St. Tredwell’s Loch, Papa Westray, Orkney Isles

Sacred Loch:  OS Grid Reference – HY 495 509

Folklore

I’ve already added a site-profile of the standing stones that used to be close to this loch, and added to it the folklore below; but I realised that for students of water-lore, a separate profile for the loch itself is needed.  For those of you who are not into water-lore, I hope you can forgive this repetition.

The loch, its associated chapel and the standing stones were visited at the end of the 17th century by John Brand, who gave a good account of the rituals performed by local people at the time.  They regarded the waters here as very special indeed, with great medicinal powers.  The loch had sense of sacrality whose nature was intimately tied to the repetition and regeneration of the seasons, valorizing the healing function of the waters.

By the edge of the loch stood St Tredwell’s church, outside of which was a cairn of stones.  When people visited here to be cured of their various ailments, they would pick up one of them and cast it into the loch as an offering (some folk would cast money), so that its waters would heal their illness.  According to Mr Brand and the local minister, such cures were numerous.  The narrative is truly fascinating.  Brand told us that,

“nigh to the east end of which this chapel is, is held by the people as medicinal, whereupon many diseased and infirm persons resort to it, some saying that thereby they have got good; as a certain gentleman’s sister upon the isle, who was not able to go to this loch without help, yet returned without it; as likewise a gentleman in the country who was much distressed wifh sore eyes, went to this loch, and washing there became sound and whole, though he had been at much pains and expense to cure them formerly.  With both which persons he who was minister of the place for many years was well acquainted, and told us that he saw them both before and after the cure.  The present minister of Westra told me that such as are able to walk, use to go so many times about the loch as they think will perfect the cure, before they make any use of the water, and that without speaking to any, for they believe that if they speak this will marr the cure: also he told that on a certain morning not long since he went to this loch and found six so making their circuit, whom with some difficulty he obliging to speak, said to him they came there for their cure.”

For the curing of sore eyes, the loch was specifically resorted to at Easter and during Lent.  Traditions such as these are found at other lochs in Scotland and at lakes in many other parts of the world.

Another interesting feature related to the element of Kingship; for the waters of the loch were said to turn red when anything important was going to happen to a member of the royal family.

St Tredwell herself—also known as St. Triduana—has her saints day on October 8.

References:

  1. Banks, M. MacLeod, British Calendar Customs: Orkney and Shetland, Folk-lore Society: London 1946.
  2. Black, G.F., Examples of Printed Folk-lore Concerning the Orkney and Shetland Islands, Folk-Lore Society: London 1901.
  3. Brand, John, A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness, George Mosman: Edinburgh 1701.
  4. Eliade, Mircea, The Sacred and the Profane, Harcourt: New York 1959.
  5. Fergusson, Robert M., Rambling Sketches in the Far North, Simpkin Marshall: London 1883.
  6. MacKinlay, James M., Influence of the Pre-Reformation Church on Scottish Place-Names, William Blackwood: Edinburgh 1904.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

St. Tredwell’s Chapel, Papa Westray, Orkney Isles

Standing Stones (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – HY 497 509

Archaeology & History

These long lost standing stones most probably played a part in some ritual acts performed by the Orkney people until relatively recent times.  Whilst their simple description doesn’t tell us this, the folklore of the adjacent body of water strongly suggests it.  The stones were visited at the end of the 17th century by the antiquarian John Brand (1701) from whom we gain the only known account.  He told that,

“At the north-east side of (St Tredwell’s) loch, nigh to the chapel, there is a high stone standing, behind which there is another stone lying hollowed in the form of a manger, and nigh to this there is another high stone standing with a round hole through it, for what use these stones served, we could not learn; whether for binding the horses of such to them as came to the chapel, and giving them meat in the hollow stone, or for tying the sacrifices to, as some say, in the times of Pagan idolatry, is uncertain.”

Several other hold stones are found in Orkney, some of which had lore that was thankfully recorded.  We don’t know when these stones were torn down, but there is the possibility that they may have been cast into the loch alongside which they stood.

Folklore

An intriguing piece of folklore relates to the adjacent St Tredwell’s Loch, right next to the stones.  The loch was known of far and wide as possessing great healing properties which Mr Brand told to be distinctly pagan in nature.  St Tredwell’s church had a cairn of stones by its side and those who visited here would pick one up and cast it into the loch as an offering (some folk would cast money), so that its waters would heal that person’s ailment.  According to Brand and the local minister, such cures were numerous.  The narrative is truly fascinating.  Brand told us that,

“nigh to the east end of which this chapel is, is held by the people as medicinal, whereupon many diseased and infirm persons resort to it, some saying that thereby they have got good; as a certain gentleman’s sister upon the isle, who was not able to go to this loch without help, yet returned without it; as likewise a gentleman in the country who was much distressed wifh sore eyes, went to this loch, and washing there became sound and whole, though he had been at much pains and expense to cure them formerly.  With both which persons he who was minister of the place for many years was well acquainted, and told us that he saw them both before and after the cure.  The present minister of Westra told me that such as are able to walk, use to go so many times about the loch as they think will perfect the cure, before they make any use of the water, and that without speaking to any, for they believe that if they speak this will marr the cure: also he told that on a certain morning not long since he went to this loch and found six so making their circuit, whom with some difficulty he obliging to speak, said to him they came there for their cure.”

The reason that I’ve included this folklore to the site profile of the monoliths is that, at some time in the early past the stones would most almost certainly have played some part in the ritual enacted at the loch by which they stood.  The building of Tredwell’s chapel was, quite obviously, an attempt to mark the place as christian in nature; but in such a remote region, old habits truly died hard.  Of particular interest in the rituals described here is the element of silence.  It’s fascinating inasmuch as it’s an integral ingredient in various ritual magick performances in different parts of the world.  Even in some modern magickal rites, this is still vitally important.  It’s a tradition also found at other lochs in Scotland and at lakes in many other parts of the world.

References:

  1. Brand, John, A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness, George Mosman: Edinburgh 1701.
  2. Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland – volume 2, HMSO: Edinburgh 1946.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Mauns Stone, New Deer, Aberdeenshire

Legendary Rock (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NJ 89397 49502

Also Known as:

  1. Crawey Stone
  2. Crawford Putting Stone
  3. Crawstane
  4. Devils Putting Stone

Archaeology & History

Stone shown on 1874 map

A site whose main claim to fame is its legendary nature.  Seemingly buried or destroyed around the end of the 19th century, there have been suspicions that the stone might have had cup-marks on it (see Folklore below), but we’re not sure.  Modern lore tells that when roadworks were done here in the 1950, a large stone was uncovered.  A local man who was passing by told that he’d seen the Crawey Stone in his youth and that the stone they’d uncovered was one and the same.

Folklore

The story that used to be told amongst local people was thankfully preserved in an article by the pseudonymous “Mormond” (1889) in Scottish Notes & Queries.  He told that:

“In the parish of New Deer, and in a field near the Old Castle of Fedderat, there is a large boulder of ten or twelve tons known as the Crawey Stone.  I am unable to say if it still occupies its old site, or if it has been broken up for building purposes.  The legend connected with this stone used to be well known in the parish, and a version of it appeared in The Aberdeen Magazine some 70 or 80 years ago.  This version is substantially the same as the legend known in the district, and relates how a Crawford, the lord of the castle and lands, one day “as he looked o’er his castle wa’ ” — a phrase which often occurs in old ballads — observed a crunkled carl (old woman or witch, PB) inspecting the stone and afterwards successfully lifting up one end clear of the ground.  Not to be conquered by such a shabby looking stranger, the laird, who was famed for his athletic powers, went out and challenged the carl; but on attempting to lift the boulder, burst a blood vessel; and the carl, who stood by watching him, suddenly disappeared in a flash of fire taking the remains of the laird along with her.  The tradition is that the laird was not mourned for in the district, and the moral drawn was “He couldna hae expected ony ither en’.”  When passing the boulder going to school, the legend was often referred to, and some indentations on it pointed out as the marks of the ill man’s fingers made at the time the superhuman feat was accomplished.”

These finger marks have been taken as possible cup-markings.  They might have been, but we simply don’t know; they may just have been curious natural markings that gave rise to this animistic creation myth.  Another tale told that the markings were due to an old giant in the neighbourhood who used the rock as a putting stone and rolled it to the spot where it used to stand.  Giants are always attached to indigenous creation myths, some of which go back thousands of years.

In the OS Name Book for Aberdeenshire written in the late 1860s, they told how the Maun Stone is,

“a large Stone of a roundish shape, built on an old fence, forming a side of the Public road leading from New Deer to Brocklay.  Tradition asserts that it has been the putting Stone of a Giant in ancient times.  There are Several holes in the Stone said to be the finger marks of the Giant.”

References:

  1. Mormond, A., “Legends and Rhymes Connected with Travelled Boulders“, in Scottish Notes & Queries, volume 2, 1889.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Killiesmont, Keith, Moray

Cup-Marked Stone (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NJ 4124 5308

Archaeology & History

Diagonally across the road from Killiesmont, about a hundred yards up the sloping field on “a piece of ground called the Helliman Rig,” could once be seen a large flat stone with cup-markings on its surface.  Walter Gregor (1881) told that,

“It lay on the top of a rising ground, and commanded a very wide view of the country, stretching for many miles over the hills of Banff and Moray.  In a part of it the rock–a kind of slate–came to the surface.  In the rock were cut out nine cups in three rows.”

