Holy Well: OS Grid Reference – NT 24452 74250
Also Known as:
- Canmore ID 52586
Follow the sign!
So you’re in Edinburgh. Get to the west-end of Princes Street (nearest the castle), and where there’s the curious mess of 6 roads nearly skewing into each other, head down Queensferry Street for 450 yards until, just before you go over the bridge, walk down Bells Brae on your left, then turn right down Miller Row to the river where you’ll see the sign pointing the way! alongside the river, past St George’s Well for another coupla hundred yards until you reach the large Romanesque domed building right by the riverside on your left. Steps take you down to it.
Archaeology & History
St Bernard’s Well, 1790
When J. Taylor (1790) wrote his singular book on St Bernard’s Well, this sacred site could be seen in landscape that was described as “a wild, romantic, and very pleasant appearance.” How things change! Although the waters of Leith below which the well arises give the region, still, that air of romanticism that Taylor described, on either side of the waters the stone buildings of the Industrialists have grown, denouncing Nature. But to be honest, it’s still a fine place, considering it’s near the middle of a city!
Small spring above the well
In the shrubs and small trees on the slopes just above the architectural edifice that now covers St Bernard’s Well, after rainy days you can see several small springs of water running down the slope and onto the modern path. In earlier centuries there were six of these springs next to each other which ran a short distance down the slope and converged into two, which then ran into a small stone trough. Local people used these fresh waters, not only for basic needs, but for medicinal purposes too.
It seems that the earliest mention of what Stuart Harris (1996) called “this fancy name” of St. Bernard’s Well appeared in an article in The Scots Magazine of September 1760. It clearly shows how the Scottish Freemasons played their part in bringing the waters of this healing well to the fore:
“A mineral well has lately been discovered between the village and the Water of Leith and Stockbridge, about half a mile north of Edinburgh, which is said to be equal in quality to any of the most famous in Britain. To preserve the well from the injury of the weather, and prevent its being overflowed by the Water of Leith, on the banks of which it is situated, a stone covering is to be erected over it. The foundation-stone of this building was laid September 15th (by a deputation from the Earl of Leven, the present Grand Master of Scotland), by Alexander Drummond, brother of Provost Drummond, lately British Consul at Aleppo, and Provincial Grand Master of all the Lodges in Asia and in Europe, out of Britain, holding of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. He was attended by many of the brethren, in their proper clothing and insignia, preceded by a band of music, and the ceremony was performed in the presence of a great number of spectators. It is called St. Bernard’s Well.”
The following year, the poet James Wilson Claudero wrote a poem about the laying of the foundation stone at the well, in which the medicinal virtues of the waters were described. A section of the poem is as follows:
“When heaven propitious to grant his desire
To the utmost extent his heart could require,
For the health of the poor sent this sanative well,
A blessing to all that around it do dwell;
This water so healthful near Edinburgh doth rise
Which not only Bath but Moffat outvies.
Most diseases of nature it quickly doth cure.
“It cleans the intestines and appetite gives
While morbific matter it quite away drives.
Its amazing effects can not be denied,
And drugs are quite useless where it is applied,
So what doctors can’t cure is done by this spring
Preserved till this year of great Drummond’s reign.”
St Bernards Well, looking N
St Bernards Well, looking SW
A few years later in 1786, the construction we see today which now covers the medicinal waters, began to be built. The ‘fashion’ of the rich and wealthy acquiring healing wells used by local people was in vogue at the time and the place became frequented by the usual snooty class of doods who played their social gatherings here. The Scots Magazine gave a brief resumé of what unfolded—intriguingly at Beltane (perhaps the day when its waters were of greatest repute, as is the case at the majority of sacred wells), telling:
“On the 1st of May, the foundation-stone of the mineral well of St Bernard’s, in the vicinity of Edinburgh, was laid in the presence of several gentlemen of the neighbourhood. A plate of metal was sunk into the stone, with the following inscription:
Erected For the benefit of the public at the sole expense of Francis Garden, Esq. of Troop A.D. 1789 Alexander Nasmith, Architect, John Wilson, Builder.
This building is erected in the most picturesque spot in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, and when finished, from the elegance of the plan, and the excellent quality of the materials, will long be an ornament to the city, and prove a lasting monument of the refined taste, liberality, and public spirit of the honourable founder.”
