Springs from Graves

Some people apply to different doctors in succession, in the hope that
new professional advice may bring the coveted boon of health. For the
same reason visits were paid to different consecrated wells. On the
principle that “far fowls have fair feathers,” a more or less remote
spring was resorted to, in the hope that distance might lend special
enchantment to its water. Certain springs had the reputation of healing
every ailment. A spring of this kind is what Martin calls “a catholicon
for all diseases.” He so styles various springs in the Western Isles,
and one in the Larger Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. Fivepennies Well,
in Eigg, had some curious properties. “The natives told me,” he says,
“that it never fails to cure any person of their first disease, only
by drinking a quantity of it for the space of two or three days;
and that if a stranger lie at this well in the night-time, it will
procure a deformity in some part of his body, but has no such effect
on a native; and this, they say, hath been frequently experimented.” A
noted fountain in the Orkney group was the well of Kildinguie in the
Island of Stronsay. It is situated not far from the beach. To reach
it one has to walk over a long stretch of sand. Its fame at one time
spread over the Scandinavian world, and even Denmark sent candidates
for its help. Besides drinking the water, health-seekers frequently
ate some of the dulse to be found on the shore. A local saying thus
testified to the advantages of the combined treatment: “The well of
Kildinguie and the dulse of Guiyidn can cure all maladies except black
death.” In the Island of Skye is a spring called Tobar Tellibreck. The
natives, at one time, held that its water, along with a diet of dulse,
would serve for a considerable time instead of ordinary food.

Other springs were resorted to for particular complaints. Toothache is
distressingly common, and commonly distressing; but, strange to say,
very few wells are specially identified with the ailment. Indeed, we
know of only three toothache wells in Scotland. One is in Strathspey,
and is known as Fuaran Fiountag, signifying the cool refreshing
spring. The second is in the parish of Kenmore, at the foot of Loch
Tay. The third is in Glentruim, in Inverness-shire. Another well at
Kenmore was resorted to for the cure of sore eyes. In the parish of
Glass, close to the river Deveron, is an ancient church dedicated to
St. Wallach. Some thirty yards below its burying-ground is a well,
now dry, except in very rainy weather. Its water had the power of
healing sore eyes. The water of St. John’s Well, at Balmanno, in
the parish of Marykirk, Kincardineshire, was a sovereign remedy for
the same complaint. Beside the road close to the farmhouse of Wester
Auchleskine, at Balquhidder, in Perthshire, once stood a large boulder
containing a natural cavity. The water in this hollow was also noted
for the cure of sore eyes–the boulder being called in consequence
Clach-nan-Sul, i.e., the stone of the eyes. In 1878, by order of the
road trustees, the boulder was blasted, on the ground that it was a
source of danger to vehicles in the dark, and its fragments were used
as road metal. The Dow Well, at Innerleithen, was formerly much visited
for the restoration of weak sight. A well in Cornwall, dedicated to
St. Ludvan, miraculously quickened the sense of sight. In Ireland,
a spring at Gougou Barra, between Glengariff and Cork, is believed
by the peasantry to cure blindness. In 1849, Miss Bessie Gilbert,
a daughter of the late Bishop Gilbert of Chichester, who had lost
her sight when a child, visited the spring along with some of her
relatives. Curiosity, however, was her only motive. Her biographer
relates that “the guide besought Bessie in the most earnest and
pathetic manner to try the water, saying that he was sure it would
restore her sight, and entreating her brothers and sisters to urge
her to make use of it.”

Headaches and nervous disorders were cured by water from
Tobar-nim-buadh or the Well of Virtues in St. Kilda. Deafness was
also cured by it. At the entrance to Munlochy Bay, in the Black Isle
of Cromarty, is a cave known in the neighbourhood as Craig-a-Chow,
i.e., the Rock of Echo. Tradition says that in this cave a giant
once lived. If not the retreat of a giant, it was, at any rate,
of smugglers. What specially concerns us is that it contains a
dripping well, formerly much in request. Its water is particularly
cold. Like the St. Kilda spring, it was believed to remove deafness. Of
Whooping-cough Wells, a noted one was at Straid, in Muthill parish,
Perthshire. Invalids came to it from considerable distances. Early
in the present century a family travelled from Edinburgh to seek its
aid. The water was drunk immediately after sunset or before sunrise,
and a horn from a live ox had to convey it to the patient’s lips. This
was not an uncommon practice. Perhaps it may have been due to some
vague notion, that life from the animal, whence the horn came, would
be handed on, via the spoon and the water, to the invalid. The Straid
horn was kept by a woman in the immediate neighbourhood, who acted
as a sort of priestess of the well. A well at the Burn of Oxhill, in
the parish of Rathven, Banffshire, had a local celebrity for the cure
of the same complaint. Sufferers from gout tried the efficacy of a
spring in Eckford parish, Roxburghshire, styled Holy Well or Priest’s
Well. A spring in the churchyard of Logiepert parish, Forfarshire,
removed sores, and another in Martin’s Den, in the same parish,
was reckoned anti-scorbutic. Another noted Forfarshire spring was in
Kirkden parish, with the reputation of curing swellings of the feet
and legs. Lochinbreck Loch, in Balmaghie parish, Kirkcudbrightshire,
was visited from time immemorial for the cure of ague. Indeed, there
was hardly a bodily ailment that could not be relieved by the water
of some consecrated spring.

Springs were sometimes believed to cure female barrenness. Wives,
anxious to become mothers, formerly visited such wells as those of
St. Fillan at Comrie, and of St. Mary at Whitekirk, and in the Isle
of May. In this connection, Mr. J. R. Walker, in his article in the
“Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” volume v. (new
series), observes, “Many of the wells dedicated to ‘Our Lady,’ i.e.,
St. Mary (Virgin Mary) and to St. Brigid, the Mary of Ireland, were
famous for the cure of female sterility, which, in the days when a
man’s power and influence in the land depended on the number of his
clan or tribe, was looked upon as a token of the divine displeasure,
and was viewed by the unfortunate spouses with anxious apprehension,
dread, doubt, jealousy, and pain. Prayer and supplication were
obviously the methods pursued by the devout for obtaining the coveted
gift of fertility, looked upon, by females especially, as the most
valuable of heavenly dispensations; and making pilgrimages to wells
under the patronage of the Mother of our Lord would naturally be one
of the most common expedients.”

