Belief in Water

“One of the great charms of Highland landscape is the gleam of
still water that so often gives the element of repose in a scene of
broken cliff and tumbled crag, of noisy cascade and driving cloud. No
casual tourist can fail to notice what a wonderful variety of lakes
he meets with in the course of any traverse he may take across the
country. Among the higher mountains there is the little tarn nestling
in a dark sunless corry, and half-encircled with grim snow-rifted
crags. In the glen, there is the occasional broadening of the river
into a lake that narrows again to let the stream rush down a rocky
ravine. In the wider strath there is the broad still expanse of water,
with its fringe of wood and its tree-covered islets. In the gneiss
region of the North-West, there is the little lochan lying in its
basin of bare rock and surrounded with scores of others all equally
treeless and desolate.” So writes Professor Sir A. Geikie in his
“Scenery of Scotland.” His point of view is that of a scientific
observer, keenly alive to all the varied phenomena of nature. But amid
the scenes described lived men and women who looked at the outer world
through the refracting medium of superstition. They saw the landscape,
but they saw also what their own imagination supplied. In Strathspey,
is a sheet of water bearing the Gaelic name of Loch-nan-Spoiradan or
the Lake of Spirits. What shape these spirits assumed we do not know,
but there was no mistake about the form of the spirit who guarded
Lochan-nan-Deaan, close to the old military road between Corgarff
and Tomintoul. The appearance of this spirit may be gathered from the
Rev. Dr. Gregor’s remarks in an article on “Guardian Spirits of Wells
and Lochs” in “Folklore” for March, 1892. After describing the loch,
he says, “It was believed to be bottomless, and to be the abode of a
water-spirit that delighted in human sacrifice. Notwithstanding this
blood-thirsty spirit, the men of Strathdon and Corgarff resolved to
try to draw the water from the loch, in hope of finding the remains
of those that had perished in it. On a fixed day a number of them
met with spades and picks to cut a way for the outflow of the water
through the road. When all were ready to begin work, a terrific yell
came from the loch, and there arose from its waters a diminutive
creature in shape of a man with a red cap on his head. The men fled
in terror, leaving their picks and spades behind them. The spirit
seized them and threw them into the loch. Then, with a gesture of
defiance at the fleeing men, and a roar that shook the hills, he
plunged into the loch and disappeared amidst the water that boiled
and heaved as red as blood.” Near the boundary, between the shires
of Aberdeen and Banff, is a small sheet of water called Lochan-wan,
i.e., Lamb’s Loch. The district around is now a deer forest, but at
one time it was used for grazing sheep. The tenants around had the
privilege of pasturing a certain number of sheep. Dr. Gregor says,
“Each one that sent sheep to this common had to offer in sacrifice,
to the spirit of the loch, the first lamb of his flock dropped on the
common. The omission of this sacrifice brought disaster; for unless
the sacrifice was made, half of his flock would be drowned before
the end of the grazing season.” As in the case of Lochan-nan-Deaan,
an attempt was made to break the spell by draining the loch, but this
attempt, though less tragic in its result, was equally unavailing. On
three successive days a channel was made for the outflow of the water,
but each night the work was undone. A watch was set, and at midnight
of the third day hundreds of small black creatures were seen to rise
from the lake, each with a spade in his hand. They set about filling
up the trench and finished their work in a few minutes. Mr. Charles
Hardwick, in “Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore,” published
in 1872, tells of a folk-belief, prevalent in the North of England,
particularly in Lancashire. “I remember well,” he says, “when very
young, being cautioned against approaching to the side of stagnant
pools of water partially covered with vegetation. At the time, I
firmly believed that if I disobeyed this instruction a certain water
‘boggart,’ named Jenny Greenteeth, would drag me beneath her verdant
screen and subject me to other tortures besides death by drowning.”

Poetry and superstition regard external nature from the same
standpoint, in as much as both think of it as animate. But there is
a difference. The one endows nature with human qualities, and knows
that it does so through the imagination; the other does the same,
and believes that there is no imagination in the matter. The work of
the former is well expressed by Dr. E. B. Tylor, when he observes,
“In all that water does, the poet’s fancy can discern its personality
of life. It gives fish to the fisher and crops to the husbandman, it
swells in fury and lays waste the land, it grips the bather with chill
and cramp and holds with inexorable grasp its drowning victim.” That
rivers were monsters hungering, or perhaps, one should say, thirsting,
for human victims is a fact borne witness to by poetry as well as
by superstition. An example of this occurs in the following popular
rhyme connected with the Scottish Border:–

“Tweed said to Till,
‘What gars ye rin sae still’?
Till said to Tweed,
‘Though ye rin wi’ speed,
An’ I rin slaw,
Yet whare ye droon ae man,
I droon twa.'”

Some Aberdeenshire lines have the same theme:–

“Bloodthirsty Dee
Each year needs three;
But bonny Don,
She needs none.”

According to folklore, there is no doubt that rivers are
“uncanny.” Beneath their rippling surface dwells a being who keeps
a lookout for the unwary traveller and seeks to draw him into the
dark depths. A belief in such a being is not always explicitly
avowed. But there are certain folk-practices undoubtedly implying
it. When anyone is drowned in a river, the natural way to find the
body is to drag the stream in the neighbourhood of the accident. But
superstition has recourse to another method. A loaf of bread, with or
without quicksilver in it, is placed on the surface of the water and
allowed to drift with the current. The place where the loaf becomes
stationary marks the spot where the body lies concealed. According
to another method, a boat is rowed up and down the stream, and a drum
is beat all the time. When the boat passes over the resting place of
the body the drum will cease to sound. This was done in Derbyshire
no longer ago than 1882, in order to find the corpse of a young woman
who had fallen into the Derwent. In such practices there is a virtual
recognition of a water-spirit who can, by certain rites, be compelled
to give up his prey, or at any rate to disclose the whereabouts of the
victim. A Deeside tradition supplies a good illustration of this. A
man called Farquharson-na-Cat, i.e., Farquharson of the Wand, so
named from his trade of basketmaking, had on one occasion to cross the
river just above the famous linn. It was night. He lost his footing,
was swept down into the linn, and there drowned. Search was made for
his body, but in vain. His wife, taking her husband’s plaid, knelt
down on the river’s brink, and prayed to the water-spirit to give
her back her dead. She then threw the plaid into the stream. Next
morning her husband’s corpse, with the plaid wrapped round it, was
found lying on the edge of the pool. Till quite lately, fishing
on the Tweed was believed to be influenced by the fairies of the
river. Salt was thrown into the water, and sprinkled on the nets to
insure a plentiful catch of fish. This was really the offering of a
sacrifice to the river-spirits.

Frequently the guardian of the flood appeared in distinctly human
shape. An excellent example of this is to be found in Hugh Miller’s
“My Schools and Schoolmasters,” where a picturesque description is
given of the spirit haunting the Conan. Hugh Miller was an expert
swimmer, and delighted to bathe in the pools of that Ross-shire
stream. “Its goblin or water-wraith,” he tells us, “used to appear
as a tall woman dressed in green, but distinguished chiefly by her
withered, meagre countenance, ever distorted by a malignant scowl. I
knew all the various fords, always dangerous ones, where of old she
used to start, it was said, out of the river before the terrified
traveller to point at him as in derision with her skinny finger,
or to beckon him invitingly on; and I was shown the very tree to
which a poor Highlander had clung when, in crossing the river by
night, he was seized by the goblin, and from which, despite of his
utmost exertions, though assisted by a young lad, his companion, he
was dragged into the middle of the current, where he perished. And
when in swimming at sunset over some dark pool, where the eye failed
to mark, or the foot to sound, the distant bottom, the twig of some
sunken bush or tree has struck against me as I passed, I have felt,
with sudden start, as if touched by the cold, bloodless fingers of
the goblin.” At Pierse Bridge, in Durham, the water-spirit of the Tees
went by the name of Peg Powler, and there were stories in the district,
of naughty children having been dragged by her into the river.

In the Highlands and Lowlands alike, the spirit inhabiting rivers
and lakes was commonly known as the water-kelpy. A south country
ballad says:–

“The side was steep, the bottom deep
Frae bank to bank the water pouring;
And the bonnie lass did quake for fear,
She heard the water-kelpie roaring.”

Who does not remember Burns’s lines in his “Address to the Deil”?–

“When thowes dissolve the snawy hoord,
An’ float the jinglin’ icy-boord,
Then water-kelpies haunt the foord
By your direction;
An’ ‘nighted travellers are allur’d
To their destruction.

An’ aft your moss-traversin’ spunkies
Decoy the wight that late and drunk is:
The bleezin’, curst, mischievous monkeys
Delude his eyes.
Till in some miry slough he sunk is,
Ne’er mair to rise.”