As the reputation of the place spread amongst those who could read and had money, so the day-to-day habits of local people, who kept drinking the waters and collecting them for domestic use, became increasingly frowned upon. Some rich doods bought the land and, thereafter, local people were only allowed to use the well at certain times and in certain ways. I kid you not! This is a familiar tale at a lot of city sites. After the construction of the Romanesque building that still covers the well (based on an ancient temple at Tivoli, Italy, with a statue on top of the goddess of Health, Hygeia) which, to this day, hides the waters inside behind lock and key, the land-owner Lord Gardenstone appointed and paid a ‘keeper of the well’. The ‘keeper—George Murdoch of Stockbridge —had a series of rules to abide by, for which he got paid a tidy sum. Gardenstone wrote to him:
“George — From long experience I entertain a very favourable opinion of your honesty and decent manners. I, therefore, am resolved to make a trial of your capacity to perform properly the duties of a trust which is of a public nature, and requires good temper, patience, and discretion.
“I hereby authorise and appoint you to be Keeper of St Bernard’s Well during pleasure, and you are to observe punctually the following directions and rules, or such other regulations as may be found more expedient and may be hereafter prescribed:
“I. You are to furnish proper glasses and cups for drinking the water.
“II. During the proper season you are to attend the well, at least from six till nine, every morning. During the above period none shall have access to drink or use the water but those who shall pay at the moderate rates subjoined.
“III. Such as choose to subscribe for the season, from the 1st of May to the 1st of October, shall pay down, before they begin to drink, at least five shillings sterling.
“IV. Persons who do not choose to subscribe, but choose at their pleasure to drink the water any time of the morning period, occasionally, shall pay before they begin to drink every morning — for grown persons each one penny, and for children each one halfpenny; or at the rate of sixpence and threepence per week respectively.
“V. For water drawn from the well to be used at a distance, in bottles or other vessels in the mornings, payment must be made at the rate of one halfpenny for every Scots pint.
“VI. No person shall be allowed, on any pretence, to bathe their limbs or sores at, or in sight of, the well during the morning period.
“VII. All persons who are either unable or unwilling to pay as above, shall have free access to the use of the waters from ten to one every forenoon; and those who have once paid may return and use the waters at any time of the day.
“VIII. The keeper shall attend from five to seven o’clock in the afternoon for the service of all who have paid; and after seven for all without distinction.
“IX. Upon a proper certificate from any regular physician, surgeon, or apothecary of Edinburgh, the keeper shall supply poor persons with water at any time prescribed.
“X. The proper and customary method of drinking at mineral waters is, that persons after drinking a glass or cup of water retire immediately and walk about, or take other exercise for an interval of at least five minutes, both as a benefit to themselves, and to make way for other water drinkers. A contrary practice prevails at St Bernard’s, and sometimes a crowd of people continue at the well till they have drunk their quota. Hereafter every person must retire as above, and the keeper must require them to do so, this regulation being very necessary.
“XI. Another irregularity, prejudicial to the credit and use of the waters, has prevailed and must also be corrected, which is that quantities of the water are carried to distant parts in open vessels. All mineral waters should be transported in well- corked bottles or other close vessels. The keeper must strictly adhere to this regulation, and suffer no water to be carried off in open vessels.
“Hints and observations for the better regulation and public use of those waters will be thankfully received by the proprietor.
“Some accounts of the virtues of this mineral water, and of certain remarkable cures performed by the proper use of it, will soon be published by a medical gentleman of character and experience.
“N.B. — The effects of this water when used in making either tea or punch are remarkably agreeable.
St Bernards Well on the 1819 Kirlands map
This must have caused some friction amongst locals, and no doubt given Mr Murdoch problems at times, as he would be denying the people who were born and bred here access to their drinking and medicinal spring. And so a missive was written on July 4, 1810, which instructed the keeper “to supply the poor with water gratis each day from eleven to twelve o’ clock noon.” Sensible…..
