Monthly Archives: April 2018

Wells of Arthur’s Seat – Day 1

‘Spring sunlight on Hunter’s Bog, Arthur’s Seat’. Mixed media on 10×10 inch wood. Rose Strang 2018

‘St Anthony’s Chapel from St Margaret’s Loch’. Mixed media on 10×8 inch wood. Rose Strang 2018

‘Edinburgh from Arthur’s Seat’. Mixed media on 10×10 inch wood. Rose Strang 2018

Today’s paintings of Arthur’s Seat …

I played around with different experiments and approaches today, just to see what works, so I’ll have a think about these in the meantime.

For the St Anthony’s Chapel painting, I was a bit inspired by the strangely beautiful atmosphere of Medieval paintings, such as those featured in the Medieval manuscripts – ‘The Book of Days’ (example below) I might work on that approach more.








I’ve also been working on the video for the project, as there will be a video showing the background to the project as part of the event.

As described in my last blog post, I’m exploring the history of Arthur’s Seat and in particular the way the wells were used for ancient healing rituals.

I’d discovered that St Anthony’s Chapel (painting above) was bult in the 12th century, but the nearby well (named St Anthony’s Well) had probably been used for many centuries beforehand as a place of worship or healing.

As mentioned, early Christian churches were usually built on or near sites of ancient worship. In the first place this was simply to encourage local people to incorporate Christian ideas with their own beliefs, but by the 16th century this had become unacceptable to the Christian church.

Martin Luther’s ideas for reformation of the Catholic church started out simply as a series of criticisms of corruption in the Catholic Church; one of his main points being that the church accepted payment for atonement of sins in lieu of confession and repentance, which obviously became a lucrative sideline!

The other complaint was that the worship of various Catholic saints was too similar to ancient ‘heathen’ practices of praying to or invoking numerous deities as the situation required, rather than one god. Also Luther believed that people could have a direct relationship to god, without requiring elaborate rituals by popes and the church hierarchy.

(By the way it’s probably best if I interject at this point to say that I don’t follow any religion and therefore have no prejudice towards any particular religion. Certainly I’m no expert on the subject! I thought I’d better explain this in case people assume I’m working towards a religious argument, when I’m simply showing the ways that religion was politicised or appropriated towards the aims of various rulers, whether from institutions of church or monarchy).

Luther’s observations made sense in many ways; but he’d never intended the subsequent actions during the Protestant Reformation which involved horrific violence, not least witch hunts, which were at their height during the reign of James VI of Scotland (First of England).

I won’t go into more detail about all of that though today, except as it concerns our well-worshipers on Arthur’s Seat. Some of their activities would have been viewed as devil worship at one time, not because they were running around naked, painted red and invoking Satan (as far as I know), but rather because their rituals didn’t invoke the one God of Christianity – they were not monotheistic, they invoked or prayed to a variety of deities, most often at those wells, springs or trees, which were believed to be sacred, or to have magical powers.

With varying details in each country or locality, this was a pan-European world-view in pre-Christian times, as explained by Aude le Borgne in her thesis, which I discovered online recently (* see reference/footnote at the end of this post).

Le Borgne’s thesis is a wonderfully rich source of information about the rituals people enacted at these wells, I’ve only read the part dealing with wells, but she goes into great depth about the possible meaning or beliefs behind the rituals.

You may have heard of ‘Clootie Wells’ (called Rag Wells in England). Clootie means cloth, in old Scots and to this day there are numerous wells around the British Isles,  Ireland and France where people leave a rag, cloth or offering, yet few people even know why they do this!

According to Le Borgne, whose evidence comes partly from court trials held during the Reformation, there were numerous types of ritual held at the wells, for a variety of purposes such as healing, praying for better crops, or marking important times of year in the calendar such as the summer and winter solstices, or May day.

