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  Holy Wells and Magical Waters

"Wherever there was a spring, the was life; wherever there was life, there was a spirit"

Fresh water is one of life’s basic necessities. Without it nothing can thrive.

It is little wonder, therefore, that from prehistoric times, fresh water has been regarded as a precious substance. These days, the act of being able to turn a tap has led us to take water for granted.

In Orkney, until the advent of piped water in the 20th century, water for croft and household was drawn from the hundreds of wells dotted across the islands.

Although in latter years, many of these wells were simply regarded as sources of water, others retained a special significance - a significance that could well hark back to prehistoric tradition and ritual.

A number of wells, and springs, were regarded as particularly special, even magical, especially if they were some distance away from an existing watercourse. In ancient times, places where the life-giving water trickled from a hillside, or welled up from the earth, must surely have been regarded as a gift from the gods.

But it was not only its practical requirements for sustaining life that made water significant to the early people of Orkney.

In Iron Age ritual, for example, bodies of water were regarded as a gateway between worlds - a barrier between the natural world and the supernatural.

Consequently, springs and wells were frequently thought to be the dwelling places of the gods, or entrances to the Otherworld. Because of this they were often the repositories of Iron Age artefacts with items cast into the water as votive offerings.

Elements of these ancient beliefs persisted through the millennia, and were incorporated into the traditions and customs surrounding Orkney’s many holy wells.

These wells were thought to possess magical properties – offering, for example, the powers of healing, or divination.

With the advent of Christianity, the church tried to eradicate these “pagan” practices but found the veneration of wells very difficult to eradicate

"no one shall go to trees, or wells, or stones or enclosures, or anywhere else except to God's church, and there make vows or release himself from them."
The Penitentials of Theodoris. 7th century AD.

Around 640 AD, St Eligius ordered that:

"no Christian place lights at the temples or at the stones, or at fountains and springs, or at trees, or at places where three ways meet . . . Let no one presume to purify by sacrifice, or to enchant herbs, or to make flocks pass through a hollow tree or an aperture in the earth; for by so doing he seems to consecrate them to the devil."

These efforts, however, were in vain, so, in Orkney, as elsewhere, the Church changed tactics. Instead, it tried to absorb pagan traditions rather than eradicate them completely.

As the pagan and Christian practices blended together, the wells gradually became holy wells. Where once they were the haunt of spirits and fairies, they became associated with the cult of a local saint, local monks or even the cleaning of sacred vessels.

The wells remained the places of pilgrimage and worship, but the objects of veneration became Christian motifs, that usually incorporated pagan elements of the original.

A prime example of the Christian "adoption" of a holy well is Manswal - St Magnus Well - in Birsay.

The water of this well was thought to be highly medicinal, not only because the holy remains of St Magnus were said to have rested there but also, according to some local variants of the tale, the saint's bones were actually washed in the waters.

But just as water was a source of life, as any islander will know, it is also dangerous and able to take life and destroy. And just as wells or springs were usually regarded as beneficial, there were cases where they were tainted by an air of evil and shunned. Few of these "evil" wells still exist, or their whereabouts recorded.

It may be that some of these "evil" wells were simply polluted or foul - perhaps responsible for the death of livestock or people - and this may be the reason behind their reputation.

For the others there are a number of possibilities.

The spread of Christianity may hold the key to some. Did the church declare some of the more tenacious customs surrounding "water-worship" blasphemous, and the site demonised, by the clergy?

Alternatively, the fear and awe surrounding some wells may hark back to the ancient beliefs that they were Otherworldly doors - a gateway that allowed supernatural denizens to access to our world. The number of sites linked with fairies or trows in later years, such as Keldereddie and Fursokelda in Birsay, would seem to confirm this.

Naturally, the fact that some wells were renowned haunts of trows and fairies was enough for any superstitious Orcadian of yesteryear to shun them.

It is also possible that some of the beneficent wells we know today were once looked upon with dread.

We know from accounts elsewhere, that the church blessed the waters of "unholy" wells in an effort to remove the superstitious fear and their associations with heathen practices.