[From A Manx Scrapbook]
"Old well-sides, old dear Places."
" Paradise tervestre is the highest place of the Earth, and it is so high that it toucheth neve to the cyrcle of the Moon . . . and in the highest place of Paradise in the middest of it is a Well that casteth out the foure floods that run through divers landes . . and men say that all the sweet waters of the World, above and beneath, take their beginning from the Well of Paradise ; and out of that Well all waters come and go.
And ye shall understande that no man living may go unto that Paradise."
(Sir John Mandeville.)
THE Isle of Man is fortunate in possessing an abundant supply of good water near the surface, and well-sinking has rarely been necessary except towards the Northern extremity of the Island ; the great majority of its water-sources, therefore, come under the following heads
(1) The spring-well, properly termed farrane, in which the water merely rises to the surface of the ground or into the bottom of a basin, though the farrane is seldom artificially constructed ; and termed geill, where there is a more forcible uprush of water.
(2) The jet issuing from a rock -face naturally, or through a pipe or other form of aqueduct, and termed spooyt, a word applied to torrents of all sizes up to waterfalls of considerable volume.
(3) The dripping or falling well, where the water trickles or percolates downward into the basin , this is occasionally called a lhieggey.
(4.) Towl, though sometimes used to designate a small water-supply, means simply a hole in the ground, whether natural or artificial, and whether containing water or not. Some towls are the result of tentative borings for metal or slate; others are deep places in river-beds.
But these distinguishing terms are often disregarded even where they would be most applicable, and the word in general use for a well, in whatever way it is fed, is chibber, frequently spelt chibbyr for no obvious reason.
The enclosing and covering masonry of the chibber, where such exists at all, is seldom massive or ornate; as it often is in Cornwall, and, on a grander scale, in Italy ; but not infrequently a natural picturesqueness makes up for the lack of architectural beauty. This is especially true of springs hidden in byways and field-corners, in copses and on hill-sides. Often their hedge-bank grottoes are thatched with gorse and heather, or with grass and flowers-all four mingle on the roof of Chibber Cronk Quinney, Rushen and their moist walls are arrased with moss and ferns. A coloured scum carpets their water, but its outflow is filtered by luxuriant herbage. Mud kneaded by the hoofs of cattle sometimes renders these Pan-favoured sources difficult of approach ; otherwise they bring to mind the " spring in a hollow place, with rushes growing thickly round it," described in the 13th Idyl of Theocritus. In those reserved for human use a containing wall of slates set edgeways, or of slate slabs set sideways, with a slab across the top, another for a floor, and a few steps down to the water where necessary, complete the structural part of the well; a slab leaned across the front protects it from pollution by dust and by animals. Roadside wells are sometimes provided with a wooden door and a lock to defend them from other thirsty creatures called traction-engines.
These humble domestic wells are usually nameless ; the titles of the more honoured minority may be classified as :
i. Names of a religious or ecclesiastical character.
ii. Names descriptive of natural features, qualities, position or special uses.
iii. Names of owners or of the nearest household users, past or present.
iv. The name of the land-division in which the well is situated.
i. Medicinal or curative wells and springs fall mainly under the first heading ; and as the cure was understood to be effected by more or less occult means, it followed that harm inflicted by similar means-spells, witching, or " the Rye "-could also be remedied by the use of water taken ritually from the well. Indeed, diseases, infnrmities, and even accidents both to human beings and to cattle were frequently attributed to an enemy's evil wishes or to the malign influence of some bodiless power, which might be averted by following a prescribed ceremonial at certain wells and other points of contact between humanity and the superhuman forces.