Epilepsy, with its convulsions and cries, seldom fails to arrest
attention and call forth sympathy. In times less enlightened than
our own, the disease was regarded with awe as of supernatural origin;
and remedies, always curious and sometimes revolting, were tried in
order to bring relief. We may assume that the water of consecrated
springs was used for this purpose; but, as far as we know, no Scottish
fountain was systematically visited by epileptic patients. After
enumerating a variety of folk-cures for the disease in question, Sir
Arthur Mitchell, in an article on Highland Superstitions bearing on
Lunacy in the “Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,”
volume iv., remarks, “For the cure of the same disease, there is
still practised in the North of Scotland a formal sacrifice–not
an oblique but a literal and downright sacrifice–to a nameless but
secretly acknowledged power, whose propitiation is desired. On the
spot where the epileptic first falls a black cock is buried alive,
along with a lock of the patient’s hair and some parings of his
nails. I have seen at least three epileptic idiots for whom this is
said to have been done.” The same writer adds, “Dr. G—-, of N—-,
informs me that some time ago he was called on to visit a poor man
belonging to the fishing population who had suddenly died, and who had
been subject to epileptic seizures. His friends told the doctor that
at least they had the comfort of knowing that everything had been
done for him which could have been done. On asking what remedies
they had tried, he was told that, among other things, a cock had
been buried alive below his bed, and the spot was pointed out.” This
sacrifice of a cock in Scotland is of special significance, for it
formed a distinctive feature of the ritual once in vogue in Wales
at the village of Llandegla, Denbighshire. St. Tegla’s Well there,
was believed to possess peculiar virtue in curing epilepsy. Pennant
gives a minute account of the ceremony as practised in his days. The
following is a summary:–“About two hundred yards from the church
rises a small spring. The patient washes his limbs in the well,
makes an offering into it of fourpence, walks round it three times,
and thrice repeats the ‘Lord’s Prayer.’ These ceremonies are never
begun till after sunset. If the afflicted be of the male sex, he makes
an offering of a cock; if of the fair sex, a hen. The fowl is carried
in a basket, first round the well, after that into the churchyard,
when the same orisons and the same circumambulations are performed
round the church. The votary then enters the church, gets under the
communion table, lies down with the Bible under his or her head,
is covered with the carpet or cloth, and rests there till break of
day, departing after offering sixpence, and leaving the fowl in the
church. If the bird dies, the cure is supposed to have been effected,
and the disease transferred to the devoted victim.” As regards the
cock or hen, the ceremony in this case was quite as much a sacrifice
as in the Scottish example. St. Tegla merely took the place of the
pagan divinity who had been first in the field, and to whom offerings
had been made. In former times, sacrificing a living animal was
also resorted to occasionally to cure disease in cattle. An ox was
buried alive in a pit, and the pit having been filled with earth,
the other members of the herd were made to walk over the spot. In
1629, Isabel Young, spouse to George Smith, portioner of East Barnes,
Haddingtonshire, was tried for witchcraft. From her indictment we learn
that she was accused, inter alia, of having buried a “quick ox, with
a cat and a quantity of salt,” in a pit as a sacrifice to the devil,
the truth being that a live ox had been so treated by her husband
as a charm to cure his cattle, which were diseased. A remarkable
circumstance bearing on this point is alluded to by Mr. A. W. Moore in
his “Surnames and Place-names of the Isle of Man,” under the heading
of Cabbal-yn-Oural-Losht, i.e., Chapel of the Burnt Sacrifice. “This
name,” he tells us, “records a circumstance which took place in the
nineteenth century, but which, it is to be hoped, was never customary
in the Isle of Man. A farmer, who had lost a number of his sheep and
cattle by murrain, burnt a calf as a propitiatory offering to the
Deity on this spot, where a chapel was afterwards built. Such facts
point to the same notion as that already indicated in connection with
St. Tegla’s Well, viz., that disease is due to some malignant being,
whose favour is to be sought by the offering up of a living creature.

In no department of medical science have methods of treatment changed
more within recent years than in that of insanity. Enlightened views on
the subject now prevail among the educated classes of society; and the
old notion that a maniac can be restored to mental health by treating
him like a criminal, or by administering a few shocks to his already
excited nerves, is fortunately a thing of the past. At least it no
longer holds sway in our lunatic asylums. In the minds of the ignorant
and credulous, however, the old leaven still works. Lady Wilde, in her
“Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland,” alludes to a method
of treatment in fashion till lately among the peasantry there. When
anyone showed signs of insanity ‘a witch-doctor’ was called in. This
potent individual sprinkled holy water about the room and over the
patient; and after uttering certain incantations–understood by the
by-standers to be ‘Latin prayers’–proceeded to beat him with a stout
cudgel. In the end the ravings of the lunatic ceased, or as it was put,
“the devil was driven out of him.” In Cornwall, at St. Nun’s Well,
the expulsive power of a new terror used to be tried. According to
Carew, the modus operandi was as follows:–“The water running from
St. Nun’s Well fell into a square and enclosed walled plat, which might
be filled at what depth they listed. Upon this wall was the frantic
person put to stand, his back towards the pool, and from thence,
with a sudden blow in the breast, tumbled headlong into the pond;
where a strong fellow, provided for the nonce, took him and tossed
him up and down, alongst and athwart the water, till the patient,
by foregoing his strength, had somewhat forgot his fury. Then was
he conveyed to the church, and certain masses said over him, upon
which handling, if his right wits returned, St. Nun had the thanks;
but if there appeared small amendment, he was bowsened again and again,
while there remained in him any hope of life or recovery.” North of the
Tweed the treatment was hardly less soothing. When a lunatic was being
rowed over to Innis Maree to drink the water of St. Maelrubha’s Well
there, he was jerked out of the boat by the friends who accompanied
him. A rope had previously been tied round his waist, and by this he
was pulled back into the boat; but before he could gather together
his all-too-scattered wits, he was in the water again. As a rule this
was done, not once or twice, but repeatedly, and in the case of both
sexes. Such was the method up to a comparatively recent date. Pennant
thus describes what was done in 1772:–“The patient is brought into
the sacred island; is made to kneel before the altar, viz., the stump
of a tree–where his attendants leave an offering in money; he is
then brought to the well and sips some of the holy water; a second
offering is made; that done, he is thrice dipped in the lake; and
the same operation is repeated every day for some weeks.” This towing
after a boat to cure insanity was not an isolated instance. Early in
the present century, the wife of a man living at Stromness in Orkney,
went mad through the incantations of another female believed to be
a witch. The man bethought him of the cure in question, and, out of
love for his afflicted wife, dragged her several times up and down
the harbour behind his boat. Mr. R. M. Fergusson, who mentions this
case in his “Rambles in the Far North,” says that the woman “bobbed
about behind the boat like a cork, and remained as mad as ever.”

The well at Struthill, in Muthill parish, Perthshire, once had a
considerable reputation for the cure of insanity. It was customary to
tie patients at night to a stone near the spring, and recovery would
follow if they were found loose in the morning. An adjoining chapel was
ordered to be demolished in 1650 by the Presbytery of Auchterarder,
on the ground of its being the scene of certain superstitious rites,
but the spring continued to be visited till a much later date. At
Teampull-mòr in Lewis, in addition to walking round the ruins, and
being sprinkled with water from St. Ronan’s Well, the insane person was
bound and left all night in the chapel on the site of the altar. If he
slept, he would recover; but if he remained awake, there was no hope of
a cure. In the Struthill and Teampull-mòr instances, as well as that
of Strathfillan mentioned below, the binding of the patient was an
essential part of the treatment; and in two at least of the cases the
loosening of the bonds was reckoned an omen of good. The mysterious
loosening of bonds used to be an article of common belief. Dalyell,
in his “Darker Superstitions of Scotland,” remarks, “Animals were
sometimes liberated supernaturally. In the Isle of Enhallow, a horse
tied up at sunset would wander about through the night; and while the
kirk session took cognisance of a suspected witch who had exercised
her faculties on a cow, the animal, though firmly secured, was found
to be free, and in their vicinity when the investigation closed.”