The kelpy corresponded in attributes with the Icelandic Nikr;
whence has come our term Old Nick, popularly applied to the devil. A
well-known picture by Sir Noel Paton has familiarised the story of
“Nickar, the soulless,” who is there represented as a creature with
frog-like feet, but with a certain human look about him, crouching
among sedge by the side of water, and playing his ghittern–an
instrument resembling a guitar. He appears, however, more melancholy
and less mischievous than the other members of his fraternity. A kelpy
that idled away his time with music and made no attempt to drown
anybody, was quite an exceptional being. In Sweden, where Nikr was
regarded with awe, ferry-men at specially dangerous parts of rivers
warned those who were crossing in their boat not even to mention his
name, lest some mishap should follow. In his “Saxons in England,”
Mr. J. M. Kemble thus refers to other manifestations of the same
creature:–“The beautiful Nix or Nixie who allures the young fisher
or hunter to seek her embraces in the wave which brings his death;
the Neck who seizes upon and drowns the maidens who sport upon his
banks; the river-spirit who still yearly, in some parts of Germany,
demands tribute of human life, are all forms of the ancient Nicor.” The
same writer continues:–“More pleasing is the Swedish Stromkarl,
who, from the jewelled bed of his river, watches with delight the
children gambol in the adjoining meadows, and singing sweetly to them
in the evening, detaches from his hoary hair the sweet blossoms of
the water-lily, which he wafts over the surface to their hands.” In
his “Folklore of East Yorkshire,” Mr. J. B. Nicholson alludes to a
haunted pool between Bewholme and Atwick, at the foot of the hill
on which Atwick Church stands. This pool is shaded by willows,
and is believed to be haunted by a spirit known in the district
as the Halliwell Boggle. In connection with Robin Round Cap Well,
in the same district, Mr. Nicholson tells a story–found also in
the south of Scotland–of a certain house-spirit or brownie, who
proved so troublesome to the farmer whom he served that his master
resolved to remove to other quarters. The furniture was accordingly
put in carts and a start was made for the new home. On the way, a
friend accosted the farmer and asked if he was flitting. Before he
could reply, a voice came from the churn–“Ay, we’re flitting!” and,
behold, there sat Robin Round Cap. The farmer, seeing that he could
not thus rid himself of the spirit, returned to his old home; but,
afterwards, he succeeded in charming the brownie into a well, where he
still remains. The same writer relates a superstition about a certain
round hole near Flamborough where a girl once committed suicide. “It
is believed,” he says, “that anyone bold enough to run nine times
round this place will see Jenny’s spirit come out, dressed in white;
but no one has yet been bold enough to venture more than eight times,
for then Jenny’s spirit called out:–

‘Ah’ll tee on my bonnet
An’ put on me shoe,
An’ if thoo’s nut off
Ah’ll seean catch thoo!’

A farmer, some years ago, galloped round it on horseback, and Jenny
did come out, to the great terror of the farmer, who put spurs to his
horse and galloped off as fast as he could, the spirit after him. Just
on entering the village, the spirit, for some reason unknown, declined
to proceed further, but bit a piece clean out of the horse’s flank,
and the old mare had a white patch there to her dying day.”

In the “Folklore Journal” for 1889, Dr. Gregor relates some kelpy
legends collected by him in Aberdeenshire. On one occasion a man had
to cross the Don by the bridge of Luib, Corgarff, to get to his wife
who was then very ill. When he reached the river, he found that the
bridge–a wooden one–had been swept away by a flood. He despaired
of reaching the other bank, when a tall man suddenly appeared and
offered to carry him across. The man was at first doubtful, but ere
long accepted the proffered help. When they reached the middle of
the river, the kelpy, who had hitherto shown himself so obliging,
sought to plunge his burden beneath the water. A struggle ensued. The
man finally found a foothold, and, disengaging himself from the
kelpy, scrambled in all haste up the bank. His would-be destroyer,
disappointed of his victim, hurled a boulder after him. This boulder
came to be known as the Kelpy’s Stane. Passers-by threw a stone
beside it till eventually a heap was formed, locally styled the
Kelpy’s Cairn. A Braemar kelpy stole a sackful of meal from a mill
to give it to a woman for whom he had taken a fancy. As the thief was
disappearing, the miller caught sight of him and threw a fairy-whorl
at his retreating figure. The whorl broke his leg, and the kelpy fell
into the mill-race and was drowned. Such was the fate of the last kelpy
seen in Braemar. Sutherland, too, abounded in water-spirits. They
used to cross the mouth of the Dornoch Firth in cockle-shells,
but, getting tired of this mode of transit, they resolved to build
a bridge. It was a magnificent structure, the piers being headed
with pure gold. A countryman, happening to pass, saw the bridge,
and invoked a blessing on the workmen and their work. Immediately,
the workmen vanished, and their work sank beneath the waves. Where it
spanned the Firth there is now a sandbar dangerous to mariners. Miss
Dempster, who recounts this legend in the “Folklore Journal” for 1888,
supplies further information about the superstition of the district. A
banshee, adorned with gold ornaments and wearing a silk dress, was
seen hurrying down a hill near the river Shin, and finally plunging
into one of its deep pools. These banshees were commonly web-footed,
and seemed addicted to finery, if we may judge from the instance just
given, and from another mentioned by Mr. Campbell in his “Tales of
the West Highlands.” He there speaks of one who frequented a stream
about four miles from Skibo Castle in Dornoch parish. The miller’s wife
saw her. “She was sitting on a stone, quiet, and beautifully dressed
in a green silk dress, the sleeves of which were curiously puffed
from the wrists to the shoulder. Her long hair was yellow like ripe
corn, but on nearer view she had no nose.” Miss Dempster narrates
the following incident connected with the water-spirit haunting
another Sutherland river:–“One, William Munro, and the grandfather
of the person from whom we have this story, were one night leading
half-a-dozen pack-horses across a ford in the Oikel, on their way to
a mill. When they neared the river bank a horrid scream from the water
struck their ears. ‘It is the Vaicgh,’ cried the lad, who was leading
the first horse, and, picking up some stones, he sent a shower of them
into the deep pool at his feet. She must have been repeatedly hit,
as she emitted a series of the most piercing shrieks. ‘I am afraid,’
said Monro, ‘that you have not done that right, and that she will play
us an ugly trick at the ford.’ ‘Never mind, we will take more stones,’
he answered, arming himself with a few. But the kelpy had had enough
of stones for one night.”

Off the Rhinns of Islay is a small island formerly used for grazing
cattle. A strong tide sweeps past the island, making the crossing
of the Sound dangerous. A story, related by Mr. Campbell, tells
that on a certain boisterous night a woman was left in charge of a
large herd of cattle on the island. She was sitting in her cabin,
when all at once she heard strange noises outside, and, looking up,
saw a pair of large eyes gazing in at her through the window. The door
opened, and a strange creature strode in. He was tall and hairy, with
a livid covering on his face instead of skin. He advanced towards the
woman and asked her name. She replied in Gaelic, “Mise mi Fhin”–“Me
myself.” He then seized her. In her terror she threw a ladleful of
boiling water on the intruder. Yelling with pain he bounded out of the
hut. These unearthly voices asked what was the matter, and who had hurt
him? “Mise mi Fhin”–“Me myself,” replied the creature. The answer was
received with a shout of laughter from his mysterious companions. The
woman rushed out of the hut, and dislodging one of the cows lay down
on the spot, at the same time making a magical circle round her on
the ground. All night she heard terrible sounds mingling with the
roaring of the wind. In the morning the supernatural manifestations
disappeared, and she felt herself safe. It had not fared, however,
so well with the cow, for, when found, it was dead.