By now, the properties and reputation of the waters were widespread among the elitists and money-addicts. St Bernard’s Well was being compared with the famous healing waters of Bath, Harrogate, Strathpeffer and more. Its cause was encouraged by a series of scientific reports that showed a variety of health-giving minerals in good quantities; and many cases of ‘cures’ were reported by those who drank here. When the local doctor, J. Taylor (1790) opened his treatise on this very issue, he began,
“In the course of my practice, having occasion to visit most of the families in Stockbridge, especially of the poorer sort, I was informed that St Bernard’s Well had been of great benefit to people that resorted to it for various complaints…”
Entrance to the well
St Bernards Well on 1851 map
Many more cases were to follow. It was the chemical constituents in St. Bernard’s waters that did the trick—although most modern folk would squirm at the very look and whiff of them, as Taylor reported how “the peculiar odour of this water is somewhat nauseous”! That’s because they are primarily sulphurous in nature, along with good traces of iron, magnesia and salts. I’ve drank such waters at some of Yorkshire chalybeates and found them damn invigorating – but most folk won’t touch them with a barge-pole! (chlorinated flouridated tap-water seems most folk’s preference these days) Dr Taylor told how St. Bernard’s Well was very good at,
“assisting digestion in the stomach and first passages … cleansing the glandular system, and carrying their noxious contents by their respective emunctories out of the habit, without pain or fatigue; on the contrary, the patient feels himself lightsome and cheerful, and by degrees an increase to his general health, strength and spirits. The waters of St. Bernard’s Well operates for the most part as a strong diuretic. If drunk in a large quantity it becomes gently laxative, and powerfully promotes insensible perspiration. It likewise has a wonderfully exhilarating influence on the faculties of the mind.”
He thereafter cited a number of cases of people with various ailments whose illnesses were cured by these waters. I recommend a perusal of his work and the other references below for specifics on such matters. The writings on this one sacred site are plentiful indeed, and the bibliographic references are but a morsel of works that describe it.
St Bernards Well in 1825
Local tradition ascribed the discovery of the medicinal waters here by three local boys from Heriot, years before the legendary St. Bernard got in on the act; and, despite the wishes of many, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was not in any way related to the legendary Nursie of Blackadder fame (can anyone find a short link so as to educate the unenlightened on this matter?). His hagiography (biography of a saint) tells that his saint’s day was August 20, and his symbols were: a white dog, a chained demon and beehives. Whether any of these symbols related to any indigenous myths at the site is difficult to say.
Mr Cumberland Hill (1887) told the story of how this spring acquired its christian title:
“There is an ancient oral tradition in the district (we read of it also in an old book when we were young) that St Bernard visited Scotland. There are different ways of telling the legend, but the following appears to be the general version. St Bernard, while preaching the second crusade in France and Germany, was advised to go to Scotland as a country rich in faith and fighting men. He was disappointed with his reception at court. In grief, aggravated by ill-health, he withdrew and lived in a cave in the neighbourhood of the spring. There certainly was a cave of considerable dimensions in the steep cliffs to the westward. Its entrance was covered up by the building of the wall that bounds the back of Randolph Crescent, but when it formed part of Lord Moray’s grounds we, and the other boys of Stockbridge, knew that cave well. The saint’s attention was attracted by the number of birds that resorted to the spring. He drank of its healing waters, and, soothed by the sound of the river and the beauty of the scenery — the valley, still very beautiful, must then have been surpassingly fair — his health and serenity of mind returned. He called the inhabitants of the district to the spring, revealed to them its virtues, and, after bestowing upon the people his blessing, he returned to his place of public duty. Christendom concurs that this was the blessing of a good man. He was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church, but as canonisation is growing to be an invidious distinction, we quote Luther’s opinion: “If there ever lived on the earth a God-fearing and holy monk, it was St Bernard of Clairvaux.” We give the tradition as a tradition, not as history, though it is as credible and certainly more creditable than many of the legends of the saints.”
- Crow, W.B., The Calendar, Michael Houghton: London 1943.
- Frost, Thomas, “Saints and Holy Wells,” in Bygone Church Life in Scotland (W. Andrews: Hull 1899).
- Gauldie, Robin, Walking Edinburgh, New Holland: London 2000.
- Grant, James, Cassell’s Old and New Edinburgh – volume 3, Cassell, Petter Galpin: London 1882.
- Harris, Stuart, The Place-Names of Edinburgh, Gordon Wright: Edinburgh 1996.
- Heron, Robert, Observations Made in a Journey through the Western Counties of Scotland – volume 1, R.M. Junior: Perth 1793.
- Hill, Cumberland, Historic Memorials and Reminiscences of Stockbridge, the Dean and Water of Leith, Robert Somerville: Edinburgh 1887.
- MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
- Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
- Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Inventory of the Ancient & Historical Monuments of the City of Edinburgh, HMSO: Edinburgh 1951.
- Stark, John, Picture of Edinburgh, A. Constable: Edinburgh 1806.
- Stevenson, Sylvia, Simpson, A.T. & Holmes, N., Historic Edinburgh, Canongate and Leith: The Archaeological Implications of Development, Scottish Burgh Survey: University of Glasgow 1981.
- Taylor, J., A Medical Treatise on the Virtues of St Bernard’s Well, William Creech: Edinburgh 1790.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian