Climbing down a ragged Galloway cliff face with the cold sea water crashing all around and the risk of tumbling onto the rocks below would seem a dangerous outing for a sickly child.
But at the edge of a natural basin, with the spirit of Saint Medana in the air and the hopes of worried parents resting on the magical properties of the salt water, in would go the unfortunate youngster – head first.
It was a time when water, whether bubbling up from springs in the ground, forming in rocky pools, in rocky basins on cliff faces or even settled in a crevice in tree, provoked superstition, legend and everything from fear of the devil to blind faith in saintly intervention.
For generations water, and in particular natural wells, held a fascination for Scots as places to worship saints and to hide from Satan, to seek cures for aches, pains and ailments, to communicate with the spirits, hide treasure or just to indulge in some skulduggery.
The reformation stamped out many of the rituals and beliefs that once had Scots throwing themselves – and their offspring – into wells in the desperate hope that they may be cured from all manner of conditions.
And as pagan and Roman Catholic rituals were crushed, many wells which were once an essential element of life for Scots were lost, overgrown and if not forgotten, would be remembered only in lurid or ghostly tales – some with very grim endings.
Now a project is using ‘citizen archaeologists’ to help map and record ancient wells which were once scattered across Galloway in the hope of relocating the lost water sources and rediscovering the fascinating stories and folklore that made them such important places of pilgrimage for centuries of Scots.
Using a combination of online maps and Ordnance Survey Name Books from the mid-18th century, armchair detectives have already uncovered captivating details of wells which were once at the heart of their communities.
It’s hoped that eventually the “The Lost Wells of Galloway” initiative, launched last month by the Galloway Glens community archaeology project Can You Dig It, will build up a comprehensive picture of the varied role wells played in people’s lives and the stories that connected them.
According to Dr Peter Hewitt of Dumfries and Galloway Council’s Museum Service, wells had a particularly special place in the day to day lives of Scots that went beyond simply providing water.
“We all understand the functional and physical need for water that is amply provided by water companies into our homes,” he says.
“But it’s more difficult for us to fully appreciate the pressing need experienced by early human beings to find fresh sources of water and the significance that had for them.
“Water is a central element of establishing community and spread of homo sapiens across the globe was driven by the search for water.
“It’s been said these water sources also became some of the earliest sacred sites.”
Many have intriguing stories and traditions attached, such as the cliff face Chapel Wells on the Mull of Galloway, north of East Tarbet, a natural basin of three wells which are topped up by the tide.
“You have to scramble down the cliffs to get there,” he explains. “It’s a place associated with the shadowy figure of female saint called Saint Medana, whose legend is probably rooted in pre-Christian Ireland.
“It is topped up by the tide, so it’s salt water well. And in the 19th century – and probably long before – it was where locals brought their sickly children and then dumped them by the ankles, wholesale, into the large pool as a way of curing various diseases.”
Once drenched, the children would be plucked out and their eyes and hands bathed in sea water from other rocky basins.
However, some wells posed even greater dangers. Lagwine Well – or Green Well of Scotland – near Carsphairn, is 30ft in circumference and around 20 ft deep, although legend has it that it may be bottomless.
For generations it was used by locals to cure a number of diseases, including scurvy but, adds Dr Hewitt: “It has everything a folklorist would want; treasure, legends.
“One goes that covenanters threw their gold into the Green Well whilst being pursued by a hunter.
“There’s also a grassy recess called the Devil’s Seat, where the devil himself is said to guard the treasure of the well. Lightning is said to strike the person who sits in that seat, and if the treasure hunter finds the treasure, he will bring down a curse upon him and his family.”
Another legend claims that the depths of the well conceals treasure or gold from nearby Lagwine Castle. The owner, apparently, was so busy attempting to fish out his treasure, his house burned down – a lesson, perhaps, for locals to reflect on what they hold most valuable.
Some wells became embedded in folklore for their apparent medicinal properties, such as Rumbling Well, east of Dalbeattie, where sick people would visit on a Saturday night and drink its water before sleeping nearby in the hope it would bring a cure.
Other water sources held special significance as holy places or for mystical abilities to cure ailing animals, such Slotwell, one of Galloway’s lost wells which is now buried beneath stones and undergrowth. It’s hoped the project may help identify its exact location, enabling potential archaeological study of the site.
Wells were often associated with saints or as holy spots, however, the Devil’s Well in Glen Luce was regarded as having hellish links, possibly as a result of the strict Protestant Calvanist beliefs which prompted a shift in how wells were viewed.
“Reforming ministers used pre-existing tales of hauntings and sinfulness and transgression to stop parishioners from visiting sites they had traditionally always gone to, because they wanted to stamp out Roman Catholic ritual,” adds Dr Hewitt.
“There was also staunch defence of the Sabbath as a holy day and time of religious concentration, and this would have directly clashed with observances at holy wells.”
St Querin’s Well, near Troqueer, a 3 ft wide concrete pool surrounded by a ring of stones 10 ft in diameter, remains a place of pilgrimage today, he adds.
“In the 19th century loads of coins were found there, some dating back to the 16th century,” he says.
“It’s still in use as a ‘clouty’ well – a healing well where pieces of clothing and material are left usually on trees. As the material wastes away so does the ailment or disease associated with that piece of clothing.
“One or two people are now leaving face masks at this well,” he adds.
The ‘Can You Dig It’ Community archaeology project is funded jointly by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic Environment Scotland and forms one of the 35 headline projects in the Galloway Glens Scheme, a five-year initiative hosted by Dumfries & Galloway Council aimed at connecting local people with the area’s cultural and natural heritage.
“The thing about wells is you get in your mind a typology of what they are what they do, but the more you know, the less you know,” adds Dr Hewitt.
“The complexities of all these stories keep you on your toes.
“It’s exciting that we might find new things.”
Find out more at www.gallowayglens.org