In Chapter I. reference was made to mermen and mermaids, and little
requires to be added in the present connection. In the south of
Scotland the very names of these sea-spirits have a far-off sound
about them. No one beside the Firths of Forth and Clyde expects
nowadays to catch sight of such strange forms sitting on rocks,
or playing among the breakers; but among our Northern Isles it is
otherwise. Every now and again (at long intervals, perhaps) the
mysterious mermaid makes her appearance, and gives new life to an
old superstition. About three years since, one was seen at Deerness
in Orkney. She reappeared last year, and was then noticed by some
lobstermen who were working their creels. She had a small black head,
white body, and long arms. Somewhat later, a creature, believed to
be this mermaid, was shot not far from the shore, but the body was
not captured. In June of the present year another mermaid was seen by
the Deerness people. At Birsay, recently, a farmer’s wife was down at
the sea-shore, and observed a strange creature among the rocks. She
went back for her husband, and the two returned quite in time to
get a good view of the interesting stranger. The woman spoke of the
mermaid as “a good-looking person”; while her husband described her
as “having a covering of brown hair.” Curiosity seems to have been
uppermost in the minds of the couple, for they tried to capture the
creature. In the interests of folklore, if not of science, she managed
to escape, and was quickly lost to sight beneath the waves. Perhaps,
as the gurgling waters closed over her, she may have uttered an au
revoir, or whatever corresponds to that phrase in the language of the
sea. The following story about a mermaid, told by Mr. J. H. Dixon in
his “Gairloch,” published in 1886, is fully credited in the district
where the incident occurred:–“Roderick Mackenzie, the elderly and
much respected boat-builder at Port Henderson, when a young man, went
one day to a rocky part of the shore there. Whilst gathering bait he
suddenly spied a mermaid asleep among the rocks. Rorie ‘went for’
that mermaid, and succeeded in seizing her by the hair. The poor
creature in great embarrassment cried out that if Rorie would let go
she would grant him whatever boon he might ask. He requested a pledge
that no one should ever be drowned from any boat he might build. On
his releasing her the mermaid promised that this should be so. The
promise has been kept throughout Rorie’s long business career–his
boats still defy the stormy winds and waves.” Mr. Dixon adds, “I am
the happy possessor of an admirable example of Rorie’s craft. The
most ingenious framer of trade advertisements might well take a hint
from this veracious anecdote.”

So far we have been dealing with water-spirits more or less human in
form. Another class consists of those with the shape and attributes
of horses and bulls. The members of this class are connected specially
with Highland districts. Lonely lochs were their favourite haunts. In
treeless regions, a belief in such creatures would naturally arise. Any
ordinary animal in such an environment would appear of a larger size
than usual, and the eye of the beholder would transmit the error to his
imagination, thereby still further magnifying the creature’s bulk. In
some instances, the notion might arise even when there was no animal
on the scene. A piece of rock, or some other physical feature of the
landscape would be enough to excite superstitious fancies. Mr. Campbell
remarks, “In Sutherland and elsewhere, many believe that they have seen
these fancied animals. I have been told of English sportsmen who went
in pursuit of them, so circumstantial were the accounts of those who
believed they had seen them. The witnesses are so numerous, and their
testimony agrees so well, that there must be some old deeply-rooted
Celtic belief which clothes every object with the dreaded form of
the Each Uisge, i.e., Water-horse.” When waves appeared on a lake,
and there seemed no wind to account for them, superstitious people
readily grasped at the idea that the phenomenon was due to the action
of some mysterious water-spirit. As Dr. Tylor points out, there seems
to have been a confusion “between the ‘spiritual water-demon’ and the
‘material water-monster.'” Any creature found in or near the water
would naturally be reckoned its guardian spirit.

The Rev. Dr. Stewart gives the following particulars about water-horses
and water-bulls in his “‘Twixt Ben Nevis and Glencoe.” They are
thought of “as, upon the whole, of the same shape and form as the
more kindly quadrupeds after whom they have been named, but larger,
fiercer, and with an amount of ‘devilment’ and cunning about them,
of which the latter, fortunately, manifest no trace. They are always
fat and sleek, and so full of strength and spirit and life that the
neighing of the one and the bellowing of the other frequently awake
the mountain echoes to their inmost recesses for miles and miles
around…. Calves and foals are the result of occasional intercourse
between these animals and their more civilised domestic congeners,
such calves bearing unmistakable proofs of their mixed descent in the
unusual size and pendulousness of their ears and the wide aquatic
spread of their jet black hoofs; the foals, in their clean limbs,
large flashing eyes, red distended nostrils, and fiery spirit. The
initiated still pretend to point out cattle with more or less of this
questionable blood in them, in almost every drove of pure Highland
cows and heifers you like to bring under their notice.” The lochs
of Llundavrà and Achtriachtan, in Glencoe, were at one time famous
for their water-bulls; and Loch Treig for its water-horses, believed
to be the fiercest specimens of that breed in the world. If anyone
suggested to a Lochaber or Rannoch Highlander that the cleverest
horse-tamer could “clap a saddle on one of the demon-steeds of Loch
Treig, as he issues in the grey dawn, snorting, from his crystal-paved
sub-lacustral stalls, he would answer, with a look of mingled horror
and awe, ‘Impossible!’ The water-horse would tear him into a thousand
pieces with his teeth and trample and pound him into pulp with his
jet-black, iron-hard, though unshod hoofs!”

A noted demon-steed once inhabited Loch Ness, and was a cause of
terror to the inhabitants of the neighbourhood. Like other kelpies,
he was in the habit of browsing along the roadside, all bridled and
saddled, as if waiting for some one to mount him. When any unwary
traveller did so, the kelpy took to his heels, and presently plunged
into deep water with his victim on his back. Mr. W. G. Stewart, in
his “Highland Superstitions and Amusements,” tells a story to show
that the kelpy in question did not always have things his own way. A
Highlander of the name of MacGrigor resolved to throw himself in the
way of the water-horse in the hope of getting the better of him. The
meeting took place in the solitary pass of Slochd-Muichd, between
Strathspey and Inverness. The kelpy looked as innocent as usual, and
was considerably startled when MacGrigor, sword in hand, struck him
a blow on the nose. The weapon cut through the bridle, and the bit,
falling to the ground, was instantly picked up by MacGrigor. This was
the turning point of the encounter. The kelpy was powerless without
his bit, and requested to have it restored. Though a horse, the kelpy
had the power of human speech, and conversed, doubtless in excellent
Gaelic, with his victor, using various arguments to bring about the
restoration of his lost property. Finding that these were unavailing,
he prophesied that MacGrigor would never enter his house with the
bit in his possession, and when they arrived at the door he planted
himself in front of it to block the entrance. The Highlander, however,
outwitted the kelpy, for, going round to the back of his house, he
called his wife and flung the bit to her through a window. Returning
to the kelpy, he told him where the bit was, and assured him that he
would never get it back again. As there was a rowan cross above the
door the demon-steed could not enter the house, and presently departed
uttering certain exclamations not intended for benedictions. Those who
doubt the truthfulness of the narrative may have their doubts lessened
when they learn that this was not the only case of a water-horse’s
bit becoming the property of a human being. The Rev. Dr. Stewart
narrates an anecdote bearing on this. A drover, whose home was in
Nether Lochaber, was returning from a market at Pitlochry by way of
the Moor of Rannoch. Night came on; but, as the moon was bright, he
continued his journey without difficulty. On reaching Lochanna Cuile,
he sat down to refresh himself with bread, cheese, and milk. While
partaking of this temperate repast he caught sight of something
glittering on the ground, and, picking it up, he found it to be a
horse’s bridle. Next morning he was astonished to find that the bit
and buckles were of pure silver and the reins of soft and beautifully
speckled leather. He was still more surprised to find that the bit when
touched was unbearably hot. A wise woman from a neighbouring glen was
called in to solve the mystery. She at once recognised the article to
be a water-horse’s bridle, and accounted for the high temperature of
the bit on the ground that the silver still retained the heat that it
possessed when in a molten state below ground. The reins, she said,
were made of the skin of a certain poisonous serpent that inhabited
pools frequented by water-horses. According to her directions, the
bridle was hung on a cromag or crook of rowan wood. Its presence
brought a blessing to the house, and the drover prospered in all
his undertakings. When he died, having no children of his own, he
bequeathed the magical bridle to his grandnephew, who prospered in
his turn.

A pool in the North Esk, in Forfarshire, called the Ponage or Pontage
Pool, was at one time the home of a water-horse. This creature
was captured by means of a magical bridle, and kept in captivity
for some time. While a prisoner he was employed to carry stones to
Morphie, where a castle was then being built. One day the bridle
was incautiously removed, and the creature vanished, but not before
he exclaimed–

“Sair back an’ sair banes,
Carryin’ the Laird o’ Morphie’s stanes;
The Laird o’ Morphie canna thrive
As lang’s the kelpy is alive.”

His attempted verse-making seems to have gratified the kelpy, for
when he afterwards showed himself in the pool he was frequently heard
repeating the rhyme. The fate of the castle was disastrous. At a later
date it was entirely demolished, and its site now alone remains. Some
six miles from the Kirkton of Glenelg, in Inverness-shire, is
the small sheet of water known in the district as John MacInnes’
Loch. It was so called from a crofter of that name who was drowned
there. The circumstances are thus narrated by Mr. J. Calder Ross in
“Scottish Notes and Queries” for February, 1893: “John MacInnes found
the labour of his farm sadly burdensome. In the midst of his sighing
an unknown being appeared to him and promised a horse to him under
certain conditions. These conditions John undertook to fulfil. One day,
accordingly, he found a fine horse grazing in one of his fields. He
happened to be ploughing at the time, and at once he yoked the animal
to the plough along with another horse. The stranger worked splendidly,
and he determined to keep it, though he well knew that it was far
from canny. Every night when he stabled it he spread some earth from
a mole’s hill over it as a charm; according to another version he
merely blessed the animal. One night he forgot his usual precautions:
perhaps he was beginning to feel safe. The horse noticed the omission,
and seizing poor John in his teeth, galloped off with him. The two
disappeared in the loch.”