The carving was earlier described in one of the Topographical Gazetteers of Scotland (1848) where its story is bound up with local tradition and folklore of the land where it lie.  There it was described as being “a flat circular stone of about 8 feet in diameter, in which there are a number of holes, but for what purpose tradition is silent.”  Subsequently the local historian J.F.S. Gordon (1880) talked of this “large flat circular Stone, of about 8 feet in diameter, in which there was a number of half-pierced holes…. It was too large for a Quern or even a Millstone; and its purpose remained an enigma.”

The stone came to light when a local farmer was digging in the field and, “at the upper end of the Rig, there was found a rude Cist among a heap of stones, which contained ashes.”  The cup-marked stone was “turned up” at the same time.  It has sadly been destroyed—along with the associated cairn that probably had some relationship with the carving.  Prehistoric tombs and rock art are frequent bedfellows and it seems likely that the equation occurred here.  But the location of the site had some fascinating local lore told of it…

Folklore

The location of this carved stone in the field called ‘Helliman Rig’, was also known as the Guidman’s Croft or the Gi’en Rig.  This was a portion of land that was never to be touched or ploughed as it was “given or appropriated…to the sole use of the devil, in order to propitiate the good services of that malign being.”  This devilish tradition superseded the earlier faith of it being a place set aside for the fairy folk and their allies—nature spirits no less.  And it’s a tradition found in many places across Scotland and elsewhere, as the account in the Scottish Gazetteer told :

“Like other crofts of this description in Scotland, the present remained long uncultivated, in spite of the spread of intelligence (pedantic bastard! PB).  The first attempt to reclaim it was made not more than 50 years since, when a farmer endeavoured to improve it; but, by an accidental circumstance, it happened that no sooner had the plough entered the ground than one of the oxen dropped down dead. Taking this as an irrefragable proof of the indignation of its supernatural proprietor, the peasant desisted, and it remained untilled till it came into the possession of the present occupant…”

This of course fortified the old folklore in the eyes of local people.  I’ve found that even up to recent times, such folklore is still held quite seriously by some of the old folk in the mountain villages and hamlets.

References:

  1. Anon, The Topographical, Statistical and Historical Gazetteer of Scotland – volume 2, A. Fullarton: Edinburgh 1848.
  2. Gregor, Walter, Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northeast of Scotland, Folklore Society: London 1881.
  3. Gordon, J.F.S.,  The Book of the Chronicles of Keith, Grange, Ruthven, Cairney and Botriphnie, Robert Forrester: Glasgow 1880.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Old Wives’ Well, Stape, Pickering, North Yorkshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid-Reference – SE 7944 9406

Also Known as:

  1. Nattie Fontein

Archaeology & History

Old Wives Well, 1848 OS-map

The history of the site is scanty to say the least.  It first seems to have been recorded when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in the 1840s, although they left no record as to why the site was given such a dedication.  It’s a decidedly pre-christian title as the name “old Wife” is usually indicative in northern counties as being related to the primal Earth deity of northern England and lowland Scotland (when we reach the Highlands and Ireland, She becomes known—amongst other names—as the cailleach).  However, apart from its name we have no additional information.  Neither the holy wells writer Edna Whelan (1989; 2001), nor hydrolatry researcher Graeme Chappell were been able to find anything about the place in their own researches.  And so we must go on name alone…

The waters bubble up into a small stone-lined chamber with the words Nattie Fontein carved into the lintel.  This is something of a mystery in itself, for, as Edna Whelan (1989) told,

“it would be most unusual for the word fonten to be used for a spring in North Yorkshire: ‘keld’ is the local word.  The rather roughly inscribed word may be a corruption of Fons Natalis, the name of a Celtic water nymph.”

Graeme Chappell (2000) meanwhile, noticed in a visit to the site in June 1999,

“that the N and A in “NATTIE” are carved in such a way that the word could be read as “MATTIE FONTEIN” perhaps meaning “Mother Fountain”. This might then be another reference to the Old Wife?”

He then goes on to note how,

“the latin word ‘natalis‘ meaning ‘birth’ and its link with the roman Festival ‘Dies Natalis Sol Invictus‘ (day of the birth of the unconquered sun) which took place on the 25th December. Natalis also gave rise to the welsh word ‘Nadolig‘ – meaning Christmas.”

This Yuletide element has an intriguing relationship with the name of the well; for to the west of Yorkshire’s borders into Cumbria there was annual gathering known as Old Wives’ Saturday that took place on the first Saturday after Christmas, or first Saturday of the New Year in a person’s house or inn, where a feast was had to bring in the New Year; but there is no known written lore of such a tradition here.

Nowadays the old tradition of hanging rags on the trees surrounding the well as offerings to the spirit of the place (known as memaws in parts of Yorkshire, and clooties in Scotland) has become a regular practice of those who hold such sites as sacred in their own way.  Whelan mentioned seeing memaws here in the 1908s, but the Northern Antiquarian contributor Jon Barker told that, “The rags are a comparatively recent addition to the well, it is not a tradition there. When I used to go in the ’60s therewere no rags.”