Most of these comparatively numerous Saints' wells share their name with a chapel,or cell near the ruins or traditional site of which they stand. It is possible, though unprovable, that in some cases the well was so dedicated before the building of the adjacent keeill ; for no well-name has " kil " prefixed to it, as might be expected if the well were named from the keeill. At the least it may be inferred that, equally with the keeill, the well was considered to enjoy the Saint's patronage and protection. But however that may be, some to which there still clings a fading reputation for supernatural virtue must have been honoured for centuries before the first oratories were built beside them and their waters were sanctified for Christian uses. Since they were thus converted or transferred their names have in most cases persisted, and may be found useful in ascertaining the dedications of keeills now nameless or re-named, and in locating keeill-sites which have disappeared. Chibber Woirrey on Ballafayle, Maughold, for example, points to Keeill Woirrey, " St. Mary's Chapel," as having been the original designation of the site now called Keeill Chiggyrt, the Priest's Chapel, and Keeill Casherick, the Holy Chapel. There are other and less obvious instances.
ii. These descriptive names are mostly of long standing, in all probability; where they imply healing qualities they may even be older than those in class i.
iii. Such names are naturally subject to change with changes in ownership, though often a name which has become well known will attain permanency, just as in the case of class iv., the names taken directly from quarterlands. These last are not numerous.
With regard to class i., I would not venture to assert that the Saint was ever explicitly invoked, or was even thought of as instrumental or intercessive in procuring the desired benefit. It may have been so in pre-Reformation days in individual cases, but the general feeling in later times appears to have been that the water itself was operative for health by its own inherent yet supernatural virtue ; while the granting of a wish or the warding-off of spells and bad luck, was felt instinctively to proceed from a source quite other than the Saint to whom the well and any neighbouring building may have been accounted sacred. Lacking the proper ceremonial, which had little to do with Christianity, no amount of wishing or invocation would have been expected to avail.
This sense of an unseen presence which was not at all Christian was clearly shared in the early days of Christianity by the clergy who were so strongly desirous of diverting the reverence paid to the well, or to its guardian spirit, into a more orthodox channel, which was at first a heterodox channel. For-to leave the Isle of Man for a moment-in addition to the various synodical decrees against well-worship among many similar activities of the pagan spirit, and to admonishments of the stiff -necked generations at every opportunity, a special rubric was appointed for blessing wells and springs. This-not yet wholly discontinued -took the form of a benediction pronounced by the priest at the well itself, often with the precise ritual of walking round it which is practised to-day, or was practised yesterday, in Man by its secular devotees ; and a type of phrase occurring constantly in these sanctifications or exorcisms runs in such terms as the following, which I extract from the Appendix to Hope's Holy Wells of England :
" Pulsis hinc phantasmaticis collusionibus ac diabolicis insidiis ; ' and " ut fugato ea omni Diaboli tentationis ; " these two admonitory clauses appear in benedictions of the 8th century, but earlier examples could be quoted. Again, " et ita ex eo fugare digneyis omnem Diabolicae tentatione incursum," etc. ; and it is noteworthy that this last invocation was pronounced for the benefit of newly-opened wells, which no popular adoration can be presumed to have invested with any " influx of diabolical temptation," or, as another Oratio phrases it, " spectres, subtleties, and traps of the Devil " - " phantasmatibus, calliditatibus, atque insidiis Diabolicis."
In a more skeptical spirit an old Saxon Homily forbids " . . . offerings to immovable [i.e., lifeless] rocks, to trees, and to wells, as witches teach." At a still earlier date the lives of Patrick and Columba afford striking and familiar evidence of pagan well-worship in Ireland and Scotland ; but it is hardly necessary to say that the practice was not peculiar to the British Isles. In Man it would be reinforced rather than weakened by the Scandinavian invasion. Adam of Bremen, for instance, who wrote about 100 (quoted by Du Chaillu, The Viking Age, i., 358), speaks of a large tree near the temple of Sigtuna " which stretched its branches far out and was always green," and of a spring close to the tree which was used for divination or other religious purposes.
