Wishing Wells

by Sandy Maclennan

Long ago, when I was young, there were buses run, on the first Sunday in May, to the Cloutie Well, four miles from Inverness, so that the throngs might make their devotions. A silver coin in the well, a sip of the water, three circuits deosil and a shred of clothing on one of the nearby trees and the rite was done. It was an ancient ritual. Of that there was no doubt though few participating knew how old and its meaning was lost in the distant past, long before we were seduced and bound by tales from the Middle East; we, who had defied the legions for four centuries, succumbed to the new emissaries of Rome. But that’s another story. The centuries have passed. An alternative version from dissidents in Geneva has bound us again but still the ritual at the well persists, still around the wells scattered through what once were Celtic realms, the rags flutter on the trees.

With the new regime, the wells were given names, often those of saints and there were new legends to harmonise. Our cloutie well became Lady Well; not too specific and it had probably always been that anyway. Its near neighbour Eppie’s Well gained a tale of a Mediaeval pious old lady of that name but one might reasonably guess that once she had been Epona of the Horses. Sul, patroness of Bath (Aquae Sulis), may have lingered in Sul na Bo (the cow’s eye) in Sutherland, though Boand (cow lady?) was a goddess in Ireland. Bride has given her name to many wells, but is she the nun of Kildare with nine or nineteen virgins tending an enclosed perpetual fire which burnt till Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, is she the Virgin Mary’s midwife, as they told the tale in the Western Isles, or is she the Dagda’s daughter, goddess of fire and poetry and a lot more besides, still there to bless the faithful who come to drink? Maybe her pagan identity was too dominant to suffer easy transference into Christian sainthood in the territory of the Brigantes, whose Goddess she was; in her place are dedications to St Helen. Guy Ragland Phillips suggests this is the St Helen who was mother of Constantine. She is generally believed to have started life as a Levantine whore but Phillips has discovered an old account which makes her a Brigantian princess. Right she not be Elayne, one of the names of the Lady of the Lake? She was herself the daughter of Bran whose severed head travelled for years with his companions, discoursing pleasantly until it was buried beneath the Tower of London. Elaine was mother of Galahad, by Lancelot, had the Warrior of the Glade for lover, and her head was found in a well.

There are hints, here and there, of what the wells might have meant to us. At Tobar na Chaillich in Keith they said the goddess came in her hag form to renew her youth each spring and to come forth as the maiden once again. At some of them there have been and may still be, secret women’s rituals where a wise old carlin bathes the breasts and genitals of barren women chanting runes the while. Rarely these have been seen by men and described though maybe they risked a fate like Actaeon when he saw the lustrations of Artemis. Here and there, skulls have been found in the wells or have been used for drinking vessels, when the water is applied sacramentally. St Teilo miraculously had three identical corpses to gratify the three churches that each prayed to preserve his relics. But legend has it that a maiden who looked after the old celibate was commanded to dig up his skull a year after his death and take it for use at his well, where it remained. St Marnoch’s skull was taken from the church and washed in his well, near the river Deveron, every Sunday, the washing water being given to the sick.

In Aberdeenshire and Angus particularly there is a scatter of wells dedicated to ‘Nine Maidens’ and there are very nearly as many legends as there are wells. This is a good indication that a Pagan cult was given a hasty Christianisation at each site independently. There seem to have been Nine Maidens altars in some neighbouring churches too, and some Ninewells and a Maiden’s well. At Glamis Castle the maidens are said to be the daughters of a Celtic Saint Donevaldus, though history only credits him with seven. They were said to have died at Abernethy after a life of extreme asceticism and there was an oak tree near their reputed graves where local girls used to go to make their devotions, until the Kirk session stopped the practice. At Logie Wood, the tale was told that there were nine maidens killed by a wild boar which in turn was slaughtered by a young man with the cry ‘For Bess’, thus gaining the Forbes name for his family; a likely tale! But there is an odd Forbes connection with our Cloutie well; Culloden House, home of a branch of the family, one of whom had an encircling wall and paving put at the well, because his wife went there to bathe; and it was another Forbes who required a. bridge over the railway to carry the footpath leading to the well, a bridge which, oddly. embraces an oak tree which all but blocks its southern abutment. Local legend has it the oak was saved when the railway was built because Prince Charlie hid in it after Culloden; there is no foundation in this whatever. At Strathmartine they told of a farmer who sent his daughter to fetch water from the well. She was killed by a dragon and when she failed to return the next was sent. When it came to the ninth and last, her lover Martine accompanied her and saw the dragon with the eight corpses. He fought it with an epic chase across country, and killed him; but the last daughter died of fright!

The Nine Maidens echo distantly the nine priestesses of Sena Island in the Channel, described by Pomponius Mela in the first century A.D. They controlled storms, made predictions and healed sickness. There was another island in the mouth of the Loire, with priestesses named the Namnites, mentioned by Strabo; they were subject to bacchic passions. In the Vita Merlinae, Morgan le Fay was said to be one of nine witches and ‘the hottest and most lustful woman in all Britain’.

The maidens in the two tales above were all killed at the well. If this is a relic of an initiatory scenario of Women’s Mysteries, it must mean that they died as maidens becoming women and that the well was the place of ritual defloration and initiatory death. In the Dream of Oengus, when Oengus goes to Lake Bel Dracon on Samhain to woo Caer Iborneith who has haunted his dreams for a year, she is in her swan form. She is said to be ‘a powerful many shaped girl’ and she assumes the swan form for alternate years. There is with her a great flock, three fifties, of smaller swan girls, linked in pairs by silver chains. She alone is not so linked and she and Oengus, who has also taken swan form, put everyone to sleep with the sleep music and have a splendid three days and nights in his brugh. In Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael has included an old poem which he calls ‘Invocation of the Graces’, which appears to be for the dedication of a young priestess. She is described as the Brown Swan, suggesting that she has not yet reached maturity. The rags left on the tree by the well may have been the childhood clothes which were no longer appropriate, but have now degenerated to the rags of sympathetic magic. There might be similar implications in the legend of Black (or Blue) Annis who had a bower at Dane (Danaan?) Hill in Leicestershire and was said to suck the blood of children and leave their skins in a tree. A bogey to frighten children now, but is Annis a variant on Anu, whose paps are hills in County Kerry? Something to think about when you drop a coin in a well and make a wish.

Text  © Sandy Maclennan (1987)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 05/02/01

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