St. Ninian’s Well, Stirling, Stirlingshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 79690 93012

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 46210
  2. St. Ringan’s Well

Getting Here

St Ninian's Well, Stirling

St Ninian’s Well, Stirling

A short distance south out of Stirling town centre, along Port Street where it meets with Ninian’s Road, walk across at the traffic lights then turn immediately left down Wellgreen Road.  Barely 100 yards down (before you reach the roundabout), note the path on your right.  Walk along here and as it bends round into the car-park, look to your left and see the small ivy-covered building hiding away in below you, with an information plaque at its side.

Archaeology & History

“St Ninian’s” is a district unto itself on the south side of the ancient city of Stirling—and it has this holy well (and the demolished chapel that once stood by its side) to thank for this. James Johnston’s (1904) place-name study of the region showed that it had acquired its association with St Ninian as early as 1242 CE when it was described, “Ecclesia Sancti Niniani de Kirketoune.”  It was mentioned again in 1301 CE as the site of “Saint Rineyan”, or St Ringan, which was the other name given to this saint who spent much of his time at Whithorn, Galloway, where he “preached the gospel among the southern Picts.” (Attwater 1965)

The waters in the building

The waters in the building

The old well building

The old well building

At some later date, Ninian is thought to have ventured north and sanctified this already renowned water source which, in his day, would have been open and surrounded by ancient trees and an abundance of wild flowers and healing plants.  But today, typically, it is hiding almost secretly away, behind locked doors and not in view for the general public.  This needs to be changed!  Standing outside of the unkempt and overgrown building, you can faintly hear these ancient waters still flowing within their darkened enclave.

It has been described in a number of local history books down the years, but a lot of the old stories and traditions have sadly moved into forgotten memories… The first major description of the site was by J.R. Walker (1883) who wrote freshly about it soon after his visit—despite being “disappointed” with the architectural features of the building built over the well; which is hardly the right attitude as far as I’m concerned!  The waters, their natural environment, feeling and genius loci are the primary features to sacred wells—nottheir dissolution, nor the artifice of humans to contain and reduce the natural world at such a place!  But, this aside:  for the architects amongst you, here’s what Walker had to say about the well-house:

“Mr T.S.  Muir, in his Characteristics of Old Church Architecture, mentions it as “a large vaulted building with a chamber above it, which is supposed to have been a chapel.” From this notice I was led to think something of interest would be found in the chamber; but as will be seen by the drawing…it is utterly destitute of any feature worthy of particular notice.  On looking at the surroundings, however, which are all modern, and mostly new houses and streets in course of erection, I came to the conclusion that at no distant date the well was doomed, and that consequently I had better make a correct drawing of it.

“The lower chamber measures 16 feet by 11 feet 1 inch, and is covered with a vault running from end to end, measuring from floor to springing 2 feet 9 inches, and from floor to crown of arch 6 feet.  At the end where the spring rises there is a square recess 1 foot 9 inches high and 1 foot 7 inches wide and 17 inches deep; and at the other end two recesses, the largest measuring 2 feet 7 inches in height, 1 foot 4 inches wide and 1 foot 4 inches deep, the other 8 inches high, 8 inches wide, and 8 inches deep.  To what purpose these have been put I have formed no idea; they are on an average 12 inches from the floor to the sill.  The side walls are 2 feet 9 inches thick, and the end gable 3 feet; the other gable, between the well chamber and the adjacent building, being about 2 feet 3 inches.  The room above is the same size as the vaulted chamber below, and is divided by timber partitions to form a dwelling-house.  There is an ordinary fireplace and press in the gable; the press, however, does not go down to the floor, but is simply a recess or “aumbry,” such as we see in old Scotch houses.

“The roof seems to have been renewed at no distant date, although some of the timbers are, without doubt, home-grown.  The ground rises rapidly to the back, so that the entrance door to the house is level with the top of the vault; this door is simply splayed in the Scotch manner, with a square lintel over, and a relieving arch inside.  The door to the well chamber is also splayed, and in like manner the windows; the largest window has been altered, and a new projecting sill put in.

“At present the well is used for washing purposes, and must have been so for a considerable length of time, if we may judge from the table of rates affixed to the building; and a channel has been formed down one side and along the bottom end to carry away the water, the floor being paved with stones.  The vault inside is roughly dressed, very little labour seemingly having been bestowed upon it.

“In the New Statistical Account it is suggested that the chamber was used as a bath, and it also states that, “it is celebrated for its copiousness and its purity. It is a hardish water, but of low specific gravity, and much used for washing. It has been calculated that were all the waters proceeding from this spring forced into the pipes that supply the town, it would afford every individual not less than 14.03 gallons per twenty-four hours.  Its temperature is very cold and it exhibits muriate of lime and sulphate of lime. It is also much used for brewing.”