The Holy Pool of St. Fillan was famous for the cure of various
diseases, but specially of insanity. It is referred to in “Marmion” as

“St. Fillan’s blessed well
Whose springs can frenzied dreams dispel
And the craz’d brain restore.”

It is not, however, a well, but a pool, in the river Fillan, about
two miles lower down than Tyndrum. To correctly estimate the reverence
paid to this sacred pool, we must glance at the influence, exerted by
Fillan on the district during his life-time, and afterwards by means
of his relics. The saint flourished in the early eighth century. He
was born in Ireland. His father was Ferodach, and his mother was
Kentigerna, daughter of a prince of Leinster. She afterwards came to
Scotland and led the life of a recluse, on Inch Cailleach, an island
in Loch Lomond. According to the Aberdeen Breviary, Fillan was born
with a stone in his mouth, and was at once thrown into a lake where
he was ministered to by angels for a year. He was then taken out and
baptised by Bishop Ybarus, and at a later date received the monastic
habit from Muna, otherwise called Mundus. Devoting himself to solitary
meditation he built a cell close to Muna’s monastery. On one occasion,
a servant went to call him to supper, and looking through a chink in
the wall, saw the saint busy writing, his uplifted left hand throwing
light over the book in lieu of a candle. Whatever may be thought of
the incident, few will deny its picturesqueness. In competent hands
it might be made the subject of a striking picture. Fillan afterwards
went to Lochalsh, where he dedicated a church to his uncle Congan,
the founder of the monastery of Turriff, in Aberdeenshire. We next
find Fillan in the principal scene of his missionary work, viz., in
Glendochart, in that portion of the glen anciently called Siracht,
and now Strathfillan. This area formed a separate parish till 1617,
but was then united to the parish of Killin. Fillan arrived with seven
serving clerics, and tradition says that he built his church at a spot
miraculously pointed out to him. The neighbourhood was, and is full of
interest. “Glendochart,” writes Mr. Charles Stewart in “An Gaidheal,”
“is not celebrated for terrific mountain scenery like Glencoe or the
Coolins, but has a grandeur of a different character. Lofty mountains,
clothed, here in heather, there in green; cloudy shadows frequently
flitting across their sides, and serried ridges of multiplied lines
and forms of varied beauty, and along their sides strangely shaped
stones and boulders of rocks deposited by the ancient glaciers. Along
the strath there are stretches of water, its course broken occasionally
by lochs; sometimes wending its way slowly and solemnly through green
meadows, and anon rushing along as at the celebrated bridge of Dochart,
at Killin, with fire and fury.”

The same writer mentions that three spots, where Fillan was wont
to teach the natives of the Strath, are still pointed out, viz.,
at the upper end of Glendochart, where the priory was afterwards
built, halfway down the glen at Dun-ribin, and at the lower end at
Cnoc-a-bheannachd, i.e., Hill of the Blessing, near Killin. Fillan
instructed the people in agriculture, and built mills for grinding
corn. Out of compliment to him, the mill at Killin was idle on
his festival, (Jan. 9th), as late as the middle of the present
century. Indeed there was a superstition in the district that it
would not be lucky to have it working on that day. Fillan also
instituted fairs for the sale and barter of local produce. His fair
is still held at Killin in January. The miraculous element in his
history did not end with his life. He seems to have died somewhere
about Lochearn, and his body was brought back to Glendochart, by way
of Glen Ogle. When the bearers reached the point where Glendochart
opens upwards and downwards, a dispute arose as to the destination of
their burden. Some wished the saint’s body to be buried at Killin and
others at Strathfillan. Behold a marvel! When they could not agree,
they found that instead of one coffin there were two, and so each
party was satisfied.

Robert Bruce’s fight with the followers of Macdougall of Lorne took
place near St. Fillan’s Church, at a spot, afterwards named Dalrigh or
the King’s Field. On that occasion, an earnest prayer was addressed
to the saint of the district, and through his intercession victory
came to Bruce. So at least runs the legend. After his success at
Bannockburn, the King in gratitude founded St. Fillan’s Priory,
in Strathfillan, and endowed it with the neighbouring lands of
Auchtertyre, and with the sheep-grazing of Bein-mhannach or the
Monk’s Mountain, in Glenlyon. Indeed, if tradition speaks truth,
Bruce had a double reason to be grateful to Fillan, for the victory
at Bannockburn, was attributed to the presence in the Scottish camp,
of a relic of the saint, said to be an arm-bone set in silver. The
relic, however, as Dr. John Stuart shows, in the twelfth volume of the
“Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” was probably
his Coig-gerach or pastoral staff, popularly, but erroneously called
his Quigrich. It is said to have been kept at Auchlyne, in a chapel
called Caipal-na-Faraichd, and when the chapel was burnt to have been
rescued by a person, either then, or afterwards, called Doire or Dewar,
whose descendants became its custodiers. The subsequent history of
the relic is curious. In 1782 it was at Killin in the keeping of
Malice Doire. In 1818 it was taken to Canada, where it remained for
some sixty years. Through the patriotic zeal of Sir Daniel Wilson it
was then sent back to Scotland, and now forms one of the treasures
in the National Museum of Antiquities, at Edinburgh.

The sanctity of Fillan thus distilled like a fertilising dew over
the district of Glendochart. We need not, therefore, be surprised
that, in days darker than our own, a thriving crop of superstitions
was the result. It is certainly a striking testimony to the enduring
influence of the saint, that the pool, believed to have been blessed
by him, retained its fame till within the memory of persons still
living. Possibly the pool was reverenced even before his time. Towards
the end of last century, as many as two hundred persons were brought
annually to the spot. The time selected was usually the first day of
the quarter, (O.S.), and the immersion took place after sunset. The
patients, with a rope tied round their waist, were thrown from the
bank into the river. This was usually done thrice. According to
previous instructions, they picked up nine stones from the bottom
of the stream. After their dip they walked three times round three
cairns in the immediate neighbourhood, and at each turn added a stone
to the cairn. An English antiquary, who visited the spot in 1798,
writes, “If it is for any bodily pain, fractured limb or sore, that
they are bathing, they throw upon one of these cairns that part of
their clothing which covered the part affected; also, if they have at
home any beast that is diseased, they have only to bring some of the
meal which it feeds upon and make it into paste with these waters,
and afterwards give it to him to eat, which will prove an infallible
cure; but they must likewise throw upon the cairn the rope or halter
with which he was led. Consequently the cairns are covered with old
halters, gloves, shoes, bonnets, nightcaps, rags of all sorts, kilts,
petticoats, garters, and smocks. Sometimes they go as far as to throw
away their halfpence.”

