas Muir (1861) visited and wrote about it, the well-house had become “dilapidated”. A few years later when the holy wells writer J.R. Walker (1883) visited the place, he found that not only was it still,
“celebrated for the cure of cutaneous diseases, (but) it is still visited for its medicinal virtues”; and was “now carefully protected and looked after.”
In James Begg’s (1845) account of the well for the Statistical Account, he told:
“At St. Catherine’s is a well which contains a quantity of mineral oil or petroleum, obtained most probably from the spring flowing over some portion of the coal beds. This bitumous matter floats copiously on the surface of the water, and is also partially dissolved in it. The spring is reckoned medicinal by the country people, and may have some slight efficacy in cutaneous eruptions…
“At St Catherine’s, there is the famous well, before alluded to, anciently called the Balm Well. Black oily substances constantly float on the surface of the water. However many you remove they still appear to reside in this well, and it was much frequented by persons afflicted with cutaneous complaints. The nuns of the Sheens made an annual procession to it in honour of St Catharine. King James VI visited it in 1617, and ordered it to be properly enclosed and provided with a door and staircase, but it was destroyed and filled up by the soldiers of Cromwell in 1650. It has again been opened and repaired, and is now in a good state of preservation.”
The “nuns of the Sheens” who made the annual pilgrimage here were the nuns of St. Catherine’s of Sienna, in Italy! This crazy-sound journey is more than one thousand miles long and its nature and origin needs exploring in greater depth. A number of curiously-named ‘Caty’ wells seem to relate to this incredible venture, whose scope will hopefully be covered in a future essay.
It would have been more than just the healing properties of the oily waters that called the nuns across their incredible journey, but they would, no doubt, have been of considerable mythic importance. All of the early writers comment about it and seem confident in its abilities. As the Liberton historian George Good (1893) said,
“…there can be little doubt that its waters had a healing tendency. Oils when rubbed on the skin have often been found to produce most beneficial results in skin diseases. The tarry substance or petroleum mixture discovered in this spot was no doubt due to the presence of the coal or shale strata of the district. The existence of the oil-works at Straiton and elsewhere cannot fail to throw a light upon the history and peculiarities of the so-called Balm Well of St. Catherine’s, which even yet has an occasional visitor.”
This oily substance was examined for medical potential by Dr. George Wilson in the mid-19th century, who found:
“The water from St Katherine’s Well contains after filtration, in each imperial gallon, grs. 28.11 of solid matter, of which grs. 8.45 consist of soluble sulphates and chlorides of the earths and alkalies, and grs. 19.66 of insoluble calcareaous carbonates.”
I am not aware of any modern accounts of cures attached to St Catherine’s waters, but have little doubt that some people will have found it useful….
The architecture of the small well-house covering the waters would seem insubstantial, but the Royal Commission (1929) account told:
“The well is housed within a tiny vaulted structure. The Renaissance front is relatively modern, but it contains a door lintel, probably quite unconnected with the structure, on which is inscribed the date 1563 within recessed panels flanking a central panel, which contains a shield flanked by the initials A.P. The shield bears a saltire, in the sinister quarter of which is a Latin cross placed horizontally, i.e., with the shaft towards the fess point (? a merchant’s mark); the upper quarter contains a much worn object resembling a broad arrow, point uppermost.”
The iron-clad door is locked, as the visitor will see. Please enquire at the hotel regarding it being opened to look inside. Upon our visit here in June 2017, the waters, as in J.R. Walker’s (1883) day, were still bubbling up and were quite high, but it looked as if the inside needed cleaning. For a change, we didn’t drink the water…..
Although various writers have posited that the oily waters are probably due related to the nearby coalfields, legend tells otherwise:
“It owes its origin, it is said, to a miracle in this manner: St. Katherine had a commission from St. Margaret, consort of Malcolm Canmore, to bring a quantity of oil from Mount Sinai. In this very place, she happened, by some accident or other, to lose a few drops of it, and, on her earnest supplication, the well appeared as just now described.” (Thomas Whyte 1792)
Banks, M. MacLeod, British Calendar Customs: Scotland – volume 1, Folklore Society: London 1937.
Begg, James, “Parish of Liberton“, in New Statistical Account of Scotland – volume 1: Edinburgh, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1845.
To find Westhorpe, take the lane on the left as one leaves Southwell, and then the next left, Bath Lane. The cottage is the only house on this lane and the well arises on the edge of its private garden. Ask permission to view.
Archaeology and History
The earliest record of a religious institution here is in 1482, when a chapel was erected dedicated to the saint. Whether this was built to cater for those who sought the well is unclear, but it seems likely. Little is recorded of its mediaeval history. Of its post-Reformation history, Dickinson (1819) notes that a Mr. Burton of Norwood Park built a house and bath at the site in 1720. He appears to have used the saint as support for its properties as:
“Over the head of the fountain was a plate, on which some Latin verses were inscribed, much to the honour of the tutelary saint, and the reputation of the water.”
It is thought that the cottage and barn at the site may be the remains of this venture, although, I was informed by the occupant that the barn had mediaeval features. When Bob Morrell (1988) visited he was also told that a bath-like structure with steps down was located nearby, but an exact location was unknown, and the current occupiers were similarly unaware of it when I visited. This was probably a relic of Mr Burton’s exploitation. This appears to have been a brief period, for as Shilton (1818) notes, it
“…would have retained them to this day, had there been the due accompanyments (sic) for luxurious lounge, intrigue and scandal commodiously attached.”
St. Catherine’s Well itself is found between Bath Cottage and the barn. It arises in a brick-lined square structure capped with a broken slab. This sits on an older structure which has the appearance of calcareous rock; although any petrifying properties are not noted by previous authors. When first visited the well house was dry; however, a more recent visit in spring showed a considerable flow (despite a dry winter). It flowed from a clay pipe within the well house and leaves through a smaller pipe set into the calcified part and then down to the dumble below. In this dumble appear to be some dressed stone which may have been part of the original structure. Beside the well on the bank above is a small slate monument which records:
“A chapel dedicated to St. Catherine existed here in medieval times but it is thought to have fallen into disuse at the dissolution. A spring and well with reputed healing properties near the chapel was still patronised in the 1800s by those seeking relief from rheumatism. The present bath cottage was erected on the site of the chapel. D.J Hall Southwell.”
Not much but its waters were said to be a cure for rheumatism being particularly cold.
Dickinson, W. (1787), A History of the Antiquities of the Town and Church of Southwell, in the County of Nottingham. Nottingham.
Morrell, R. W. (1988), Nottinghamshire Holy Wells and Springs. Nottingham
Parish, R.B. (2010), Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire. Nottingham
Rattue, James (1995), The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Boydell: Woodbridge.
Shilton, R. P. (1818), The History of Southwell in the county of Nottinghamshire. Nottingham.