10.6.3 Holy Wells and Ritual Sites

Many sites in the Highlands had special status or associated rituals. The Gaelic traditions in particular has much to offer here (Carmichael 1928; Black 2005; Newton 2006).

The possibility that some Highland holy wells go back to Medieval times or even earlier has been discussed in Chapters 8.6 and 9.6. Their use in the Post-Medieval period is clearly documented, some into living memory, for example St Mary’s well, Culloden (MHG2941; Morris and Morris 1982). Documentary accounts show that different wells were used for different ailments or purposes, despite attempts by the church and government to discourage their use from early Post-Reformation period (Burnett 1997, 25ff). Holy wells in Scotland have been the subject of a number of works including Walker (1883) and Morris and Morris (1982), with a more Highland focus in Fraser (1878). Some wells are only known from map or documentary references, but others have remains to be seen (Map 3.2). None aside from Ashaig on Skye (MHG42227) has been excavated, and further investigation of holy wells would be useful.

The lingering of traditions at odds with Post-Reformation teachings can be seen in the example of Isle Maree in Wester Ross (MHG13217; Munro, R 1994, 125ff). The holy well on Isle Maree, dedicated to St Maelrubha, was reputed to cure insanity, and was visited even into the 19th century. According to Fraser (1878, 28) ‘The patient was first made to drink of the water of the fountain, then to kneel at the foot of a huge oak partly covered with ivy, present an offering, and thereafter to bathe thrice in the loch. This ceremony had to repeated until a cure was effected. The patient, when refractory, was tied to the tail of a boat and towed round the island.’ The tree next to the site of the well, now dry, is dead, probably from copper poisoning due to visitors pushing coins into it.

Coins set into a tree at Isle Maree. By George Geddes ©HES

While the church appears to have tolerated these practices, other activities on Isle Maree were not. The Presbytery of Dingwall objected in 1656 to the practice where bulls were sacrificed on 25th August. Sacrifices of cattle and cockerels were also recorded in the Highlands (Dixon 1886, 150ff; Munro, R 1994, 125).

Charms/Charmstones

Folk healers, particularly women were active in the Highlands. Herbs, other plants, seaweeds and charms were widely used (Beith 2000). The belief in charms persisted a long time in Scotland. Some charms were written down, for example a charm to cure toothache purchased from a woman at Kishorn, Wester Ross, now in the NMS (SCRAN 000-100-002-717-C). [AH2] Others were related to stones or artefacts whose efficacy depending on where they were placed or how they were used (Cheape 2008, McCabe 2016, 217ff). Identification of objects depends mainly on oral tradition. A number of charms are associated with Highland sites, including a set of three stones belonging to a Bonar Bridge witch (McCabe 2016, 220). White quartz/rock crystal was often used, for example a quartz stone encased in copper mounting for a dipping stone from Culbin Sands (McCabe 2016, 222), and a silver mounted charmstone associated with the Mackenzies of Ardloch, Ross-shire (ScRAN 000-100-002-755-C).

A written charm for curing toothache was purchased from a woman at Kishorn in Lochcarron in the Highlands and worn round the neck by a shepherd. ©National Museums Scotland

Witchcraft

Witches were actively persecuted in the early Post-Medieval period, with witchcraft outlawed in 1563, enforced until repealed in 1736 (Henderson 2016). While cases occurred in the Highlands, there is some thought that there were fewer in the Highlands than other areas of Scotland (Beith 2000, 108; but see McCabe 2016, 114ff). The line between benevolent charms operating within Christianity and malevolent objects associated with witchcraft is impossible to discern from the archaeological record alone. McCabe has explored these issues in her thesis, but from a Scotland-wide perspective, with case studies for Tain, Easter Ross and Cawdor, Nairnshire, and evidence from Duirinish, Wester Ross and Watten and Wick in Caithness. Some sites are remembered or commemorated, such as the stone (incorrectly dated) commemorating where the last witch was burnt in Dornoch (MHG11675) or the hill where a supposed witch was buried after she was murdered in Assynt in 1769. 

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