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Articles by Stuart McHardy
Wells, Trees and Sacred Groves

Water is basic. It is necessary to all forms of life on our planet. It is also in some countries, like Scotland, extremely common. We have lochs, rivers, wells and springs and in all our seasons - rain. Yet water is the bearer of sanctity and is involved in the rituals of many religions. The Christians use water for baptism and christening - sanctifying the person involved. Water was also at the very heart of what was the ancient religion.  It has been suggested that we all respond particularly to water because in our mothers’ wombs we float in the amniotic fluid as if it were water and some psychologically driven people see the idea of the Flood as being derived from a memory of the time in the womb. Be that as it may there  can be no doubt that water was absolutely central to the belief patterns of our ancestors. The importance of wells and the association of goddess-type figures with our rivers attest to this. It would seem fair to say that in pagan times that water was seen in some way as the blood of the Goddess. Wells and springs erupting from the earth were seen as being particularly beneficial and the term well-worship has been widely used to describe that happened at many locations. In Scotland the survival of many well-rituals into the 19th and 20th centuries have been commented upon, giving us glimpses of how our ancestors saw themselves in the world. Many of these wells have been, and some continue to be, associated with healing, sometimes in a general sense and at others with specific complaints.

Nine Maidens Wells

On the northern side of Dundee just south of the village of Strathmartine there is farm called Pittempton. This farm is the site of a well that was the destination of a pilgrimage on the first Sunday in May till near the end of the 19th century. The date derives initially from Beltane on May 1st which at some time was transferred into a more Christian time of the closest Sunday. The farmer at Pittempton in the late 1870s had become fed up with the disruption to his crops every year and covered the well with a sheet of iron and then buried it. This drastic action stopped the pilgrimage but a local rhyme survives about the well. This rhyme tells of a great dragon which killed nine maidens in the far past and was eventually killed by a local lad called Martin a couple of miles to the north at the site of the Pictish symbol stone called Martin’s Stane. These Nine Maidens crop up in other locations and an almost identical story is told of a well at Kildrummy near Castle Forces in Aberdeenshire. Here the founder of the Clan Forbes, a Pictish warrior called Ochonochar slew a great wild bear which had also killed Nine Maidens. Other Nine Maidens Wells were at Cortachy and  Dundee,  Finavon and Glamis in Angus, at Newburgh in Fife, at Tough and Pitsligo in Aberdeenshire, at Loch Tay, at  Parkside by Murrayshall, overlooking New Scone, and in Abernethy on the south of the Tay, east of Perth. There is a possibility that many of the Ninewells that exist all across Scotland were at one time Nine Maidens Wells, though there are other interpretations of the name. At Abernethy the Nine Maidens were said to be the companions of St Bridget who came over from Ireland in the Dark Ages at the request of the Pictish King to set up a nunnery there. The motif of the Nine Maidens and their strong links to pagan religion exists in the mythology and lore of most West European countries, linking such diverse figures as King Arthur, the Norse Gods Heimdall and Odin, Apollo and the Welsh St. Samson of Dol.

Bride’s Wells

St. Bridget is the Christianised version of the earlier mother goddess figure Bride who appears to have been common to both Scotland and Ireland.  It is also likely she was the mother goddess of the Brigantes, a  British tribe from what is now North-West England and she is closely matched in Norse mythology by Freyja. As a fertility goddess it seems only natural that Bride and her successor St. Bridget should be involved with well rituals. One interesting ritual survived till recently at Bride’s Well at Sanquhar in the south-west. Here, at Beltain young women would go to the well and place nine white stones in it. The link to the Nine Maidens seems likely but the use  white pebbles is particularly striking. White pebbles were used by both pagans and early Christians in Scotland as talismans of some kind put into graves . There are Bride’s Wells all over Scotland from Wigton to Aberdeen and one particular one at Pitlochry was a notable location for the cure of respiratory diseases. Another Bride’s Well this time at Corgarrf between Braemar and Tomintoul was a favourite spot for brides. On the evening before their marriages it was customary for young girls to go to the well with their bridesmaids and they would bathe the bride’s feet and the upper parts of her body with water from the well. It was believed that this bathing would ensure a family. Given the number of Bride placenames in Scotland, particularly Kilbride, meaning the church of Bride, it seems a good bet that many more wells were once known as Bride’s Wells. As it had been Christian policy since the sixth century to take over pagan sites and re-use them, no doubt many other wells with saint’s names attached to them were once dedicated to Bride.