In the face of ecclesiastical denunciations the old, ineradicable nature - worship continued to flourish through the centuries like a well-watered tree. In the words of Jacob Grimm, " faith will tolerate in its train a veneration of elements, and mix it up with itself ; and it may even chance, that when faith has perished or is corrupted, this veneration shall keep its hold of the people longer. The multitude will give up its great divinities, yet persist for .a time in the more private worship of household gods ; even these it will renounce, and retain its reverence for elements. The history of the heathen and christian religions shews, that long after the one was fallen and the other established, there lived on, nay there live still, a number of superstitious customs connected with the worship of elements. It is the last, the all but indestructible remnant of heathenism ; when gods collapse, these naked substances come to the front again, with which the being of those had mysteriously linked itself."(Teutonic Mythology, trans. Stallybrass, page 582.)
In a paper contributed by the late A. W. Moore to vol. v. of Folk-lore entitled " Water and Well Worship in the Isle of Man," he describes some of the ritual at half a dozen wells which he names. The patient walked round the well sunwise once or oftener, drank of the water, wetted a fragment of clothing and attached it to a tree or bush, and dropped in a pin, pebble, bead or button ; the ailment was then mentioned in a prayer. Sometimes the well was perambulated while carrying water in the mouth. When the well was visited for protection against witches and fairies, or for good luck generally, the only difference was that the rags were dispensed with.
There is nothing in these features of the cult which is not found in other parts of the Kingdom, or, for that matter, in distant parts of the world. That is no doubt equally true of the following supplementary notes. In the pages of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics dealing with the worship of water can be seen, as clearly as anywhere, the almost perfect unity of the cult in widely-separated lands and ages. Such a detail as the preservation of the water from spiritual contamination and from loss of virtue by exposure, once it was taken from the well, as mentioned in the next paragraph, was equally observed in Hebraic practice. Their " holy water," which no one must have touched or drunk of, was religiously guarded in a vessel inscribed with words of occult power, and sanctified for symbolical and magical purposes.
When, as was frequently the case, the hour of daybreak was the approved time for visiting a Manx well and the ceremony, like a wedding, had a better chance of fortunate consequences if the sun shone upon it it was advisable that the seeker should have broken neither fast nor silence since rising ; at the least, he should not have revealed his intention to an outsider, and the ceremonial itself was to be performed without speaking. The water was to be drunk from the palm of the hand, or from the mam the two hands joined together ; the use of a cup was thought to weaken its power for good. If the benefit sought were of a bodily nature, the fragment of clothing left at the well should be one which had been worn over the afflicted part. In the case of eyes and hands, and doubtless in earlier days, of feet, nothing of the kind could be offered, so simple bathing sufficed. Though an actual visit to the well was highly desirable, the water could be taken away for use at home also, or for the benefit of a second person ; but it must be conveyed in a tightly corked, stoppered or lidded vessel, which so far as possible was to be carried without being exposed or set down by the way. Application of the water was made by the hand, and not by a sponge or cloth; but after this had been done the ailing part might be bandaged with a hitherto unused piece of fabric soaked in the water. The greater the discoloration of such a bandage by the water the stronger was the expectation of recovery.
If the well were one of those deemed to be most efficacious at sunrise, much importance was attached to lifting the water at the moment when the sun became visible, and in days when clocks were scarce and watches unknown, devotees would, through their determination to arrive in good time, find themselves obliged to spend the latter part of the night in the vicinity of the well. Possibly there was a feeling that such a vigil enhanced the potency of the proceedings ; vigils at keeills were not unknown, though the purpose differed from that of the well-visitations.
In verbal accounts of the old Sacred Wells in Man stress is often laid on the distances which. people used to travel in quest of their healing waters ; it seems certain in some cases that a distant well or spring was preferred to one near at hand. In other cases, perhaps, a more convenient one had been applied to without success ; yet I have gathered an impression that the necessity for rising at an unwonted hour, for making a long and toilsome journey to something in the nature of a shrine-for the performance of a pilgrimage, in fact--added, in the minds of the pilgrims, to the effectiveness of the cure. And such "cures" need not, I think, be discredited as mere superstition, if they were sought originally by fasting and copious drinking of the water, even though it were not impregnated with much mineral matter. This was a part of the routine at some of the Irish wells, and at the famous " St. Patrick's Purgatory " in Lough Derg.
