When I lived south in Hampshire and first met the man who was to become my current (third) husband, he told me about a healing well he knew of. He showed me where it was on a map, it was marked in olde italics so I knew it was at least 300 years old, and he told me it was a “well of changes”. I remember cycling out one summer’s day and managing to find it, it was very well hidden under an overgrown hedgerow and apart from a few “offerings” (clooties and little faerie figurines) was, to all intents and purposes, a water-logged hole in the ground. I didn’t feel like drinking the water but I did make a prayer to the Lady Goddess and the spirits of the well, and I did touch the water to my forehead, my lips, my heart, my solar plexus and my genitals.
Did it create changes in my life? Oh yes. Oh yes indeed – I moved 900 miles north with this wonderful man! Perhaps I was just ready for those changes to happen, perhaps the visit to the well was a powerful but symbolic message to my subconscious to start manifesting those changes in my life, perhaps I unleashed some ancient and potent magicks, but changes happened. Before I left for Orkney, I took some other friends to the same place and helped them to perform the same ritual for themselves, they opened themselves to the power of change in their lives too. And Mark and I visited together several times together. After every time we visited, the changes seemed to speed up.
I like holy wells very much. I’ve been to several in Britain, most famously the ones at Bath, Glastonbury and St David’s birthplace in Pembrokeshire, but my favourite are the tiny and almost forgotten ones. These often seem the most sacred, almost as if their Blessing hasn’t been all used up by the pestering tourists, they remain persistent places of sanctity to the smaller Gods and lesser saints, still primed to perform minor miracles.
As an archaeologist, I am aware that this human fascination with water has quite an ancient pedigree. Our modern predilection for throwing coins into fountains and wells probably dates from at least the latter Bronze Age (about 1000 BCE). This is the same period that sees individual wealth being accumulated for the first time and when people seem to like to dispose of “offerings” in bodies of water. And what they “offer” seems to be incredibly valuable items, particularly metal artefacts. At Flag Fen, in East Anglia, for example, archaeologists have recovered precious item after precious item, all of which is suspected to have been deposited in acts of “conspicuous consumption”; in other words, these are not private offerings, but offerings where it is important to be seen to be disposing of great wealth, to be perceived as being able to “waste” lavishly.
To put some of these offerings into context, it has been suggested that the deposit of a bronze sword in a lake in prehistory may have made an equivalent financial statement to someone today donating a sports car to a charity.
This tradition continues into the Iron Age (about 500 BCE) and can be observed at sites such as Llyn Cerig Bach in Anglesey and the River Thames where, again, wonderful items of metalwork were deposited. In the Iron Age too, there seems to be the purposeful disposal of bodies in watery peat bogs, perhaps to purposely preserve them and create bog bodies. In the Roman period, in southern England, the deposits continue, as evidenced at Bath, where inscriptions on lead tablets are a favourite offering, now clearly communicating the terms by which the sacrifice is made to the receiving deity.
It is entirely possible that the final chapter of Arthur’s sword Excalibur, in which it is cast into the lake for the Lady of the Lake to catch it and return it to the watery depths, is a Bronze Age archetypal memory grafted onto a Dark Age legend. And why not? Another Bronze Age relic occurs when Excalibur is pulled from the stone: bronze swords were cast into stone moulds from which they were then pulled (I have seen this done in a round hut at Butser Iron Age Farm and it is magical).
Water then, is of special significance in ritual in prehistory. Perhaps this is not surprising, before metal, the only way to have ever seen your own reflection would have been in water. Looking into water is like looking into a mirror and its mirror world. Water is the route to another realm, a realm of ancestors, spirits and Gods. And water is important in contemporary religions too: think ritual washing, baptism, the Ganges and so on. Water, then, may be hard-wired into the human psyche as a way to the otherworld, a portal to the dwelling places of the Gods and the ancestors, perhaps explaining why it is still used in scrying and divination.
On the island of Papa Westray (Papay) an entire loch is considered to be holy water. We visited this site when we were on holiday, it is sacred to St Tredwell and up until the Victorian period was the main pilgrimage site in Orkney. Legend tells that St Triduana was an eighth century nun from Northumbria, sent on a mission to convert the Picts. The king of the Picts, Nechtan, fell in love with St Triduana and her beautiful eyes, so she plucked out her eyes, impaled them on a branch and sent them to Nechtan – her shrines subsequently became associated with cures for eyesight problems.