Clootie Wells

Today probably the best known Clootie Well is on the Black Isle. Here the trees on both sides of the well alongside the road are thoroughly bedecked with rags. The original idea of this was strongly associated with the idea of the wells’ healing powers. A rag would be tied by a sufferer to the holy tree beside the well and as the rag faded so the affliction would disappear. This applied to sicknesses of the heart and mind as well as of the body.  It was acceptable for people to take rags on behalf of others too ill to move.  Of course anyone mad enough to remove or meddle with the rags would fall heir to all the diseases represented! Such practices were widespread and a particularly well-known Clootie Well is on Culloden Moor, sadly famous for other things. Like so many of the healing wells this one was visited at Beltane on the day itself or the first following Sunday. It seems that such pilgrimages even in the Middle Ages could become great social occasions in which, as in pagan times, religious practice and revelry would be totally intermingled. The Clootie Well on Culloden was also known as St. Mary’s Well, The Blue Well and the Tobar n’Oige or Well of Youth. This last name suggests a link to that fabulous land Tir nan Og, the Land of Everlasting Youth which occurs in early Scottish and Irish Gaelic mythology. The ritual at this well is likely to have been pretty much constant at all wells. The pilgrim would walk three times deasail - sunwise - round the well then drink from it with cupped hands while making his wish, or more accurately, prayer. Then a piece of silver was to be thrown into the well and finally  the pilgrim would tie a rag of clothing to the branch of the overhanging tree or bush. This was thought by some to immediately remove all ill-health and care. The entire ritual had to be performed in silence before the sun rose. This last aspect reminds us that the ancient way of calculating the day was to count it from the close of the previous one - i.e. sunset. Certain wells have updated ancient practice and have charity boxes for donations.

Eye Wells

Many wells in Scotland are said to have been particularly good for ailments of the eyes and it is worth recalling that one of the ancient symbols of the goddess in ancient Mediterranean civilizations was the Eye. This has been remarked on in Britain as well, as in the remarkable book on Silbury Hill by Michael Dames, The Silbury Treasure. Some of these eye wells are dedicated to supposed early Christian saints like St. Triduana and St. Monenna. The latter was said to have been accompanied by nine maidens and a boy, reminding us of the Nine Maidens. What is truly remarkable about  St.Monenna is that she is reported to have had churches dedicated to her on Traprain Law in East Lothian, Edinburgh Castle Rock, Stirling Castle Rock, Dumbarton and Dundonald in Ayrshire. All of these were heavily fortified sites and were almost certainly tribal capitals in the Dark Ages. There are also strong links with Arthurian mythology particularly at Traprain. The stories of St. Triduana and St. Monenna are essentially the same. St. Triduana despite having entered the sisterhood of nuns and dedicating her life to Christ was pursued by an ardent suitor, who in true early Christian style was of royal descent. Try as she might she could not escape from him. She moved several times but still he came after her even though she had taken a strict vow of chastity. At last she asked him what it was about her that most attracted him. On being told that he was enflamed by her beautiful eyes she simply plucked them out and gave them to the astonished prince. This for some reason is the Christianized version of why certain wells were said to be good for the eyes. St. Triduana’s Well in Edinburgh was originally at Restalrig Church in Edinburgh but was moved to a location in Holyrood Park where it can still be seen opposite Holyrood Palace. The idea of moving wells is matched in ancient tradition.

Moving Wells

On the island of Islay there is a well that is said to have originated on Colonsay, an island 10 kilometres to the north. Here one day a local woman went to the well and washed her hands in it. This sacrilegious act was outrageous and the well immediately spirited itself away to Islay where ever after it was properly respected and was the site of numerous pilgrimages. Another version of the same story tells that the well was brought to Islay by Donald, Lord of the Isles when he moved from Colonsay to Finlaggan in Islay.

Other movable wells seem to have shifted for the same kind of reason but there is one story of a moving well that takes some beating.