“Externally the building is roughly cast, or in Scottish phraseology, harled.”

A few years later when J.S. Fleming (1898) wrote an account of the place in his survey of local holy wells, he described a number of other historical elements not included in Walker’s (1883) account, telling:

“RINGAN” is stated to be the Scoto-Irish form of Saint Ninian’s name. He is alleged to have come from Ireland in the fifth century. St. Ringan’s Chapel was one of three attached to St. Ninians, the others being at Skeoch—dedicated to the Virgin Mary—and at Cambusbarron.  The remains of St. Ringan’s Chapel, a simple, barrel-vaulted chamber, 11 feet by 14 feet, built over the spring, are situated a few yards off Pitt Terrace, the upper walls having been built, in 1731, by order of the Stirling Town Council, and formed into a house for the convenience of the town’s washerwomen.  A niche in the north-east wall has evidently been made to hold the image of the Saint; while there has also been a piscina in the same wall. The flow of water is enormous, and enters the building from under the south-west gable, and after passing through the little chamber, flows out at the east wall.  In 1740, the Town Council, considering the large volume of water of some value, entertained the idea of having it conveyed into the town by means of pipes, and consulted an Edinburgh engineer with regard to the feasibility of the project.  Nothing resulted from their efforts, however.  The water of this spring is stated to be so cold in summer that people cannot stand in it for any length of time; while in winter, again, it is so warm that it rapidly thaws whatever is thrown into it.  Smoke rises from it at times, hanging over it like a vapour on a frosty morning.  These characteristics indicate that the waters must issue from a great depth in the ground.

“This Chapel was apparently held in high repute by King James IV., as in the Exchequer Rolls we find the following entries: — “1497, April 24. — Item to the King’s offerand in Saint Ringans Chapel, besid Strivelin, 14/.” ” Samen day to Schir Andro to get say a hental of messes of Saint Ringans, 20⋅/.”

The site was mentioned in the standard surveys of MacKinlay (1893) and Morris (1981), but with very little additional information other than to cite how the larger surrounding building that once stood next to the well,

“was used as a powder magazine by Prince Charles after the battle of Falkirk, was blown up, and only the tower remains.”

Folklore

Ninian's Well on 1832 map

Ninian’s Well on 1832 map

St. Ninian’s festival date is September 16, but I’ve been unable to find any information about any practices here for that date. However, in 1659, St Ninian’s Well was mentioned as a site used in what the deluded criminal courts of the period called “a case of witchcraft”, against one Bessie Stevenson.  The lady concerned told of performing quite normal herbal practices and similar animistic healing traditions, typical of those found universally in peasant cultures, but which the crazed church-goers saw as something completely different.  Bessie told that for people who were either sick or bewitched, she would wash their clothes in the running waters of St. Ninian’s Well, to wash away any disease and cure the said person.  It is likely that the waters here were commonly used for such rites, much as the christian priesthood still do at many ‘holy waters’ to this very day.  Indeed, of the sacred waters here, St. Ninian himself was said to “have endowed it with peculiar virtues.” (Roger 1853)

References:

  1. Attwater, Donald, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, Penguin: Harmondsworth 1965.
  2. Fleming, J.S., Old Nooks of Stirling, Delineated and Described, Munro & Jamieson: Stirling 1898.
  3. Johnston, James B., The Place-Names of Stirlingshire, R.S. Shearer 1904.
  4. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  5. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  6. Mould, D.D.C.P., Scotland of the Saints, Batsford: London 1952.
  7. Reid, John, The Place-Names of Falkirk and East Stirlingshire, Falkirk Local History Society 2009.
  8. Roger, Charles,  A Week at Bridge of Allan, Adam & Charles Black: Edinburgh 1853.
  9. Ronald, James, Landmarks of Old Stirling, Eneas Mackay: Stirling 1899.
  10. Simpson, W.D., St. Ninian and the Origins of the Christian Church in Scotland, Oliver & Boyd: Edinburgh 1940.
  11. Walker, J. Russel, “‘Holy Wells’ in Scotland,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.17 (New Series, volume 5), 1883.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.114650, -3.936406 St Ninian\'s Well

St. Conval’s Well, Eastwood, Glasgow, Lanarkshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 5519 6020

Also Known as:

  1. St. Ninian’s Well

Archaeology & History

Site of St Conva's Well, beneath the elder tree, off-centre
Site of St Conval’s Well, off-centre beneath the tree

This all-but-forgotten holy well was becoming nothing but a faded memory even in the middle of the 19th century.  Excluded from all of the previous Scottish holy well surveys, the site is mentioned in George Campbell’s Eastwood (1902) where, in his description of the obscure saint, St. Conval or Convallus—to whom Eastwood parish was dedicated—the position of the well is mentioned.  When St. Conval first came to the area, said Campbell,