On an even more curious note: very recently (from when this profile was written), the Northern Antiquarian contributor and photographer James Elkington visited Old Wives’ Well for the first time.  It was a grey overcast day and when he arrived here, there was a woman ahead of him at the head of the well.  I’ll let him tell the rest of it in his own words:

The Old Wives Well, Stape  (James Elkington)
Old Wives Well at Stape (James Elkington)

“In front of the well was a lady dressed in what looked like a white nighty, she had her back to me.  There was a candle lit nearby, and her hands were in the water moving slowly about like she was washing something.  She had long dark shoulder length hair.  As I was about 25 feet away I was sure she wasn’t aware of me, and I thought it would make a good photograph.  I quietly put my bag on the ground and got my camera out, and looked up and…she was gone!  I couldn’t have taken my eye off her for more than 5 or 6 seconds.  I looked all around and there was no sign of her.  Even if she had legged it through the woods I would have seen her.  I think it was then that I realized that I may have had ‘an encounter’.  I quickly took three pics of the Well and got the hell out of there!”

He rang me once he had regained his senses in a somewhat emotional state and recounted over and over what had just happened.  Whether this was a visual manifestation of the genius loci of the we can’t say.  But such encounters are not unknown at numerous sacred water sites all over the world.  We can only hazard a guess that this is what he was fortunate to encounter.

Just a few hundred yards north is the old Mauley or Malo Cross, which may or may not have had some mythic relationship with our Old Wives…

References:

  1. Chappell, Graeme, “Old Wives’ Well, Stape,” YHW 2000.
  2. Elgee, F., Early Man in Northeast Yorkshire, Frank Bellows: Gloucester 1930.
  3. Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
  4. Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.

Links:

  1. Yorkshire Holy Wells

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Witches’ Stone, Horndean, Berwickshire

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NT 9050 4960

Archaeology & History

The first that I read of this place was in an article of the Scottish Ecclesiastical Society journal, on the parish history of Horndean.  Standing originally at the edge of the ruined remains of the old churchyard, the author W.S. Moodie (1915), told that a long lost,

“grim relic of olden days is said to have existed here till fifty years ago.  This was the Witches Stone—an upright pillar with a hole in it, to which the bodies of the poor unfortunates were fastened after they had been glede, while the faggots were piled around.”

A perusal in the Royal Commission inventory (1915) of the same year told that it had been moved several miles northeast to Paxton Cottage (NT 9279 5229) in the adjacent village.  It was described as being,

“about 4 feet 6 inches in height above the ground, some 2 feet in breadth, tapering towards the upper end, and about 7 inches thick.  Near the top are two perforations, not quite on the same level, about 2 inches in diameter at the surface on either side, constricted towards the Centre, and about 9 inches distant from centre to centre.”

Is this old stone still in existence…?

References:

  1. Moodie, W. Steven, “Ladykirk, or the Kirk of Steill, Berwickshire,” in Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, 4:3, Aberdeen 1915.
  2. Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Berwick, HMSO: Edinburgh 1915.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Blakey Topping, Allerston, North Yorkshire

Sacred Hill:  OS Grid Reference – SE 8731 9377

Getting Here

Blakey Topping (James Elkington)

From Pickering, take the A169 towards Whitby. When you get to the Car Park at the ‘Hole-of-Horcum’ – (you can’t miss it), park the car and walk North along the side of the road towards Whitby. After 60 yds, take the track East. Follow this for approximately a mile until the track splits. Take the concrete track left towards the farmhouse of ‘Newgate Foot’. Go through the yard past the house on the right, and you will come to a stream and a gate and there, ahead of you, rises Blakey Topping…

Archaeology & History

The giant hill of Blakey Topping was recorded as early as 1233 CE and in a simplistic style just means the ‘black mound’; but this derivation has additional ingredients, implying it as a ‘black meeting-place’ or moot.  Black in the etymological sense also implies ‘shining’ and it may also relate to the northern airt of black (meaning death, darkness, north, etc), when you’re stood at the ruined stone circle 400 yards to the south. But I’m speculating here…

Several 19th century antiquarians suggested there may have once been a cairn on top of the hill, but others who’ve explored this idea seem to have put it to bed.

Folklore

This great hill is well recognised amongst local people and, to this day, its animistic creation myths and other folklore elements are still spoken.  When the photographer James Elkington recently visited the nearby standing stones, he bumped into the old farmer who told him how his father had seen the faerie-folk on the hill many years back.  And its modern reputation as a gorgeous site adds to such lore, which dates way back.

In Frank & Harriett Elgee’s (1933) archaeology work, they narrated the old creation myth that local people used to tell of this great hill,

“A witch story related by a native 25 years ago attempts to explain two conspicuous natural features two miles apart on Pickering Moor; Blakey Topping, an isolated hill, and the Hole of Horcum, a deep basin-shaped valley. The local witch had sold her soul to the devil on the usual terms, but when he claimed it, she refused to give it up, and flew over the moors, with the devil in hot pursuit. Overtake her he could not, so he grabbed up a handful of earth and flung it at her. he missed his aim and she escaped.  The Hole of Horcum remains to prove where he tore up the earth and Blakey Topping where it fell to the ground.

