10.6.3 Holy Wells and Ritual Sites

Many sites in the Highlands had special status or associated rituals. The Gaelic traditions in particular have 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 that are visible (Map 3.1). None, aside from Ashaig on Skye (MHG42227) have 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; R, Munro 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 the tree on Isle Maree. 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 the island on the 25th of August. Sacrifices of cattle and cockerels were also recorded elsehwere in the Highlands (Dixon 1886, 150ff; R, Munro 1994, 125).

Charms and 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 for 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. Others were related to stones or artefacts whose efficacy depended 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 is known from Culbin Sands (McCabe 2016, 222), and a silver mounted charmstone associated with the Mackenzies of Ardloch, from Ross-shire.

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


Witches were actively persecuted in the early post-medieval period; witchcraft was outlawed in 1563, and this was enforced until repealed in 1736 (Henderson 2016). While cases occurred in the Highlands, there is some thought that there were fewer cases 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 (2016) has explored these issues in her thesis, 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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