The story is from Strath Dearn south-east  of Inverness. A man who had been raised here by the headwaters of the Findhorn river grew old watching his friends and relatives leave their beloved Highlands for a better life on the Canadian prairies. Despite regular invitations he declined to follow them and lived on in Strath Dearn.  One of the things that kept him there was his attachment to the well near his birthplace which had supplied him with water all his days. However after many years of trying his relatives at last convinced him to go over to Canada.  Even though he had agreed to go it was with some reluctance that he went for the last time to the well and sat on the large white rock, on which he had so often sat to read his bible. He was thinking of the spot when he arrived at his new home. And there just a few yards from his new home was his faithful well and the white boulder waiting for him.

The Queen and the Well

Wells are magic in many ways and crop up in all sorts of stories. This one comes from Port Ellen on Islay. One day the queen fell ill and told the eldest of her daughters to go the well of true water to bring her a drink. She was sure that this would restore her to health. On reaching the well of true water the young princess was approached by a large frog who asked her to marry him. She was mortally offended at thus suggestion and said she would never do such a thing. “Well then”, said the toad, “You‘ll not get any water.” On returning home without the water the queen told her off then sent her younger sister to the well for the water. The same thing happened to the second sister as had happened to the first and she too came home without any water.

By this time the queen was very ill and in desperation she sent her youngest daughter to the well of true water to bring her a drink.  When she got there the frog appeared again and asked the third sister if she would marry him. On being told that this was the only way he would let her have the water for her mother, the lass agreed to wed the frog.  He gave her the water and she ran off at once to her mother. The queen drank the water and immediately felt better.

That night after all were in bed, the frog came to the front of their dwelling and called to the youngest sister ,” Gentle one, gentle one, remember the pledge you gave me, beside the well my love.” He kept repeating this over and over and at last the princess came down and let him in, putting him behind the door. She went back to bed but soon was awakened by the frog repeating that same phrase over and over again. So she took him into her chamber and put him down there. It was not long before he started again, repeating and repeating the same phrase. She then made him a wee  bed right by the fire hoping this would quieten him. But again he started and this time she made him up a bed alongside her own. Yet again he started  but she decided enough was enough and decided to ignore him. At that his chant stopped and he said to her,” There is an old rusty sword behind your bed. Lift it up and cut off my head, rather that than this torture should go on.”

So she took up the old rusty sword and with a clean stroke cut off the frog’s head. Then there in front of her stood a handsome young man. He told her his story - that he was a king from a nearby kingdom who had been put under a spell and as she had saved his life by agreeing to marry him they should now be wed. The young princess was very taken by the handsome stranger and soon they were married and had a long and happy life together.

Every area in Scotland had its own wells  and there are many tales of miracle cures and of the Lost Well of Youth which restores youth to anyone who drinks from it.

As we have seen the pre-Reformation church was quite amenable to absorbing earlier religious practices into its own rituals. A striking example of this used to take place  on Eigg. In the late 18th century Martin Martin toured the Hebrides leaving us a remarkable record of his journey. According to him the water from the well on Eigg known as Katherine’s Well was believed locally to be extremely beneficial. The natives told Martin that it had been so ever since being blessed by Father Hugh, a Catholic priest. He had gathered all of the inhabitants of the island at the well and got them to raise a huge cairn at the head of the well. He then blessed the well and gave all present a small piece of candle which they lit. The priest then led the assembled throng in single file sunwise round the well. From then on it was sacrilege to use the water of the well for cooking.

This is clearly a remnant of early practice which some priest saw as being useful to carry on with, something the inhabitants were doing every 15th April in Martin’s time. Most wells were believed to be at the peak of their powers on Beltane or one of the other feast days - Samhain( 1st November), Imbolc (1st February), or Lammas(1st August).

There were wells for many types of ailment and the modern idea of the Wishing Well is clearly derived from this ancient idea of supplication at such magical sites. One of the ongoing concerns in society in older times was of course fertility and there were many locations which were thought to have the power of making barren women fertile, or at the least of encouraging the possibility of pregnancy. Naturally some of these sites were wells and there is an interesting account of one such well and the associated rituals gathered earlier this century.

In the twenties as a boy, John R. Allan was told the following by an old man who saw the ritual when he himself was a young lad. The well concerned was located in an area called Willie’s Muir in Aberdeenshre.