“From our point of view the significance of this story lies in the fact that between the Hole and the Topping there is a Bronze Age settlement site at Blakey Farm, with its stone circle. The rough trackway leading from the Hole to the circle is known as the Old Wife’s Way, presumably also marking the witch’s flight. This, together with other Old Wife’s Ways, preserves as it were Bronze Age church tracks”.

Looking up from the SW (James Elkington)

A relative variation on this tells that the Hole of Horcum was made by the local giant, Wade. He was having a row with his wife, Bell, and got so angry that he scooped out a lump of earth and threw it at her.  The huge geological feature known as the Hole of Horcum is the dip left where he scooped out the earth, and Blakey topping, the clod itself, resting in situ where it landed.  A christian appropriation of the story replaces Wade and his wife with their ‘devil’: a puerile element unworthy of serious consideration.

In more recent times, the old geomancer Guy Ragland Phillips (1976; 1985) found that a number of alignments, or leys (known as a ‘node’), centred on Blakey Topping: twelve in all, reaching out and crossing numerous holy wells, prehistoric tumuli, standing stones, etc.  The precision of the alignments is questionable, yet the matter of the hill being a centre-point, or omphalos, would seem moreso than not.

References:

  1. Elgee, F. & H.W., The Archaeology of Yorkshire, Methuen: London 1933.
  2. Phillips, Guy Ragland, Brigantia, RKP: London 1976.
  3. Phillips, Guy Ragland, The Unpolluted God, Northern Lights: Pocklington 1987.
  4. Smith, A.H., The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire, Cambridge University Press 1928.

Links:

  1. Mountains, Myths and Moorlands

Acknowledgements:  Big thanks to the photographer, James Elkington, for use of his photos in this profile. Cheers mate.

© Paul Bennett & James ElkingtonThe Northern Antiquarian


Jim Craven’s Well, Thornton, West Yorkshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference — SE 0967 3251?

Archaeology & History

Is this the site of the lost Jim Cravens Well on the 1852 map?

Another well with considerable supernatural renown was this little-known site near the old village of Thornton, on the western outskirts of Bradford.  We’re not 100% sure about its exact location, but the grid-reference cited here is of an old ‘Well’ that was highlighted on the first Ordnance Survey map of the region, at the end of solitary path which led to it and nowhere else.  Our only documentary information comes from Elizabeth’s Southwart’s (1932) fine old book on the folk life of the old village, as it once was.  At a place once known as Bent Ing Bottom, just south of the old village, is where it used to be known.  The name of this Well is also curious, as no historian has yet worked out who the ‘Jim Craven’ was, nor what his relationship to the site might have been.  It’s the folklore of it, however, which brings it the attention it deserves.

Folklore

In Elizabeth Southwart’s (1923) work, she told us that the place once known as “Bent Ing Bottoms have lost their romance.” She continued:

“Whether the golfers have driven it away—for the fields now form part of the Thornton Golf Links—or whether the advance of modernity in other forms is to blame, it is difficult to say.  Once they were the haunts of “Peggy-Wi-T’-Lantern” and the Bloody-tongue.  Peggy, a dame in a white mob cap, kilted skirt and white stockings, walked about with a lantern, enticing the unwary traveller to his doom.  She was given to wandering, for, they say, Jim Craven Well, half a mile away, was a place to be avoided after nightfall.

“The Bloody-tongue was a great dog, with staring red eyes, a tail as big as the branch of a tree, and a lolling tongue that dripped blood.  When he drank from the beck (known as the Pinch Beck, PB) the water ran red right past the bridge, and away down—down—nearly to Bradford town.  As soon as it was quite dark he would lope up the narrow flagged causeway to the cottage at the top of Bent Ing on the north side, give one deep bark, then the woman who lived there would come out and feed him.  What he ate we never knew, but I can bear testimony to the delicious taste of the toffee she made.

“When the dark was coming we used to sit on the filled-in pit, which makes a hump in the middle of the field, and wait for him.  The sun would sink redly, through the arches of the viaduct, the trees that lined the beck would grow an ever darker green until they became black, the beck would begin to gurgle and gulp in a queer way; and down in the hollow we would hear a whimper, a whine, a moan, a snarl.  Then, with scalps and spines playing queer tricks, we would wait and wait.  But none of our little band ever saw him, except one girl, and she saw him every time.

“One Saturday a girl who lived at Headley came to a birthday party in the village, and was persuaded to stay to the end by her friends, who promised to see her ‘a-gaiterds’ if she would.  As soon as the party was over the brave little group started out.  But when they reached the end of the passage which leads to the fields, and gazed into the black well, at the bottom of which lurked the Bloody-tongue, one of them suggested that Mary should go alone, and they would wait there to see if anything happened to her.

