Wells were an important focal point in pre-Christian Scotland. Rivers, streams and wells were associated with deities and water itself was linked with life, and was often assumed to have healing properties. Even after Christianity reached Scotland the link between these water sources and their healing properties could not be broken. Instead the church linked healing wells with Christian saints, rather than pagan deities, but the people that used these holy wells and streams could still be looked on with suspicion, as they became associated with folk magic and witchcraft. ‘Clootie wells’ tradition can still be found across Scotland; in the pre-Christian period votive offerings would be placed in the water source, this practice still continues and fabric scraps belonging to an ill individual can still be dipped in the waters and then tied to a nearby tree. As the cloth rotted on the tree, the illness would be cured.
St Ninian’s Well
Stirling’s St Ninians’s Well is a perfect example of a holy well, and it is also a scheduled monument. Located in Wellgreen Place, this unassuming stone structure has a fascinating history. Built after 1737 when the burgh decided that ‘it was very necessary that a common washing house be built at St Ninian’s Well for the use of the inhabitants’. In 1845 the ‘New Statistical Account’ described the well and building which protects it:
The building erected over St Ninian’s Well comprises two chambers. The lower, which has roughly dressed vaulting, measures 16′ by 11′ and has a square recess where the spring rises. The room above is the same size, and is divided by timber partitions to form a dwelling-house. It is rough-cast externally. At present the wall is used for domestic washing.
In 1883 J.R Walker, an Antiquarian, confirms the well is still being used as a wash house:
At present the well is used for washing purposes, and must have been so for a considerable length of time,… The vault inside is roughly dressed, very little labour seemingly having been bestowed upon it.
As Wellgreen was traditionally used as a drying green when most people didn’t have access to clean running water the well would have been a great resource for the community. The Trust will be conducting a condition survey of this interesting little building for Stirling Council this winter, and we are eager to learn more about St Ninian’s well, so if you or a relative has a story to share please get in touch!
All images in this blog were kindly shared with us by The Smith Art Gallery & Museum, many thanks for allowing us to use them.
The Butt Well
On the Back Walk in Stirling you can find the remains Butt Well, the tap is still there, but it’s no longer connected to a water source. According to Elspeth King’s ‘Old Stirling’:
The well was last used by the homeless squatters who occupied the Nissen Huts in the area in the years after the Second World War.
Originally known as the Spout Well as far back as 1582, the well’s current name comes from the archery practice and archery butts which used to be nearby. There’s no evidence that it was a Holy Well or Spring, although this natural spring was no doubt very welcome to thirsty archers honing their skills, as well as children who would later play on the ‘cup and saucer’ or King’s Knot.
Paul Bennet, otherwise known as the Northern Antiquarian, has conducted research into this well site which now gives its name to Whinwell Road. Bennet believes that:
Although the folklore of the site has seemingly been forgotten, it may be that the waters here had medicinal qualities akin to those given by the plant – i.e., jaundice, intestinal problems and to strengthen the heart.
The problem with social and economic history of this age, and especially the history of folk magic and oral traditions, is that they often vanish from the historical record. They are intangible heritage, and the street names and structures that remain can only hint at the importance these places had to the people of Stirling for many hundreds of years.