Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs - James M. Mackinlay - ebook

In glancing at the superstitions connected with Scottish lochs and springs, we are called upon to scan a chapter of our social history not yet closed. A somewhat scanty amount of information is available to explain the origin and growth of such superstitions, but enough can be had to connect them with archaic nature-worship. In the dark dawn of our annals much confusion existed among our ancestors concerning the outer world, which so strongly appealed to their senses. They had very vague notions regarding the difference between what we now call the Natural and the Supernatural. Indeed all nature was to them supernatural. They looked on sun, moon, and star, on mountain and forest, on river, lake, and sea as the abodes of divinities, or even as divinities themselves. These divinities, they thought, could either help or hurt man, and ought therefore to be propitiated. Hence sprang certain customs which have survived to our own time. Men knocked at the gate of Nature, but were not admitted within. From the unknown recesses there came to them only tones of mystery.

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James M. Mackinlay

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Table of contents

Worship of Water.

How Water became Holy.

Saints and Springs.

More Saints and Springs.

Stone Blocks and Saints’ Springs.

Healing and Holy Wells.


Some Wonderful Wells.

Witness of Water.


More Water-Spirits.

Offerings at Lochs and Springs.

Weather and Wells.

Trees and Springs.

Charm-Stones in and out of Water.

Pilgrimages to Wells.

Sun-Worship and Well-Worship.


Meaning of Marvels.

Worship of Water.