The well was in a sheltered dip on the moor and the water came out amongst some stones surrounded by whin bushes.  Three women of child-bearing age went to the well at Midsummer accompanied by an older woman who was clearly the one in charge. The young lad followed them, keeping in cover all the while.

On reaching the well and with instruction from the older woman the three others took off their shoes and stockings and pulled  their skirts and petticoats up to bare their bellies. They then circled the well three times sunwise holding up their skirts as if holding themselves towards the sun. As they came round the old woman cupped water from the well and splashed each one’s genitalia with it.  Not a word was spoken, even though the water must have been gey cold. Three times round they went then the old woman made a sign. The women dropped their skirts and petticoats. Then they opened their dresses to the waist and pulled them down, freeing their breasts. At another sign from the Auld Wife, they knelt before her and this time she took the spring water and sprinkled it over their breasts three time three. At this they adjusted their clothing, put on their stockings and shoes and all four left without a single word having been spoken. This report probably dates from the middle of the nineteenth century and shows the tenacity of belief not just in the old ways, but in the old powers too.

Sacred Trees

As mentioned above, the ancient holy wells were usually adjoined by a tree or more than one. The famous well of St. Mourie on Isle Maree has such a tree which pilgrims used to shove or hammer coins in as a token of respect  and to get good luck. There are stories of wells in Argyll that have 9 hazel trees growing around them. This is an echo of the motif in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic tales of the Well of Knowledge. This mystical well was surrounded by nine magic hazel trees whose nuts bore the sum of human knowledge. The nuts fell into the pool and in the pool was a Salmon who fed on the nuts, thus becoming immensely knowledgeable. This well, or its equivalent is the goal of many a hero in the old tales and as with so many traditional tales would be located within the environment familiar to the story’s audience, wherever it was told.

 The trees here are the root of the magic and trees do seem to have played a significant part in early belief, perhaps because they were so important. In the hunter-gatherer stage of human development. Trees give shelter and food and provide the means of creating everything from houses to cooking implements, weapons and musical instruments with their own kind of magic.  There are grounds for believing that in the distant tribal past each tribe had its own sacred tree which was located at the psychological centre of the tribal territory and some old tales talk of the burning or hacking down of other tribes’ sacred trees by invaders. We should perhaps remember that the concept of the World-Tree is central to Norse mythology where it is called Yggdrasil, and that for many centuries Norse influence in Scotland was very strong indeed.

Trees can be significant either as individual entities or in groves and there are said to have been many trees that were seen as particularly sacred by the tribal peoples of Britain. The best known of course is the oak, with its links to the shadowy figures of the druids and there are records of mistletoe, cut at Samhain (Halloween) being used to ward off witchcraft or to protect children form being stolen by fairies.  The most widely respected tree in Scotland was the rowan. Its berries were said to have been the food of the gods but its particular strength was in warding off all evil.  It was a potent charm against witchcraft and there was hardly a rural cottage in Scotland a century or two back that didn’t have a rowan growing at its door. It is one of the most moving sights in the Highlands to come over the brow of a hill into some small glen with a little burn and nearby a rickle of stones with a great old rowan growing in what was once a human habitation. The wood of the rowan itself was potent and was used for the pins of ploughs, of millstones and for churn-staffs, pegs of cow-shackles etc. It was also common for the central cross beam in the chimneys of the old houses to be made of rowan which is why it became known as the rantree. The term could also be used for the main roofbeam of a house.  To ward off evil from one’s cattle it was common to put a sprig of rowan over the byre door or even to tie sprigs of it to cow’s tails - but always with red thread.  An old rhyme tells of the efficacy of using red thread, of wool, silk or linen, with the rowan,

“Rowan tree an red threid
Gar the witches tyne their speed”.

Rowan would only be used as firewood for the neid-fire or ritual cooking at Beltane and other special times.

Calton Hill, the hill of the hazels, in Edinburgh has already been mentioned and the hazel trees were the preferred nuts for divining at Halloween. The belief in the power of the hazel might derive from the ancient habit of using the milk that could be extracted form the hazelnuts in Autumn as a baby food. The milk with its link to motherhood gave it a link to the goddess and its use in the raising of neid-fire gave it added significance. 

Other trees such as the apple, for its fruit bearing properties and juniper for its use in creating a disinfectant and purifying smoke were also sacred.