Water-horses were not always malignant in disposition. On one occasion
an Aberdeenshire farmer went with his own horse to a mill to fetch
home some sacks of meal. He left the horse at the door of the mill
and went in to bring out the sacks. The beast, finding itself free,
started for home. When the farmer reappeared and found the creature
gone he was much disconcerted, and uttered the wish that he might
get any kind of horse to carry his sacks even though it were a
water-kelpy. To his surprise, a water-horse immediately appeared! It
quietly allowed itself to be loaded with the meal, and accompanied
the farmer to his home. On reaching the house he tied the horse to an
old harrow till he should get the sacks taken into the house. When
he returned to stable the animal that had done him the good turn,
horse and harrow were away, and he heard the beast plunging not far
off in a deep pool in the Don. If anyone refuses to believe in the
existence of water-horses, let him go to the parish of Fearn, in
Forfarshire, and there, near the ruined castle of Vayne, he will see
on a sandstone rock the print of a kelpy’s foot. Noran Water flows
below the castle, and the mysterious creature had doubtless its home
in one of its pools. In Shetland, such kelpies were known as Nuggles,
and showed themselves under the form of Shetland ponies.

MacCulloch, the author of “A Description of the Western Islands of
Scotland,” found the belief in the water-bull a living faith among
the people, notably among the dwellers beside Loch Rannoch and Loch
Awe. He tells of a farmer who employed his sons to search a certain
stream for one of these creatures, while the farmer himself carried a
gun loaded with sixpences to be discharged when the monster appeared,
silver alone having any effect on such beasts. The same writer,
when speaking of the grandeur of the scenery about Loch Coruisk,
remarks:–“It is not surprising that Coruisk should be considered by
the natives as the haunt of the water-goblin or of spirits still more
dreadful. A seaman, and a bold one, whom, on one occasion, I had left
in charge of the boat, became so much terrified at finding himself
alone that he ran off to join his comrades, leaving it moored to the
rock, though in danger of being destroyed by the surge. I afterwards
overheard much discussion on the courage of the Southron in making
the circuit of the valley unattended. Not returning till it was
nearly dark, it was concluded that he had fallen into the fangs of
the kelpy.” MacCulloch’s “Description” consists of a series of letters
to Sir Walter Scott. Sir Walter himself has an interesting reference
to the same superstition in his “Journal,” under date November 23rd,
1827. After enumerating the company at a certain dinner party at
which he had been present, he continues: “Clanronald told us, as an
instance of Highland credulity, that a set of his kinsmen–Borradale
and others–believing that the fabulous ‘water-cow’ inhabited a small
lake near his house, resolved to drag the monster into day. With this
view they bivouacked by the side of the lake in which they placed,
by way of night-bait, two small anchors such as belong to boats,
each baited with the carcase of a dog slain for the purpose. They
expected the ‘water-cow’ would gorge on this bait, and were prepared
to drag her ashore the next morning, when, to their confusion of face,
the baits were found untouched. It is something too late in the day
for setting baits for water-cows.” If such conduct seemed wonderful
in 1827, what would the author of “Waverley” have thought had he known
that more than half-a-century later, people in the Highlands retained a
thorough-going belief in such monsters? No longer ago than 1884 rumours
were current in Ross-shire that a water-cow was seen in or near a loch
on the Greenstone Point, in Gairloch parish. Mr. J. H. Dixon, in his
“Gairloch,” states that about 1840 a water-cow was believed to inhabit
Loch-na-Beiste, in the same parish, and that a serious attempt was then
made to destroy the creature. The proprietor tried to drain the loch,
which, except at one point, is little more than a fathom in depth;
but when his efforts failed he threw a quantity of quicklime into the
water to poison the monster. It is reasonable to hold that the trout
were the only sufferers. The creature in question was described by
two men who saw it as in appearance like “a good sized boat with the
keel turned up.” Belief in the existence of water-cows prevailed in
the south as well as in the north of Scotland. In the Yarrow district
there was one inhabiting St. Mary’s Loch. Concerning this water-cow,
Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, writes: “A farmer in Bowerhope once got
a breed of her, which he kept for many years until they multiplied
exceedingly; and he never had any cattle throve so well, until once,
on some outrage or disrespect on the farmer’s part towards them,
the old dam came out of the lake one pleasant March evening and gave
such a roar that all the surrounding hills shook again, upon which her
progeny, nineteen in number, followed her all quietly into the loch,
and were never more seen.”

In the Isle of Man the water-bull was, and perhaps still is believed
in by the peasantry. It is called in Manx, tarroo-ushtey. There is
much force in Mr. Campbell’s conclusion that the old Celts reverenced
a destroying water-god, to whom the horse was sacred, or who assumed
the form of a horse. A similar notion may have originated the belief
in the water-bull.

Other creatures, besides those already mentioned, acted in the capacity
of water spirits. In Strathmartin, in Forfarshire, is a spring styled
the Nine Maidens’ Well. These maidens were the daughters of a certain
Donewalde or Donald in the eighth century, and led, along with their
father, a saintly life in the glen of Ogilvy in the same county. Their
spring at Strathmartin must have been well looked after, for it had
as its guardian, no less formidable a creature than a dragon. We do
not know whether there was any St. George in the vicinity to dispute
possession with the monster. In Kildonan parish, Sutherland, a stagnant
pool of water, some ten yards long by three broad, was regarded by
the inhabitants with superstitious dread. According to tradition,
a pot of gold lay hidden below; but no one could reach the treasure
as it was guarded by a large black dog with two heads. The Rev. Donald
Sage, when noticing this superstition in his “Memorabilia Domestica,”
remarks, “It is said that a tenant once had attempted to drain the
loch and had succeeded, so that the water was all carried off. The only
remuneration the unfortunate agriculturist received was to be aroused
from his midnight slumbers by a visit from the black dog, which set
up such a hideous howl as made the hills reverberate and the poor
man almost die with fright. Furthermore, with this diabolical music,
he was regularly serenaded at the midnight hour till he had filled up
the drain, and the loch had resumed its former dimensions.” We do not
know whether any later attempt was made to abolish the stagnant pool;
but at any rate a dread of the black dog kept it from being again
drained till well on in the present century. Sutherland, however,
cannot claim a monopoly in the matter of a guardian spirit in the
shape of a dog. Concerning Hound’s Pool in Dean Combe parish, Devon,
the tradition is that it is haunted by a hound doomed to keep guard
till the pool can be emptied by a nutshell with a hole in it. Readers
of “Peveril of the Peak” can hardly fail to remember the Moddey
Dhoo–the black demon-dog–that roamed through Peel Castle, in the
Isle of Man. St. Michael’s Well in Kirkmichael parish, Banffshire,
had for its guardian spirit a much smaller animal than any of the
above. It showed itself in the form of a fly that kept skimming over
the surface of the water. This fly was believed to be immortal. Towards
the end of last century the spring lost its reputation for its cures,
and the guardian spirit shared in its neglect. The writer of the
article on the parish, in the “Old Statistical Account of Scotland,”
mentions having met an old man who greatly deplored the degeneracy of
the times. A glowing picture is given of this old man’s desires. “If
the infirmities of years and the distance of his residence did
not prevent him, he would still pay his devotional visits to the
well of St. Michael. He would clear the bed of its ooze, opening a
passage for the streamlet, plant the borders with fragrant flowers,
and once more, as in the days of youth, enjoy the pleasure of seeing
the guardian fly skim in sportive circles over the bubbling waves,
and with its little proboscis imbibe the panacean dews.”