Archaic Nature-worship—Deification of Water Metaphors—Divination by Water—Persistence of Paganism—Shony—Superstitions of Sailors and Fishermen—Sea Serpent—Mer-folk—Sea Charms—Taking Animals into the Sea—Rescuing from Drowning—Ancient Beliefs about Rivers—Dead and Living Ford—Clay Image—Dunskey—Lakes—Dow Loch—St. Vigeans—St. Tredwell’s Loch—Wells of Spey and Drachaldy—Survival of Well-worship—Disappearance of Springs—St. Margaret’s Well—Anthropomorphism of Springs—Celtic Influence—Cream of the Well.In glancing at the superstitions connected with Scottish lochs and springs, we are called upon to scan a chapter of our social history not yet closed. A somewhat scanty amount of information is available to explain the origin and growth of such superstitions, but enough can be had to connect them with archaic nature-worship. In the dark dawn of our annals much confusion existed among our ancestors concerning the outer world, which so strongly appealed to their senses. They had very vague notions regarding the difference between what we now call the Natural and the Supernatural. Indeed all nature was to them supernatural. They looked on sun, moon, and star, on mountain and forest, on river, lake, and sea as the abodes of divinities, or even as divinities themselves. These divinities, they thought, could either help or hurt man, and ought therefore to be propitiated. Hence sprang certain customs which have survived to our own time. Men knocked at the gate of Nature, but were not admitted within. From the unknown recesses there came to them only tones of mystery.In ancient times water was deified even by such civilised nations as the Greeks and Romans, and to-day it is revered as a god by untutored savages. Sir John Lubbock, in his “Origin of Civilisation,” shows, by reference to the works of travellers, what a hold this cult still has in regions where the natives have not yet risen above the polytheistic stage of religious development. Dr. E. B. Tylor forcibly remarks, in his “Primitive Culture,” “What ethnography has to teach of that great element of the religion of mankind, the worship of well and lake, brook and river, is simply this—that what is poetry to us was philosophy to early man; that to his mind water acted not by laws of force, but by life and will; that the water-spirits of primæval mythology are as souls which cause the water’s rush and rest, its kindness and its cruelty; that, lastly, man finds in the beings which, with such power, can work him weal and woe, deities with a wider influence over his life, deities to be feared and loved, to be prayed to and praised, and propitiated with sacrificial gifts.”In speaking of inanimate objects, we often ascribe life to them; but our words are metaphors, and nothing more. At an earlier time such phrases expressed real beliefs, and were not simply the outcome of a poetic imagination. Keats, in one of his Sonnets, speaks of “ The moving waters at their priest-like taskOf pure ablution round Earth’s human shore.”Here he gives us the poetical and not the actual interpretation of a natural phenomenon.We may, if we choose, talk of the worship of water as a creed outworn, but it is still with us, though under various disguises. Under the form of rites of divination practised as an amusement by young persons, such survivals often conceal their real origin. The history of superstition teaches us with what persistence pagan beliefs hold their ground in the midst of a Christian civilisation. Martin, who visited the Western Islands at the close of the seventeenth century, found how true this was in many details of daily life. A custom connected with ancient sea-worship had been popular among the inhabitants of Lewis till about thirty-years before his visit, but had been suppressed by the Protestant clergy on account of its pagan character. This was an annual sacrifice at Hallow-tide to a sea god called Shony. Martin gives the following account of the ceremony:—“The inhabitants round the island came to the church of St. Mulvay, having each man his provision along with him; every family furnished a peck of malt, and this was brewed into ale; one of their number was picked out to wade into the sea up to the middle, and, carrying a cup of ale in his hand, standing still in that posture, cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Shony, I give you this cup of ale, hoping that you’ll be so kind as to send us plenty of sea-ware for enriching our ground the ensuing year,’ and so threw the cup of ale into the sea. This was performed in the night-time.”Sailors and fishermen still cherish superstitions of their own. Majesty is not the only feature of the changeful ocean that strikes them. They are keenly alive to its mystery and to the possibilities of life within its depths. Strange creatures have their home there, the mighty sea serpent and the less formidable mermen and mermaidens. Among the Shetland islands mer-folk were recognised denizens of the sea, and were known by the name of Sea-trows.These singular beings dwelt in the caves of ocean, and came up to disport themselves on the shores of the islands. A favourite haunt of theirs was the Ve Skerries, about seven miles north-west of Papa-Stour. They usually rose through the water in the shape of seals, and when they reached the beach they slipped off their skins and appeared like ordinary mortals, the females being of exceeding beauty. If the skins could be snatched away on these occasions, their owners were powerless to escape into the sea again. Sometimes these creatures were entangled in the nets of fishermen or were caught by hooks. If they were shot when in seal form, a tempest arose as soon as their blood was mingled with the water of the sea. A family living within recent times was believed to be descended from a human father and a mermaid mother, the man having captured his bride by stealing her seal’s skin. After some years spent on land this sea lady recovered her skin, and at once returned to her native element. The members of the family were said to have hands bearing some resemblance to the forefeet of a seal. “ Of all the old mythological existences of Scotland,” remarks Hugh Miller, in his “Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland,” “there was none with whom the people of Cromarty were better acquainted than with the mermaid. Thirty years have not yet gone by since she has been seen by moonlight sitting on a stone in the sea, a little to the east of the town; and scarcely a winter passed, forty years earlier, in which she was not heard singing among the rocks or seen braiding up her long yellow tresses on the shore.”The