After the ceremony at the cairns the patient was led to the ruins
of St. Fillan’s Chapel, about half a mile away, and there tied to
a stone with a hollow in it, large enough to receive the body, the
unfortunate person being fastened down to a wooden framework. The
patient was then covered with hay, and left in this condition all
night. As at Struthill, if the bonds were found loose in the morning,
he or she would recover; but if not, the case was counted hopeless,
or at least doubtful. As the writer of the article on the parish,
in the “New Statistical Account of Scotland,” shrewdly observes,
“The prospect of the ceremony, especially in a cold winter evening,
might be a good test for persons pretending insanity.” At the time
when he wrote, viz., in 1843, the natives of the parish had ceased to
believe in the efficacy of the holy pool, but it was still visited by
invalids from a distance. It was usual, after the fastening process
already described, to place St. Fillan’s bell on the head of the
patient by way of helping on the cure. This bell is quadrangular
in shape. Its size and appearance are thus described by Dr. Joseph
Anderson in his “Scotland in Early Christian Times”: “It is an elegant
casting of bronze, stands twelve inches high and measures nine by
six inches wide at the mouth. The ends are flat, the sides bulging,
the top rounded. In the middle of the top is the loop-like handle,
terminating where it joins the bell in two dragonesque heads with open
mouths.” The bell weighs eight pounds fourteen ounces. In the fifteenth
century the relic seems to have been held in special honour, for it
graced the coronation of James IV. in 1488. After the Reformation, it
was locked up for some time, to prevent its use for the superstitious
purpose alluded to above. But, as a rule, it lay on a tombstone in the
Priory graveyard, protected only by the reverence paid to it in the
district. There was a belief that, if carried off, it would return of
its own accord, ringing all the way. In 1798 this belief was put to a
severe test, for in that year the English antiquary, already quoted,
removed the relic. “In order,” he says, “to ascertain the truth or
falsehood of the ridiculous story of St. Fillan’s bell, I carried it
off with me, and mean to convey it, if possible, to England. An old
woman, who observed what I was about, asked me what I wanted with
the bell, and I told her that I had an unfortunate relation at home
out of his mind, and that I wanted to have him cured. ‘Oh, but,’
says she, ‘you must bring him here to be cured, or it will be of no
use.’ Upon which I told her he was too ill to be moved, and off I
galloped with the bell back to Tyndrum Inn.” The bell was taken to
England. About seventy years later, its whereabouts was discovered,
and it was sent back to Scotland. Like the crozier of the same saint,
it is now in the Antiquarian Museum at Edinburgh.

If we may believe a local tradition, the Holy Pool lost its
miraculous virtue in the following manner, though, after what the
English antiquary mentioned about its water being mixed with meal,
and given to diseased cattle, we see no reason why it should have
been so particular. A farmer who had a mad bull thought that, if the
sacred water could heal human ills, it would be efficacious also in
the case of the lower animals. So he plunged his infuriated beast into
the stream. What was the effect on the bull we do not know: but since
then the virtue has departed from the water. Except for a pleasure
dip on a hot summer’s day, no one need now apply at the Holy Pool.

The unbroken reputation of such health resorts, for centuries,
is certainly remarkable. Strathfillan kept up its fame for over a
thousand years. At Gheel, in Belgium, for fully twelve hundred years,
successive generations of lunatics sought relief at St. Dympna’s
Well. We must not be too hard on the ages before our own; for,
though in some respects dark, in other respects they had a good deal
of light. Nevertheless, severe things might be said about them. From
a present-day point of view, it might be argued that those, who took
their insane friends to get cured in the manner described, required,
like the patients themselves, a little rearrangement of their wits.

The epithet wonderful may fitly be applied to whatever springs
are endowed by popular credulity with mysterious properties. Those
already considered have been mainly associated with the removal or
prevention of disease. It is now proposed to glance at certain other
characteristics.

Some springs are wonderful as to their origin. Who does not know the
legend connected with Tre Fontane, in the vicinity of Rome, where water
bubbled up at the three places touched by St. Paul’s severed head? We
do not recollect any Scottish instance of a well coming into being in
this way; but in England we have St. Osyth’s Well in Essex, where that
saint was beheaded by the Danes, and in Wales, St. Winifred’s Well in
Flintshire. Concerning the latter, Chambers, in his “Book of Days,”
thus writes:–“Winifred was a noble British maiden of the seventh
century; a certain Prince Cradocus fell in love with her, and, finding
his rough advances repulsed, cut off the lady’s head. Immediately
after doing this, the prince was struck dead, and the earth, opening,
swallowed up his body. Meanwhile, Winifred’s head rolled down the
hill; where it stopped, a spring gushed forth–the blood from the head
colouring the pebbles over which it flowed, and rendering fragrant
the moss growing around.” Sweden has its St. Eric’s Spring at Upsala,
marking the place where Eric, the king, was beheaded about the middle
of the twelfth century. St. Oswald’s Well at Winwick, in Lancashire,
is said to indicate the spot where that famous Northumbrian king
received his death-wound when fighting against Penda, the pagan ruler
of Mercia. On a hill in Hertfordshire, a fountain arose to quench
the thirst of Alban, England’s proto-martyr, who suffered there
about 300 A.D. According to a Kincardineshire tradition, a spring in
Dunnottar Castle miraculously appeared for behoof of the Covenanters,
who were confined there in 1685. In Holywood parish, Dumfriesshire,
(so called from its oak forest, sacred even in pre-Christian times),
a fountain sprang up at the intercession of Vynning, the patron of
a well at Kilwinning, in Ayrshire. In Scottish hagiology, fountains
usually gush forth to supply water for baptism. In English legends
they spring up as a tribute to spots where the corpses of saintly
persons have rested. Thus, water issued from the graves of Ethelbert at
Marden, in Herefordshire, and of Withburga at East Dereham, in Norfolk,
and also from that of Frideswide at Oxford. St. Frideswide’s Fair at
the last-mentioned place was a noted holiday in the middle ages. It
lasted a week, and, during its continuance, the keys of the city were
in the keeping of the prior, having been handed over by the mayor, who
ceased for the time to be responsible for the peace of the burgh. At
Trondhjem, in Norway, a spring arose to mark the spot where King Olaf
was buried, about the middle of the eleventh century.

Cuthbert was greatly honoured by the gushing forth of springs, both
during his lifetime and after his death. While at Lindisfarne, he was
seized with a desire for still greater retirement, and accordingly
withdrew to Farne Island, one of the Fern group, two miles distant
from Bamborough, and six from Lindisfarne. This island was then
haunted by evil spirits; but these he drove away, as Guthlac did
from the marshes of Crowland, in Lincolnshire. Cuthbert set about
building a cell in Farne Island, and, with the help of angels, the
work was satisfactorily completed. Unfortunately, there was no fresh
water to be had; but the want was soon supplied. In response to the
saint’s prayers, a spring arose in the floor of his cell. Bede says,
“This water, by a most remarkable quality, never overflowed its first
limits, so as to flood the floor, nor yet ever failed, however much
of it might be taken out; so that it never exceeded or fell short
of the daily wants of him who used it for his sustenance.” The
miracle did not end here. When Eistan of Norway was ravaging the
coast of Northumberland in the twelfth century, he landed on Farne
Island and destroyed the property of the hermits, whose retreat it
then was. The spring, unwilling to give help to the robber bands,
dried up. Thirst, accordingly, compelled them to quit the island. No
sooner had they left than the spring reappeared and gladdened the spot
once more. After Cuthbert’s death, his body was carried from place to
place for safety. In his “History of St. Cuthbert,” Archbishop Eyre
remarks, “There is a legendary tradition, that when the bearers of
St. Cuthbert’s body journeyed northwards from Yorkshire and came to
Butterby, near Croxdale, they set down the coffin on the right bank
before crossing the river, and immediately a saline spring burst out
upon the spot. After fording the river they again rested the coffin,
and a spring of chalybeate water rose up where they had laid down the
body. A third time the weary travellers, struggling up the rugged pass,
were compelled to lay their precious burden on the ground, and a sweet
stream of water gushed out of the rock to refresh them.” Prior to this,
Cuthbert’s relics had rested a while at Melrose. Tradition says that,
on resuming their wanderings, they floated down the Tweed in a stone
coffin as far as Tillmouth, on the English Border. The fragments of
a sarcophagus, said to be the coffin in question, are still to be
seen there beside the ruins of St. Cuthbert’s Chapel. This incident
is thus referred to in “Marmion”:–