Consecrated fish have been reverenced, from of old, in East and
West alike. In Syria, at the present day, such fish are preserved
in fountains; and anciently certain pools in the stream, flowing
past Ascalon, were the abodes of fish sacred to Derketo, the
Phoenician Venus, who had a temple there. In our own land the same
cult prevailed. A curious Cornish legend tells how St. Neot had his
well stocked with fish by an angel. These fish were always two in
number. Day by day, the saint had one for dinner, and its place was
miraculously supplied to keep up the proper number. One day he fell
sick, and his servant, contrary to all ascetic precedent, cooked both
and set them before his master. The saint was horrified, and had both
the fish–cooked though they were–put back into the spring. He sought
forgiveness for the rash act, and lo! the fish became alive once more;
and as a further sign that the sacrilege was condoned, St. Neot, on
eating his usual daily portion, was at once restored to health. In
Scotland there were various springs containing consecrated fish. Loch
Siant, in the Isle of Skye, described by MacCulloch as “the haunt
of the gentler spirits of air and water,” abounded in trout; but,
as Martin informs us, neither the natives nor strangers ever dared
to kill any of them on account of the esteem in which the water was
held. This superstition seems to have been specially cherished in the
island, for Martin further says, “I saw a little well in Kilbride,
in the south of Skie, with one Trout only in it; the natives are very
tender of it, and though they often chance to catch it in their wooden
pales, they are very careful to preserve it from being destroyed; it
has been there for many years.” In a well near the church of Kilmore,
in Lorne, were two fishes held in much respect in the seventeenth
century, and called by the people of the district, Easg Seant, i.e.,
holie fishes. From Dalyell’s “Darker Superstitions of Scotland” we
learn that, like those belonging to St. Neot, they were always two
in number: they never varied in size: in colour they were black,
and according to the testimony of the most aged persons their hue
never altered. In Tober Kieran, near Kells, County Meath, Ireland,
were two miraculous trout which never changed their appearance. A
Strathdon legend, narrated by the Rev. Dr. Gregor, thus accounts
for the appearance of fish in Tobar Vachar, i.e., St. Machar’s Well,
at Corgarff, a spring formerly held in high honour on account of its
cures:–“Once there was a famine in the district, and not a few were
dying of hunger. The priest’s house stood not far from the well. One
day, during the famine, his housekeeper came to him and told him that
their stock of food was exhausted, and that there was no more to be
got in the district. The priest left the house, went to the well,
and cried to St. Machar for help. On his return he told the servant
to go to the well the next morning at sunrise, walk three times round
it, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, without looking
into it, and draw from it a draught of water for him. She carried out
the request. On stooping down to draw the water, she saw three fine
salmon swimming in the well. They were caught, and served the two
as food, till supply came to the famine-stricken district from other
quarters.” According to a Herefordshire tradition, a fish with a golden
chain round it was caught in the river Dore, and was afterwards kept in
the spring whence the river flows. At Peterchurch, in that county, is a
sculptured stone bearing a rude representation of the fish in question.

Sometimes the guardian spirit of a loch or well was thought of in
the vaguest possible way. In that case the genius loci had neither
name nor shape of any kind, the leaving of an offering being the
only recognition of his existence. Occasionally the presiding
spirit was pictured in the popular imagination in the guise of a
demon, commonly with a hazy personality. Callow Pit, in Norfolk,
was believed to contain a treasure-chest guarded by such a being. On
one occasion an attempt to raise the chest was made, and was on the
verge of being successful, when one of the treasure-hunters defied
the devil to get his own again. Suddenly the chest was snatched down
into the pit, and the ring, attached to the lid, alone remained
to tell its tale. This ring was afterwards fixed to the door of
Southwood Church. At Wavertree, in Lancashire, once stood a monastery
and beside it was a well. When pilgrims arrived, the occupants of
the monastery received their alms. If nothing was given, a demon,
chained to the bottom of the well, was said to laugh. This notion
was either originated or perpetuated by a fifteenth century Latin
inscription to this effect, “Qui non dat quad habet. Daemon infra
ridet.” When wells were dedicated to Christian saints, the latter
were usually considered the guardians of the sacred water. This was
natural enough. If, for instance, St. Michael was supposed to watch
over a spring, why should not his aid have been sought in connection
with any wished-for cure? It is interesting, however, to note that
this was not so in every instance. In many cases the favourite,
because favourable time for visiting a sacred spring, was not the
festival of the saint to whom it was dedicated, but, as we shall see
hereafter, a day quite distinct from such festival. Petitions, too,
were frequently addressed not to the saint of the well, but to some
being with a character possessing fewer Christian attributes. All this
points to the fact that the origin of well-worship is to be sought,
not in the legends of mediæval Christianity, but in the crude fancies
of an earlier paganism.

Offerings at lochs and springs have been incidentally mentioned more
than once, but the subject is one deserving separate treatment. Wells
were not merely so much water, with stones and turf round them, and
lochs, sheets of water, encompassed by moorland or forest. They were,
as we have seen, the haunts of spirits, propitious if remembered, but
resentful if neglected. Hence no one thought it proper to come to them
empty-handed. The principle was, no gift, no cure. Classical literature
contains allusions to such votive offerings. Numa sacrificed a sheep
to a fountain, and Horace promised to offer to his sweet Bandusian
spring a kid not without flowers. Near Toulouse, in France, was a
sacred lake, into whose water the neighbouring tribes anciently threw
offerings of gold and silver. In our own country, the gifts were, as
a rule, of small intrinsic value. When speaking of Toubir-nim-buadh,
in St. Kilda, Macaulay says:–“Near the fountain stood an altar
on which the distressed votaries laid down their oblations. Before
they could touch the sacred water with any prospect of success, it
was their constant practice to address the genius of the place with
supplication and prayer. No one approached him with empty hands. But
the devotees were abundantly frugal. The offerings, presented by them,
were the poorest acknowledgments that could be made to a superior
being, from whom they had either hopes or fears. Shells and pebbles,
rags of linen, or stuffs worn out, pins, needles, or rusty nails,
were generally all the tribute that was paid; and sometimes, though
rarely enough, copper coins of the smallest value.” The appearance
of this well is thus described by the author of “Ecclesiological
Notes”:–“A low square-shaped massy stone building with a stone roof,
covers the spring, which, after forming a pool in the floor of the
cell, runs down the russet slope like a thread of silver to join the
stream in the valley.”

The offerings, made by the St. Kildians, were indeed much the same as
those commonly made in other parts of the country. We get a glimpse
of what was done in the south of Scotland from Symson, who, in his
quaint “Description of Galloway,” remarks:–“In this parish of Bootle,
about a mile from the kirk, towards the north, is a well called the
Rumbling Well, frequented by a multitude of sick people for all sorts
of diseases the first Sunday of May; lying there the Saturday night,
and then drinking of it early in the morning. There is also another
well, about a quarter of a mile distant from the former, towards the
east. This well is made use of by the country people when their cattle
are troubled with a disease called by them the Connoch. This water they
carry in vessels to many parts and wash their beasts with it, and give
it them to drink. It is, too, remembered that at both the wells they
leave behind them something by way of a thank-offering. At the first,
they leave either money or clothes; at the second, they leave the bands
and shackles wherewith beasts are usually bound.” The objects, commonly
left on the cairns beside the Holy Pool in Strathfillan, have already
been enumerated. In addition, bunches of heath, tied with worsted,
were occasionally left. The Cheese Well, on Minchmoor, in Peeblesshire,
was so called from the pieces of cheese thrown into it by passers-by
as offerings to the fairies. Around a certain spring near Newcastle, in
Northumberland, the bushes were so covered with shreds of clothing that
the spring went by the name of the Rag Well. At St. Oswald’s Well, near
the foot of Roseberry Topping, in Yorkshire, the pieces of cloth were
so numerous that, as a spectator once remarked, they “might have made
a fair ream in a paper-mill.” A contributor to “Notes and Queries,”
in 1876, observes:–“The custom of hanging shreds of rags on trees as
votive offerings still obtains in Ireland. I remember as a child to
have been surreptitiously taken by an Irish nurse to St. John’s Well,
Aghada, County Cork, on the vigil of the saint’s day, to be cured
of whooping-cough by drinking three times of the water of the holy
well. I shall never forget the strange spectacle of men and women,
creeping on their knees in voluntary devotion, or in obedience to
enjoined penance, so many times round the well, which was protected by
a grey stone hood, and had a few white thorn trees growing near it,
on the spines of which fluttered innumerable shreds of frieze and
vary-coloured rags, the votive offerings of devotees and patients.”

In the Isle of Man, also, the custom of hanging up rags was at
one time much in vogue. In Malew parish there is Chibber-Undin,
signifying the Foundation Well, so called from the foundations
of a now almost obliterated chapel hard by. The ritual practised
at the well is thus described by Mr. A. W. Moore in his “Surnames
and Place-names of the Isle of Man”:–“The patients who came to it,
took a mouthful of water, retaining it in their mouths till they had
twice walked round the well. They then took a piece of cloth from a
garment which they had worn, wetted it from the water from the well,
and hung it on the hawthorn tree which grew there. When the cloth
had rotted away the cure was supposed to be effected.” Evidence from
Wales to the same effect is furnished by Professor Rhys in “Folklore”
for September, 1892. He there gives the following information, lately
sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated
between Coychurch and Bredgled:–“It is the custom,” he writes,
“for people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water,
and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close
to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were
hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently
been placed there very recently.” Professor Rhys also refers to other
Glamorganshire springs where rags are to be seen hanging on trees.