Perhaps, though the most significant of our indigenous trees is the Yew. The great placename scholar W.J. Watson had no hesitation in seeing the name Iona as deriving from an ancient term signifying the place, or island of yews. Throughout Scotland there are kirkyards not only with yews in them but some of the oldest are enclosed by yews or have yew-arches at their entrance. This seems to echo a truly ancient respect for this great tree particularly as we know that many early churches were raised on what was already sacred ground in pagan times. Perhaps the yew contains some active healing ingredient we have forgotten, as many of the sacred trees seem to have healing properties of some kind. Another possibility is that extracts of certain nuts, or fruits could have been used to induce visionary trances. The reverence for the yew might derive from something much more obvious. It is a remarkably long-lived tree and as such could be seen to signify immortality or rebirth in either a pagan or Christian context.

At Fortingall near Loch Tay there is truly spectacular yew tree. Much has been made of the fact that it was living at the time Christ was said to have been born but it is in fact much older. This hoary old tree long ago split apart and now exists in distinct pieces and was the site where local people lit their Beltane fires into the 19th century. These fires were actually kindled in the space between the much separated parts of the original trunk. This tree is now reckoned to be considerably more than three thousand years old and is probably the oldest living entity in Europe. This longevity would account for its use in sacred ritual - it is a living memento of all those past generations who themselves gathered round it to celebrate another season of summer.

The idea of the sacred grove of trees is an old one and in Scotland we have many sites that might be associated with such places. The Romans wrote of nemetons or sacred groves in these islands and elsewhere, and the name is very like a Gaelic term Neimheadh (nevay)  which meant a sacred enclosure. It was often used for precisely those previously sacred grounds in which so many early churches were raised. These nemetons were sacred spots which probably incorporated judicial or social functions as well and can be found in most areas of Scotland. A few of them are Roseneath on the Gareloch, Nevay in Angus, Navidale in Sutherland, Slocknvata in the Rhinns of Galloway, Navitie in Fife and Craig Neimhidh in Glenurquhart.

Another of these ancient sites was in all likelihood Tarnavie. This is a large mound nestling under Craig Rossie on the south side of Strathearn near Dunning, one of the places where St. Serf slew a dragon. Tarnavie in the past was thought to come from Terra Navis or ship of land because of the shape of the hill - it is a bit like an upturned boat and there is a weird tale concerning the hill. At a date that no one has ever been certain about, a local farmer came to Tarnavie to dig up some sand. He knew he could get what he wanted there, perhaps because it was initially a drumlin, a mound caused by riverine action.  and proceeded to dig. He had hardly started when in front of him he suddenly saw a small man, a very small man, dressed in a very old and outlandish style indeed. The strange man asked him what thought he was doing and on being told replied, “ How would you feel if someone came along and started throwing the slates off your roof? You are disturbing my home, begone with you now.” At that the wee man simply sank back into the hill and the farmer turned to his heels and ran. He never set foot on Tarnavie again.

Whether this is a tale intended to frighten people off or to remind them that this is a fairy hill we can’t be sure. It is very like the ideas we looked at in the chapter on the Hollow Hills, here linked directly to a name suggesting if not a sacred grove of trees, at least a sacred site or enclosure of some kind. Interestingly Tomnahurich which we looked at earlier is Gaelic for Hill of the yew trees, again showing us how what are at first “just” folktales often have at their hearts ancient ideas of sanctity and reference to old holy sites in our landscape.

Navitie Hill

Another similar name is Navitie Hill overlooking Ballingry in Fife. The town’s name comes from Baille na Gruoch, the steading or hamlet of Gruoch, MacBeth’s wife and close by there is a well called Gruoch’s Well. One alternative readingof the placenmae is the steading or township of the Gruoch, suggesting it is a title rather than a name. The similarity to the sound of Gruagach and the Welsh Gwrach meaning Cailleach might be coincidental but here we are at the back of Benartney, a name some would see as deriving from Arthur. And it is in the scarps on the eastern end of that hill that the face of the Sleeping Giant can be clearly seen. As we have seen already that giant can be thought of as the Goddess herself reclining in the landscape. Such clusters of wells, interesting placenames and possible mythological references strongly suggest our ancestors saw vast areas, if not all, of Scotland’s landscape as in some way sacred.

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