She describes; “the notion of balance that underlies this mode of thought – that human beings and supernatural forces share power..” and explains that understanding this is helpful as part of her explanation “to show how popular healing practices clashed with the Christian ideology”. *

To describe a typical ritual, according to Le Borgne, here’s how a visitor or healer may have conducted a healing ritual at St Anthony’s Well on Arthur’s Seat …

First they circumambulated the well, this was thought to ‘close off’ the area, to create a barrier or make it a safe space for healing to take place. It was also to stand aside from time, from the everyday, so a healer might circumambulate the well three or more times. The healer, or visitor would walk around the well “sone gaitis, deiseil, i.e. sunwise” *, or clockwise as this was deemed lucky, to walk around anti-clockwise was seen as dangerous; against nature, or possibly attracting ill will.

Le Borgne describes in some detail how ritualistic approaches followed a belief that balance of opposites was vital in all aspects of life. Disease itself was viewed as an imbalance of nature, therefore each action or event had a counterpart, or required a counterpart for healing.

Interestingly, if you explore ancient religions or spiritual beliefs, balancing opposites was often perceived as the aim of life in general – the attainment of wisdom and well-being. Yin and yang for example.

Water was seen as possessing this liminal property – an essence or quality of ‘the in-between’. A Christian, for example, might describe a spiritual place as being ‘a thin veil between heaven and earth’. Wells were perceived in a similar way.

Borgne observes that water was universally perceived as possessing healing or sacred properties – Scottish rituals included. Water might provide a cure through drinking, immersion, or by washing afflicted body parts, but although it was valid for anyone to practice these rituals, it was often the case that a healer or another person would conduct the ritual on behalf of the person with the ailment or disease.

A mentioned in my last post, which quotes an eye witness from the 19th century at St Anthony’s Well (from Paul Bennett’s book; Ancient and Holy Wells of Edinburgh) people would dip a piece of cloth in the water, then apply it to the place that was diseased. What that quote didn’t describe though, is that the cloth was then buried in the ground near the well, or hung on a nearby bush or tree.

Le Borgne explains that the practice of using, then leaving, a ‘clootie’ or piece of cloth has often been misinterpreted in various ways, i.e. as an offering, or as an act of cermonial union with the deity of the well, but in fact its purpose (apart from dipping it in the water and applying it to the place that required healing) is likely to have been to ‘ask’ the well, or deity of the well to dissipate or ‘take away’ the disease (it was seen as unlucky to touch any such ‘clooties’ if they were encountered near a well, so bear that in mind if you visit a Clootie Well!)

Again, the idea of balance was observed; by way of gratitude, the visitor or healer would then leave a token of thanks or offering at the well, most often a coin, nail, or wild flower. As propitiation.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of these rituals though, is that they were often conducted in complete silence. Le Borgne explains that this practice, which again is fairly universal as part of many sacred rituals, may have been because the deity or magical property of the sacred place is seen as inexpressible, or that human words can’t equate to or communicate with the spiritual nature of the sacred place, which is unknowable.

Silence was perceived as a form of respect to the power of the sacred place, and again, this has parallels with many spiritual practices across all beliefs and religions – meditation for one example.

With that thought, I’ll end today’s post and wish you a peaceful evening …

* Thesis by Aude Le Borgne:


Aude Le Borgne. PhD, The University of Edinburgh 2002


(Please note, I’ve had no luck in finding contact details for Aude Le Borgne, I hope I’ve referenced the thesis accurately, and credited it sufficiently, but I’ll tag this post to make it clear I’ve quoted and referred to it. Any feedback or enquiries can be emailed to me at

The Wells of Arthur’s Seat – new project

An engraving of St Anthony’s Well from William Ballingall’s Edinburgh Past and Present. Copyright RCAHMS (SC431735)


The Wells of Arthur’s Seat

Date/Time: Saturday 16th June, 7 – 9pm

Venue: 5 Lyne Street, Abbeyhill Studio, Edinburgh, EH7 5DN

This is a new project, in which I’ll be painting Arthur’s Seat from a unique perspective, also creating a video of the project.

For those of you unfamiliar with Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat is the hill, or extinct volcano, situated in the middle of the city.

I’m delighted to be collaborating with two talented and lovely people on this project: cellist and composer Atzi Muramatsu (who I’ve colllaborated with since 2013) and poet and author Alan Spence.

Alan Spence was recently ‘put forward’ as Edinburgh’s Makar for 2018. ‘Makar’ is a Scots word meaning a versatile and learned poet. The role is nominated then chosen each year by representatives of the Scottish Poetry Library, Scottish PEN, The Saltire Society, Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and the City of Edinburgh Council. It’s given to a poet known and respected for their work over many years, who’s been published and who will focus on the city of Edinburgh, through poetry,  for the year.

I can see why Alan was chosen, not just for his talent as author and poet, but for his open-minded friendly attitude. It just so happens that he and his wife Janina recently opened up a bookshop and meditation place called the Citadel just across the street from me, so I pop in every so often to catch up, hence the idea to ask if he’d be interested in this project.

I recently read Alan’s latest book Night Boat; a lively, atmospheric and semi-fictional description of the life of Hakuin, who was the world’s best known teacher of Zen philosophy and spirituality. More on the book Here

If circumstances allow, there may also be a musical event or small gig on Arthur’s Seat itself as part of the project, featuring Dominic Waxing Lyrical, though I await confirmation).

In the meantime, read on for the background to the project ..

The Wells of Arthur’s Seat

Edinburghers are completely familar with the distinct features of Arthur’s Seat, but as with all my projects, it’s not a scenic view I’m looking for as an artist, it’s the ‘feel’ of a place once you look under the surface.

If you just walk to the 800m-high summit, you’ll stick to a well-worn path, and even in the depths of winter you’ll be surrounded by fellow walkers.

Not that I’m criticising anyone for getting some excercise of course! It’s true though, that  still, quiet contemplation – often reveals more about a place.

If you wander through the valleys most weeks though, with no aim in mind, in all weathers, you begin to wonder about certain features; what’s that round patch of dry brown grass? What are those lumpen dips in the landscape up there, different from the rest of the land? Why is this pond in the valley growing each year and is this why its original name was ‘Hunter’s Bog’ before it became ‘Piper’s Bog’?

I found answers to most of my questions – the brown grass in Hunter’s Bog is the mark left behind by a Bronze-age round-house, the lumpen dips were part of an ancient stone quarry. It was called Hunter’s Bog because it always had a pond, and a rich diversity of birds and wildlife. The Military drained the bog, cut the trees and allowed sheep to graze back the indiginous plants.

Nowadays, new ideas about landscape conservation have of course influenced the way the landscape, flora and fauna are conserved. It’s all allowed to flourish now – it’s for the enjoyment of all (though that wasn’t always the case).

Some features on the hill remained a mystery to me though – St Anthony’s Well, for example. I knew that the well most likely preceded St Anthony’s Chapel (as anyone interested in religious history knows, early Christian missionaries and leaders tended to build places of worship on sites used for many centuries by indiginous people as their place of worship).

Why was the spring marked so significantly with a huge boulder, and stone basin to catch the water? Why had it dried up? Clearly the water ran from deep within the hill since it emerged at the bottom of the cliffs, and maybe it would have fed St Margaret’s loch (a human-made or enlarged loch in honour of the Scottish Queen Margaret).

I love a mystery, and I was intrigued to discover that if I drew a straight line on a map, following the precise angle of my street (Lyne Street, pronounced ‘line’ appropriately enough) to St Anthony’s Well, it matched up exactly!

I looked at old maps of Edinburgh side-by-side with modern, and it turned out that my street was called Roslyn Street in its first decade of existenc (around 1880 it was changed to Lyne Street).