Nearly all the Manx wells which are reputed to have been in any degree medicinal are said to have been good for the eyes." Most of them, if they formerly benefited other infirmities, have retained only this branch of their practice in the popular accounts of them. This unanimity is not wholly due to a reluctance to speak of even a perished faith in cures of graver diseases, though a diffidence of the kind is certainly sometimes noticeable , a similar connexion between wells and the organs of sight exists in many lands, perhaps in all in which the sources of water have been honoured-and where have they not ? The reason is not immediately discernible ; it may lie farther back in human history than we can penetrate with any clearness of vision. But one ventures the surmise that the man of the Stone Age, from whom the succeeding metal-users inherited so much in the way of what is now folk-lore, was reminded by the water itself of the eyes of brethren and enemies about him. The same comparison with the human eye must have occurred to many of us when gazing over a stretch of countryside, especially a landscape of sombre tones, and catching the salient gleam of some pool or streamlet in which the light, perhaps the last faint brightness of the West, seems focused. Its arresting vividness is heightened by the contrast with its surroundings, like the luminous eyes of sunburnt country people, of Gypsies, or of the dark races of Mankind.
In Britain some of the generic terms used for small patches of water encourage such an interpretation. " Eye " and " E'e " are applied in the North of England and the South-East of Scotland to springs and pools. The Welsh dictionary phrase for a spring-head is llygady- ffynon, literally the Eye of the Well; but llygad alone is often used in place-names in the sense of a source. In Ireland and Gaelic Scotland the corresponding words for an eye, súil and dearc, are also applied metaphorically to openings in the ground of various kinds naturally liable to hold water, including wells. Dottin, in his Manuel de l'Antiquité Celtique, page 808, equates the name of the Gaulish god Sulis with the Irish súil , eye ; in Britain Sulis or Sul presides over the medicinal springs of Bath, which, like so many others, have borne out Pliny's dictum that " fountains create towns and engender Gods."
It may even be that an idea of a more elemental nature than that of a fancied human resemblance influenced those who first transferred these terms to their figurative use ; the well or pool may have been revered as being an eye of the Earth herself, a more sensitive and penetrable medium than the surrounding crust. Such a conception would provide a fertile soil for the common beliefs in communication through wells and " bottomless " lakes (i.e., lakes in which there is a particular spot said to be unfathomable), with the mysterious underground regions of the dead., of the spirits, and of the fairies.
And if this were the feeling which moved early men, and perhaps our forefathers of not very many generations back, when they contemplated their wells and pools, it may be the reason why bathing the eyes in their water, always, of course, with the proper ceremony and formula, was sometimes expected to have a more than merely physical effect on the sight. No likelier medium than the water of a well pregnant with divinity can be imagined for malting visible the invisible things, both past and future, of this world, or the things of the spirit world which is timeless. Those who washed their eyes on St. John's Eve at Arthur's Well which flows from the side of the great earthwork of Cadbury in Somerset, knew that for the chosen seekers the hill would open and show them Arthur stretched spell-bound among his knights, and at his head a shining treasure of j ewels.
It may be added that in Astrology, as ancient and comprehensive a system of symbolism as we possess, the sign Aquarius, or the Water-Man, is deemed to be in sympathy with human and animal vision ; that is to say, planets occupying that division of the heavens at a nativity will fortify or impair the sight.
Returning from these general considerations, a minor use for wells in the Isle of Man, requiring neither charm nor ritual, only faith, was this : when the small lizard called a mancreeper (concerning which the country-folk still betray uncomfortable feelings in other respects), lived up to his name and reputation by running down the throat of some slack-jawed sleeper in the open air, the sufferer's remedy was to swallow as much salt food as he could get down, and stand over a well with his mouth as wide open as it was when the accident occurred. The thirsty mancreeper then came out by the same door as in he went. In Dr. Douglas Hyde's collection of Connaught tales, Beside the Fire, the same belief is illustrated on page 46, with the difference that a river is thus used to entice newts from their sanctuary.
Though divination and fortune-telling were much practised in numerous ways, and in at least one part of the Island a river-pool was visited for the purpose, it does not appear that wells were commonly used for such ends, or not in times recent enough for it to be clearly remembered. Fertility in women and animals could be promoted by practices similar to those followed for the cure of ailments and infirmities ; it was felt, no doubt, that an infirmity or disability required removal. Though women desiring offspring seem to have shown, naturally enough, a shade of preference for sources sanctified to the Virgin Mary, almost any well dignified with a name was deemed competent for the purpose ; but the time of the visit was considered to be of vital importance. This was governed by the phase and position of the moon, or, as differently stated, depended upon " the time of the year."
Of Manx well-lore unrelated to personal benefits the vestiges are much slighter. Fairies of the small and gregarious variety loved to haunt such green, wet spots, and had their favourite springs and spring-fed pools in which they dipped their stolen children (previously, of course, unbaptized, or they could hardly have been stolen), to adopt them into the other life of the fairy world. The taller and more individualized fairv or spirit, the well-guardian,-usually feminine-was prone to emerge visibly and haunt a human being, therein partaking of the nature of the Lhiannan-shee or Fairy Sweetheart. I have not heard that the Lhiannan-shee, as a species, inhabits wells ; but the denizens of the Middle World, being of a less closely-knit substance than those of solid earth, are more unstable and transmutative in their shapes and natures, and not so clearly distinguishable from each other.
Underground, or at any rate unseen, communication was believed to exist among certain wells, pools and rivers, and between all these and the sea, an interpenetration of sea and land highly characteristic of this and other small islands, but also attributed to (among many other places), the mermaid-haunted Rostherne Mere in Cheshire and the estuary of the Mersey. This may explain the issuing of bulls from Manx wells, for the Tarroo-ushtey seems to be a remote kinsman of the sea-bulls of Poseidon., to one of which he gave shoreleave in response to Theseus' prayer for vengeance upon Hippolytus. But Poseidon possibly, and certainly his counterpart Neptune, were not originally sea-gods, but divinities of springs and pools in association with the Nymphs and Naiads ; Neptune's name is related to those of the Teutonic Nikkers, Necks, etc., to which old-established family belongs the Manx water-demon, the Nikkisen. In Man, as in other countries enriched with a share of Celtic heritage, demonic bulls dwelt also in rivers and river-fed lakes and bogs ; the circuit of communication between land and sea, above ground and underground, is thus completed.
I have heard it said in a country district, and confirmed in another part of the Island, without any explanation being obtainable, that " they used to bury people in the wells in the old days." There is no discoverable basis in the Island itself for such a tradition or statement, unless it may be found in Jocelin's account (Vita Patricii), of a well at Kirk Maughold containing the Saint's bones, also referred to by Colgan, Trias Thaumaturga see Chibbey y Chrink, post ; and old Manx wells are rarely of the sunk variety which such a practice, however occasional, would seem to require. Wells and burial, however, have been associated in other countries. Numerous " Puits Sépulcrals " were excavated in France during the 19th century, notably seven at Troussepoil, Vendée, which contained human bones, some in coffins, and other relics. These were tombs dug in the shape of deep wells. The Tripartite Life of St. Patrick relates that a certain dead " prophet " (i.e., druid), had caused himself to be buried under the water of a well named Slán. In the stories of the mythical invasions of Ireland the association holds good but the sequence is reversed ; the interments of the Partholanians and other legendary colonists caused springs to flow which created the present lakes and rivers.* Certain dolmens in Ireland and Portugal are built over wells, and more are popularly believed to be. In the Icelandic Sagas the bodies of the sacrificed were cast into the blót-keldr or sacred well outside the temple door ; and superstitious allusions occur to springs of water which issued from the tombs of Gods and heroes, and were said to have their sources in the Giõll, the Scandinavian equivalent of the Styx. There was a custom in Austria of throwing straw dummies into wells (or destroying them in other ways), to symbolize the death of Winter. All these items of belief and material fact, and others which could be adduced, evidently share some common foundation, and the Manx saying which I have cited, though it may have had its genesis elsewhere than in the Island, can fairly be related to them. A clue to their meaning may be found in the widely-diffused stories embodying very ancient beliefs that both the Kingdom of the Dead and the Fairy Kingdom, two spheres which extensively intersect, were reached by a watertransit--a sea-strait, a lake or river, and sometimes a well.