“Seven years Saint Cuthbert’s corpse they bore.
They rested them in fair Melrose:
But though, alive, he loved it well,
Not there his reliques might repose;
For, wondrous tale to tell!
In his stone coffin forth he rides
(A ponderous bark for river tides),
Yet light as gossamer it glides,
Downward to Tillmouth cell.”

A Shropshire legend narrates that, on one occasion, Milburga, who is
still remembered in the name of Stoke St. Milborough, was riding in
all haste to escape from certain enemies. She fell at length exhausted
from her horse; but, at her command, the animal struck a stone with
his hoof, and water gushed out for her refreshment. In a neighbouring
field some men were sowing grain, and the saint prophesied that in
the evening they would gather the ripe corn. She instructed them to
tell her enemies, on their arrival, that she had passed when the crop
was being sown. The miracle duly happened, and Milburga’s foes were
disconcerted in consequence. Shropshire and Yorkshire have strange
traditions about the sudden appearance of lakes, sometimes overwhelming
human dwellings. In the latter case, the tops of houses are said to be
visible through the water. Additional picturesqueness is occasionally
given, by the introduction into the story of vanished bells, sending
forth from the depths their soft cadences. At Tunstall, in Norfolk,
a boggy piece of ground, locally known as Hell-Hole, is marked by
frequently rising bubbles. The devil once carried off the bells of
the church, and, when pursued, plunged into the marsh. The bubbles are
due to the bells sinking lower and lower into the abyss. Such beliefs
about lakes form an interesting supplement to Scottish superstitions.

When Henry VI. was in hiding in Bolton Hall, in Yorkshire, he wished
to have a bath in the hot summer weather. His host, anxious to supply
what was lacking to the comfort of the royal fugitive, used a hazel
twig in his garden, in the hope of discovering water. The indications
being favourable, a well was dug, and the king was enabled to cool
himself to his heart’s content. The spring still bears the king’s
name. Michael Scott, who was born in Fife in the thirteenth century,
and was regarded by his contemporaries as a dabbler in the black art,
had a pupil in the north of England who undertook a marvellous feat,
viz., to bring the sea up the Wansbeck river to Morpeth. Certain
incantations were gone through, and the magician started from the
coast, followed by the tide. All went well till within about five
miles from the town, when he became alarmed by the roaring of the
water, and looked back. So the spell was broken, and Morpeth remained
inland. This recalls the story accounting for the introduction of
a good water-supply into Plymouth. When there was a scarcity in
the sixteenth century, Sir Francis Drake, the naval hero, rode up
to Dartmoor, and uttered some magical words over a spring there. He
immediately turned his horse and galloped back to the town, followed
by a copious stream.

Certain wells could put in a good claim to the title of wonderful
on the ground of the effects they were able to produce. If a spring
could act as a sign-post to guide the wayfarer, who had strayed
from his path, it might surely be classed among marvels! This is
what a certain well on Dartmoor, in Devonshire, could do, at least
in the sixteenth century. A man of the name of Fitz and his wife,
when crossing the moor in the year 1568, lost their way. They lighted
on the well in question, drank its water, and found the lost track
without the least difficulty. In gratitude, Fitz afterwards raised
a memorial of stone over the well “for the benefit of all pixy-led
travellers.” In Germany, before a meal, the ceremony of wishing
one’s friend a good appetite is still kept up. Such a salutation must
have been unnecessary in the Island of Harris, at least in Martin’s
time, for he tells us of a spring, then lately discovered, that
could produce an appetite whenever wanted. “The natives,” he says,
“find by experience that it is very effectual for restoring lost
appetite; all that drink of it become very soon hungry though they
have eat plentifully but an hour before.” A small quantity of its
water might with advantage be added to the contents of the “loving
cup” at the Lord Mayor’s banquets, and on other festive occasions
both in, and out of the Metropolis. Martin speaks of another marvel
in Harris. “A large cave in the face of a hill hath,” he says, “two
wells in it, one of which is excluded from dogs, for they say that
if a dog do but taste of the water, the well presently dryeth up;
and for this reason, all such as have occasion to lodge there take
care to tie their dogs that they may not have access to the water. The
other well is called the Dogs’ Well, and is only drunk by them.” The
student of folklore cannot fail to find Martin a congenial companion,
as he records a variety of quaint Hebridean customs that might have
been passed over in silence by a more matter-of-fact writer. When
in the Island of Lewis, he was told of a fountain at Loch Carloway
“that never whitened linen,” though the experiment had been often
tried. In connection with his visit to Barray, he says, “The natives
told me there is a well in the village Tangstill, the water of which,
being boiled, grows thick like puddle. There is another well, not far
from Tangstill, which, the inhabitants say, in a fertile year, throws
up many grains of barley in July and August. And they say that the
well of Kilbar throws up embryos of cockles, but I could not discern
any in the rivulet, the air being at that time foggy.” This reminds
one of the Well in the Wall in Checkly parish, Staffordshire, said
to throw out small bones like those of chickens and sparrows all the
year round except in the months of July and August. Toubir-ni-Lechkin,
in Jura, rising on a hill near Tarbert, was a noted fountain. Martin
mentions that its water was counted “lighter by one half” than any
other water in the island, and that a great quantity of it might be
drunk at one time without causing inconvenience. He further says,
“The river Nissa receives all the water that issues from this well,
and this is the reason they give why salmons here are in goodness
and taste far above those of any other river whatever.”

The power of some wells over the lower animals was remarkable. A
spring at Harpham, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, dedicated to
St. John of Beverley, was believed to subdue the fiercest animal. A
raging bull, when brought to it, became as gentle as a lamb. A spring
of this kind would indeed be a great boon in the country to timid,
town-bred tourists when crossing fields where there are cattle. To the
margin of such a spring they could retreat and there feel safe. Black
Mere, at Morridge, near Leek, in Staffordshire, was credited with the
power of frightening away animals. Cattle would not drink its water,
and birds would not fly over it. A mermaid was believed to dwell
in its depths. A reminiscence of this belief is to be found in the
name of “The Mermaid,” a wayside inn in the neighbourhood frequented
by sportsmen. Some wells keep a sharp look-out on the use made of
their water. A certain spring at Gilsland, in Cumberland, wished
to dispense its favours freely, i.e., without making the public pay
for them. The proprietor of the ground, however, resolved to turn,
what he counted, an honest penny, and built a house over the spring
for the sale of the water. The fountain, much aggrieved at this,
forthwith dried up. The house, not being required, was taken down,
and the benevolent water once more made its appearance.

