Wells & Springs of Orkney

By Bernie Bell

painting of a well M Bell

By Mike Bell

I’ve had a look at Orkney Brochs, Orkney Standing Stones, and Orkney Kirks, and now, I turn my  thoughts, and my camera, to the wells and springs of Orkney.

Wells and springs of fresh water, were vital to life, in the past.   A supply of water, is still vital to us, today.  In fact, on the day  I’m writing this, the water in our area will be off from 9 am until 3 pm, as work needs to be done. This underlines how very, very reliant we still are on our water supply, and on that water supply being clean.

The presence of a spring or well, often meant that a settlement grew up, around the spring – people were drawn to them, as they still are, to water.  It’s something basic in us, which acknowledges our dependence and makes us want to be near to water, and to give a water source due reverence.

I remember the house where my mother grew up, in Ireland. The people living in what’s known as The Old House, were fortunate in that there was a well at the base of an earth bank, just across from the house. This water wasn’t fit to drink, but could be used, when boiled, for cooking and washing clothes. A couple of miles down the road, there was a spring well, with water which was fit to drink. I remember it, and the freshness of it.  A bit of a walk, each day with two buckets, but, that was what was needed. As I said, they were fortunate to have a well nearer to the house, for most of their watery needs.

Wells or springs sometimes became places of reverence, sometimes seen as portals to another world, where people can contact or connect with water sprites and spirits, and even, maybe fall through a ‘well between the worlds’ to another world.

Brochs often have a well – well, they’d need to. If they were used as defensive structures, and the idea was that the people of an area could retreat into the, defensible, broch if attacked – they would need water. A person can last longer without food, than they can without water. One way to break a siege, was to foul the water supply. So, having a well, inside the broch, would be a boon. The Broch of Gurness, has a well-structured, easily viewed well, with steps going down to it.

Broch of Gurness well B BellArchaeologists at the dig at The Cairns on South Ronaldsay,  recently started to excavate the well in that broch, and are finding wooden objects, among them part of a wooden bowl, and the remains of what is possibly a small piece of woven cloth or matting. https://archaeologyorkney.com/2018/11/01/orkneys-oldest-wooden-bowl-unveiled/#comment-290   I’m going  to take a leap of imagination here, and suggest that the piece of woven material, could have been a little mat, on which the wooden bowl would be placed.  The bowl has a slightly rounded, unstable base, but…..when placed on a little mat…….?  Could these objects have been left here, placed there as part of a ceremony, which took place in the well?  We’ll never know for sure, but…..objects often were placed by or into wells and springs, to acknowledge the importance of the place, and to ‘keep in with’ the spirits of the water, and the place.  Evidence of this is found, time and time again – look at the baths at Bath!


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Baths_(Bath)   The city of Bath, is a long way from South Ronaldsay, but…the same principle might apply, that folk did, and do, like to place offerings by and in wells and springs. Even today, wherever there is a pool of water, folk throw coins into it, and sometimes stones or other bits and pieces.  Could the well at The Cairns not only  have provided water, but also have been a place of reverence?

Staying with the Iron Age, there is Mine Howe.

 https://theorkneynews.scot/2017/07/27/bernie-bell-minehowe/  Whatever you make of Mine Howe, it has steps leading down into the earth, and to a well-like structure, at the bottom of the steps.  To me, this is reminiscent of the well at the Broch of Gurness, and the well at The Cairns.  When is a well, not a well?  There might not be water in Mine Howe now, but, maybe there was, back then?   If Mine Howe was a place of initiation or ceremony, it would make a very impressive setting, for those ceremonies   Picture it.

Minehowe well B BellSome wells and springs, were considered to have healing properties, whether due to the water itself, or to the spring being dedicated to an entity or saint, who could be appealed to for help. Again, memories of my childhood and being taken to St. Attracta’s well, in Ireland.  http://letterfromballinloughane.blogspot.com/2015/01/st-attractas-holy-well.html  This was a spring, in a field, and, once year, a service, conducted by a Catholic priest, was held there, to which folk would go, and ask for help from the saint.  This was over 50 years ago, and I don’t know if it still happens.


I have a vague memory that Saint Attracta herself, was connected in some way with a figure from the more distant past, who had had her head chopped off, and, where her head fell, the spring, sprang up, which was considered to have healing properties.  Though, I must admit, that might have just been a tale that someone told a little girl, for the fun of it.  If it’s true, what a mixture of very ancient, Celtic, and Catholic! And the folk went along, with faith, not dissecting the story, just …………….hoping.

As you walk along the road above Stromness, just past the Stromness Community  Garden, on your right, there is a Chalybeate well

I don’t know a lot about this, and am not sure if it was thought have healing properties, or not, but…..the water in the well, is stained with iron, and water with traces of minerals was often seen as being helpful for illness. For a person with anaemia, long ago, drinking from this well might have made a difference. I wouldn’t recommend it now – it’s an attractive place, and a bit of local history, but, drinking from that well, would be more likely to make you ill, than to cure an illness!

If you continue to walk up the road towards the reservoir, on your left you will see the remains of another little well.

overgrown well B Bell

I know nothing about this one,  but can’t help standing and thinking that it must have mattered at some time, as folk have taken the trouble to make a wall around it.  Even if it was just for watering livestock, it was worth building a wall for.  Another reminder of times past.

When writing this, I remembered a tale told to me by Helen Woodsford-Dean, and found a link to a piece which Helen wrote, some years ago.    http://spiritualorkney.blogspot.com/2012/02/holy-wells-in-orkney.html    With her permission, I will include this extract, which is about a spring near the Barony Mill, in Birsay parish………….

“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.”

Helen tells me that this well is now on the Magnus Way, which is very fitting.  https://www.stmagnusway.com/

Bigswell, in Stenness parish, is named after the well there, which was also thought to have curative powers.  We haven’t been able to find this well, yet, but we will enjoy looking for it!  Here’s the map reference, if you’d like to try HY345105

As you can see, I don’t know a great deal about the wells and springs of Orkney, and I’m sure there are others, with tales attached to them, that I’m not aware of.  This is just to maybe get folk interested, and thinking about the wells and springs, and noticing them, as they come across them.

And, of course there’s Login’s Well in Stromness  http://www.spirit-of-orkney.com/contents1a/2010/02/logins-well-stromness-orkney/?doing_wp_cron=1540981882.9658880233764648437500

Which leads us to The Franklin expedition, and John Rae.  I wonder if they’ll find a well, either near, or in, the Hall of Clestrain?

Things do connect

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8 replies »

  1. Helen Woodsford-Dean emailed me to tell me that……………

    “The chalybeate well in Stromness is definitely a holy well … in fact Hellihole leads up to it and is named for it: holy hole xxx lots of curative properties but I wouldn’t drink it now, last time I went there was a fresh dog poo in the well house.”

    I wonder if the Hellihole Hound Dogs are aware of their holy connections? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vRFC7b5ACKs

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