“Mary was reluctant, but had no choice in the matter, for go home she must.  They waited, according to promise, listening to her footsteps on the path, and occasionally shouting into the darkness:

““Are you all right, Mary?”

““Ay!” would come the response.

“And well was it for Mary that the Gytrash had business elsewhere that night, for her friends confess now that at the first sound of a scream they would have fled back to lights and home.

“We wonder sometimes if the Booody-tongue were not better than his reputation, for he lived there many years and there was never a single case known of man, woman or child who got a bite from his teeth, or a scratch from his claws.  Now he is gone, nobody knows whither, though there have been rumours that he has been seen wandering disconsolately along Egypt Road, whimpering quietly to himself, creeping into the shadows when a human being approached, and, when a lantern was flashed on him, giving one sad, reproachful glance from his red eyes before he vanished from sight.”

Southwart later tells us that the ghostly dog travelled into the north and vanished.  From the description she gives of the children walking their friend to “the end of the passage which leads to the fields, and gazed into the black well, at the bottom of which lurked the Bloody-tongue,” I can only surmise that the solitary well shown on the very first OS-map of Thornton at the coordinate given above is the place in question.

The ‘Bloody Tongue’ is first mentioned in Yorkshire folklore, I think, by Roger Storrs, in his article on holy wells in 1888, where he tells it to be one of the mysterious beings that live, usually at the bottom of the waters and almost universally used “to deter children from playing in dangerous proximity to a well.”

From the description of the waters turning red when the ghostly dog drank from it, we have a mythic account of when the waters occasionally turned red from the iron-bearing waters (chalybeate) which, obviously, wasn’t like this at all times.  Whether this was a sporadic, unpredictable flow of iron in the waters, or a cyclical pattern of the water-flows, we are not told (which would imply, moreso, that it was sporadic).  The folklore about this ghost and its appearance with another elemental creature along an old straight track running north from Upper Headley Hall to Thornton is intriguing—as in many old pre-christian traditions, North is the airt, or direction, representing Death; and black dogs are traditionally guardians of underworld treasures in the land of the Dead.  With the plethora of other animistic folktales once known in this district (boggarts or goblins were known in nearby woods, wells and farms) it is likely that the origin of such folklore dates way back into antiquity.

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul, Ancient and Holy Wells of West Yorkshire, forthcoming
  2. Southwart, Elizabeth, Bronte Moors and Villages: From Thornton to Haworth, John Lane Bodley Head: London 1923.
  3. Storrs, Roger, ‘Legends and Traditions of Wells,’ in Yorkshire Folk-lore Journal – volume 1 (ed. J. Horsfall Turner) 1888.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Devil’s Well, Abernethy, Perthshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference – NO 19430 14758

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 28084

Getting Here

Devils Well on 1860 map

From Abernethy village, go west along the A913 road for half-a-mile, then turn left up the long and winding Glenfoot road up the Abernethy Glen.  About a mile up on your left-side is Craigden Farm and, just a bit past this, the forestry plantation.  Just before the trees, cut up the field and head uphill, passing the near forest of gorse, until you reach the huge detached house of Turflundie.  In the field immediately east, right up against the barbed-wire fence where it meets the depleted forestry, a very small trickle of water emerges beneath a small pile of rocks.  You’re here!

Archaeology & History

The trickling waters are on the other side of this fence

Long since thought to have been lost, the trickling remains of this old Well of the Devil are, in fact, still running beneath the pile of stones just over the barbed-wire fence on the edge of the forestry section.  A cluster of other worn rounded rocks scatter the ground just to the rear of where the water first comes out of the ground, suggesting, perhaps, that a small well-house covered the spring; but this is me being speculative, as there’s no mention of this in the early writings of the Ordnance Survey lads, nor is one shown on the first OS-map of the area in 1860.  And you’ll see on the OS-map how the well is slightly lower than where it presently trickles, but this is down to the fact that the source of it was piped-off at sometime in the not-too-distant past, as evidenced by remains of such piping laying just over the barbed-wire fence close to the source.  In truth, unless you’re hardcore, there’s very little to see.

Folklore

The dedication of this water-site to the christian ‘devil’ is obviously a corruption of its original traditional name, which may have simply been to the Bodach, or ‘Old Man’ in Gaelic and northern British lore.  The bodach‘s consort is the great prima Mater of the northern realms known as the Cailleach, but I can find no dedication to Her anywhere nearby.  The best we have are the ‘Witches Graves’ a half-mile to the northwest, below the edge of the geological ridge overlooking Abernethy, where folklore tells us 22 women were murdered and buried by the local christians several centuries ago.

