Friday, 15 September 2017

Well - Tell Me More!

Water, as a symbolic, ephemeral element, is difficult to quantify in all its forms and meanings. Also difficult is trying to deduce the number of holy, healing and other wells in a particular area, plus all the traditions associated with these.  This is my fifth attempt and I am not satisfied that it is in any way definitive. (Previous posts are listed at the bottom of this entry.)  Wells and springs become lost, change their names, get filled in and covered over, forgotten, confused with each other.  But every now and then a little sparkling new information comes to light, and this is presented here – for your refreshment. At the end of the post there is an updated list of the wells and springs in the county, and before that information regarding wells in Auchterhouse, Dundee, and Arbroath.
   A new list of Angus wells will follow in the next post...

Well Rituals in Auchterhouse

   In Annals of an Angus Parish (Dundee, 1888), William Mason Inglis usefully provides extracts from the kirk-session of Auchterhouse which give rare evidence about the practice of going to wells for magical purposes:

May 2nd, 1652.- Mrs Robertson, in the Bonniton, was before the session for charming of her child, by going from the Bonniton to the Kirkton well and washing her daughter’s eyes there, and saying:-
Fish beare fin and full beare gall,All ye ill of my bairn’s eyen in ye wall fall.

The minister having heard her confession, found it necessary to take no action until he had brought her case before the Presbytery on the 22nd May.

   Mrs Robertson and Janet Fyffe, who had taught her how to charm the child, were appointed to sit on the stool of repentance, in sackcloth, ay till they be penitent.   July 18th, 1652.- Janet Fyffe made her public repentance before the pulpit for learning Mrs Robertson to charm her child, and whereas Mrs Robertson should have done the same, it pleased the Lord before that time to call upon her by death.

   Inglis goes on to comment that there was a ‘strong superstitious belief in the healing properties of the Lady Well near the village...The well was situated in the north-east corner of the glebe, and there still exists an excellent spring at the same spot.  It was alleged to have been much frequented in olden times by witches and charmers.’

   An interesting point is that both these wells were near the centre of the parish, under the noses of kirk officials, and yet continued to be regarded as magical for a considerable period.

The Urban Wells of Dundee

   One would expect the history of wells in urban landscapes to be free of the kind of residual superstitious associations found in rural areas and this is largely the case.  In medieval and early modern burghs the water supply was a crucial element in the well being of the inhabitants (pardon the pun) and the wells and springs had a dual identity as practical public utilities and holy places.  even the Reformation could not stop residual veneration or force name changes on sainted springs and it was only in the mid to late 19th century that the use of wells ceased.  The first major improvement was the supply of piped water from Monikie, in 1846, and this was followed three decades later by the major scheme to supply Dundee from Linlathen.  Before this modernization the demand for safe, clean water had led to water being imported into the burgh from sources such as the Logie Spout (in present Milnbank Road) and Invergowrie. Other sources included Smellie's Well, on the Lochee Road, and, nearby, Blackness.  The town's  overused wells meant these outside sources were particularly exploited during summer months.  Water was even shipped into the burgh from the Tayfield Estate, Newport, by a business-man nicknamed 'Water Willie'.  No co-incidence that one sobriquet for Dundonians in the 19th century was 'Tay Water Willies'.

   Fierce competition ensued between the operators of Invergowrie and Logie (as reported in a previous blog post, 25th March 2016), with each firm driving barrels of their water through the streets and bellowing the benefits of their product.  One would shout:

                                  Invergowrie’s crystal spring
                                  for Tea surpasses everything!

    Their Logie rivals would retort with this doggerel:

                                  Of a’ the wells that’s here aboot
                                  there’s nane compar’d to Logie Spoot!

   Not only the wells vanished as the Victorian age progressed, but so did some of the running waterways which were major arteries for the town’s population and industry in its formative years.  The Scouring Burn and the Dens Burn have long since been driven underground (though the Dichty Burn survives).  The history of these streams and their associated industries merits a separate post, but before looking at the three major wells in Dundee I could not resist sneaking in the following rhyme about Dundee’s waterways which originates in the 1866 journal ‘The Piper O Dundee’ and was unearthed by the excellent blog In Ma Fair Toun

                                 The Scouring Burn and Dens Burn
                                 How many a wheel do they turn?
                                 Now I do believe that they
                                 Turn twice the number of the Tay.

The Holy Trinity of Dundee Wells

The Well of the Blessed Maria de Dundee, or the Lady Well, stood at the corner of the Hilltown and Lady Well Lane which is mentioned in a contract between the Constable of Dundee and Burgesses on 21st September 1409. In the 15th century this well was ducted and culverted to flow into the Scouringburn and remained the primary water source for the burgh’s water even as late as 1836.  It was in use until 1872, when it was demolished on the construction of Victoria Road in 1872. Its name is perpetuated in the name of the pub Ladywell Tavern and in the Wellgate, Dundee. 