magical power ascribed to the sea is shown in an Orcadian witch charm used in the seventeenth century. The charm had to do with the churning of butter. Whoever wished to take advantage of it watched on the beach till nine waves rolled in. At the reflux of the last the charmer took three handfuls of water from the sea and carried them home in a pail. If this water was put into the churn there would be a plentiful supply of butter. Sea water was also used for curative purposes, the patient being dipped after sunset. This charm was thought to savour strongly of the black art. Allusion has been made above to the rising of a storm in connection with the wounding of a sea-trow in Shetland. According to an Orcadian superstition, the sea began to swell whenever anyone with a piece of iron about him stept upon a certain rock at the Noup Head of Westray. Not till the offending metal was thrown into the water did the sea become calm again. Wallace, a minister at Kirkwall towards the end of the seventeenth century, mentions this belief in his “Description of the Isles of Orkney,” and says that he offered a man a shilling to try the experiment, but the offer was refused. It does not seem to have occurred to him to make the experiment himself.Among the ancient Romans the bull was sacred to Neptune, the sea god, and was sacrificed in his honour. In our own country we find a suggestion of the same rite, though in a modified form, in the custom prevailing at one time of leading animals into the sea on certain festivals. In the parish of Clonmany in Ireland it was formerly customary on St. Columba’s Day, the ninth of June, to drive cattle to the beach and swim them in the sea near to where the water from the Saint’s well flowed in. In Scotland horses seem at one time to have undergone a similar treatment at Lammas-tide. Dalyell, in his “Darker Superstitions of Scotland,” mentions that “in July, 1647, the kirk-session of St. Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh, resolved on intimating publicly ‘that non goe to Leith on Lambmes-day, nor tak their horses to be washed that day in the sea.’ ”A belief at one time existed that it was unlucky to rescue a drowning man from the grasp of the sea. This superstition is referred to by Sir Walter Scott in “The Pirate,” in the scene where Bryce the pedlar warns Mordaunt against saving a shipwrecked sailor. “Are you mad,” said the pedlar, “you that have lived sae lang in Zetland, to risk the saving of a drowning man? Wot ye not, if you bring him to life again, he will be sure to do you some capital injury?” We discover the key to this strange superstition in the idea entertained by savages that the person falling into the water becomes the prey of the monster or demon inhabiting that element; and, as Dr. Tylor aptly remarks, “to save a sinking man is to snatch a victim from the very clutches of the water-spirit—a rash defiance of deity which would hardly pass unavenged.”Folklore thus brings us face to face with beliefs which owe their origin to the primitive worship of the sea. It also allows us to catch a glimpse of rivers, lakes, and springs as these were regarded by our distant ancestors. When we remember that, according to a barbaric notion, the current of a stream flows down along one bank and up along the other, we need not be surprised that very crude fancies concerning water at one time flourished in our land.Even to us, with nineteenth-century science within reach, how mysterious a river seems, as, in the quiet gloaming or in the grey dawn, it glides along beneath overhanging trees, and how full of life it is when, swollen by rain, it rushes forward in a resistless flood! How much more awe-inspiring it must have been to men ignorant of the commonest laws of Nature! Well might its channel be regarded as the home of a spirit eager to waylay and destroy the too-venturesome passer-by. Rivers, however, were not always reckoned the enemies of man, for experience showed that they were helpful, as well as hurtful, to him. The Tiber, for instance, was regarded with reverence by the ancient inhabitants of Rome. Who does not remember the scene in one of Macaulay’s Lays, where, after the bridge has been hewn down to block the passage of Lars Porsena and his host, the valiant Horatius exclaims— “ O Tiber! father Tiber!To whom the Romans pray;A Roman’s life, a Roman’s arms,Take thou in charge this day?”Then with his harness on his back he plunges headlong into the flood, and reaches the other side in safety.In Christian art pagan symbolism continued long to flourish. Proof of this bearing on the present subject is to be found in a mosaic at Ravenna, of the sixth century, representing the baptism of Christ. The water flows from an inverted urn, held by a venerable figure typifying the river god of the Jordan, with reeds growing beside his head, and snakes coiling around it.In our own country healing virtue was attributed to water taken from what was called a dead and living ford, i.e., a ford where the dead were carried and the living walked across. The same belief was entertained with regard to the water of a south-running stream. The patient had to go to the spot and drink the water and wash himself in it. Sometimes his shirt was taken by another, and, after being dipped in the south-running stream, was brought back and put wet upon him. A wet shirt was also used as a Hallowe’en charm to foretell its owner’s matrimonial future. The left sleeve of the shirt was to be dipped in a river where “three lairds’ lands met.” It was then to be hung up overnight before the fire. If certain rules were attended to, the figure of the future spouse would appear and turn the sleeve in order to dry the other side. In the Highlands the water of a stream was used for purposes of sorcery till quite lately. When any one wished evil to another he made a clay image of the person to be injured, and placed it in a stream with the head of the image against the current. It was believed that, as the clay was dissolved by the water, the health of the person represented would decline. The spell, however, would be broken if the image was discovered and removed from the stream. In the counties of Sutherland and Ross the practice survived till within the last few years. Near Dunskey, in the parish of Portpatrick, Wigtownshire, is a stream which, at the end of last century, was much resorted to by the credulous for its health-giving properties. Visits were usually paid to it at the change of the moon. It was deemed specially efficacious in the case of rickety children, whose malady was then ascribed to witchcraft. The patients were washed in the