The chapel dedicated to St Tredwell is now on a peninsula, virtually a crannog, in the loch, but was originally an island. The chapel dates from the twelfth century and is fairly ruinous, but underneath have been discovered a complex of buildings dating from the Iron Age, including a possible broch and earth-house – it is therefore likely that St Tredwell / Triduana was originally a Pagan Goddess who has been Christianised. And with that “Tri” in Her name, perhaps she was a threefold Goddess?
And to effect a cure? George Mackay Brown states:
“Then, whoever had bruised or blinded eye
Walked round the shore of Tredwell loch
Seven times, sunward,
And, for the gift of sight
left a small coin on the chapel step.”
Walked round the shore of Tredwell loch
Seven times, sunward,
And, for the gift of sight
left a small coin on the chapel step.”
Others stipulate that these instructions must be following in silence. Getting across is a bit treacherous (good stout walking boots are advised, as always!) but worth the visit. We cannot vouch for any miracles here, but the historical list of successes is impressive and includes Jon the Bishop of Caithness in 1201 CE.
The waters of the loch are also prophetic and are said to turn blood red to forewarn of a “disaster” befalling the “Royal family”.
Last year, Mark woke one late spring day having had a very powerful dream about holy wells and together we did some quick research and found one near Barony Mills, in Birsay, a short drive away for us. Despite being equipped with a hand-held GPS and an OS 1:25,000 map, we couldn’t find Manswal and we called in at Barony Mills for directions.
This was a time in our lives when we were just coming through a particularly harsh Orkney winter and both of us were finding our jobs less than satisfactory – we were seriously considering quitting our dream and moving back south, accepting we had failed, that we would never fit in, and that the place we knew from holidays was not the same to actually live in. Our visit to Barony Mills was one of those events that catch up with us every so often and remind us just why we came here, and how great it can be to live here – that day we fell in love with Orkney once again.
We drove into Barony Mills and were the only visitors. This visitor attraction has recently been redeveloped by Orkney Islands Council, there is no entrance fee, and the guided tour is excellent, entertaining and free. This is still a working mill and it is possible to buy the local and delicious bere flour from here (from which are made bere bannocks – one of the local delicacies which at first can be an acquired taste but are worth persevering with). As stated, on the afternoon we visited, we were the only tourists and, although we asked about the well, the custodian was keen to give us a tour of the mills first and we succumbed – sometimes in Orkney, you have to let things flow, not plan too exactly, sometimes the best things happen by accident and this was one of the best things that had happened to us for quite a while.
What may be of particular interesting to the Pagan pilgrim is the drying floor upstairs in the mill. In several of the older houses in Orkney, there can be found of evidence of “folk magick”, whether that be a mummified cat up a chimney or a corner set aside for the faerie, and there may be some evidence of folk magick built into the very construction of the drying floor – there is certainly a mystery here and not one we could figure out! In each of the four stone walls, there is one stone that has been set purposely to jut out. They are all at different heights so couldn’t be used to take a plank, and all of them are offset from each other. It is difficult to think of any practical use for these, they could just be an intriguing accident (but it is the only place in the mill building where these features occur), or they might line up with key directions for sunrise and sunset at particular times of the year. Ask the custodian to point them out to you and see what you think!
Over the road from the Barony Mills is a small side road, the holy spring / well is just up here. If you have driven, it is probably best to leave your car at the mill and walk over because it’s not far but do take care when crossing the main road because there are a couple of blind corners there and it is a main road even though it looks like a country lane! Manswal is marked by some stonework and some stone steps only. The actual spring water comes out at the bottom of the bank and, in truly practical and characteristic Orkney fashion, has been channelled through an orange pipe of the type usually used to discharge sewage! Don’t let this put you off! This is clean spring water, safe to drink (probably safer by the sip than by the pint), and the orange pipe was probably simply conveniently available and utilitarianism is a way of life here ... there are a few stone steps down to the water and sometimes a jam-jar or similar is left to assist the visitor but otherwise the spring is unadorned.
There are various legends associated with this spring and they are all linked with St Magnus (he of cathedral fame). The village of Palace in the parish of Birsay was originally the capital city of Orkney and St Magnus’ relics were enshrined at Christchurch in Birsay. One legend tells that St Magnus’ remains rested at Manswal whilst being transported from the island of Egilsay (where he died) to Birsay, the other that his bones or body were washed here before being enshrined. This well is really rather near to Birsay, suggesting that the latter legend is possibly more likely – a funeral cortege probably wouldn’t have stopped quite so near their destination but would have pushed onwards.
Traditionally, these waters were taken to alleviate a number of ailments, including blindness, leprosy and insanity, more recently there have been claims that these waters cure cancer and multiple sclerosis.
