Holy Well: OS Grid Reference – NT 27522 73653
Also known as:
- Canmore ID 52448
- St. Anton’s Well
Not too difficult to find really. Get to the northern part of the road which encircles Arthur’s Seat and when you get to St. Margaret’s Loch (near St. Margaret’s Well), look up the slopes where you see the remains of St. Anthony’s Chapel. You need to head up the footpath here and you’ll get to a large-ish ovoid boulder, with a small circular trough into which the waters run (the drawing of the place here, with the rock in the lower-left, just in front of the fella walking towards it, is just right!). You’re here!
Archaeology & History
Tradition tells that the remains of St. Anthony’s Chapel was built on the northern ridge by Arthur’s Seat, “mainly for guardianship of the holy well named after the saint” — which sounds rather like the christianization story of a heathen site. Francis Grose (1797) told that “this situation was undoubtedly chosen with an intention of attracting the notice of seamen coming up that Frith; who, in cases of danger, might be induced to make vows to its tutelar saint.” If this was the case, it sounds even more like a site that had prior heathen associations. Grose also told us that just a short distance from the chapel, were the remains of an old hermitage:
“It was partly of masonry worked upon the natural rock. At the east end there are still two niches remaining; in one of which formerly stood a skull, a book, an hour-glass, and a lamp, which, with a mat for a bed, made the general furniture of the hermitage.”
I like the sound of the place! Just up my street! Little other archaeological info has emerged from this tiny spot — but the healing waters of the well would obviously have been of importance to our indigenous inhabitants (anyone who wants to think otherwise is simply a bit dim!) as there is a wealth of archaeological sites and relics all round Arthur’s Seat.
A number of writers have described this old well, which has sun-lore, healing properties, and Beltane rites surrounding its past. Local people of all social classes frequented this ancient spring, particularly on that most favoured of heathen days, Beltane. The site was of considerable mythic importance with a certain order about it. As Hone (1839) said:
“…the poorer classes in Edinburgh poured forth at daybreak from street and lane to assemble on Arthur’s Seat to see the sun rise on May-morning. Bagpipes and other musical intruments enlivened the scene, nor were refreshments forgotten. About six o’ clock a crowd of citizens of the wealthier class made their appearance, while the majority of the first-comers returned to the town. At nine o’ clock the hill was practically deserted.”
Another early account describing St. Anthony’s Well is from an article in the great PSAS journal of 1883. Here, J.R. Walker wrote:
To an incident which showed that the faith and belief in the healing virtues of the wells is still strong, the writer was but a few months ago an eye-witness. While walking in the Queen’s Park about sunset, I casually passed St. Anthony’s Well, and had my attention attracted by the number of people about it, all simply quenching their thirst, some possibly with a dim idea that they would reap some benefit from the draught. Standing a little apart, however, and evidently patiently waiting a favourable moment to present itself for their purpose, was a group of four. Feeling somewhat curious as to their intention, I quietly kept myself in the back ground, and by and by was rewarded. The crowd departed, and the group came forward, consisting of two old women, a younger woman of about thirty, and a pale, sickly-looking girl — a child of three or four years old. Producing cups from their pockets, the old women dipped them in the pool, filled them, and drank the contents. A full cup was then presented to the younger woman, and another to the child. Then one of the old women produced a long linen bandage, dipped it in the water, wrung it, dipped it in again, and then wound it round the child’s head, covering the eyes, the youngest woman, evidently the mother of the child, carefully observing the operation, and weeping gently all the time. The other old woman not engaged in this work was carefully filling a clear flat glass bottle with the water, evidently for future use. Then, after the principal operators had looked at each other with an earnest and half solemn sort of look, the party wended its way carefully down the hill
Earlier still we find more lore of the place in Wilson’s Edinburgh  where he told:
“The ancient Hermitage and Chapel of St. Anthony, underneath the hangings of Arthur’s Seat, are velieved to have formed a dependency of the preceptory at Leith, and to have been placed there, to catch the seaman’s eyes as he entered the Firth, or departed on some long and perilous voyage; when his voews and offerings would be most freely made to the patron saint, and the hermit who ministered at his altar. No record, however, now remains to add to the tradition of its dedication to St. Anthony; but the silver stream, celebrated in the plaintive old song, ‘O waly, waly, up yon bank,’ still wells clearly forth at the foot of the rock, filling the little basin of St. Anthony’s Well, and rippling pleasantly through the long grass into the lower valley.”
Votive offerings made here eventually turned the waters into a simply wishing well for incomers, even in Victorian times (oh how the locals must have hated such trangression…). The great Scottish holy wells writer J.M. MacKinlay (1893) told in his day the tale of,
“a little girl from Aberdeenshire, when on a visit to Edinburgh, made trial of the sacred spring. She was cautioned not to tell anyone what her wish was, else the charm would have no effect. On her return home however, her eagerness to know whether the wish had…been fulfilled, quite overcame her ability to keep the secret. Her first words were, ‘Has the pony come?’ St. Anthony must have been in good humour with the child, for he provided the pony, thus evidently condoning the breach of silence in deference to her youth.”
In the middle of the 20th century, the great folklorist F.M. MacNeill (1959) wrote:
“Even in Edinburgh, little bands of the faithful may be seen making their way through the King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat, and, as in the eighteenth century:
On May-Day, in a fairy ring,
We’ve seen them round St. Anton’s spring,
Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring,
To weet their een,
And water clear as crystal spring,
To synd them clean.”
And when Ruth and Frank Morris (1982) got round to their excellent survey, they found that this old well was still being used “by youths and maidens, who come to wash their faces with the dew on May Day mornings, a wish at St. Anthony’s being a part of the ritual.” But this final remark may have the simple prosaic coincidence of them observing people like I, when younger, who frolicked with girlfriends around May morning, in the grasses near the old well — though at the time I knew nothing about the old sacred waters on the slopes just above us!
- Grose, Francis, The Antiquities of Scotland – volume 1, Hooper & Wigstead: London 1797.
- Hone, William, The Every-Day Book and Table-Book, Thomas Tegg: London 1839.
- MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
- McNeill, F. Marian, The Silver Bough – volume 2, William McLellan: Glasgow 1959.
- Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
- Walker, J. Russel, “‘Holy Wells’ in Scotland,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.17 (New Series, volume 5), 1883.
- Wilson, Daniel, Memorials of Edinburgh in Olden Times, Hugh Paton: Edinburgh 1848.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian