Legendary Trees (lost): OS Grid Reference – NN 693 242
A fascinating story of this forgotten site is detailed in Alex Porteous’ (1912) history book on this tiny parish at the eastern end of Loch Earn. It’s a peculiar tale—and unless the story was little more than the local people ripping the piss out of the patronising incomers, its nature remains a mystery. Porteous wrote:
“What were known as the Goose Oaks grew by the loch-side about two or three hundred yards west from the hotel. The story is told of a celebrated goose which attained to the great age of 160 years and finally gave up this life in 1818. It is solemnly averred by Mr (John) Brown that the history of this goose was well authenticated and that the families and individuals who successively were owners of the goose were highly respectable, and that its history was preserved entire for the period back to 1658, while he naively adds—”How long it was in being prior to that date is uncertain.” The goose was buried at the spot indicated, and the oaks trees, two in number, of which only one remains now, planted over its grave; but the story, as regards the age, must be looked upon as apocryphal.”
One wonders what on Earth Sir James Frazer might have made of this tale!
Along the A85 road at the east-end of Lochearnhead, head out of the village east towards Comrie. Just above the main-road, maybe 50 yards after passing the small road to St Fillan’s Golf Club, on the north side of the road you’ll see a huge boulder resting in the edge of the garden of the large detached house that was known as The Oaks. That’s the fella!
Archaeology & History
Almost fallen out of history, oral tradition has thankfully kept the name and brief history of this huge boulder alive. Found in association with the prehistoric standing stones just yards away, the Clach na Ba lives beside the ancient drover’s road (and probable prehistoric route before that) just yards east of the old cottage known as Casetta. This occupies a site where an old toll-house stood, and the drovers would have to stop and pay a toll before continuing onwards past the Clach na Ba, or Stone of the Cattle.
When the drovers passed their highland cattle here, the animals rubbed themselves against the stone to ensure good health and fertility (as well as just having a good scratch, no doubt).
Porteous, Alexander, Annals of St Fillans, David Philips: Crieff 1912.
Acknowledgements: With huge thanks to Nina Harris and Paul Hornby for the day out and for use of their photos in this site-profile; and to the lovely couple (we didn’t get their names – soz) who live in the house behind the Clach na Ba, for their help with the fascinating local history .
Not hard to find. Between the small towns of Comrie and St. Fillans along the A85 road, keep your eyes peeled for the small but rocky crags that rise in front of the background of dramatic mountains not far from the roadside to the south. It looks truly majestic even on a dull day. Just as you reach the eastern edge of St. Fillans village, take the small road over the river-bridge and go to the golf club. Walk past the golf club itself, keeping along the track that leads you to Dundurn hill. It’s easy enough. Then climb to the very top of the hill where you’ll find this curious, large, flat bed-like rock right in front of you!
Archaeology & History
The archaeological data for St. Fillan’s Chair relates more to the folklore practices of the people upon Dundurn hill than anything else and ostensibly little can be said by such students. The place is more satisfying for geologists than archaeologists, who would adore the rocky fluctuations and geophysical propensities with greater verve than any archaeologist could muster! For this rocky bed-shaped feature is a fascinating structure whose only potential interest to archaeologists are what may be a couple of reduced cup-marks on the top of the stone (and even then, such potential rock art is more the province of religious historians and anthropologists than archaeologists).
But this ‘bed’ or ‘chair’, as it was locally known, was – and it seems, still is – important in the social history of the area, as its folklore clearly tells. The ‘chair’ plays an important part in the holistic role of Dundurn as a hill, a fort, a healing centre, an inauguration site, and very probably an omphalos: a sacred centre whereupon the ordination of shamans, kings and the cosmos as a whole was brought to bear here… (these features will be explored in greater depth when I write a singular profile of Dundurn as a ‘fort’).
The character of St. Fillan was described by James Cockburn (1954) as “an Irish Pict” and the “son of a King – his father being Angus mac Nadfraich who died in battle in 490 AD.” Quite an important dood in his day! The relationship this early christian figure had with this Chair was in its supposedly curative properties. Yeah…you read it right: curative properties! As with countless rocks all over the world, some of Nature’s outcrop boulders were imbued with a spirit of their own and, when conditions and/or the cycle of the spirit ‘awoke’, healing attributes could be gained from the place. And such was the case at St. Fillan’s Chair, especially on Beltane morning (May 1). And some element of this traditional pilgrimage is still done; for when the author Marion Woolley and I visited the site on Mayday 2013, it was obvious that some people had been up earlier that Beltane morning and left some offerings of quartz stones on the top end of the bed.
