OS Grid Reference: NO 1847 0161. At the western side of Scotlandwell village in the Portmoak District of Perth & Kinross, Central Scotland, there is an ancient holy well and also a 19th century wash-house. The village is 4 miles west of Glenrothes and 4 miles east of Kinross (across Loch Leven). In the late 1st century AD the Romans came by the well and named it ‘Fons Scotiae’ and in the late 13th century the local friars were using the water in their hospice and, in the early 14th century the well was visited by Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, who took the waters here in the hope of a cure. Later the well was visited by Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87). The well became a place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages and continued as such for several centuries thereafter. To reach the site (signposted) head west from Kinross on the A911 (Leslie Road) and go through Scotlandwell village. Where the A911 ends cross over Main Street and walk along the short lane (Little Arnot); the well is on the left at the far end.
The ancient curative spring known as Scotlandwell or ‘Fons Scotiae’ (Well of Scotland) at the foot of Bishop Hill (Portmoak Moss) bubbles up from deep underground through the sandy earth and into the stone-built well with its Victorian (Gothick) well-house structure, most of which is a clever reconstruction of 1858, although some of the lumps of stonework at the front of the well predate this and are probably from the earlier Medieval structure. Its healing waters were ‘said’ to be a cure for leprosy and other diseases. The green-painted wood and stone structure at the back with its canopy roof also dates from the mid 19th century. This whole site is now in a fairly well-preserved state thanks to a local community project. A plaque with the date 1858 is carved onto the stone well-head along with the architect’s name and also the benefactors’ names in capital letters. The nearby Wash House, built in 1860, which local people called ‘The Steamie’ and where laundry was washed, was presumably connected to the well’s underground water source, but sadly it has not been in use since the 1960’s.
In 1250 the Trinitarian Friars (Red Friars) moved into the area and established a hospital or hospice. They used the curative waters from the holy well for patients in their new hospital of St Mary. Nothing much remains of that building on Friar Place today, however, as it was demolished after 1587. The Trinitarian order of friars was founded near Paris in the late 12th century by St John of Matha (d 1213).
Frank Bottomley (1981) tells us more about the Trinitarians: “An order, f. 1198, at Gerfroid in diocese of Meaux, also known as Maturins and Red Friars. They were not Mendicants but an austere order of priests based on the Augustinian rule. Their revenues were divided equally between their own support, charity to poor, especially travelers, and the redemption of prisoners in the hands of the infidel. The houses were usually small, consisting, of a superior (called minister or prior), three priest-brethren and three lay brothers. Sometimes the number was enlarged and the disappearing lay brothers seem to have been replaced by novices in 1267. They were relatively strong in Scotland with eight houses (visible remains at Dunbar and Peebles).”
Bill Anderton (1991) tells us that: “It is said to be at this holy well that Robert Bruce was cured of leprosy, and records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters, while Mary Queen of Scots too visited the well. An inscription above the water fount gives the date 1858, but this refers to the reconstruction. The well, like all Scottish holy places, is very ancient. The waters from the fount can be drunk from a special metal cup which hangs nearby.” Mr Anderton says this site has a ‘power point’.
Janet & Colin Bord (1986) mention the well at Scotlandwell, saying that: “This elaborate well is in the centre of the village, and its water is said to have cured Robert the Bruce of leprosy.”
They also tell us that: “An example of present-day usage is quoted by Ruth and Frank Morris in their Scottish Healing Wells. In 1978 at the well in the centre of the village of Scotlandwell (Kinross) they met a women, her husband and brother who had travelled 40 miles from Edinburgh to fetch well water. One of the men had cancer and claimed that the water did him good: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me,” he declared, referring to the belief that water from the well cured Robert the Bruce of his leprosy.”
The Bord’s add that: “Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
Sources and related websites:
Anderton, Bill, Ancient Britain, W. Foulsham & Co. Ltd., Slough, Berkshire, 1991.
Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Paladin Books, London, 1986.
Bottomley, Frank, The Abbey Explorer’s Guide, Kaye & Ward, London, 1981.
The AA, Illustrated Road Book Of Scotland, The Automobile Association, 1963.
Photo (2nd down) by Euan Nelson: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/4393647
© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2018.