The following article was published in the July 2019 Spotlight Magazine –Nairn and District; Elgin, Lossie and District; Forres and District; Buckie, Keith and District; Turriff, Huntly and District; and Strathspey and District editions.
The superstitions, beliefs and traditions of our communities are full of intrigue and mystery; as well as truths that may only become apparent once the stories have been understood. This phenomenal importance in the storytelling tradition is certainly not confined to the west. In north east communities, there is a noteworthy similarity in folkways.
If we truly want to understand our culture, the stories are integral to our education. The writing of histories must not be ignorant of the significance of these traditions and what their belief systems are based on. There is far more truth in folklore than it ever appears upon the first hearing of a simple folk tale.
The fact that this is so often closely linked with the sea, agriculture and the power of nature is not surprising. The most prominent pockets of what I.F. Grant called “well worship” in her book Highland Folk Ways, appear to exist in areas which incoming Christian monks struggled to amend the peoples’ longer-held beliefs. The north east, like some pockets of the west, was not populated by Christian monks until later in the development of Scottish Christianity and so, older beliefs flourished and many still remain in some form.
The coastal communities of the north east, the west coast and islands are bound together in this cultural development due to the so-called “superstitions” which emanated from living from the sea or from poor arable land. Christian monks eventually stopped trying to dissuade these older beliefs and healing pools named after saints began to emerge. Examples of this are St Fillan’s pool in the River Earn near Crieff and St Maelrubha’s well on Skye and the water off Eilean Maolruibhe in Loch Maree. This renaming in honour of Christian figures gave legitimacy to the water-beliefs already present. The use of these waters for curing mental illness by shock immersion is not entirely different from the ‘modern’ uses of cold water swimming today.
The power of water in belief systems still exists to this day with the carrying of coffins by the community over the first running water before being transported to the grave site. This tradition has been known in Portree in recent years and appears to exist in varying forms in other areas. This mixing of the nature traditions that predate Christianity and the formality of Christianity have created traditions which are almost entirely unique to the communities they developed in.
Healing wells feature prominently across the Highland region. Particularly noteworthy are the clootie wells close to Inverness and the traditions of healing wells at Annat in Torridon and on the Isle of Skye. It is a common theme that the ill would drink three times from the well or spring and circle it three times “sunwise” (clockwise) for the healing to have permanence. In the Torridon example, some folklorists maintain that this included for many hundreds of years, the drinking of the spring water from a human skull! This tradition has been recorded several times, most recently by an author who claims to have witnessed it in recent years.
In the north east, healing wells were certainly revered and respected in a similar way. In 1842, a well at Oxhill in Rathven was being used regularly for its healing properties. This well, however, was not the community’s preference as their belief in another well in the parish had outlived the well itself. When the older well was filled in by a farm tenant, mothers from Buckie brought their children and, finding the well gone, scooped a pool with their hands in the earth. Once full of water, the children bathed in the pool before being carried home, asleep, on their mothers’ backs. In 1890, healing wells were still in use at Strathdon and Corgarff where offerings were still being found.
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Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot
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