Scotland’s Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Healing Springs

Carole M. Cusack, Dominique Beth Wilson

Abstract


Water plays a fundamental role in religious worldviews. It manifests as: a chaotic primordial element in multiple cosmologies, the source from which the universe emerges; a great flood that wipes out an unworthy human race in the Old Testament and Near Eastern and Greek mythologies; a gateway to the ‘otherworld’ and site of ritual deposition in Celtic cosmology; and as a healing and purifying element in pre-Christian and Christian religious pracices. Water is essential for human life, an elixir that falls from the skies, appears on flowers at dawn, and collecs in dells, valleys, rivers, and ponds in an almost miraculous fashion. It symbolises prosperity and enhances fertility.

This article will analyse the transformative element of water, commencing with a brief sketch of its role in Celtic mythology and folklore. This is followed by an exploration of the history and funcion of several holy wells in Scotland, including: the Well of St Triduana in Restalrig, Edinburgh; Saint Fillan’s Well; and the well dedicated to Saint Maelrubba, the apostle to the Pics, on an island in Loch Maree. The article will detail the association between holy wells, sacred springs, and healing, and the way in which pre- Christian Celtic beliefs concerning the veneration of water have been assimilated into Christian rituals, such as baptism and the pracice of pilgrimage to holy wells, for fertility and miraculous cures. Folkloric pracices that survive to, or have been revived, today are also considered.


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