Intermittent springs have been observed from an early date, and strange
notions have been formed about them. They are usually associated
in their ebbing and flowing with some particular river. In some
instances such a connection can be only imaginary, notably in the
case of the Keldgate Springs at Cottingham, in Yorkshire, thought
to be influenced by the river Derwent twenty miles away. An ebbing
and flowing well at the foot of Giggleswick Scar, near Settle, in
the same county, was represented by Michael Drayton under the poetic
guise of a nymph flying from the pursuit of an unwelcome lover. Gough,
in his edition of Camden’s “Britannia,” of date 1806, has the following
about a spring near Paisley:–“Bishop Gibson says that in the lands of
Newyards, near Paisley, is a spring which ebbs and flows with the tide
though far above any ground to which the tide comes. Mr. Crawford,
in his ‘History of the Shire of Renfrew,’ applies this to a spring
in the lands of Woodside, which is three miles from the Clyde, and
half-a-mile from Paisley bridge, and the ground much higher than the
river.” The name of Dozmare Lake, in Cornwall, signifies in Cornish a
drop of the sea, the lake having been so called from a belief that it
was tidal. The absurdity of the belief is proved by the fact that the
sheet of water is eight hundred and ninety feet above the sea. The
lake is said to be unfathomable, and has for a haunting spirit a
giant who is doomed to empty it by means of a limpet shell.

A singular superstition is, or was till quite lately, cherished in
Peeblesshire, that Powbate Well, close to Eddlestone, completely fills
with its water the high hill on whose top it is situated. Chambers,
in his “Popular Rhymes of Scotland,” gives the following particulars
about the spring:–“The mouth, called Powbate E’e, is covered over
by a grate to prevent the sheep from falling into it; and it is
supposed that, if a willow wand is thrown in, it will be found some
time after, peeled at the water-laugh, a small lake at the base of
the hill supposed to communicate with Powbate. Of course the hill
is expected to break some day like a bottle and do a great deal of
mischief. A prophecy, said to be by Thomas the Rhymer, and bearing
evident marks of his style, is cited to support the supposition:

‘Powbate, an ye break,
Tak’ the Moorfoot in yere gate;
Moorfoot and Mauldslie,
Huntlycote, a’ three,
Five kirks and an Abbacie!'”

In explanation of this prophecy Chambers remarks: “Moorfoot, Mauldslie,
and Huntlycote are farm-towns in the immediate neighbourhood of
the hill. The kirks are understood to have been those of Temple,
Carrington, Borthwick, Cockpen, and Dalkeith; and the abbacy was that
of Newbottle, the destruction of which, however, has been anticipated
by another enemy.”

The Scottish imagination, in attributing wonderful properties to
springs, has not gone the length of ascribing to any the power
possessed by St. Ludvan’s Well in Cornwall. This fountain has been
already referred to as the giver of increased sight. But it had the
still more marvellous power of preventing any one baptised with its
water from being hanged by a hempen rope. Nor have we heard of any
spring north of the Tweed that could be a match for another Cornish
well, viz., that of St. Keyne, familiar to readers of Southey. Whoever,
after marriage, first drank of its water would be the ruler of the
house. On one occasion a bridegroom hurried to make sure of this
right, but was chagrined to find that he had been anticipated: his
bride had taken a bottleful of the water with her to church.

“Am I likely to recover?” is a question on many a patient’s lips. “Ask
your doctor;” and if the case looks serious, “Have a consultation”
is the answer nowadays. Formerly, the answer was “Go to a consecrated
well,” or “Get some one else to go in your stead, and you will get
a reply.” There is no reason to believe that every sacred spring was
credited with this power; but many undoubtedly were. Hydromancy has
been a favourite mode of divination. “The conscious water” could
predict the future, and questions connected with health were laid
before it for its decision. The Greeks dipped a mirror into a well,
and foretold health or sickness from the appearance of the watery
lines on its surface. A pool in Laconia, sacred to Juno, revealed
approaching good or evil fortune respectively, by the sinking or
floating of wheaten cakes thrown into it, and auguries were also
drawn from the movements of stones when dropt into it. Springs,
therefore, deserved the respect shown to them by the confiding
public. Indeed they not only told of recovery; they supplied the
medicine required to ensure it, and were thus doctors and druggists
combined. Sometimes the omen was unpropitious. In many cases the
prophecy would work out its own fulfilment. There was a well in the
Island of Lewis that caused either instant death or recovery to the
patient who tested its virtues: but a speedy fulfilment like this was
exceptional. St. Andrew’s Well at Shadar, in Lewis, was much esteemed
for its power of augury. A tub, containing some of its water, was
taken to the house of the patient, and a small wooden dish was placed
on the surface of the water. If this dish turned sunways, it showed
that the patient would recover; but if in an opposite direction,
that he would die. In reference to this instance, Mr. Gomme, in his
“Ethnology in Folklore,” observes, “I am inclined to connect this with
the vessel or cauldron so frequently occurring in Celtic tradition,
and which Mr. Nutt has marked as ‘a part of the gear of the oldest
Celtic divinities’ perhaps of divinities older than the Celts.” On
one occasion two parishioners of Fodderty, in Ross-shire, consulted
Tobar-na-domhnuich in that parish in behalf of a sick friend. When
they placed their pitcher on the surface of the water, the vessel
moved round from south to west, as in the last instance, and they
hastened back to their friend with the good news. This was in the
year 1832. About the same time, a woman brought her sick child to
be bathed in the well, but was surprised and not a little terrified
to see a strange creature, with glaring eyes, leap into it as she
approached. Love for her child made her brave. Overcoming her fear,
she dislodged the creature, and bathed the little invalid. In the end,
however, she must have regarded the appearance of the creature as a
bad omen, for the child did not recover. The usual way of consulting
the spring in question was to draw water from it before sunrise,
and to convey the water to the invalid’s house. The patient was then
immersed in it, and if it remained clear the circumstance pointed to
recovery; but if it assumed a brownish colour, the illness would end
in death. In former times a shirt was thrown into St. Oswald’s Well,
in Yorkshire, by way of augury. The floating of the shirt foretold
returning health. The sinking foretold death. When a portion of an
invalid’s clothing was flung into the Dow Loch, in Dumfriesshire, the
same rule held good. As may be noticed, the augury in these two cases
was the reverse of that in the case of Juno’s pool above alluded to.

There were other ways in which wells acted the prophet. If a certain
worm in a spring on the top of a particular hill in Strathdon was
found alive, the patient would recover. A well at Ardnacloich in Appin
contained a dead worm, if the patient’s illness would prove fatal;
but a living one, if otherwise. The Virgin’s Well, near the ancient
church of Kilmorie on the shores of Loch Ryan in Wigtownshire, had
an ingenious way of predicting the future. If the patient, on whose
account the water was sought, would recover, the fountain flowed
freely; but if the malady would end in death, the water refused to
gush forth. Montluck Well, in the grounds of Logan in the same county,
got the credit of acting on a similar principle. When speaking of this
spring, Symson says, “it is in the midst of a little bog to which
several persons have recourse to fetch water for such as are sick,
asserting (whether it be truth or falsehood I shall not determine)
that if the sick person shall recover, the water shall so bubble and
mount up when the messenger dips in his vessel, that he will hardly get
out dry shod by reason of the overflowing of the well; but if the sick
person be not to recover, there shall not be any such overflowing in
the least.” We find a belief in the south-west of England corresponding
to this in the south-west of Scotland. Gulval Well, in Fosses Moor
there, was resorted to by persons anxious to know the fate of absent
friends. If the person inquired about was dead, the water remained
perfectly still; if sick, it bubbled, though in a muddy fashion; but
if well, it sent out a sparkling gush. Mr. Hunt mentions the case of
a woman, who, with her babe in her arm, consulted the spring about
her absent husband, under the guidance of an aged female who acted
as the guardian of the well. “Obeying the old woman’s directions,
she knelt on the mat of bright green grass which grew around, and,
leaning over the well so as to see her face in the water, she repeated
after her instructor:

‘Water, water, tell me truly,
Is the man I love truly
On the earth, or under the sod,
Sick or well,–in the name of God?’

Some minutes passed in perfect silence, and anxiety was rapidly
turning cheeks and lips pale, when the colour rapidly returned. There
was a gush of clear water from below, bubble rapidly followed bubble
sparkling brightly in the morning sunshine. Full of joy, the young
mother rose from her knees, kissed her child, and exclaimed, ‘I am
happy now!'” At Barenton in Brittany is a spring still believed in by
the peasantry. A pin is dropt into the well, and if good fortune is
in store, the water sends up bubbles; but if not, it remains quite
still. The quantity of water in St. Maelrubha’s Well on Innis-Maree
varied from time to time. When a patient was brought for treatment
and there was a scanty supply, the omen was considered unfavourable;
but when the water was abundant, the saint was deemed propitious,
and the hope of recovery was consequently great.

The fly at St. Michael’s Well in Banffshire was looked upon as a
prophet. In the “Old Statistical Account of Scotland” we read, that,
“if the sober matron wished to know the issue of her husband’s ailment,
or the love-sick nymph that of her languishing swain, they visited
the Well of St. Michael. Every movement of the sympathetic fly was
regarded in silent awe; and as he appeared cheerful or dejected, the
anxious votaries drew their presages.” At Little Conan in Cornwall is
a spring, sacred to Our Lady of Nants. It was at one time resorted to
on Palm Sunday by persons anxious to know whether they would outlive
the year. A cross, made of palm, was thrown into the water. If it
floated, the thrower would survive the twelvemonth; but if it sank,
he would die within that time. Maidens used to visit Madron Well
in the same county on May morning to forecast their matrimonial
fate. They took two pieces of straw, about an inch in length, and
placing them crosswise fastened them together with a pin. The cross
was then thrown into the spring. The rising bubbles were carefully
counted, for they corresponded in number with the years that would
elapse before the arrival of the wedding-day.

Portents of death were sometimes furnished by lochs and springs. At
Harpham in Yorkshire there is a tradition that a drummer lad in the
fourteenth century was accidentally drowned in a certain spring by a
St. Quintin–Lord of the Manor. Ever afterwards the sound of a drum
was heard in the well on the evening before the death of one of the
St. Quintin family. Camden, in his “Britannia,” tells of a sheet of
water in Cheshire called Blackmere Lake, lying in the district where
the Brereton family had lands, and records the local belief that,
just before any heir of that house died, trunks of trees were seen
floating on its surface. Water occasionally gave warning by turning
red like blood. A certain fountain, near the Elbe, in Germany,
was at one time believed to do this, in view of an approaching
war. St. Tredwell’s Loch, in Papa-Westray, Orkney, has already been
referred to, in connection with its habit of turning red, whenever
anything remarkable was about to happen to a member of the Royal
Family. When the Earl of Derwentwater was beheaded, in 1716, the
news spread that the stream flowing past his estate of Dilston Hall
in Northumberland ran with blood. The same was said of the river at
Bothel, in the parish of Topenhow, in Cumberland, on the occasion of
the execution of Charles I., in 1649. There was at one time a well in
Canterbury Cathedral. After the assassination of Thomas à Becket the
sweepings of his blood and brains from the floor were thrown into it,
and more than once afterwards the water turned red and effected various
miraculous cures. Lady Wilde, in her “Ancient Legends of Ireland,”
narrates how one of the holy wells of Erin lost its efficacy for
curing purposes through having been touched by a murderer. The priest
of the district took some of its water and breathed on it thrice in
the name of the Trinity, when, lo! a mysterious change came over it,
and it appeared red like blood! The murderer was captured and handed
over to justice, and the well once more began to work cures.

Some springs seemed anxious to be behind the scenes (though before
the event) in connection with various incidents in British annals. A
spring at Warlingham, in Surrey, rises before any great event in our
country’s history. At any rate it did so before three great events in
the seventeenth century, viz., the Restoration, the Plague, and the
Revolution. The famous Drumming Well at Oundle, in Northamptonshire,
was also specially active in the seventeenth century. By making
a sound like the beating of a drum, it announced the approach of a
Scottish army, and gave warning of the death of Charles II. In the same
century a pool in North Tawton parish, Devonshire, even though dry in
summer, became full of water at the driest season before the death
of a prince, and remained so till the event happened. Two centuries
earlier a certain well at Langley Park, in Kent, had a singular way
of foretelling the future. In view of a battle it became dry, though
rain fell heavily. If there was to be no fighting, it appeared full
of water, even during the greatest drought. A spring at Kilbarry, in
the island of Barra, Outer Hebrides, served the same purpose, but its
mode of augury was different. In this case, as Dalyell records in his
“Darker Superstitions,” drops of blood appeared in prospect of war; but
little bits of peat, if peace was to remain unbroken. Walcott mentions,
in his “Scoti-Monasticon,” that there was at Kilwinning, in Ayrshire,
“a sacred fountain which flowed in 1184, and at other times, before
a war or trouble, with blood instead of water for eight successive
days and nights.” When Marvel-sike Spring, near Brampton Bridge, in
Northamptonshire, overflowed its customary limits, people used to
interpret its conduct as signifying approaching dearth, the death
of some great person, or some national disturbance. In these days,
when so keen an interest is taken in the proceedings of Parliament,
it is a pity that there is no spring in our land capable of announcing
the probable date of a dissolution. Such a spring would relieve the
public mind from much uncertainty, and would benefit the trade and
commerce of the country.