The site, pre- 1870s, was a garden owned by Baron Norton, which included a Rosicrucian-shaped garden design. Taken north, the line led to Loch Leven Castle, taken south, it led to Dalhousie and Craigmillar Castles, then to Notre Dame in Paris.

Spooky, eh?! I wanted to find something tangible though, some actual facts (since all ley-line related things, crosses etc, apparently lead inevitably to Dan Brown!)

So I widened my search online and discovered some history about St Anthony’s Spring, namely from a book called Ancient and Holy Wells of Edinburgh, written by Paul Bennett.

He’s an amateur writer, but it’s a fascinating book, and so far the only source I’ve found with collated information about the well.

To quote:

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 the Firth; 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. (Bennett, Paul. Ancient & Holy Wells of Edinburgh (Kindle Locations 1048-1054). Kindle Edition.)

This was more the sort of information I was seeking, and even better there were some actual eye-witness accounts of local people interacting with the well in the 19th century, here’s Paul Bennett again:

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 …

(I’ll definitely be waking at the crack of dawn on May 1st this year to visit the well, just to see if any locals still observe this tradition!)

It was this following excerpt though, from 1883, which fascinated me most; what were these people doing? What kind of ritual were they enacting and what did it mean? Quoting Bennett again…

Another early account describing St. Anthony’s Well is from an article in the outstanding Scottish Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries journal of 1883.  Here, J.R. Walker wrote:

“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…”Bennett, Paul. Ancient & Holy Wells of Edinburgh (Kindle Locations 1080-1082). Kindle Edition.

You can see the remains of metal on the boulder today, where the tin cup would have been attached. The water in the stone basin is just muddy rain water since the stream stopped flowing in the 1980s. What a shame we can’t drink the water, it must have had good iron content, flowing as it did through the volcanic cliffs (we pay good money for bottled volcanic spring water these days!).

My thoughts about the health properties of the water are speculation, what I’m excited about though, is that I now have evidence of what that healing ritual was (as described above, from 1883). This is thanks to a fairly obscure thesis written in 2002 by a PHD student called Aude Le Borgne (I can’t find contact details for her anywhere, but let me know if the name rings a bell)

Her excellent thesis (which I found online) details accurate evidence of the ways that water springs were used for healing rituals in Scottish history. Ordinary people in those days usually couldn’t write, not only that, their beliefs were seen as anything from mere superstion to devil worship, so how can we discover their actual thoughts and beliefs? Well, we can find out what these were because local people conducting ‘heathen’ rituals around the well, were prosecuted during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries and so there are court records.

Now you know a bit more of the history though, isn’t the engraving (below) quite telling? It has no date but looks Victorian – a time when a sort of ‘Celtic revival’ emerged; a sentimentalising of the lives of ordinary folks (after they’d been effectively slienced!)

I’ve written quite a lot here for this first post about the project, so I’ll save the next part for next week, when I’ll post images of my first paintings of Arthur’s Seat, and reveal the ancient rituals around Scotland’s Clootie Wells as evidenced by 16th/17th century court cases during the height of Scotland’s witch-hunt. What moves me is the fact that these people continued their traditions despite fear of imprisonment, even death.

I’m now working on the first paintings, so in the next blog I’ll post those, and write more about the beliefs behind rituals at the wells…

Portrait and ‘Hawk’

Sold. ‘Hawk, River Tweed 3’. 40×40 inches £1500

Just a quick post to say that as I’m submitting my painting of Richard Demarco for a portrait award, I have to take all references to it off social media until around August this year.

Also – I recently sold ‘Hawk, River Tweed’ through the Limetree Gallery in Bristol, which is lovely news. I’m very fond of the painting, since the River Tweed is a special place for me, so will say goodbye to it by sharing this video (below) of the making of ‘Hawk’ again, which is accompanied by music by talented composer and pianist Jane Gardner (we were both really pleased with the way music and image enhanced each other). Thanks to The Limetree again, and to Jane!