References:

  1. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Fairy Well, Logie, Stirlingshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 8135 9804

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 47123
  2. Hielantman’s Well
  3. Highlandman’s Well
  4. Holy Well

Getting Here

Fairy Well, emerging from wall

Fairy Well, emerging from wall

From Stirling, take the A9 to Bridge of Allan, turning right at the roundabout along the A907 for less than a mile, then turning left at the next roundabout up the A91.  A half-mile down, at the small roundabout, bear left and first right, up to Logie Church.  Keep going all the way up this steep winding road, turning right at the junction.  Go along here for a quarter of a mile and park up at the roadside.  Walk along a bit further where the road has a bittova sharp bend.  The sound of the stream coming out of the small glen is obvious.  Walk past this and, on the right-hand side of the road, past the stream, you’ll find a water source emerging from the boscage of an overgrown wall.  Keep looking.  It’s damn close!

Archaeology & History

In the 1792 Statistical Account of this northeastern edge of Stirling, moving into the ancient parish of Logie, we were given an early brief account of this all-but-forgotten sacred water source which, thankfully, still runs fine water to this day.  It was described in tandem with the ancient Hill of the Picts called Dunmyatt, more than a mile to the east; but,

“About half-a-mile from the foot of this hill…is a very fine well, which issues from more than sixty springs, that rise through the sand and channel.  It is called the Holy Well, and is said to have been much resorted to by the Roman Catholics.”

Close-up of the running waters

Close-up of the running waters

In R.M. Menzies (1905) magnum opus on the parish of Logie, he told that it “was popularly known as ‘the Heilantman’s Well’, a possible reminiscence of the ’15 where the battle of Sheriffmuir was fought nearby.”  This tradition is echoed by several local historians; though Angus Watson (1995) wonders whether it’s ‘Highlandman’s Well’ name (and its variants) is “perhaps more likely to the use of the well by Highland drovers.”  It’s in the perfect spot too!

When the Royal Commission (1963) lads visited the place in 1952, they described the well to have “been filled up.”  Thankfully today, the old well emerges out of the overgrown remains of an old wall, the waters of which still run fast and free and into the larger stream ahead of it.  The waters are fine and clear, and tasted cold and refreshing when I drank some a few days ago.  It’s an excellent spot to quench the thirst after a day out in the Ochils.

Folklore

Of the various titles given to this old water source, the more popular choice in recent years has been to call it the Highlandman’s Well.  However, local lore had always known it to be a place where the little people had acquaintance and it seems more vital to maintain its old folk-name.  In R.M. Menzies (1912) rare work on the folklore of the region, he told us the story behind the name:

“Once upon a time, when people took life more leisurely, and when the wee folk frequented the glens and hills of Scotland, there was one little fairy whose duty it was to look after certain wells renowned for their curative properties.  This fairy was called Blue Jacket, and his favourite haunt was the Fairy Well on the Sheriffmuir Road, where the water was so pure and cool that nobody could pass along without taking a drink of the magic spring.  A draught of this water would have such a refreshing effect that the drinker could go on his journey without feeling either thirsty or hungry.  Many travellers who had refreshed themselves at the Fairy Well would bless the good little man who kept guard over its purity, and proceed upon their way dreaming of pleasant things all the day long.

“One warm day in June, a Highland drover from the Braes of Rannoch came along with a drove of Highland cattle, which he was taking to Falkirk Tryst, and feeling tired and thirsty he stopped at the Fairy Well, took a good drink of its limpid water, and sat down beside it to rest, while his cattle browsed nearby.  The heat was very overpowering, and he fell into a dreamy sleep.

“As he lay enjoying his noonday siesta, Blue Jacket stepped out from among the brackens and approaching the wearied drover, asked him whence he came.  The drover said:

“‘I come from the Highland hills beside the Moor of Rannoch; but I have never seen such a wee man as you before.  Wha’ may you be?’

“‘Oh,’ said the fairy, ‘I am Blue Jacket, one of the wee folk!’

“‘Ay, ay man, ye have got a blue jacket, right enough; but I’ve never met ony o’ your kind before. Do ye bide here?’

“‘Sometimes; but I am the guardian of the spring from which you have just been drinking.’

“‘Weel, a’ I can say is that it is grand water; there is no’ the likes o’t frae this to Rannoch.’

“‘What’s your name?’ asked the fairy.

“‘They ca’ me Sandy Sinclair, the Piper o’ Rannoch,’ was the reply.

“‘Have you got your pipes?’ asked Blue Jacket.

“‘Aye, my mannie, here they are.  Wad ye like a tune?  Ye see there’s no’ a piper like me in a’ Perthshire.’

“‘Play away then,’ said Blue Jacket.

“Sandy Sinclair took up his pipes and, blowing up the bag, played a merry Highland reel.  When he finished, he was greatly surprised to see above the well a crowd of little folk, like Blue Jacket, dancing to the music he had been playing.  As he stopped they clapped their little hands and exclaimed, ‘Well done Sandy! You’re the piper we need.’

