Monthly Archives: September 2014
To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.
Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.
The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:
“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”
At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:
“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.”
In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:
“those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”
Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into it and made a wish. Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:
“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “
There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:
“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”
Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:
“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water. After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:
“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”
Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects. For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.
One of the best signposted Holy wells, being signed from the town of Market Weighton! St Helen’s well is an evocative site. It is found to the south of the village lying in a wooded valley. The spring arises from a small cave and fills a triangular stone lined chamber. This structure has been linked to bathing but there is no evidence of such an activity and it may be more due to the water being used to fill the steam engines which used to pass by many years ago. Nevertheless this is a calm and charming site which has been considerably improved with a stone built well house enclosing and protecting the natural cave without detracting from the site’s ancient nature. Also below since I visited a local tree has become a considerable rag tree.
Smith (1923) notes:
“It is circular, built up with stone below and brick above, and roofed with corrugated iron, the approach being by four steps…the well like most old springs, has excellent water, bright and clear, and gives a never failing supply, the overflow finding its way to the Beck.
Also called the Quaker Well due the presence of a Quaker meeting house at the front of the house, it now apart from the roof much as Smith notes and is a charming and quiet shrine in a well manicured garden.
The site enclosed in North Cave Castle grounds, of which Smith (1923) notes:
“is situated not far from the church, and a short distance within the Park Gates of the Castle and quite near to the north side of the fishpond. Some years since it lay by the north of a road running from the Market-Place to the West End, but when the fishpond was made, the road was diverted, being brought more to the south and so away from the well.”
“The well is a clear and copious spring, and from time out of memory it is said to have given the whole place its water, and at a fire in 1875 at the Castle I am told, it supplied the water to the engine.”
“Now save the laming of cattle it is covered with a slab of stone.”
This has now been removed although a mess covers the spring head to prevent leaves entering. The area around the well has been gravelled and the well itself surrounded by stonework.
“At Great Hatfield, some half-mile from its beautiful cross, near the churchyard, and so originally not far from the south side of its former church lies the Well of St. Helen…the well flows from a bank and is covered with a roof of grass sods supported by walls. It is approached by four steps and a landing of stone facing east, its opening being at one protected by a door of which the frame only now remains.”
In 2014, on the 21st May a short service was held to re-dedicate this. In the mid 1990’s a committee was formed and the Well was reroofed. The work was completed in August 1995, the Well was dressed and a short service took place. This has happened nearly every year since.
“People would come to the Well and ask St. Helen for healing or to help with problems. The person would face East and put lace or a rag on the nearby hawthorn. This had to be done in secrecy at dawn. St. Helen’s is a rag well, (only a few remain throughout the country).”
As the country reflects upon the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, I thought it would germane to consider one of the county’s most fascinating holy well especially being near a contentious battle of course! Enclosed in a woodland settling is one of Scotland’s greatest clootie well, Tobar na Coille often called St. Mary’s Well, but translated means the well of the wood. It’s position not far from the battle site of Culloden resulted in it becoming called the Culloden Well. Indeed it appears to have even more names – The Blue Well and the Tobar n’Oige of the Well of Youth. Surely, a significant site.
The fabric is unusual as well. It arises in a 18” diameter and 24” deep chamber which is surrounded by a circular building, more like a circular animal pound or dare I say it a urinal. Why the arrangement? Is it to protect the visitors from the vagaries of the spring, prevent animals entering or perhaps protect the decency of anyone who would bath here. However, that later idea is not supported by similar wells elsewhere and the spring is not big enough for a dip I feel.
A moved well
Not far from the well was a Chapel to St Mary, whose only remembrance being the local farm, Chapelton Farm, Balloch. As a site is did not survive the 1746 battle and nothing can be traced on the ground. It is possible that a spring of water near the old chapel was the original St Mary’s well and after the battle it was moved to this spring. This would explain the name changes perhaps and it has only recently become a true holy well.
The most prominent piece of folklore is the traditional rituals done at the well. One should walk round the well three times sunwise and then after drinking from the well tie a rag on the nearby tree. This is because the well was a clouttie well and today the well’s surrounds are adorned with them however even in 1979 the Morrises bemoaned the use of modern fibres stating:
“There were many rags in evidence during the visit…but since the majority were of unrottable man-made fibre it was obvious that the visitors did not fully understand the purpose of this part of the ritual.”
This sadly continues, but there is evidence of traditional fabric. The day to go to the well was the first Sunday in May, which underlines the association of the site with the old Pagan Celtic tradition of Beltaine. A visit on May day would reveal wine!
Morris and Morris (1980) inform us that in the 1930s as a many as a dozen buses were running from Inverness to carry visitors to the spot, who would drop coins and several pounds were recovered from the well and given to charity. Four thousand in all…today some come but not as many. However, even in the 1940s the Inverness Courier reported that on the first Sunday of May six Cameron Highland, wished over a well in a Tunisian olive grow as they tied their cloots that they be back at St. Mary’s Culloden. They survived the War and did meet! Such large crowds attracted the wrong sorts and stories of debauchery were spread by the papers and the more intolerant members of the Kirk.
Interestingly, it is said that the well or chapel gained its name from the belief that Mary herself lived in the area and administered to the sick. This may be based on the idea of a local ‘priestess’ who would stay at the well and help visitors…or more likely a way of endorsing this either Pagan or commercial enterprise.
What’s in a name?
If the real St Mary’s Well lies elsewhere, what can we say of this one. Clearly the name, Tobar n’Oige is not far from Tír na nÓg, well of the dead. This is significant because Beltaine was one of the times where the wraths and spirits could be seen and the gates to the afterlife were open. Or does it refer to the battle not far away? There is a well nearer the battle site which does bear the name, Well of the dead. Did this gain the name when the other adopted St. Mary, or does this suggest a strong Beltaine tradition in the area. The obvious explanation is that this is associated with the battle but that may be coincidental?
All in all in its woodland setting and especially seen on a misty spring day..St Mary’s Well is one of the country’s most romantic sites. One wonders what witness to the strife of Culloden it saw..thankfully we can discuss such matters with democracy.