stream, and then taken to an adjoining cave, where they were dried.In modern poetry a river is frequently alluded to under the name of its presiding spirit. Thus, in “Comus,” Milton introduces Sabrina, a gentle nymph, “ That with moist curb sways the smooth Severn stream,”and tells us that “ The shepherds at their festivalsCarol her goodness loud in rustic lays,And throw sweet garland wreaths into her streamOf pansies, pinks, and gaudy daffodils.”Lakes have always held an important place in legendary lore. Lord Tennyson has made us familiar with the part played by the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian romance. Readers of the Idylls will recollect it was she who gave to the king the jewelled sword Excalibur, and who, on the eve of his passing, received it again. The wounded Arthur thus addresses Sir Bedivere:— “ Thou rememberest how,In those old days, one summer morn, an armRose up from out the bosom of the lakeClothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,Holding the sword—and how I row’d acrossAnd took it, and have worn it, like a king.”Scottish lochs form a striking feature in the landscape, and must have been still more fitted to arrest attention in ancient times when our land was more densely wooded than it is now. Dr. Hugh Macmillan, in his “Holidays on High Lands,” alludes to the differences in the appearance of our lochs. “There are moorland tarns,” he says, “sullen and motionless as lakes of the dead, lying deep in sunless rifts, where the very ravens build no nests, and where no trace of life or vegetation is seen—associated with many a wild tradition, accidents of straying feet, the suicide of love, guilt, despair. And there are lochs beautiful in themselves and gathering around them a world of beauty; their shores fringed with the tasselled larch; their shallows tesselated with the broad green leaves and alabaster chalices of the water-lily, and their placid depths mirroring the crimson gleam of the heather hills and the golden clouds overhead.”Near the top of Mealfourvounie, in Inverness-shire, is a small lake at one time believed to be unfathomable. How this notion arose it is difficult to say, for when soundings were taken the depth was found to be inconsiderable. In the parish of Penpont, Dumfriesshire, about a mile to the south of Drumlanrig, is a small sheet of water called the Dow, or Dhu Loch, i.e., Black Loch. Till towards the end of last century the spot was much frequented for its healing water. A personal visit was not essential. When a deputy was sent he had to bring a portion of the invalid’s clothing and throw it over his left shoulder into the loch. He then took up some water in a vessel which he carefully kept from touching the ground. After turning himself round sun-ways he carried the water home. The charm would be broken if he looked back or spoke to anyone by the way. Among the people of the district it was a common saying, when anyone did not respond to the greeting of a passer-by, that he had been at the Dow Loch. Pilgrimages to the loch seem to have been specially popular towards the close of the seventeenth century, for in the year 1695 the Presbytery of Penpont consulted the Synod of Dumfries about the superstitious practices then current. The Synod, in response to the appeal, recommended the clergy of the district to denounce from their pulpits such observances as heathenish in character. There were persons still alive in the beginning of the present century who had seen the offerings, left by the pilgrims, floating on the loch or lying on its margin. To the passer-by, ignorant of the superstitious custom, it might seem that a rather untidy family washing was in progress.The Church of St. Vigeans, in Forfarshire, is well known to antiquaries in connection with its interesting sculptured stones. An old tradition relates that the materials for the building were carried by a water-kelpie, and that the foundations were laid on large bars of iron. Underneath the structure was said to be a deep lake. The tradition further relates that the kelpie prophesied that an incumbent of the church would commit suicide, and that, on the occasion of the first communion after, the church would sink into the lake. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the minister of the parish did commit suicide, and so strong was the superstition that the sacramental rite was not observed till 1736. In connection with the event several hundred people took up a position on a neighbouring rising ground to watch what would happen. These spectators have passed away, but the church remains.St. Tredwell’s Loch in Papa-Westray, Orkney, was at one time very famous, partly from its habit of turning red whenever anything striking was about to happen to a member of the Royal Family, and partly from its power to work cures. On a small headland on the east of the loch are still to be seen the ruins of St. Tredwell’s Chapel, measuring twenty-nine feet by twenty-two, with walls fully four feet in thickness. On the floor-level about thirty copper coins were found some years ago, the majority of them being of the reign of Charles the Second. At the door of the chapel there was at one time a large heap of stones, made up of contributions from those who came to pay their vows there. Mr. R. M. Fergusson, in his “Rambles in the Far North,” gives the following particulars about the loch:—“In olden times the diseased and infirm people of the North Isles were wont to flock to this place and get themselves cured by washing in its waters. Many of them walked round the shore two or three times before entering the loch itself to perfect by so doing the expected cure. When a person was engaged in this perambulation nothing would induce him to utter a word, for, if he spoke, the waters of this holy loch would lave his diseased body in vain. After the necessary ablutions were performed they never departed without leaving behind them some piece of cloth or bread as a gift to the presiding genius of the place. In the beginning of the eighteenth century popular belief in this water was as strong as ever.”Superstitions had a vigorous life last century. Pennant, who made his first tour in Scotland in 1769, mentions that the wells of Spey and Drachalday, in Moray, were then much visited, coins and rags being left at them as offerings. Nowadays holy wells are probably far from the thoughts of persons living amid the stir and bustle of city life, but in rural districts, where old customs linger, they are not yet forgotten. In the country, amidst the sights and sounds of nature, men are prone to cherish the beliefs and ways of their forefathers. Practices born in days of darkness thus live on into an era of greater enlightenment. “The adoration of wells,” remarks Sir Arthur Mitchell in his “Past in the Present,” “may be encountered in all parts of Scotland from John o’ Groats to the Mull of Galloway,” and he adds, “I have seen at least a dozen wells in Scotland which have not ceased to be worshipped.” “Nowadays,” he continues, “the visitors are comparatively few, and those who go are generally in earnest. They have a serious object which they desire to attain. That object is usually the restoration to health of some poor little child—some ‘back-gane bairn.’ Indeed the cure of sick children is a special virtue of many of these wells. Anxious mothers make long journeys to some well of fame, and early in the morning of the 1st of May bathe the little invalid in its waters, then drop an offering into them by the hands of the child—usually a pebble, but sometimes a coin—and attach a bit of the child’s dress to a bush or tree growing by the side of the well. The rags we see fastened to such bushes have often manifestly been torn from the dresses of young children. Part of a bib or little pinafore tells the sad story of a sorrowing mother and a suffering child, and makes the heart grieve that nothing better than a visit to one of these wells had been found to relieve the sorrow and remove the suffering.” Mr. Campbell of Islay bears witness to the same fact. In his “Tales of the West Highlands” he says, “Holy healing wells are common all over the Highlands, and people still leave offerings of pins and nails and bits of rag, though few would confess it. There is a well in Islay where I myself have, after drinking, deposited copper caps amongst a hoard of pins and buttons and similar gear placed in chinks in the rocks and trees at the edge of the ‘Witches’ well.’ ”A striking testimony to the persistence of faith in such wells is borne by Mr. J. R. Walker in volume v. (new series) of the “Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” where he describes an incident that he himself witnessed about ten years ago on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Mr. Walker writes, “While walking in the Queen’s Park about sunset, I casually passed St. Anthony’s Well, and had my attention attracted by the number of people about it, all simply quenching their thirst, some probably with a dim idea that they would reap some benefit from the draught. Standing a little apart, however, and evidently patiently waiting a favourable moment to present itself for their purpose, was a group of four. Feeling somewhat curious as to their intention I quietly kept myself in the background, and by-and-by was rewarded. The crowd departed and the group came forward, consisting of two old women, a younger woman of about thirty, and a pale sickly-looking girl—a child three or four years old. Producing cups from their pockets, the old women dipped them in the pool, filled them, and drank the contents. A full cup was then presented to the younger woman and another to the child. Then one of the old women produced a long linen bandage, dipped it in the water, wrung it, dipped it in again, and then wound it round the child’s head, covering the eyes, the youngest woman, evidently the mother of the child, carefully observing the operation and weeping gently all the time. The other old woman not engaged in this work was carefully filling a clear glass bottle with the water, evidently for future use. Then, after the principal operators had looked at each other with an earnest and half solemn sort of look, the party wended its way carefully down the hill.”Agricultural improvements, particularly within the present century, have done much to abolish the adoration of wells. In many cases ancient springs have ceased to exist through draining operations. In the parish of Urquhart, Elginshire, a priory was founded in 1125. Towards the end of last century the site was converted into an arable field. The name of Abbey Well, given to the spring whence the monks drew water, long kept alive the memory of the priory; but in recent times the well itself was filled up. St. Mary’s Well, at Whitekirk, in Haddingtonshire, has also ceased to be, its water having been drained off. Near Drumakill, in Drymen parish, Dumbartonshire, there was a famous spring dedicated to St. Vildrin. Close to it was a cross two feet and a half in height, with the figure of the saint incised on it. About thirty years ago, however, the relic was broken up and used in the construction of a farmhouse, and not long after, the well itself was drained into an adjoining stream. In the middle ages the spring at Restalrig, near Edinburgh, dedicated to St. Margaret, the wife of Malcolm Canmore, was a great attraction to pilgrims. The history of the well is interesting. There is reason to believe that it was originally sacred to the Holy Rood; and tradition connects it with the fountain that gushed out at the spot where a certain hart suddenly vanished from the sight of King David I. Mr. Walker, in the volume of the “Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland” already referred to, throws out the suggestion that the well may have had its dedication changed in connection with the translation of Queen Margaret’s relics about 1251, on the occasion of her canonization. With regard to the date of the structure forming the covering of the well, Mr. Walker, as an architect, is qualified to give an opinion, and from an examination of the mason marks on it he is inclined to think that the building was erected about the same time as the west tower of Holyrood Abbey Church, viz., about 1170. The late Sir Daniel Wilson, in his “Memorials of Edinburgh in the Olden Time,” gives the following account of the structure, which, however, he by mistake describes as octagonal instead of hexagonal:—“The building rises internally to the height of about four and a half feet, of plain ashlar work, with a stone ledge or seat running round seven of the sides, while the eighth is occupied by a pointed arch which forms the entrance to the well. From the centre of the water which fills the whole area of the building, pure as in the days of the pious queen, a decorated pillar rises to the same height as the walls, with grotesque gurgoils, from which the water has originally been made to flow. Above this springs a beautifully groined roof, presenting, with the ribs that rise from corresponding corbels at each of the eight angles of the building, a singularly rich effect when illuminated by the reflected light from the water below. A few years since, this curious fountain stood by the side of the ancient and little frequented cross-road leading from the Abbeyhill to the village of Restalrig. A fine old elder tree, with its knotted and furrowed branches, spread a luxuriant covering over its grass-grown top, and a rustic little thatched cottage stood in front of it, forming altogether a most attractive object of antiquarian pilgrimage.” The spot, however, was invaded by the North British Railway Company, and a station was planted on the site of the elder tree and the rustic cottage, the spring and its Gothic covering being imbedded in the buildings. Some years later the water disappeared, having found another channel. The structure was taken down stone by stone and rebuilt above St. David’s Spring, on the north slope of Salisbury Crags, where it still stands.In cases like the above, man interfered with nature and caused the disappearance of venerated springs. But it was not always so. In the parish of Logierait, in Perthshire, there was a spring that took the matter into its own hands, and withdrew from public view. This was the spring called in Gaelic Fuaran Chad, i.e., Chad’s Well. An annual market used to be held close by in honour of the saint, on the 22nd August. The spring was gratified and bubbled away merrily. The market, however, was at length discontinued. In consequence Fuaran Chad took offence, and sent in its resignation. In one instance, at least, the belief in the efficacy of a spring survived the very existence of the spring itself. This was so in the case of a healing well near Buckie, in Banffshire, filled up some years ago by the tenant on whose farm it was situated. So great was its fame that some women whose infants were weakly went to the spot and cleared out the rubbish. Water again filled the old basin, and there the infants were bathed. While being carried home they fell asleep, and the result was in every way to the satisfaction of the mothers.Certain characteristics of water specially recommended it as an object of worship in primæval times. Its motion and force suggested that it had life, and hence a soul. Men therefore imagined that by due attention to certain rites it would prove a help to them in time of need. What may be called the anthropomorphism of fountains has left traces on popular superstitions. The interest taken by St. Tredwell’s Loch in the national events has been already alluded to, and other examples will be noticed in future chapters.One point may be mentioned here, viz., the power possessed by wells of removing to another place. St. Fillan’s Spring, at Comrie, in Perthshire, once took its rise on the top of the hill Dunfillan, but tradition says that it quitted its old site for the present one, at the foot of a rock, a quarter of a mile further south. In the article on Comrie in the “Old Statistical Account of Scotland,” the well is described as “humbled indeed, but not forsaken.” A more striking instance of flitting is mentioned by Martin as having occurred in the Hebrides. In his account of Islay, he says, “A mile on the south-west side of the cave Uah Vearnag is the celebrated well Toubir-in-Knahar, which, in the ancient language, is as much as to say, ‘the well has sailed from one place to another’; for it is a received tradition of the vulgar inhabitants of this isle, and the opposite isle of Colonsay, that this well was first at Colonsay until an impudent woman happened to wash her hands in it, and that immediately after, the well, being thus abused, came in an instant to Islay, where it is like to continue, and is ever since esteemed a catholicon for diseases by the natives and adjacent islanders.” Perhaps the instance that puts the greatest strain on credulity is that of the spring dedicated to St. Fergus on the hill of Knockfergan, in Banffshire. Tradition reports that this spring came in a miraculous manner from Italy, though how it travelled to its quiet retreat in Scotland we do not know. There must have been some special attraction about the well, for a market known as the Well-Market used to be held beside it every year. On one occasion a fight took place about a cheese. In consequence the market was transferred to the neighbouring village of Tomintoul, where it continues to be held in August, under the same name.In his “Romances of the West of England,” the late Mr. Robert Hunt puts in a plea for the preservation of holy wells and other relics of antiquity, though he allows “that it is a very common notion amongst the peasantry that a just retribution overtakes those who wilfully destroy monuments, such as stone circles, crosses, wells, and the like,” and he mentions the case of an old man who altered a holy well at Boscaswell, in St. Just, and was drowned the following day within sight of his house. Mr. Hunt is speaking of Cornish wells; but the same is doubtless true of those north of the Tweed. Springs that can fly through the air and go through certain other wonderful performances can surely be trusted to look after themselves.In hot Eastern lands, fountains were held in special reverence. This was to be expected, as their cooling waters were there doubly welcome. In accounting for the presence of the cult in the temperate zones of Europe, we do not need to trace it to the East as Lady Wilde does in her “Ancient Legends of Ireland.” “It could not have originated,” she says, “in a humid country … where wells can be found at every step, and sky and land are ever heavy and saturated with moisture. It must have come from an Eastern people, wanderers in a dry and thirsty land, where the discovery of a well seemed like the interposition of an angel in man’s behalf.” In our own land there are no districts where well-worship has held its ground so firmly as those occupied by peoples of Celtic blood, such as Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Scottish Highlands. A curious instance of the survival of water-worship among our Scottish peasantry was seen in the custom of going at a very early hour on New-Year’s morning to get a pailful of water from a neighbouring spring. The maidens of the farm had a friendly rivalry as to priority. Whoever secured the first pailful was said to get the flower of the well, otherwise known as the ream or cream of the well. On their way to the spring the maidens commonly chanted the couplet— “ The flower o’ the well to our house gaes,An’ I’ll the bonniest lad get.”This referred to the belief that to be first at the well was a good omen of the maiden’s matrimonial future. It is a far cry from archaic water-worship to this New-Year’s love charm, but we can traverse in thought the road that lies between.

How Water became Holy.

Change from Paganism to Christianity—Columba—Spirits of Fountains—Hurtful Wells—Stone Circles—Superstitions regarding them—Standing Stones and Springs—Innis Maree—Maelrubha—Influence of early Saints—Names of Wells—Stone-coverings—Sacred Buildings and Springs—Privilege of Sanctuary—Some Examples—Freedstoll—Preceptory of Torphichen and St. John’s Well—Cross of Macduff and Nine-wells.We come next to ask how water became holy in the folklore sense of the word. Fortunately we get a glimpse of springs at the very time when they passed from pagan to Christian auspices. The change made certain differences, but did not take away their miraculous powers. We get this glimpse in the pages of Adamnan, St. Columba’s biographer, who narrates an incident in connection with the saint’s missionary work among the Picts in the latter half of the sixth century. Adamnan tells us of a certain fountain “famous among the heathen people, which the foolish men, having their senses blinded by the devil, worshipped as God. For those, who drank of this fountain, or purposely washed their hands or feet in it, were allowed by God to be struck by demoniacal art, and went home either leprous or purblind, or at least suffering from weakness or other kind of infirmity. By all these things the pagans were seduced and paid divine honour to the fountain.” Columba made use of the popular belief in the interests of the new faith, and blessed the fountain in the name of Christ in order to expel the demons. He then took a draught of the water and washed his hands and feet in it, to show that it could no longer do harm. According to Adamnan the demons deserted the fountain, and many cures were afterwards wrought by it. In Ireland more than a century earlier, St. Patrick visited the fountain of Findmaige, called Slan. Offerings were wont to be made to it, and it was worshipped as a god by the Magi of the district.It is difficult to determine exactly from what standpoint our pagan ancestors regarded wells. The nature-spirits inhabiting them, styled demons by Adamnan, were malignant in disposition, if we judge by the case he mentions; but we must not therefore conclude that they were so in every instance. Perhaps it is safe to infer that most of them were considered favourable to man, or the reverse, according as they were or were not propitiated by him. Even in modern times, some springs have been regarded as hurtful. The well of St. Chad, at Lichfield, for instance, causes ague to anyone drinking its water. Even its connection with the saint has not removed its hurtful qualities. In west Highland Folk-Tales allusion is made to poison wells, and such are even yet regarded with a certain amount of fear. In the article on the parish of Kilsyth in the “Old Statistical Account of Scotland,” it is stated that Kittyfrist Well, beside the road leading over the hill to Stirling, was believed to be noxious. Successive wayfarers, when tired and heated by their climb up hill, may have drunk injudiciously of the cold water, and thus the superstition may have originated.Stone circles have given rise to much discussion. They are perhaps best known by their popular name of Druidical temples. Whatever were the other purposes served by them, there is hardly any doubt that they were primarily associated with interments. Dr. Joseph Anderson has pointed out that a certain archæological succession can be traced. Thus we find first, burial cairns minus stones round them, then cairns plus stones, and finally, stones minus cairns. At one time there was a widely-spread belief that men could be transformed into standing stones by the aid of magic. This power was attributed to the Druids. There are also traditions of saints thus settling their heathen opponents. When speaking of the island of Lewis, Martin says, “Several other stones are to be seen here in remote places, and some of them standing on one end. Some of the ignorant vulgar say that they were men by enchantment turned into stones. Such monoliths are still known to the Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of Lewis as Fir Chreig, i.e., false men. We learn from the “New Statistical Account of Scotland” that the two standing stones at West Skeld, in Shetland, were believed by the islanders to have been originally wizards or giants. Close to the roadside on Maughold Head, in the Isle of Man, stands an ancient runic cross. A local tradition states that the cross was once an old woman, who, when carrying a bundle of wool, cursed the wind for hindering her on her journey, and was petrified in consequence.With superstitions thus clinging to standing-stones it is not to be wondered that springs in their neighbourhood should have been regarded with special reverence. In the “Old Statistical Account of Scotland” allusion is made to Tobir-Chalaich, i.e., Old Wife’s Well, situated near a stone circle in the parish of Keith, Banffshire, and to another well not far from a second circle in the same parish. The latter spring ceased to be visited about the middle of last century. Till then offerings were left at it by persons seeking its aid. The writer of the article on the island of Barry, Inverness-shire, in the same work, says, “Here, i.e., at Castle-Bay, there are several Druidical temples. Near one of these is a well which must have been once famous for its medicinal quality, as also for curing and preventing the effects of fascination. It is called Tobbar-nam-buadh or the Well of Virtues.” Under the heading “Beltane,” in “Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary,” the following occurs:—“A town in Perthshire, on the borders of the Highlands, is called Tillie (or Tullie) Beltane, i.e., the eminence or rising ground of the fire of Baal. In the neighbourhood is a Druidical temple of eight upright stones, where it is supposed the fire was kindled. At some distance from this, is another temple of the same kind, but smaller, and near it a well still held in great veneration. On Beltane morning, superstitious people go to this well and drink of it, then they make a procession round it, as I am informed, nine times; after this, they in like manner go round the temple.” Gallstack Well, at Drumlanrig, in Dumfriesshire, is near a group of standing stones. From examples like the above, we may infer that some mysterious connection was supposed to exist between standing stones and their adjacent wells. In the Tullie Beltane instance indeed, stones and well were associated together in the same superstitious rite.A striking instance of Christianity borrowing from paganism is to be seen in the reverence paid to the well of Innis Maree, in Loch Maree, in Ross-shire. This well has been famous from an unknown past. It is dedicated to St. Maelrubha, after whom both loch and island are named. Maelrubha belonged to the monastery of Bangor, in Ireland. In the year 673, at the age of thirty-one, he settled at Applecrossan, now Applecross, in Ross-shire, and there founded a church as the nucleus of a conventual establishment. Over this monastery he presided for fifty-one years, and died a natural death in 722. A legend, disregarding historical probabilities, relates that he was slain by a band of pagan Norse rovers, and that his body was left in the forest to be devoured by wild beasts. His grave is still pointed out in Applecross churchyard, the spot being marked by a pillar slab with an antique cross carved on it. For centuries after his death he was regarded as the patron saint, not only of Applecross, but of a wide district around. Pennant, who visited Innis Maree in 1772, thus describes its appearance: “The shores are neat and gravelly; the whole surface covered thickly with a beautiful grove of oak, ash, willow, wicken, birch, fir, hazel, and enormous hollies. In the midst is a circular dike of stones, with a regular narrow entrance, the inner part has been used for ages as a burial-place, and is still in use. I suspect the dyke to have been originally Druidical, and that the ancient superstition of Paganism had been taken up by the saint, as the readiest method of making a conquest over the minds of the inhabitants. A stump of a tree is shown as an altar, probably the memorial of one of stone; but the curiosity of the place is the well of the saint; of power unspeakable in cases of lunacy.” Whatever Pennant meant by Druidical, there is reason to believe that the spot was the scene of pre-Christian rites. In the popular imagination the outlines of Maelrubha’s character seem to have become mixed up with those of the heathen divinity worshipped in the district. Two circumstances point to this. Firstly, as Sir Arthur Mitchell remarks in the fourth volume of the “Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” “The people of the place speak often of the God Mourie instead of St. Mourie, which may have resulted from his having supplanted the old god.” Secondly, as the same writer shows, by reference to old kirk session records, it was customary in the parish to sacrifice a bull to St. Mourie. This was done on the saint’s day, the 25th of August. The practice was still in existence in the latter half of the 17th century, and was then denounced as idolatrous.We thus see that the sacredness of springs can be traced back through Christianity to paganism, though there is no doubt that in some instances it took its rise from association with early saints. In deciding the question of origin, however, care must be taken, for, as already indicated, the reverence anciently paid to wells led to their selection by the early missionaries. The holy wells throughout the land keep alive their names. An excellent example of a saint’s influence on a particular district is met with in the case of St. Angus, at Balquhidder, in Perthshire. In his “Notes in Balquhidder” in the “Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” vol. ix. (new series), Mr. J. Mackintosh Gow remarks, “Saint Angus, the patron saint of the district, is said to have come to the glen from the eastward, and to have been so much struck with its marvellous beauty that he blessed it. The remains of the stone on which he sat to rest are still visible in the gable of one of the farm buildings at Easter Auchleskine, and the turn of the road is yet called ‘Beannachadh Aonghais’ (Angus’s blessing). At this spot it was the custom in the old days for people going westward to show their respect for the saint by repeating, ‘Beannaich Aonghais ann san Aoraidh’ (Bless Angus in the oratory or chapel), at the same time reverently taking off their bonnets. The saint, going west, had settled at a spot below the present kirk, and near to a stone circle, the remains of which, and of the oratory, persons now living remember to have seen.” After alluding to another stone circle in a haugh below the parish church manse, Mr. Gow mentions that this haugh is the stance of the old market of Balquhidder, long a popular one in the district. It was held on the saint’s day in April and named Feill-Aonghais, after him. In the immediate neighbourhood there is a knoll called “Tom Aonghais,” i.e., Angus’s hillock. In the grounds of Edinchip there is a curing well called in Gaelic, “Fuaran n’druibh chasad,” i.e., the Whooping-cough Well, beside the burn “Alt cean dhroma.” “It is formed of a water-worn pot hole in the limestone rock which forms the bed of the burn, and is ten or twelve inches in diameter at the top and six inches deep. There must be a spring running into the hollow through a fissure, as no sooner is it emptied than it immediately refills, and contains about two quarts of water. The well can easily be distinguished by the large moss-covered boulder, round and flat, like a crushed ball, and about seven feet in diameter, which overshadows it, and a young ash tree of several stems growing by its side.” This well was famous for the cure of whooping-cough, and children were brought to it till within recent years. The water was given in a spoon made from the horn of a living cow. When the patients could not visit the spring in person, a bottleful of the healing liquid was taken to their homes, and there administered. The district round the lower waters of Loch Awe, now comprising the united parishes of Glenorchy and Inishail was held to be under the patronage of Connan. There is a well at Dalmally dedicated to him. According to a local tradition he dwelt beside the well and blessed its water.In addition to springs named after particular saints, there are some bearing the general appellation of Saints’ Wells or Holy Wells. There are Holy Rood and Holy Wood Wells, also Holy Trinity and Chapel Wells. There are likewise Priors’, Monks’, Cardinals’, Bishops’, Priests’, Abbots’, and Friars’ Wells. Various springs have names pointing to no ecclesiastical connection whatever. To this class belong those known as Virtue Wells, and those others named from the various diseases to be cured by them. On the Rutherford estate, in the parish of West Linton, Peeblesshire, there is a mineral spring called Heaven-aqua Well. Considering the name, one might form great expectations as to its virtues. There is much force in the remarks of Dr. J. Hill Burton, in his “Book Hunter.” He says, “The unnoticeable smallness of many of these consecrated wells makes their very reminiscence and still semi-sacred character all the more remarkable. The stranger in Ireland, or the Highlands of Scotland, hears rumours of a distinguished well, miles on miles off. He thinks he will find an ancient edifice over it, or some other conspicuous adjunct. Nothing of the kind. He has been lured all that distance, over rock and bog, to see a tiny spring bubbling out of the rock, such as he may see hundreds of in a tolerable walk any day. Yet, if he search in old topographical authorities, he will find that the little well has ever been an important feature of the district; that century after century it has been unforgotten; and, with diligence he may perhaps trace it to some incident in the life of the saint, dead more than 1200 years ago, whose name it bears.” There are a few wells with a more or less ornamental stone covering, such as St. Margaret’s Well, in the Queen’s Park, Edinburgh, and St. Michael’s Well, at Linlithgow. St. Ninian’s Well, at Stirling, and also at Kilninian, in Mull; St. Ashig’s Well, in Skye; St. Peter’s Well, at Houston, in Renfrewshire; Holy Rood Well, at Stenton, in Haddingtonshire; and the Well of Spa, at Aberdeen, also belong to this class.