Wells and water and lucky stones: learning outside the moral capture of the twentieth century Inverness schoolroom.

Margaret Grieco, Professor of Transport and Society, Edinburgh Napier University


History is all too seemingly about the public record. But history is also about the record circulated within a group or community and either withheld by that community or not held to be of record by others. Inverness as befits its public history - the public butchery of human life which followed Culloden - has a wealth of hidden histories many of which passed from children to other children and circulated within the town as a mixture of histories and social practices of hope. This paper begins an investigation of the wells and water and lucky stones of Inverness: the material evidences of ‘underground’ history or put differently social identities which could not, until recently with the advent of new information communication technplogies, be easily claimed within the official or public record.


A visit to the Highland Archive in Inverness does not give much detail on the wells and water and lucky stones of Inverness. A one page set of notes on the Clachnacuddin Stone, nothing on the lucky stone of Lochalsh Road, a paragraph on the clootie well in a tourist guidebook of the 1930s and little or nothing on the significance of water spirits and their role in maintaining boundaries in a context where modern day society still searches with science for a Loch Ness Monster.

Growing up as a child in Inverness and living on Lochalsh Road, I was inducted into the power of the stone. The lucky stone sat within the vicinity of the old mouth of the riverside community of Inverness. It was embedded in the wall of a cottage at the bottom of Lochalsh Road and local children never passed the cottage without touching the lucky stone or if they intended to pass without touching it they crossed to the other side. The cottage sat in the middle of the route between the local longstanding primary school (my father’s family’s school though not mine) and the homes of many of its children. I haven’t yet researched whether children touch the stone today or whether stories of its power remain within today’s mouth of the river children’s community but I’m going to. The Opies’ work on child to child transmission of folk form gives us an indication of ways to move – the advent of global media culture provides an avenue for erosion of the transmitted tale. Time begins to shorten for the preserving of distinctive local narratives.

The tale of Lochalsh Road’s stone has been imperfectly transmitted and even in the fifties where the stone came from was not told neither was how it obtained its significance retained. But when the cottage was harled in times since and the old stone work concealed by rendering a window in the render has been left around the lucky stone. The lucky stone can still be touched.

The town’s archive contains no immediately apparent data on the Lochalsh Road lucky stone but there are two possible heritage trails to be investigated. When Cromwell built his fort to maintain control of the highlands he robbed out the stone from five sets of religious buildings dating from the old faith. When Cromwell’s reign ended, the town petitioned for the right to pull down the citadel and reclaim the stone. The petition was successful and the stone was re-absorbed into the town.

The lucky stone looks given its location just across the river from Cromwell’s despised fort looks to be a candidate for the reabsorption of the robbed stone back into the town. The lucky stone may have started its life as a cursing stone – touch the stone and the curse the name of Cromwell. The stone standing testimony to the demise of the enemy and the power of local social identity to survive and be reasserted.

Or it may have started its life as a blessing stone – carrying the blessing from its pre-Cromwell heritage forward. A stone from a holy place where miracles were expected and hopes performed. Or it may have crossed between these paths.

What is absolutely clear from the Lochalsh Road lucky stone is the belief in the power of the stone or that which has been installed as a power in the stone in the relationship between the material and the symbolic or spiritual. Stones hold history and their enduring material form provides for the endowing, retaining and recovering of significance.

The narrative of the stone of Scone is a better known narrative but not essentially a different one: the tale of the capture, kidnap and return of a stone – in the case of Scone, a stone of such power and significance it constituted a throne, in the case of Lochalsh Road perhaps a bit of religious architecture, then military architecture and then domestic architecture – or people’s positioning – whose story is lost but markers of power remain though in the process perhaps of disappearance.

The other possible heritage trail is that afforded by the small potted history of Inverness’s Clachnacuddin stone. The Clachnacuddin stone has formal history though just one sheet of notes available on it in the Highland Archive. The stone was viewed as having enduring powers in 1411 when it survived the firing of the town by Donald of the Isles. The stone has been buried and exhumed and enjoyed libations poured over it. It has been moved and changed function – been used as a proclamation stone, a talisman and for resting watering pails and washing on.

Its function as a source of local identity is clear and its name was held within the title of a local football club for which members of my family played. I knew these legends of the stone from outside the schoolroom. I knew the Clachnacuddin stone as a source of luck and of the enduring identity of the town.

I did not know it as a cursing stone but as a talisman for good and protection from evil. Stones are spat on or kissed in the relationship to luck, fortune and the containment of evil but they are also used to retain collective memory. I learnt as a child to kick the stone that the Butcher of Cumberland stood on even after centuries had passed, my kick was significant not irrelevant.

I heard the history of the highlands through places of significance, locations of lucky stones, prophetic places where the stones told the traveller where to place his or her feet to serve the collective memory. The stones in the graveyard of the high church where the highlanders were shot – the groove used by the gun and the stones where highlanders knelt to be shot. And next to this history of pain and oppression – the lucky stones and that of Clachnacuddin, a stone which had to be protected from those leaving the town carving a piece off to take with them to the new world as a talisman to protect them.