Heritable jurisdictions were abolished in Scotland soon after the
Stuart rising of 1745. This privilege, enjoyed till then by many
landowners north of the Tweed, was popularly known as the “right of
pit and gallows,” the pit being for the drowning of women and the
gallows for the hanging of men. In 1679, a certain woman, Janet
Grant by name, was convicted of theft in the baronial court of
Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstone, held at Drainie, in Elginshire,
and was sentenced to be drowned in Spynie Loch. In this and other
similar cases water was used as a means of execution. In the case of
witchcraft it was called in as a witness in the trial. The criminal
proceedings for the detection and punishment of so-called witches form
a painfully dark chapter in Scottish history. As Mr. W. H. Davenport
Adams pointedly puts it, in his “Witch, Warlock, and Magician,” “The
common people for a time might have been divided into two classes,
‘witches and witchfinders.'” The same writer observes, “Among the
people of Scotland, a more serious-minded and imaginative race
than the English, the superstition of witchcraft was deeply rooted
at an early period. Its development was encouraged not only by the
idiosyncracies of the national character, but also by the nature of
the country and the climate in which they lived. The lofty mountains,
with their misty summits and shadowy ravines, their deep obscure glens,
were the fitting homes of the wildest fancies, the eeriest legends,
and the storm–crashing through the forests, and the surf beating on
the rocky shore, suggested to the ear of the peasant or fisherman the
voices of unseen creatures–of the dread spirits of the waters and
the air.” A favourite method of discovering whether an accused person
was guilty or not, was that technically known as pricking. It was
confidently believed that every witch had the “devil’s mark” somewhere
on her person. The existence of this mark could be determined: for if a
pin was thrust into the flesh with the result that neither blood came,
nor pain was felt, the spot so punctured was the mark in question. This
showed, without doubt, that the accused was guilty of the heinous
crime laid to her charge. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, in his “History
of Witchcraft in Scotland,” gives instances of the finding of the
“devil’s mark.” He mentions the case of Janet Barker, a servant in
Edinburgh, who acknowledged that she possessed this particular mark
between her shoulders. A pin was stuck into the spot and remained
there for an hour without her being aware of its presence. Such, at
least, was the way of stating the case in 1643. With this simple test
at command it is not easy to understand why water should have been
required to give evidence. But so it was. Among various nations the
water-ordeal has been in fashion. It was specially popular in Scotland
a couple of centuries ago. Part of the bay at St. Andrews is still
styled the Witches’ Lake, recalling by its name the crude notions and
cruel practices of our ancestors. A pool in the Carron, near Dunnottar
Church in Kincardineshire, at one time served a similar purpose.

As we have seen, the sinking or the floating of an object thrown into
water in cases of sickness told of death or recovery. In like manner
innocence or guilt could be determined in the case of persons accused
of sorcery. If the person sank, she was innocent; but guilty, if she
floated. King James VI.–a great authority on the subject–explains
why this was so. In his “Daemonologie,” he says, “As in a secret
murther, if the dead carcase be at any time thereafter handled by the
murtherer, it will gush out of blood, as if the blood were raging to
the Heaven for revenge of the murtherer (God having appointed that
secret supernatural sign for trial of that secret unnatural crime),
so that it appears that God hath appointed (for a supernatural sign
of the monstrous impiety of witches) that the water shall refuse to
receive them in her bosom that have shaken off them the sacred water
of baptism and wilfully refused the benefit thereof.” The Abbey of
Scone, in Perthshire, founded by Alexander I., in 1114, received from
him a charter confirming the right of using the water-ordeal for the
detection of witchcraft. The place of trial was a small island in the
Tay, half-way between the abbey and the bridge of Perth. According
to the practices, common at such trials, the accused was thrown into
the water, wrapped up in a sheet, and having the thumbs and the great
toes fastened together. The chances of life were certainly not great
under the circumstances, for, if the poor creature floated, she had
soon to exchange water for fire. The stake was her goal. If she sank,
the likelihood was that she would be drowned. Bundled up in the manner
described, she was scarcely in a position to rescue herself; and the
bystanders were in no humour to give a helping hand. Close to the town
of Elgin was once a witch-pool, known as the Order Pot, so called from
its having been the place of ordeal. Through time it was filled up,
mainly with rubbish from the ruins of the cathedral, in fulfilment,
it was believed, of the prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer that

“The Order Pot and Lossie grey
Shall sweep the Chanonry kirk away.”

In the seventeenth century a woman who was accused of having brought
disease on a certain man through her sorceries was thrown into the
pool. She sank, and the crowd, who had collected to witness the trial,
exclaimed, “To Satan’s kingdom she hath gone.” The incident is of
interest since the view of her case, then taken, was contrary to the
one usually held, as explained above. Perhaps the people standing by
thought that the devil was so eager to get his own, that he would
not lose the chance of securing his victim at once. Elginshire has
another memorial of the black art in the form of The Witch’s Stone at
Forres. It consists of a boulder about a yard in diameter and probably
marks the spot where unhappy females convicted of witchcraft were
executed. About the year 1790 some one wished to turn the stone to
good account for building purposes and broke it into three pieces. The
breaker, however, was compelled to put it together again, and the iron
then used to clasp it is still in position. Legend accounts for the
breakage in a less prosaic way. When the boulder was being carried
by a witch through the air in her apron, the apron-string broke,
and, as a result, the stone was broken too. The spot was formerly
reckoned ill-omened. It would be too much to say that belief in the
black art has vanished from the Highlands; though, fortunately for
the good sense of our age, as well as for those who live in it,
witch pools are not now in requisition. Pennant bears witness to
the fact that belief in witchcraft ceased in Perthshire soon after
the repeal, in 1736, of the penal statutes against witches. In more
northern districts it continued a vital part of the popular creed
till much later. The Rev. Donald Sage mentions, in his “Memorabilia
Domestica,” that the Rev. Mr. Fraser, minister of Killearnan in
Ross-shire, about 1750, was much troubled with somnolency even in
the pulpit. He was in consequence thought to be bewitched–a notion
that he himself shared. Two women were fixed on, as the cause of his
unnatural slumbers. It was believed that they had made a clay image
representing the minister and had stuck pins into it. Certain pains
felt by him were ascribed to this cause. Had it not been for the Act
of 1736, it would doubtless have fared ill with the supposed witches.

Witches, however, were not alone in their power of floating. According
to a popular belief in the north-west Highlands, insane people
cannot sink in water. Sir Arthur Mitchell, in the “Proceedings of the
Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” volume iv., refers to the case
of a certain madman–Wild Murdoch by name–concerning whom strange
stories were told. He was born on the small island of Melista, near
the coast of Lewis, used only for occasional habitation in connection
with the pasturing of cattle. Anyone born in the island is believed to
become insane. The superstition about not sinking was certainly put
to a severe test in Wild Murdoch’s case. “It is said,” remarks Sir
Arthur, “that his friends used to tie a rope round his body, make it
fast to the stern of the boat, and then pull out to sea, taking the
wretched man in tow. The story goes that he was so buoyant that he
could not sink; ‘that they tried to press him down into the water;’
that he could swim with a stone fastened to him; that when carried to
the rocky holms of Melista or Greinan, round which the open Atlantic
surges, and left there alone, he took to the water and swam ashore.”

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