Monday 5 March 2012

Breac anns an Tobar

St Andrew's Well, Isle of Lismore, Argyllshire
A bricein in Tob (Tobar) D (Domhnull) nan
Ord 140 yrs (years) old. A strange
lad took it out Then put it
back & Stop ad cuir cann (ceann)
on. The trout died.

This is quite an unusual entry in Carmichael’s notebooks dated 27 September 1883 and collected from John Livingstone 'Muillear Mòr', Portnacroish, Appin aged 73 years. The mention of trout in wells is not very common although it does get a mention in Seán Ó Suilleabháin’s A Handbook of Irish Folklore: is a trout or other fish supposed to inhabit the well permanently? Is it considered unlucky to meddle with this fish?

With a bit of research it was discovered that a trout or even an eel living in a well was a good omen, especially if they appeared at the time of pilgrimage. If the fish was removed there were often consequences. Here is a story related to Sunday’s Well, Walshestown, Co. Cork:

The story is to the effect that a local woman carried home water from the well to boil potatoes, but unfortunately the eel had been drawn out at the same time. To her amazement the water remained cold after hours of boiling until her husband found out what had happened and returned the eel and water to the well. But this did not appease the offended spirit, who caused the well to dry up; and it has remained dry to the present day. (Cordner, 30)

On further research to the Scottish Studies Archive a handful of references to trout in wells were discovered in the MacLagan Manuscripts and the oral recordings:
            From Mrs McLean, Kintra, Islay.
Tobar a’bhric, is the name of a well on Lic. Which is now a part of the Estate of Ballinaby, in Islay. It is said to have got this name because it has never yet been seen without a trout in it. Long ago offerings used to be made to it and old people treated it with much respect, under the belief that it possessed healing properties.

            From William Forbes, Camuserney, Perthshire (oral recording summary)
Wells: this well, only wishing well he knows of. Called tobar taimh in Gaelic. Quite a number of wells in the area, but he does not know their names. There was a village well until recently. The women cleaned it out each year. 1 trout always kept in it, which they fed. Trout quite a pet. When it died, no fish for many years, then replaced.

From Stephen Bichan, Rendall, Orkney (oral recording summary)
Fish in wells: has heard of eels in wells in North Isles, not in Deerness; but there is a saying that a girl expecting a love-child has "a trout in the well".

A well in Kilbride is mentioned by Martin Martin in his A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland :
I saw a little Well in Kilbride in the South of Skie, with one Trout only in it; the Natives are very tender of it, and tho they often chance to catch it in their wooden Pales, they are very careful to preserve it from being destroy’d; it has been seen there for many Years: there is a Rivulet not far distant from the Well, to which it hath probably had access thro some narrow Passage.

He also refers to Skye and the well of Lough-Siant well and the surrounding area:

There is a  little fresh-water Lake within ten Yards of the said Well; it abounds with Trouts, but neither the natives nor Strangers will ever presume to destroy any of them, such is the Esteem they have for the Water.

MacLagan Manuscripts, Volume 25, pps 5319-5320
Oral Recordings 1964 17 a6 and 1967 115 A11
Cordner, W. S., ‘The Cult of the Holy Well’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 9 (1946), 24-36.
Martin, Martin A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (Glasgow : T.D. Morison, 1884), 141.
Ó Súilleabháin, Sean A Handbook of Irish Folklore (Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1970), 279.

St Andrew's Well, Isle of Lismore, Argyllshire, taken by Ciorstag, August 2009.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]