Scottish examples of the same superstition are numerous. At
Montblairie, in Banffshire, pieces of linen and woollen stuffs
were hung on the boughs beside a consecrated well, and farthings and
bodles were thrown into the spring itself. The bushes around a well at
Houston, in Renfrewshire, were at one time the recipients of many a
rag. Hugh Miller, who took so keen an interest in all such relics of
superstition, has not failed to notice the custom as practised near
his native town of Cromarty. In his “Scenes and Legends of the North
of Scotland,” he says:–“It is not yet twenty years since a thorn
bush, which formed a little canopy over the spring of St. Bennet,
used to be covered anew every season with little pieces of rag, left
on it as offerings to the saint by sick people who came to drink
of the water.” St. Wallach’s Bath, in Strathdeveron, was a popular
health-resort till the beginning of the present century. Non-thriving
children were brought to it annually in large numbers. No longer
ago than 1874 an invalid from the seaside sought its aid. The bath–a
cavity in the rock fully a yard in depth–is close to the river, and is
supplied with water from a scanty spring, several yards higher up the
slope. The supply trickles over the edge of the bath into the river,
some four feet below. A bib or other part of the child’s clothing was
hung on a neighbouring tree or thrown into the bath. Sometimes when the
Deveron was in flood, it submerged the bath, and swept these offerings
down to the sea. As previously mentioned, St. Wallach’s Well, hard by,
was much resorted to for the cure of sore eyes. Pins were the usual
offerings. They were left in a hole in a stone beside the well. May
was the favourite season for visiting the spring, and by the end of
the month the hole was often full of pins. This was the case down to
a comparatively recent date.

Offerings, such as pins, were often thrown into the well itself instead
of being left beside its margin. Near Wooler, in Northumberland,
on the southern slopes of the Cheviots, is a spring locally
styled the Pin Well. A fairy was believed to make it her home, and
maidens, as they passed, dropped in a crooked pin to gain her good
graces. Crooked pins were rather popular, anything so bent–e.g.,
a crooked sixpence–being deemed lucky. In the case of more than
one English spring the notion prevailed that, when a pin was thrown
in, the votary would see the pins already there rise to meet the
newcomer. But faith was essential. Otherwise the mysterious vision
would be withheld. We do not know that a corresponding belief prevailed
north of the Tweed. Between the glens of Corgarff and Glengairn in
Aberdeenshire, is the spring known as Tobar-na-Glas-a-Coille or The
Well in the Grey Wood. A pin or other piece of metal had to be dropped
into it by anyone taking a draught of its water. Whoever neglected this
duty, and at any time afterwards again drew water from the spring,
was doomed to die of thirst. Some of these votive pins were found at
the bottom of the well, no longer ago than the autumn of 1891.

Probably very few travellers by the Callander and Oban railway are
aware of the existence of an interesting, but now neglected holy
well, only a few yards distant from the line. It is situated at the
entrance of rugged Glen Ogle, and from the spot a fine view can be had
of Ben Lawers, Ben More, and Ben Loy. The well is on Wester Lix farm,
and is locally known as the Lix Well. The spring rises in one of the
many hillocks in the neighbourhood. The top of the hillock had been
levelled. Round the spring is built a wall of stone and turf, about
two feet in height, and shaped like a horse-shoe, the opening being
to the east. The distance across the enclosed space is about fourteen
feet. In the centre is the well, in the form of a parallelogram, two
feet by one and a half, with a long drain leading from it through
the opening of the horse-shoe. This drain was at one time covered
with flagstones. Four shapely lintels of micaceous schist enclose
the well. The spot used to be frequented at the beginning of May,
the wall already referred to forming a convenient resting-place
for visitors. Quartz pebbles were the favourite offerings on these
occasions. Immediately behind the well, quite a small cairn of them can
still be seen. Pebbles were among the cheapest possible offerings, the
only cost being the trouble of picking them up. Coins were rather more
expensive; but, as they were commonly of small value, the outlay was
trifling even in their case. The more fervent the zeal of the votary,
the greater would doubtless be the length he or she would go in the
matter of expense. In the parish of Culsalmond, in Aberdeenshire,
a gold coin of James I. of Scotland was found associated with an
ancient healing-well. Such liberality, however, was rare. After
describing St. Maelrubha’s Well on Innis Maree in the “Proceedings
of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” volume iv., Sir Arthur
Mitchell observes, “Near it stands an oak tree, which is studded with
nails. To each of these was originally attached a piece of the clothing
of some patient who had visited the spot. There are hundreds of nails,
and one has still fastened to it a faded ribbon. Two bone buttons and
two buckles we also found nailed to the tree. Countless pennies and
halfpennies are driven edge-ways into the wood–over many the bark
is closing, over many it has already closed.” Within recent years,
another visitor from the south examined one of the coins stuck into
the tree. It was ostensibly silver, but proved on examination to
be counterfeit. The pilgrim, who left it as an offering, evidently
thought that the saint could be easily imposed upon.

As in the case of the pins, the coins, given as offerings were, as
a rule, thrown into the spring itself. As an example, we may cite
the case of St. Jergon’s or St. Querdon’s Well in Troqueer parish,
Kirkcudbrightshire. In an article in the “Transactions of the Dumfries
and Galloway Natural History Society” for 1870, Mr. Patrick Dudgeon
remarks, “Taking advantage of the very dry summer of last year when
the spring was unusually low, I had the well thoroughly cleaned out
and put in order, it having been almost obliterated by cattle being
allowed to use it as a watering-place. Several hundreds of coins were
found at the bottom–almost all being of the smallest description
of copper coin, dating from the time of Elizabeth to that of George
III…. None were of any particular interest or value; the greatest
number are Scottish, and belong to the time of James VI., Charles
I., and Charles II. The circumstance that no coins were found of
an older date than the reign of Elizabeth is not at all conclusive
that offerings of a similar nature had not been made at much earlier
periods. It will be observed that the oldest coins are the thinnest,
and that, although many are as thin as a sheet of writing paper, the
legend on them is perfectly distinct and legible; this, of course,
would not have been the case had the thinning process been owing to
wear and tear. When first taken out, they were perfectly bright–as
new copper–and had all the appearance of having been subjected
to the action of an acid. Something in the water has acted very
slowly as a solvent on the metal, and, acting quite equally over
the whole surface, has reduced the coins to their present state:
it is, therefore, reasonable to conclude that, owing to the solvent
properties of the water, any coins thrown into the well anterior to the
date of those found may have been completely dissolved.” Mr. Dudgeon
mentions having been told by old people in the neighbourhood, that they
remembered the time, when rags and ribbons were hung on the bushes
around the well. It is a remarkable circumstance that even since the
cleaning out of the spring above referred to, coins have been thrown
into it. A recent examination of the spot brought these to light,
and showed the persistence of this curious phase of well-worship.

What would be styled “a collection in silver” in modern ecclesiastical
language was sometimes regarded with special favour. The name
of the Silver Wells in different parts of the country can thus
be accounted for. There is a Siller Well in Walston parish,
Lanarkshire. Arbroath, in Forfarshire; Alvah, in Banffshire; and
Fraserburgh, in Aberdeenshire, have each their Silver Well. At Turriff,
in the last-mentioned county, there is a farm on the estate of Gask
called Silver Wells after a local spring. At Trelevean, in Cornwall,
is a spring known as the Brass Well. Its name, however, is derived not
from the nature of the offerings left there, but from the colour of the
scum on its surface. Close to the ruins of Avoch Castle, in the Black
Isle, is a well hollowed out of the conglomerate rock. Tradition says,
that the treasures of the castle were thrown into it about the middle
of the seventeenth century. This was done, not by way of offering a
gift to the presiding spirit of the water, but to prevent the valuables
from falling into the hands of Cromwell’s troops. A diamond ring was
dropped, not very long ago, into St. Molio’s Well, on Holy Island,
near Lamlash. It fell into the water by accident, and, after remaining
in it for some time, was found and restored to its owner.

The present ample water-supply of Glasgow from Loch Katrine was
introduced in 1859. For about fifty years before that date, the city
looked mainly to the Clyde for the supply of its daily needs. Still
earlier, it depended entirely on its wells. In 1736 these are believed
to have numbered about thirty in all. Among the best known were the
Deanside or Meadow Well, Bogle’s Well, Barrasyett Well near the foot
of Saltmarket, the Priest’s or Minister’s Well and Lady Well beside
the Molendinar, the Arns Well in the Green–so-called from the alders
on its brink, and St. Thenew’s Well, near what is now St. Enoch’s
Square. Not far from the well was a chapel dedicated to St. Thenew,
with a graveyard round it. Some remains of the chapel were to be
seen in 1736, when M’Ure wrote his history of the city. Dr. Andrew
MacGeorge, in his “Old Glasgow,” when describing St. Thenew’s Well,
remarks, “It was shaded by an old tree which drooped over the well,
and which remained till the end of the last century. On this tree,
the devotees, who frequented the well, were accustomed to nail, as
thank-offerings, small bits of tin-iron–probably manufactured for that
purpose by a craftsman in the neighbourhood–representing the parts
of the body supposed to have been cured by the virtues of the sacred
spring, such as eyes, hands, feet, ears, and others.” Dr. MacGeorge
further mentions that the well was cleaned out about a hundred years
ago. On that occasion there were “picked out from among the debris at
the bottom several of these old votive offerings which had dropped into
it from the tree, the stump of which was at that time still standing.”

Horace tells of a shipwrecked sailor, hanging up his garments, as
a thank-offering in the temple of the divinity who delivered him
from the angry sea. In like manner, Pennant describes what he saw
at St. Winifred’s Well, in North Wales. “All infirmities,” he says,
“incident to the human body, met with relief; the votive crutches,
the barrows and other proofs of cures, to this moment remain as
evidence pendent over the well.” In his “Spring of Kinghorn Craig,”
published in Edinburgh in 1618, Dr. Patrick Anderson has some curious
remarks on the subject of votive offerings. He speaks of wells as
being “all tapestried about with old rags, as certaine signes and
sacraments wherewith they arle the well with ane arls-pennie of
their health.” He continues, “So suttle is that false knave making
them believe that it is only the virtue of the water, and no thing
else. Such people cannot say with David, ‘The Lord is my helper,’
but the Devill.” What can still be seen on the other side of the
English Channel is thus described by the Rev. C. N. Barham, in an
article on Ragged Relics, in “The Antiquary” for January, 1893:–“At
Wierre Effroy, in France, where the water of St. Godeleine’s Well is
esteemed efficacious for ague, rheumatism, gout, and all affections
of the limbs, a heterogeneous collection of crutches, bandages,
coils of rags, and other rejected adjuncts of medical treatment, is
to be seen hanging upon the surrounding shrubs. They are intended
as thank-offerings and testimonies of restoration. Other springs,
famous for curing ophthalmia, abound in the same district, and here
too, bandages, shades, guards, and rags innumerable are exhibited.”

The leaving of offerings at wells finds a parallel in the practice,
at one time common, of depositing gifts in consecrated buildings. The
chapel of St. Tears, in the parish of Wick, Caithness, used to be
visited on Childermas (December 28th) by devotees, who left in it
pieces of bread and cheese as offerings to the souls of the Holy
Innocents slain by Herod. This was done till about the beginning of
the present century. Till even a later date it was customary for
the inhabitants of Mirelandorn to go to the Kirk of Moss, in the
same parish, on Christmas before sunrise. They took bread and cheese
as offerings, and placed them along with a silver coin on a certain
stone. The Kirk of Moss was dedicated to Duthac, patron saint of Tain;
and the gifts were doubtless destined for him. On Eilean Mòr is a
chapel said to have been built by Charmaig, the tutelar saint of the
island. In a recess in this building is a stone coffin, anciently used
for the interment of priests. The following statement occurs in the
“Old Statistical Account of Scotland”:–“The coffin, also, for ages
back, has served the saint as a treasury; and this, perhaps, might be
the purpose for which it was originally intended. Till of late, not
a stranger set foot on the island who did not conciliate his favour
by dropping a small coin into a chink between its cover and side.”

When we examine the motives prompting to the practice under review,
we can discover the working of a principle, vaguely grasped perhaps,
but sufficiently understood to serve as a guide to action. This crude
philosophy was two-fold. On the one hand, the gift left at a loch
or spring was what has been facetiously styled a “retaining fee.” It
secured the goodwill of the genius loci, and thereby guaranteed to a
certain extent the fulfilment of the suppliant’s desire. This desire,
as we have seen, was commonly the removal of a definite disease. On
the other hand, the disease to be removed was in some mysterious way
identified with the offering. The latter was the symbol, or rather
the embodiment of the former, and, accordingly, to leave the gift was
to leave the ailment–the patient being thus freed from both. The
corollary to this was, that whoever removed the offering took away
also the disease represented by it. According to a well-established
law of medical science, infection is transferred from one person
to another by clothing, or indeed by whatever comes into contact
with the morbid particles from the patient’s body. But infection
in folklore is something different from this. Disease of any kind,
whether usually reckoned infectious or not, passed via the offering to
the person lifting it. Hence such gifts had a charmed existence, and
were as safe as if under the sweep of the “Ancient Monuments Protection
Act.” The Rev. Dr. Gregor thus expresses the feeling on this point,
as it prevailed till lately in the north-east of Scotland:–“No one
would have been foolhardy enough to have even touched what had been
left, far less to have carried it off. A child, or one who did not
know, was most carefully instructed why such things were left in and
around the well, and strict charge was laid not to touch or carry
any of them off. Whoever carried off one of such relics contracted
the disease of the one who left it.”

The notion that disease can be transferred lies at the root of various
folk-cures. Dalyell, in his “Darker Superstitions,” remarks, “It is
said that, in the Highlands, a cat is washed in the water which has
served for the ablution of an invalid, as if the disease absorbed from
one living creature could be received by another, instead of being let
free.” In some parts of the Highlands, a common cure for an ailing cow
was to make the animal swallow a live trout, so that the disease might
pass from the one creature to the other. This was done not long ago,
at a farm near Golspie, in Sutherland. In Norfolk, as a remedy for
whooping-cough, a spider was caught, tied up in a piece of muslin,
and pinned over the mantelpiece. The cough disappeared when the spider
died. In Gloucestershire, ague was cured in the following way:–A
living snail was worn in a bag round the neck for nine days. The
snail was then thrown upon the fire when it was believed to shake as
if with ague, and the patient recovered. Many more illustrations of
this principle might be given, but the above are sufficient to show
how it was applied.

Symson records an instance in Galloway of swift vengeance following
the theft of certain votive offerings. He says, “Hereabout, i.e.,
near Larg, in Minnigaff parish, is a well called the Gout Well of
Larg, of which they tell this story–how that a piper stole away
the offering left at this well, but when he was drinking of ale,
which he intended to pay with the money he had taken away, the gout,
as they say, seized on him, of which he could not be cured, but at
that well, having first restored to it the money he had formerly taken
away.” Accident, rather than disease, sometimes resulted from such
sacrilegious acts. The offerings were the property of the guardian
spirit who was quick to resent their removal and to punish the doer of
the deed. In the district of Ardnamurchan is a cave, associated with
Columba, who there baptised some freebooters. The water used for the
purpose lay in a hollow of the rock, and, in after times, votive gifts
were left beside it. On one occasion, a young man stole some of these,
but he did not remain long unpunished, for before reaching home he fell
and broke his leg. Tobar-fuar-Mòrie, i.e., The big cold Well, situated
at the foot of a steep hill in the parish of Corgarff, Aberdeenshire,
consists of three springs about a yard distant from each other. Each
spring formerly cured a separate disease–one, blindness; the other,
deafness; and the third, lameness. The guardian spirit of the springs
lived under a large stone called the kettle stone, because below it
was a kettle where she stored her votive offerings. She was somewhat
exacting in her demands, for no cure could be expected unless gold
was presented. These particulars were obtained in the district by
the Rev. Dr. Gregor, who records them in “Folklore” for March, 1892,
and adds, “If one tried to rob the spirit, death by some terrible
accident soon followed. My informant, more than fifty years ago,
when a lad, resolved to remove the kettle stone from its position,
and so become possessor of the spirit’s gold. He accordingly set out
with a few companions all provided with picks and spades, to displace
the stone. After a good deal of hard labour the stone was moved from
its site, but no kettle full of gold was found. An old woman met the
lads on their way to their homes, and when she learnt what they had
been doing, she assured them they would all die within a few weeks,
and that a terrible death would befall the ring-leader.”

