The Sacred Well
In the ancient village of Scotlandwell in Portmoak parish, there lies a sacred and holy well, its waters as clear and sparkling today as they have been for thousands of years.
My maternal family were born and bred in this little village, in the house of Spionkop, across from the well. Here I used to run and play, and the well was a part of my childhood.
As children, we weren’t aware of the special history of the well, only that we had fun there, but even as children we knew there was something magical about the area, a shimmering energy.
It was our paddling pool, our obstacle course, we would wash away the grime from our faces, and drink from the water on hot summer days. The spring water was always clear and refreshingly welcome as we played our games and ‘cast’ our wishes by throwing our pennies ‘doon the well’.
Gran told me her story of when as a child, one of her duties was to fetch the water from the well..the source of water before our modern-day plumbing. The auld communal washroom still stands next to the well, and the drying green is now a playpark. My mother remembers the women gathering here on ‘wash day’, the children playing around their feet, and the drying green full of newly-laundered clothes.
Little did we know, when we were playing our childhood games around this ancient site, that we were treading in the very same footsteps as our Pagan ancestors, our holy Culdees, the Romans, the Red Friars, and our King Robert the Bruce, along with countless other told and untold stories interwoven into the history of this sacred spring.
Water is known as the elixir of life, the wonderful, life-giving emergence of spring water, a symbol of purification and life. Water is essential to our life, sustaining growth and fulfilling various needs, creating within us an intuitive reverence and we weave our stories and beliefs in honour of this most welcome gift, our rituals becoming entwined around such a powerful force.
Ceremonies honouring these magical springs were brought to life in the fertile imagination of our ancestors and they believed them to be the dwelling places of the gods, providing a gateway between the natural world and the supernatural, the Portals or Thin Places..where dwelt faeries, nature spirits and water sprites..all were woven into the folklore of these sacred sites.
A Goddess or female guardian, would preside over the protection of the well, water being considered a feminine element, an energy connected to the flow of the life-giving waters..the Pagans (country dwellers), honouring the feminine as well as the masculine within their society.
People visited the wells, believing them to possess magical, spiritual properties, offering the seeker the powers of healing and divination. The believer would drink and bathe in the water, absorbing the healing qualities through the presence of its guardian spirit or Christian saint.
Often a Wise Woman of the village was chosen to administer the waters to those who sought help. In the ceremonies and rituals she represented the ‘human form’ of the Guardian presiding over the well.
In reverence to the Spirits of the life-giving waters, and in the hope of having an illness cured, the pilgrims would pay homage, and the practice of leaving offerings to the local spirits in springs and holy wells was a custom which is still in practice today when we throw a coin into a well and make a wish.
Holy wells began as Pagan sacred sites, as the Pagan and Christian practices merged together, the wells gradually became holy wells. Where once they were the haunt of spirits, faeries, and the Goddesses, they now became imbued with the spiritual qualities of the Saints and became adopted by the Christian Church.
In time the sacred well passed into the protective care of the Culdees and they replaced the Pagans as the ‘Keepers of the Well’. The Culdees adopted many of the Pagan symbols of the time, a natural progression of thought, and the Pagan temple transformed into a Christian shrine.
The Culdees were the Celtic priests and monks of the early Christian church, the servants of God, the ancient monks of Scotland. They established a sacred place of worship, a chapel and a hospital.
It is recorded that in 84 AD, the Roman soldiers would travel between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire. Many a time they would have stopped at this well to rest and “partake of the waters”. I can imagine them soaking pieces of linen to wash the dust from their faces, and filling their flasks to refresh themselves along the way.
The well was one of several in the area, referred to in old documents as “Fontes Scotiae” or the “Wells of Scotland”.
A Mediaeval Hospital
A hospital was established on the site of the ancient Celtic foundation and naturally was gifted to the Red Friars in 1250 and again the Guardianship of the well passed hands. The monks ran a hospital from which the patients were administered the spring water. The site being consecrated on 2nd October 1244.
Scotlandwell had become an important monastic centre, a popular destination for pilgrims seeking cures for illnesses and spiritual guidance. The Friars used the spring water to cure an assortment of diseases..much as the Pagans and the Culdees had done for centuries before them.
It was believed that the waters could cure leprosy and one of the Red Friars’ most famous patients was King Robert the Bruce. According to folklore, the King was successfully cured of leprosy by the curative properties of the waters.
Despite a Ban
The holy wells were very popular places of worship in both Pagan and early Christian times.
Over time, as the Roman Church replaced the Celtic Church in Scotland, practices which echoed the old pagan ways became frowned upon, and the number of holy wells diminished.
The Reformation of 1560 also served to suppress religious activity connected with the wells, and in 1581 an Act of Parliament in Scotland made pilgrimage to the holy wells illegal.
But, as is the way with a powerful archetypal force and the endurance of its people, the outer form changed while the essential mysticism continued.
Despite a ban, the healing well of Scotlandwell has attracted people seeking a cure for a variety of illnesses for thousands of years.
Occasionally I still visit the well, and partake of its waters, proffering an offering to the Spirit of the Waters, casting my wishes. Marvelling at the sacredness of this site, that has withstood thousands of years of history and still the waters spring forth.
In honour of my ancestors and all who have visited the Holy Well, and continue to do so.