The lucky stone of Lochalsh Road may be a part of the Clachnacuddin stone or some other stone of local significance. It may be built in to bring fortune to the house rather than to display eventual victory through survival. Stones carry the message that survival is victory and collective memory is a form of survival.

The stones we’ve talked about here today have much to do with water. Wetting the stone to release the power is clearly part of our narrative already. Clachnacuddin as a name already has a relationship to water built into it – the stone of the tubs (water- containers). Kissing or spitting on stones or pouring libation over them is a relationship with water but it is also a relationship to magic and mystery and transformation. Wet stone has visual properties that dry stone rarely has: the dressing with water transforms the look of the stone and transforms the symbolic properties even if only temporarily.

There are relationships to water which involve the throwing of stones into water – no doubt historically polished stones were valuable objects and local traditions of offerings to the water would have encouraged such practice – but the relationship of stone to water that was most present in my childhood was the stones around important local wells.

There were three wells which were of significance – the first, called Wade’s well lay beside the islands and just along from the Highland Archive. This well now has a heritage description but it contains no mention of Wade – at the time of my youth there was a spoon from which we could drink the water of the well. Asking my cousins the name of the well as they remember it, to a person we called it Wade’s well. The new description is the general’s well but the general honoured as its namesake is not general Wade but a much later general.

I think we are looking at a misdescription - a failure to triangulate with the collective memory of the town the history of the well. The new public labelling will have its effect but it’s an object for research. Drinking at Wade’s well, we were aware that oppression had come and gone but the water still gave life. We did not kick the stones at Wade’s well – we used the waters.

The second well was the Bloody Well or the Well of the Dead at Culloden - the history of the horror of the battle was lived and relived in regular form and the Bloody Well was framed in narratives of the Brahan Seer and the river running red. The carnage of Culloden was carried into the town of Inverness itself and the prophecy of the river running red was repeated and relayed.

The third well was the Clootie Well – a well which makes a transformed appearance in the novels of Ian Rankin. The first Sunday in May visits were made to this well with coins being thrown in the well and cloth (cloots) being tied to the nearby tree in order to bring luck and protect against misfortune. There is little written on the well but its powers are noted in the sixth century and precede Christianity.

It sits within the tradition of the jaundice tree – the tying of cloths to a tree for the tree to take away the sickness and within the tradition of holy wells (healing wells) and powerful deities (wells which brought sickness to those who used them ). The clootie well is St Mary’s well and was blessed by St Columba to cancel the belief that those who touched it would become leprous.

As a child I knew that our family had followed this tradition of May visiting and my father and his sister both had stories of being carried there on their father’s shoulders. I never knew it as St Mary’s well and knew to be careful when talking about our tying of cloths to the tree. Looking back I believe we thought of what happened there as something that would not be approved by school or church and we contained our discussions of it to protect the practice.

The adolation of stones and wells was a Highland Practice – the adolation of stones and wells is also a practice of place and identity. There are narratives sustained which are laconic rather than articulated and the investigation of these narratives has been weak. The existence of a Highland Archive allows for a stronger investigation of these narratives and a better local heritage trailing of social identity without surrendering to some of the old forms of moral capture.

Before leaving our argument today, let me take you further into our land of water. My father was born with his cawl on his head, that is to say the amniotic sac formed his first headdress. He knew he would not die from drowning and lived a life which was informed by this local belief always preferring water borne travel to flying - right up until his death which meant that he sat up to die rather than lie down and let his lungs flood with the product of his internal bleeding.

The boundaries of life and death were described by the water around us – at school we believed that if you crossed the burn at the bottom of our schoolyard in culduthel the fairies would come and take you away. The warning presence of spirits around water has a purpose, it localises identity. Water which is safe for insiders can be dangerous to outsiders,, water that takes you beyond the local support structure has its dangers. The water spirit of Loch Ness continues to have its impact in the production of tales of warning over the dangers of that body of water.

I have strong memories of how the boundaries of my childhood world were set with local markers – don’t go beyond the Lion’s Gate where the Lions change place at midnight, be careful in the graveyard at the hill of the fairies, touch the lucky stone on the way in and out of your own area. I’ve yet to set this out in a sustained collective narrative shared with others who experienced it and the time to record it is disappearing. Last year with a group of my cousins we started work on the Hossack Institute of Highland History, this year I started exploring the Highland Archive, this coming year I am going to call a workship on Wells and water and lucky stones: the collective memory of Inverness.

I’ve begun the collection of what is known in the official record and organised memories to structure some narratives: I’ll now collect the local visual history of these monuments, places, practices and relationships. My thanks to John Burnett for giving me the push which causes me to play the lament for that which is lost and to commence the march for that which must survive. A hundred thousand sorrows, a hundred thousand welcomes.