“Thereupon Blue Jacket blew a silver whistle, which he took from his belt, and all the wee folk formed themselves into a double row.  Blue Jacket then took the Highland piper by the hand, led him to the front of the procession, and told him to play a march.  Sandy felt himself unable to resist the command of the fairy, and, putting the chanter into his mouth, blew his hardest and played his best, marching at the head of the long line of little people, who tripped along, keeping time to the strains of the bagpipes.  Blue Jacket walked in front of the piper, leading the way in the direction of the Fairy Knowe.

“Sandy Sinclair never marched so proudly as he did that day, and the road, though fairly long, seemed to be no distance at all; the music of the pibroch fired his blood and made him feel as if he was leading his clansmen to battle.   When the Fairy Knowe was reached, the wee folk formed themselves into a circle round the little hill, and sang a song the sweetest that ever fell upon the ears of the Highlandman.  Blue Jacket once more took his whistle and, blowing three times upon it, held up his hand, and immediately the side of the knoll opened.  Bidding the piper to play on, Blue Jacket led the procession into the interior; and when all were inside, the fairies formed themselves into sets, and the piper playing a strathspey, they began dancing with might and main.

“One dance succeeded another, and still Sandy played on, the wee folk tripping it as merrily as ever.  All thoughts of Sandy’s drove had gone quite out of his head, and all he thought of now was how best to keep the fairies dancing: he had never seen such nimble dancers, and every motion was so graceful and becoming as made him play his very best to keep the fun going.  Sandy Sinclair was in Fairyland, and every other consideration was forgotten.

“Meanwhile his cattle and sheep were following their own sweet will, the only guardian left to take care of them being his collie dog.  This faithful animal kept watch as well as he could, and wondered what had become of his master.  Towards evening another drover came along with his cattle for the same tryst.  He knew the dog at once, and began to pet the animal, saying at the same time, ‘Where’s your master, Oscar? What’s become o’ Sandy?’

“All the dog would do was to wag his bushy tail, and look up with a pleading air, as if to say, ‘I don’t know; will you not find him?’

“‘My puir wee doggie, I wonder what’s come over Sandy?  It’s no like him to leave his cattle stravaiging by the roadside.  Ay ay man; and at the Fairy Well too!  Indeed, this looks unco bad.’

“The newcomer, who was also a Highlander, made up his mind to spend the night with his own drove and that of Sandy Sinclair, thinking that the missing man would turn up in the morning.  But when the morning came there was no sign of Sandy.

“Taking Sandy’s collie and leaving his own dog in charge of the combined droves, he said, ‘Find master, Oscar!’  The wise beast sniffed around for a little and then trotted off in the direction taken the day before by Sandy Sinclair and the fairies.  By and by they reached the Fairy Knowe; but there was nobody there as far as the drover could see.  The dog ran round and round the knoll, barking vigorously all the time, and looking up into the face of the drover as if to say, ‘This is where he is; this is where he is.’  The drover examined every bit of the Fairy Knowe, but there was no trace of Sandy Sinclair.  As the drover sat upon the top of the Fairy Knowe, wondering what he should do next, he seemed to hear the sound of distant music.  Telling the faithful dog to keep quiet, he listened attentively, and by-and-by made out the sound of the pibroch; but whether it was at a long distance or not, he could not be certain.  In the meantime, the dog began to scrape at the side of the mound and whimper in a plaintive manner.  Noticing this, the drover put his ear to the ground and listened.  There could be no mistake this time: the music of the pibroch came from the centre of the Fairy Knowe.

“‘Bless my soul!’ exclaimed Sandy’s friend. ‘He’s been enticed by the fairies to pipe at their dances.  We’ll ne’er see Sandy Sinclair again.’

“It was as true as he said.  The Piper of Rannoch never returned to the friends he knew, and the lads and lasses had to get another piper to play their dance music when they wished to spend a happy evening by the shore of the loch.  Long, long afterwards, the passers-by often heard the sound of pipe music, muffled and far away, coming from the Fairy Knowe; but the hidden piper was never seen.  When long absent friends returned to Rannoch and enquired about Sandy Sinclair, they were told that he had gone to be piper to the wee folk and had never come home again.”

The Fairy Knowe is the large prehistoric burial mound, neolithic in origin, found 1.08 miles (1.74km) west of the Fairy Well, above Bridge of Allan—and an absolute must to visit for any lovers of fairy lore!

References:

  1. Fergusson, R. Menzies, Logie: A Parish History – volume 1, Alexander Gardner: Paisley 1905.
  2. Fergusson, R. Menzies, The Ochil Fairy Tales, David Nutt: London 1912.
  3. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments Scotland, Stirling – volume 2, HMSO: Edinburgh 1963.
  4. Watson, Angus, The Ochils – Placenames, History, Tradition, Perth & Kinross District Libraries 1995.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian