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)

EXHIBITION AND EVENT

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…

One thought on “The Wells of Arthur’s Seat – new project

  1. Pingback: Wells of Arthur’s Seat – Day 1 | Rose Strang Artworks

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