That the guardians of springs look well after their possessions in the
new world, as well as in the old, is proved by the following quotation
from Sir J. Lubbock’s “Origin of Civilisation”:–“In North Mexico,”
he says, “Lieutenant Whipple found a sacred spring which, from time
immemorial ‘had been held sacred to the rain-god.’ No animal may drink
of its waters. It must be annually cleansed with ancient vases, which,
having been transmitted from generation to generation by the caciques,
are then placed upon the walls, never to be removed. The frog, the
tortoise, and the rattlesnake represented upon them, are sacred to
Montezuma, the patron of the place, who would consume by lightning
any sacrilegious hand that should dare to take the relics away.” With
the growth of enlightenment men’s minds rose above such delusions. Had
it not been so, the Holy Wells in our land would still have presented
the appearance of rag fairs, or served as museums for old coins. Holy
Loch, in Dunnet, Caithness, used to be much resorted to as a place of
healing. The invalids walked or were carried round the lake and threw
a penny into the water. Some of these pennies have been picked up from
time to time by persons who have outgrown the old superstition. The
hollow in the Clach-nan-Sul at Balquhidder, already referred to,
contained small coins placed there by those who sought a cure for
their sore eyes. Mr. J. Mackintosh Gow was told by some one in the
district, that “people, when going to church, having forgotten their
small change, used in passing to put their hands in the well and find
a coin.” Mr. Gow’s informant mentioned that he had done so himself.

In the ceremony known as “well-dressing” or “well-flowering,”
the offerings took the form of blossoms and green boughs. For
different reasons Scotland has not been abreast of England in floral
matters. Only in the latter country did the practice take root, and
even there only within a somewhat limited area. We must seek for its
home in Derbyshire and the adjacent counties. At some places it has
died out, while at others it still survives, and forms the excuse for a
pleasant holiday. At Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, indeed, St. Boniface’s
Well was decorated with wreaths of flowers on the saint’s day; but
this was an exceptional instance so far south. Within comparatively
recent years well-flowering has, at one or two places, been either
instituted, as at Belper, in Derbyshire, in 1838, or revived, as
at St. Alkmund’s Well in Derby, in 1870. The clergy and choir of
St. Alkmund’s Church celebrate the day by meeting at the church and
walking in procession to the well. Writing in the seventeenth century,
Aubrey says, “In Cheshire, when they went in perambulation, they did
bless the springs, i.e., they did read the Gospel at them, and did
believe the water was the better.” At Droitwich, in Worcestershire,
a salt spring, dedicated to St. Richard, used to be annually adorned
with flowers.

A correspondent of the “Gentleman’s Magazine” of 1794 remarks, “In
the village of Tissington, in the county of Derby, a place remarkable
for fine springs of water, it has been a custom, time immemorial,
on every Holy Thursday, to decorate the wells with boughs of trees,
garlands of tulips, and other flowers, placed in various fancied
devices, and, after prayers for the day at the church, for the
parson and singers to pray and sing psalms at the wells.” In Hone’s
“Every Day Book,” under date 1826, are the following remarks by a
correspondent:–“Tissington ‘well-dressing’ is a festivity which not
only claims a high antiquity, but is one of the few country fêtes which
are kept up with anything like the ancient spirit. It is one which is
heartily loved and earnestly anticipated; one which draws the hearts
of those who were brought up there, but whom fortune has cast into
distant places, homewards with an irresistible charm. I have not had
the pleasure of witnessing it, but I have had that of seeing the joy
which sparkled in the eyes of the Tissingtonians as they talked of
its approach and of their projected attendance.” The festival is still
held in honour at Tissington, and elaborate preparations continue to
be made for its celebration. Flowers are arranged in patterns to form
mottoes and texts of Scripture, and also devices, such as crosses,
crowns, and triangles, while green boughs are added to complete the
picture. A correspondent of “Notes and Queries” thus describes the
decorations on Ascension Day in 1887: “The name of ‘well-dressing’
scarcely gives a proper idea of these beautiful structures. They are
rather fountains or cascades, the water descending from above, and
not rising as in a well. Their height varies from ten to twelve feet,
and the original stone frontage is on this day hidden by a wooden
erection in the form of an arch or some other elegant design. Over
these planks a layer of plaster of Paris is spread, and whilst it is
wet, flowers without leaves are stuck in it, forming a most beautiful
mosaic pattern. On one the large yellow field ranunculus was arranged
in letters, and so a verse of Scripture or of a hymn was recalled to
the spectator’s mind. On another a white dove was sculptured in the
plaster and set in a ground-work of the humble violet. The daisy,
which our poet Chaucer would gaze upon for hours together, formed a
diaper-work of red and white; the pale yellow primrose was set off by
the rich red of the ‘ribes.’ Nor were the coral berries of the holly,
mountain ash, and yew forgotten; they are carefully gathered and
stored in the winter to be ready for the May Day fête. It is scarcely
possible to describe the vivid colouring and beautiful effect of these
favourites of nature arranged in wreaths and garlands and devices
of every hue. And then the pure sparkling water, which pours down
from the midst of them on to the rustic moss-grown stones beneath,
completes the enchantment, and makes this feast of the ‘well-flowering’
one of the most beautiful of all the old customs that are left in
Merrie England.” Well-flowering also prevails at Buxton, and is a
source of interest to the many visitors to that airy health resort.

Such floral devices do not now rank as votive gifts. They are merely
decorations. The custom may have originated in the Roman Fontinalia. At
any rate it had at one time a corresponding object. The Fontinalia
formed an annual flower-festival in honour of the nymphs inhabiting
springs. Joyous bands visited the fountains, crowned them with boughs,
and threw nosegays into their sparkling water. The parallelism
between the Roman and the English Fontinalia is too well marked
to be overlooked. In Derbyshire and Staffordshire the ceremony of
well-dressing is usually observed on Ascension Day. In more than one
instance the festival has attracted to itself various old English
sports commonly associated with May Day. Among these may be mentioned
May-pole and Morris-dancing and crowning the May-queen.

At Endon, in Staffordshire, the festival is celebrated on Royal Oak
Day (May 29th), or on the following day if the 29th is a Sunday. The
following account–somewhat abbreviated–is from the “Staffordshire
Evening Post” of 31st May, 1892, and gives some interesting particulars
about the festival: “The secluded village of Endon yesterday celebrated
the well-dressing feast. This institution, dear to the heart of every
loyal inhabitant, holds foremost rank in the local calends, for it is
not a holiday of ordinary frivolous significance, but a thanksgiving
festival. The proceeds, which generally amount to some hundreds of
pounds, are divided between the poor of the parish and the parochial
schools. There are two wells at Endon. One is very old and almost dry,
and has long since fallen into disuse. The other alone supplies the
village with water. From a very early hour in the morning the whole
village was astir, and those people who were gifted with taste and
a delicate touch busied themselves in bedecking the wells for the
coming ceremony. As the day advanced, crowds of visitors poured in
from all parts of the potteries; and towards evening the village green
probably held no fewer than two thousand people. The proceedings,
which were under the personal guidance of the vicar, commenced a
little before two o’clock. A procession of about a hundred and twenty
Sunday-school children was formed at the new well, with the Brownedge
village brass band at its head. The children carried little flags,
which they vigorously waved in excess of glee. The band struck up
bravely, and the procession marched in good order up the hill to
the old parish church, where a solemn service was conducted. The
villagers attended in overwhelming numbers, and completely thronged the
building. There was a fully surpliced choir, whose singing, coupled
with the music of the organ, greatly added to the impressiveness of
the service. Hymns and psalms, selected by the vicar as applicable to
a thanksgiving service for water, were sung by the congregation in
spirited style. At the conclusion of the service the procession was
reformed, the band leading the way back to the new well. Upon arrival,
the clergy and choir, who had retained their surplices, walked slowly
round the well, singing ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘A living stream as crystal
clear.’ Both wells were very beautifully decorated; but the new well
was a masterpiece of elaborated art. A large wooden framework had been
erected in front of the well, and upon this a smooth surface of soft
clay had been laid. The clay was thickly studded with many thousands
of flower heads in great variety of kind and hue, and in pictorial as
well as geometrical arrangement. There were two very pretty figures of
peacocks in daisies, bluebells, and dahlias, and a resplendent motto,
‘O, ye wells! bless ye the Lord!’ (from the Benedicite) garnished the
summit. The old well was almost deserted, although its decorations
were well worthy of inspection. Its motto, ‘Give me this water’
(from the fourth chapter of St. John) was very finely traced, and
its centre figures–two white doves and a crown–were sufficiently
striking. May-pole dances, including the crowning of the May-queen,
occupied the greater part of the afternoon. In the evening the
band played for dancing, and there was a repetition of the May-pole
dances. After dusk there was a display of fireworks.”

Though, as already stated, well-dressing was unknown north of the
Tweed, any account of votive offerings would be incomplete without
a reference to the picturesque ceremony.

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