The Watchman’s Well Kintraw

by Debbie Saward

We first visited this site during our travels on the Western coast of Scotland two years ago, and were immediately enchanted by it. This article relates our attempts to conserve and protect the well, and to find out more of its documented history.

The well is difficult to reach. Most guidebooks that do mention it are contradictory in their directions, but it is well worth the effort. Our directions are as follows (and see map). Approaching the site from Lochgilphead on the main A8l6 Oban road, about midway between the two towns and a couple of miles further on from the well-known Standing Stone and Cairn at Kintraw, you will pass a left turn signposted ‘Ardfern – B8002′. Continue up the main road a short distance, parking on the left by a small telephone exchange. Walk on up the main road, past a sharp bend to the right, taking care as traffic is liable to hurtle by. Climb over the crash barrier on the right hand side of the road, scramble down a very steep, wooded slope and look out for the Watchman Stone’ – about grave-stone size. This stands over the well, between the foot of the slope and a small burn (if you’re lucky you’ll see a pair of wild ducks swimming there!). The Grid Reference is NM 824062.

     The well appeared neglected and messy on the occasion of our last visit; the ground surrounding the water trough was very boggy, as the overflow channel leading down to the burn was blocked, and water was seeping out all around, making approaching the well itself most difficult. We intended to remedy this sad situation with a little activism! After struggling through the wood laden with trowels, rakes, spades and sieves, we rolled up our sleeves (and trouser legs!) and began work. Some time later we had removed a large quantity of rotting leaves and general slime from the well-trough itself which we carefully sieved through, expecting to find a few pins, coins or quartz pebbles which we intended to replace in the well. Oddly enough, we found it to be completely empty of any ‘offerings’, despite its supposed reputation as a ‘wishing well’.

After this, we re-dug the drainage channel, lining it with large, flat oval pebbles brought from the beach at Ballochroy further south, to prevent the sides caving in once more. We placed a large quantity of smooth, white quartz pebbles (a sacred material since the Neolithic period, at least) also from Ballochroy, and small pebbles of green marble from Iona (reputedly giving protection from drowning) in the main well pool, as an apology for disturbing the Well! Finally, we left a small metal drinking cup inscribed with a representation of the Watchman on the edge of the stone. On our way out of the wood, we picked some wood sage from the side of the stream, to add to our supper!

A few weeks later we returned, wondering if anybody had noticed our ‘restoration’, but it seemed as if no one at all had been to the Well since. Even the cup had not been touched. It would appear that, even in the height of Summer, the Well is almost totally forgotten.

Now to describe the Watchman Stone. It is inscribed on all sides and has an endearing circular anthropomorphic head carved in relief at the top. The inscription on the front reads:

My name is Watchman, heir am I still watching day and night welcoming all persons that comes heir to drink for which end you sie a drinking cupe.

On the back:

This effigies which you sie heir is beholding all that comes to its neir to this neu found spring, which heir runs out of a rock and are welcome to drink of it for nought at funtain IIIrd of March 1714 this al by Barbrec.

There are also short inscriptions on the top and sides, which are difficult to decipher. F.S. Mackenna has interpreted one as ‘waiting on the edge to be carreid from trough’ [1] which refers to the ‘drinking cupe’ mentioned in the front inscription.

There is an interesting tale to be told of the Watchman Stone, which would appear to be true. Some time after the installation of the Stone over a newly-discovered spring at Barbreck, the owners of the estate sold up and moved to Campbeltown in Kintyre, where they named their new property ‘Barbreck’ and brought the Stone with them, and put it up over an existing well in their new grounds. The Stone was seen there in 1833 by William Dobie, who noted it in his unpublished manuscript Fragments of Perambulations in Kintyre in the Summer of 1833, where he says it was known as Barbrecs Well. This was situated at the foot of Ben Gullion above Kilkerran Cemetery, and is today known as Charlie’s Well. ‘Charlie’ may have been a local nickname for Watchman. It would appear that visitors to the original well in Mid-Argyll would ask ‘Watchman’ questions, and a voice would answer. The voice travelled south with the stone to the new property, but began to shout or scream at visitors to ‘Barbrec’s Well’. This caused so much concern that the proprietors took ‘Watchman’ back to his former home, but unfortunately ‘Watchman’ has not spoken since. This very strange story would seem to be correct, as documentation shows that the stone has indeed been moved about, and it is certainly back in its original position.

The oracular qualities attributed to the Watchman Stone lead us into the area of the traditional folklore and symbolism of the Head, when associated with sacred wells and springs. Many carved stone heads and animal and human skulls were deposited in wells and artificial ‘ritual’ pits and shafts during the Celtic Iron Age as part of a widespread religious practice. This association of heads and sacred waters was common over much of Europe as excavations in Jutland (Denmark), Germany, Holland and England demonstrate [2], and persist longest in areas furthest from foreign influences, such as Ireland and Scotland. Anne Ross shows how the traditional mythological attributes of heads at wells and other associated motifs persisted into living memory in the remoter parts of Scotland, particularly in the Isle of Skye, where many wells are named ‘The Well of the Heads’. Water drunk from a particular well, using a skull as a cup, was used in the treatment of epilepsy – presumably the healing qualities of the spring-water were magically enhanced by the powers of the skull, which was believed to be the seat of wisdom and the soul.

Many wells were credited with the power of prophecy. Oracles would be delivered by a head, often atop a pillar, or by a well-guardian who had drunk the water, such as the Pythia of Delphi, who imbibed large draughts of water from the Castalian Spring. The Watchmam seems to be a very late survival of this belief, and would appear even odder, as the well is not an ancient one, and could not have been traditionally associated with original Celtic oracular heads!

More noteworthy still is the style in which the Watchman has been carved. Recently it was noted that the ‘Watchman’s head bears a very strong resemblance to a carved stone head, part of one of many Romano-British altars found in a well dedicated to the goddess Coventina, at Carrawburgh in Northumberland. This well, inside a square temple building, was found to contain many pins, 14,000 coins, bronze votive heads and a human skull. This particular altar is illustrated in Ross’s Pagan Celtic 3ritain as figure 93. This head is perfectly circular, not conventionally oval, and has a thin neck just like Watchman’s. When one realises that Coventina’s Well was not excavated until 1880, and that Watchman was carved more than 150 years earlier, all kinds of unanswerable questions arise!

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