“The particular spot which the saint selected for his cell would be determined, as was so commonly the case, by the then remarkable spring which can still be traced in the lower part of what was the glebe before the excambion in 1854.  Within the memory of man, even of my own, as I resided for a year in the old manse, before its removal from the early site, this well, as stated in the last Statistical Account, discharged about eleven imperial pints a minute, and was perennial, affected neither by drought nor rain.  Up to that date the water was sufficiently abundant to supply the manse and all the families in what was still a bit of a hamlet, the remains of the Kirkton, as it was formerly called.  But coincident to the removal of the last living remains of an ecclesiastical establishment from the spot, it has well nigh dried-up, through disturbances caused, it is believed, by the working of pits and quarries in the neighbourhood; but it is confidently hoped that what remains of it may be preserved, and a memorial erected over it of the long-departed past, situated as it is within the enclosure of the now extended burial ground.  There can be no doubt that in its waters our fathers were baptised when they renounced Druidism, or whatever was their pagan form of faith, and a sacredness would thus naturally attach to it in former times…”

Site on 1863 map as 'Spring'
Site on 1863 map as ‘Spring’

When we sought out this well in the furthest corner of the old churchyard—where Ordnance Survey placed the ‘Spring’ on the 1863 map—we were greeted by a completely dried-up site, long since fallen back to Earth, with little hope of it ever resurfacing unless good local people choose to do something.  The well was surrounded by excrement and litter and it truly needs a good clean-up and a dig down to bring the waters back to the surface.

In an Appendix to Campbell’s Eastwood, he tells that he came across a map-reference to the site, where it was shown as “St. Ninian’s Well”, but I have been unable to locate this.

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul, Ancient and Holy Wells of Glasgow, TNA 2017.
  2. Brotchie, T.C.F., “Holy Wells in and Around Glasgow,” in Old Glasgow Club Transactions, volume 4, 1920.
  3. Campbell, George, Eastwood: Notes on the Ecclesiastical Antiquities of the Parish, Alexander Gardner: Paisley 1902.

Acknowledgements:  Huge thanks to Paul Hornby & Nina Harris for helping to locate the spot where this old well once existed.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian 

 

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  55.813275, -4.312383 St. Conval\'s Well

Balinshoe, Kirriemuir, Angus

Standing Stone (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NO 4164 5219

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 33871
  2. The Stannin Stane of Benshie

Archaeology & History

Site of the standing stone on 1865 OS-map
Site of the standing stone on 1865 OS-map

In a region that is full of prehistoric remains, we find here another example of another megalithic site that was sadly destroyed, not too long ago by the scale of things.  Found in association with a large prehistoric urn, we are thankful to have a couple of early local history accounts that describe the place.  The stone was obviously of some considerable height and bulk, though I can find no specific references to the dimensions of the monolith.  It was described effectively in the middle-half of the 19th century by Andrew Jervise (1853), who told us:

“‘The Stannin Stane of Benshie’, which stood for unknown ages…was demolished by gunpowder about half a century ago, and the spot is now covered by luxuriant crops of corn. This rude monument of antiquity is supposed to have been about twenty tons in weight; and at a considerable depth below it, a large clay urn, measuring about three feet in height and of corresponding circumference, was found containing a quantity of human bones and ashes.  Like its rude protector, however, the urn was broken to pieces; and, beyond the mere fact of its discovery, nothing authentic, as to either the style of its manufacture, or the precise nature or state of its contents, is preserved.”

More than 30 years later, A.J. Warden (1884) and then J.G. MacPherson (1885) all but copied Mr Jervise’s words, adding no further information.

From some reason, a small chapel dedicated to St. Ninian (NO 41567 51932) was built about 100 yards or so to the southwest of the old standing stone.  Its ruins are still to be seen. Whether this was an attempt to divert local people away from their animistic ecocentricism at the stone, into the more ecocidal egocentricism of the incoming christian cult (as was/is their common practice), we may never know for sure.

Folklore

The local name of this stone, ‘The Stannin Stane of Benshie’, indicates simply that this was “the standing stone at the hill of the faerie folk” (or variations thereof) and suggest it stood upon or next to a mound. I can find no immediate reference to stories of the little people here, and their whisper may have faded into unconscious memory.  Does anyone know more about this place?

References:

  1. Jervise, Andrew, The History and Traditions of the Land of the Lindsays in Angus and Mearns, Sutherland and Knox: Edinburgh 1853.
  2. MacPherson, J.G., Strathmore: Past and Present, S. Cowan: Perth 1885.
  3. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, The Archaeological Sites and Monuments of Central Angus, Angus District, Tayside Region, Edinburgh 1983.
  4. Warden, Alex J., Angus or Forfarshire: The Land and People – Descriptive and Historical – volume 4, Charles Alexander: Dundee 1884.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  56.657776, -2.953512 Balinshoe