* Lough Corrib, similarly, was said to have issued from the burial-place of Manannan MacLir,
Of the ceremony of Well-dressing in any recognizable form I have found little or nothing, though the deficiency may be mine. In England it was confined almost wholly to a North Midland area, and was perhaps a legacy froin the Romans, a perpetuation of their Fontanalia or Festival of the Wells ; although it is reported of a few Irish wells also. In Man, seasonal and communal visiting of the springs was performed only on the first Sunday in August, except when it was postponed to the neighbourhood of the 12th of August in fidelity to the Old Style of reckoning; but this custom related exclusively, so far as I know, to sources situated on hills or cliffs. St. Maughold's Well was one of these ; springs on Slieu Dhoo, Slieu Curn and South Barrule were others ; the Farrane Fing, on the side of Snaefell was a fifth. A description of the scenes at Maughold, and the denunciation by the Church of the annual ascent of Snaefell, leave little doubt of their essentially non-Christian character. It is usual to speak of such festivals as having " degenerated," but in my opinion the features to which objection is taken are survivals from a more vigorous and less self-conscious society. The first Sunday in August may be taken as representing a pagan 1st of August, responding, in the Celtic Calendar, to the still more important first days of May and November. In the surrounding countries the usual date for well-visiting in common was the 1st of May, though the first day of August was not wholly neglected. The May date has in part been variously adjusted to the Christian festivals of Easter and Whitsuntide, and particularly to Ascension Day.
Possibly the primary motive in the Isle of Man was the ascent of the hills, and the springs were taken in the stride, so to speak ; if the springs were the chief object of the pilgrimage, why were not the lowland wells also visited ? However that may be-whether the ascent were the primary or secondary consideration-it may have had a special significance with regard to the traditional rendering of tribute annually on South Barrule. This, it is true, took place at Midsummer, whereas the later date might have been expected ; but to discuss the two ancient and concurrent systems of year-division would be out of place in the present chapter.
To these general remarks on the subject of Manx well-lore I would add, with some hesitation, that there seem to be the almost obliterated traces of a belief, much too vague to be called a legend, in the submergence of land in the Southern part of the Island caused by the overflowing of a well, a tradition which appears in more definite shapes in other Celtic-speaking, or formerly Celtic-speaking, regions of the British Isles.
Wood-Martin in 1902 estimated the number of Holy Wells in Ireland as " not less than three thousand," besides those which had lost their sacred character or had ceased to exist. I have seen no attempt to reckon the number in Wales or Scotland. Cornwall is richly stocked with them, and the Isle of Man must have been blessed with nearly as many as Ireland and Cornwall, in proportion to its size. Appended is a partial list of its named wells, of which some have been used for the special purposes which bring there under the heading of Folk-lore, while others are only qualified for inclusion by the fact of their having names. It is possible that some which are now fully domesticated, or are relegated to the use of animals, had once a, nobler function ; others of which only the name and memory remain have been deliberately destroyed ; and some of those which have been celebrated for many centuries are ceasing to exist through neglect and through natural causes. Of those here given which do not come within the category of Sacred Wells the total might be multiplied many times. The names and the particulars have been collected from various sources, printed, manuscript and oral ; at the time of writing I cannot claim to have a personal acquaintance with more than half the items on the list.
The references to A. W. Moore's Manx Names are, as the title indicates, to the second edition, as being the more popular; the same remark applies to Feltham's Tour through the Isle of Man, the edition referred to being the reprint by the since defunct Manx Society. Yn Lioar Manninagh is the title of the earlier Proceedings of the Isle of Man Natural History and Antiquarian Society.
The term " Gaelic " includes both the Scottish and the Irish branches of the language, to the first of which the Manx Gaelic more closely approximates.