   The author of Dundee Delineated (p. 21) states that the Cross Well was associated with the Market Cross of Dundee – ‘often the place of joy and amusement in holidays, when the town gave itself up to mirth and good humour’.  It was east of the Cross, near the junction of Peter Street with the Seagate, but in 1777 water was later diverted to St Clement’s Lane, behind the Town-house in the Marketgait.  In a grant of land by King Robert I in 1325 for the erection of the Tolbooth, the territory is described as being between a water conduit on the west and the Cross Well in the east.  Access to St Clement’s Well (also known as Bischop’s Well or Saint’s Well) was still used following the Reformation when a school was erected on part of the church lands, the well being in the kirkyyard.  Ownership of another part of the land was disputed by a mariner named Andro Renkyne (Andrew Rankine) who owned a house there (which survived into the 19th century).  This may have been an old ecclesiastical building and Andrew went to the town authorities in 1607 for permission to make a window in his house which would allow him to draw water from the well, ‘with this provision that he hald the windok continually close, except at sic time as the water is drawn thereat, and that he close up the windok with stane wark quhenever he beis requirit’ (Maxwell, The History of Old Dundee, p. 91.)  Maxwell notes:  ‘When the buildings were demolished a few years ago, the saint’s old well – its water yet pellucid and fresh – was discovered at the angle where the school joined Andro’s house.  Above it was the window which he struck furth for drawing water; but it had long before been built up and the purpose of it forgotten, and its curiously recessed position and uncouth masonry only served as a puzzle for ingenious antiquaries.’

    St Francis’ Well was situated ‘amid the sunny slopes of the Gray Friar’s meadows’ (History of Old Dundee, p. 166) and (Gray) Friar’s Well was its alternative name.  It was situated in the rising ground west of the site where Dundee High School was later built.  In March 1562-3, following the destruction of the Franciscan Monastery and gardens, a man named James Patrie was brought before the burgh authorities for casting down the well and ‘he confest and grantit that he took down the common well callit the Friar well, quhilk servit the hail town with guid and wholesome water, and [he was] referrit [to] the Bailies’ and Council’s will thereanent; and they being advisit with his offence, declarit that he sall pay for the reparation of the said well and common warks the soum of ten pounds; always, gif he big and repair the well as weill as it wes before with lime mortar, or Pasch next, this pain to be remitted; otherwise, the day past and the well nocht biggit, to pay the soum but favour.’  His motivation was perhaps religious zeal, but the council recognised that the purity of water supply overcame any Papist associations. 

   A further notice gave Patrie another reminder, after which the work was evidently done.  But thirty years later the structure of the well was again ruinous.  In October 1591 the authorities resolved that the well ‘be of new biggit and made close, so that na common access be had thereto.’ The site of the well was later occupied by the United Presbyterian Church in Bell Street (and now by an office building) and the confusion about its exact location is noted by the CANMORE database which pertinently notes that even the Ordance Survey wrongly pinpointed its site.

St Ninian’s Well, Arbroath

   In contrast with the urban continuation of the usage of wells, those wells in less populated areas were also subject to changing fortunes, ending in neglect and loss of knowledge sometimes about their exact locations.  Such was the case with St Ninian’s Well at Arbroath.  It was located on the shore near a chapel dedicated to the saint, as described by David Miller (Arbroath and its Abbey, pp. 129-30):

Close to the promontory called Arbroath Ness...the Abbot and Convent of Arbroath founded a chapel...The site of this chapel is a pleasing spot, marked by a spring which bears the name of St Ninian’s or Ringan’s well.  In the Arbroath register the chapel is usually described as situated in the den or valley of Seaton.  St Ninian’s chapel and altar were consecrated by the Bishop of Dromore, on 24th August 1485...The field in which the chapel and burying-ground stood formed the glebe of the chaplain, and has been long known as St Ninian’s Croft... After the Reformation it seems to have fallen into the hands of the proprietors of Seaton, and still forms part of that estate.  All vestiges of the chapel have been removed, and the site subjected to the ploughshare. 

   Although current O.S. maps show St Ninian’s chapel and well near the shore, at the east end of what is now Victoria Park (which was opened in 1897), surveyors for the Place Name Book in 1859 were unable to identify the sites. Historically the site on the Seaton Cliffs was called either St Ninian’s Croft or St Ninian’s Heugh.   Several stone coffins were found in the area when a road was constructed here in the 18th century.  Further human remains were discovered in 2009 during the construction of a play park, prompting investigation by police and archaeologists.  The remains were recognised as two human bodies, obviously from a medieval cemetery.  Pottery from the 11th century was also uncovered.  But the site long predated the chapel and even the nearby abbey.  A skeleton uncovered 200 m away in 1988 proved to to from the late 6th or early 7th century.

   As for the well itself, it had dwindled to a mere trickle, sadly dripping from a stark metal pipe which pokes out of a stark stone slab.  It is reckoned that most of the water has been diverted to a nearby ‘Wishing Well’.  Although it has sadly changed, quite why it could not be found in 1859 is a bit of a mystery as George Hay in 1886 (Aberbrothock Illustrated, p. 46) referred to is as ‘a spring whose water percolates into a rock-basin beside the path’, and he quotes a couplet from local poet Alex Balfour:

                                  The banks are green, the flowers are fair,
                                  Around St Ringan’s crystal well.


Previous published posts on wells:

Further Reading

Colville, A., Dundee Delineated (Dundee, 1822).

Hainey, Sheila, ‘Arbroath – St Ninian’s Burials,’ The Pictish Arts Society Newsletter 55 (Summer 2010).

Hay, George, Aberbrothock Illustrated (Arbroath, 1886).

Lenman, Bruce, Lythe, Charlotte, and Gauldie, Enid, Dundee and Its Textile Industry, 1850-1914, Abertay Historical Society Publication No. 14 (Dundee, 1969).

Maxwell, Andrew, The History of Old Dundee (Edinburgh & Dundee, 1884).

Miller, David, Arbroath and its Abbey (Edinburgh, 1860).

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