As stated, this visit was a turning point for us because we were reminded about why we moved here and how lovely it can be. The Orcadians, on the whole, are amazingly proud and knowledgeable about their heritage and this is an incredibly endearing national characteristic. They are also friendly and welcoming and it is too easy to forget that not everyone in the UK is – we had started to take these things for granted, and the seemingly boundless enthusiasm of the custodian reminded us that Orkney is one of the special places where community is still important.
I like holy wells and the power of water. Water cleanses; it is associated with the emotions and with memories, and it is also incredibly powerful – as I write we have just had heavy rains and several places are flooded in Orkney – being an island we are often at the mercy of the seas.
It is only recently I have started to think about what my life would have been like if I had not left my life in the south – I might still be teaching, but with funding for Further Education always being cut, it was quite likely that minority subjects such as archaeology would be perpetually under threat. Yes, I liked my job but I can’t have liked it that much, because if I had, I would never have dreamt about living on a remote Scottish island. Looking back more realistically, I admit that I found my job stressful and difficult, it also wasn’t “going anywhere” but was dead end: a job rather than a career. And with every academic year it seemed I was being asked to do more and more without any increase in job security or remuneration. Some of the students were brilliant; others (whilst I made a personal effort to find something I liked about everyone of them) were lazy, belligerent, antagonistic time-wasters and the causers of high blood pressure and premature aging. I realise now that I had been looking back at my pre-Orkney life with rose-tinted spectacles.
I think we all have a tendency to do that. We look back at how things were and wish we could put everything back in the box, undo mistakes (not realising they are opportunities to grow), and revert to our safe childhoods. At the extreme, societies create a group collective memory of a mythological golden age.
And my failure to gain the employment I had hoped for since moving here? Probably best. I know now that what I really want is to be at home – I like being at home, ideally I would like to work from home, certainly a job that regularly took me away from home would be sheer hell for me. I am not particularly ambitious, well, I am, I am just not prepared to sacrifice my home and family life in order to get on in the way that ambitious people do – that is too high a price for me to pay.
What has motivated me throughout my life has been a quest for the inner, spiritual life. I am by nature quiet, shy and introspective. When I was much younger I chose to study “A” level Religious Studies because I thought I might be able to find answers for myself. I converted to Christianity about the same time but never really liked being told what I should be experiencing by the Church – my spirituality was always experiential and highly individual. At university I first learnt about Gnosticism and the mediaeval mystics, and by the time I was in my early 20s I knew that the way for me to true fulfilment and “happiness” was by some method of inner transformation.
My spiritual quest has been an undisciplined one and, now in middle age, I rather feel that I have wasted a lot of time. Now on my third marriage (one at a time I must stress!), I know now that the “other half” whom I am yearning for is not, and has never been, in any of my husbands. All of them were, and are, wonderful in their own ways but I must stop blaming other people when they do not come up to the impossible standard of what is missing in my life. They are human and making their own journey. The real “bridge-groom” for whom I yearn is my Inner Divinity and I acknowledge now that the reason why I wanted to move to a remote Scottish island was so that I would have time to contemplate, meditate, pray and evolve spiritually. This may mean that I live a less usual life, one that is unconventional and possibly even financially precarious in comparison to what I could have had, but it is a calling that I can no longer ignore.
I have had hints at how to contact this “inner Self” in various books and rituals and practices. Particularly appealing is the Abra-Melin ritual, famously performed by Crowley, but I think I lack the spiritual discipline to keep to this. I recall Jesus’ “Knock and the door will be opened unto you” and I suspect that my Inner Divinity wishes to communicate more directly with me as much as I do with “it”. I have tried so many paths with initial “success” only to then get put off by the personal resolve required. The message coming through at present is to choose one path, one method, and stick with it, really work it, persevere.
I have also realised recently that how I think about a thing, changes how I experience that thing. For example, I would not want to clean toilets for a living but I don’t mind cleaning my own toilet at home – both acts involve cleaning toilets, but in one scenario it is something I am being “made to do” and in the other something I am choosing to do because of the beneficial outcome. Coming to Orkney may seem on one level to have been a lot of doors shutting in my face, opportunities being curtailed, but on the other hand can equally be seen as my having been steered in a particular direction. That direction has been one of spiritual evolution – sometimes we don’t get what we want, but what we need.
There are several other holy wells to visit in Orkney and I shall post new articles once I have visited them - I am confident that each will bring it's own healing experience to my life, feelings and memories.