The earliest written reference of this medicinal virtue was told in the Old Statistical Account of Perthshire (1791):
The rock on the summit of the hill, formed, of itself, a chair for the saint, which still remains. Those who complain of rheumatism in the back, must ascend the hill, sit in this chair, then lie down on their back, and be pulled by the legs to the bottom of the hill. This operation is still performed, and reckoned very efficacious.
More than a hundred years later, the sites was still being used and was described in similar vein in MacKinlay’s (1893) excellent study:
“On the top of green Dunfillan, in the parish of Comrie, is a rocky seat known in the district as Fillan’s Chair. Here, according to tradition, the saint sat and gave his blessing to the country around. Towards the end of last century, and doubtless even later, this chair was associated with a superstitious remedy for rheumatism in the back. The person to be cured sat in the chair, and then, lying on his back, was dragged down the hill by the legs. The influence of the saint lingering about the spot was believed to ensure recovery.”
The origins of this dramatic rite were probably pre-christian in nature and we should have little doubt that St. Fillan replaced the figure of a shaman or local medicine woman of some sort. The ritual “dragging down the hill” may be some faint remnant of initiation rites…
…to be continued…
Cockburn, James H., The Celtic Church in Dunblane, Friends of Dunblane Cathedral 1954.
Eliade, Mircea, Rites and Symbols of Initiation, Spring: Woodstock 1995.
Found by the legendary hill of Dundurn, east of Loch Earn, this legendary healing site has been written about by many historians, both local and national. An early account of it was given by the local priest, Rev. Mr McDiarmid, minister of the parish of Comrie at the end of the 18th century, who informed those compiling the Old Statistical Account of the area, the following information:
“This spring, tradition reports, reared its head on the top of Dun Fholain (Fillan’s Hill) for a long time, doing much good, but in disgust (probably at the Reformation) it removed suddenly to the foot of a rock, a quarter of a mile to the southward, where it still remains, humbled, but not forsaken. It is still visited by valetudinary people, especially on the 1st of May and the 1st of August. No fewer than seventy persons visited it in May and August, 1791. The invalids, whether men, women, or children, walk or are carried round the well three times in a direction Deishal—that is from east to west, according to the course of the sun. They also drink of the water and bathe in it. These operations are accounted a certain remedy for various diseases. They are particularly efficacious for curing barrenness, on which account it is frequently visited by those who are very desirous of offspring. All the invalids throw a white stone on the Saint’s cairn, and leave behind them as tokens of their gratitude and confidence some rags of linen or woollen cloth. The rock on the summit of the hill formed of itself a chair for the Saint, which still remains. Those who complain of rheumatism in the back must ascend the hill, sit in this chair, then lie down on their back, and be pulled down by the legs to the bottom of the hill. This operation is still performed, and reckoned very efficacious. At the foot of the hill there is a basin made by the Saint on the top of a large stone, which seldom wants water even in the greatest drought, and all who are distressed with sore eyes must wash them three times with this water.”
We see from this early account that there’s a discrepancy regarding the location of St. Fillan’s Well, as the modern accounts indicate it to be at the top of the craggy hill. In some upland regions this occurred so as to maintain a sense of secrecy about the location of local sites, so ensuring they were not affected or disturbed by outsiders or incomers, who not only disrespected local customs and rites, but tried changing or altering them to their new ways. It also kept the local gods and spirits of the sites protected from tourism and the profane. This may explain the difference in locations described by Rev. McDiarmid.
About one hundred years after McDiarmid’s account, another priest called Tom Armstrong (1896) wrote a piece in the Chronicles of Strathearn (1896) all about this holy well, saying:
“People are prone to believe that the dirty pool of stagnant water which still remains in the driest summer on the top of St. Fillan’s Hill is the famous spring to which pilgrims at one time resorted. Any one who examines it will not fail to observe that it has all the appearance of an artificially built well, and must have been kept in order and preservation for a purpose. Tradition confirms the belief that this was at one time the well, but not always.”
The hill on which it is found was an ancient dun or fort, built in prehistoric times, making you wonder how far back in time its magickal abilities were known about.
…to be continued…
Armstrong, Thomas, “By the Well of St. Fillan,” in Chronicles of Strathearn (David Phillips: Crieff 1896).
Gordon, Seton, Highways and Byways in the Central Highlands, MacMillan: London 1948.
Hunter, John, et al, Chronicles of Strathearn, David Phillips: Crieff 1896.