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The Well of the Heads

In Scotland there are several wells called the Well of The Head (Tobar a Chinn) or Well of The Heads (Tobar a Ceann), especially on the Isle of Skye. The name is explained by a murder story, which varies with each well, but includes a decapitated head, or heads, being placed or washed in the well. on the Scottish mainland, the best known Well of The Heads is at Loch Oich near Invergarry. This well reputedly took its name from an event in the 1660's when seven men were beheaded in revenge for their having murdered two young McDonells. The heads were washed at the spring as they were being taken for presentation to McDonell of Glengarry. A monument erected at the well in 1812 shows a hand holding a dirk and seven heads; the inscription, carved in English, Gaelic, French and Latin, reads:

 

"As a memorial of the ample and summary vengeance which, in the swift course of feudal justice, inflicted by the order of Lord McDonell and Aross, overtook the perpetrators of a foul murder of the Keppoch Family, a branch of the powerful and illustrious clan of which his lordship was the chief. This monument is erected by Colonel McDonell of Glengarry, XVII Mac-Mhic-Alaister, his successor and representative, in the year of Our Lord 1812. The heads of the Seven Murderers were presented at the feet of the noble Chief in Glengarry Castle after having been washed in this spring; and ever since that event, which took place in the seventeenth century, it has been known by the name of Tobar-nan-Ceann or the Well of The Heads."

It is not clear how far truth has been overlaid by legend. The murders certainly occured, for the seven headless bodies were later dug out of the mound where they were said to have been buried. If the heads were washed in the well, as tradition relates, this is a striking continuation of Celtic practice in two respects: the taking of heads as evidence of success over enemies, and the association of such heads with water.

 

To the Celts, the head was the most important part of the body, symbolising the divine power, and they venerated the head as the source of all the attributes they most admired, such as fertility, healing, prophecy and wisdom. Heads of important enemies were carried home and displayed on stakes. The most prized heads were preserved in cedar oil and kept in wooden boxes.

 

Sometimes the heads were decorated with gold and used as cups for offerings to the gods, a custom which continued until recent times at some holy wells where the water had to be drunk from a human skull if it was to have any value to the pilgrim. This is one of the many associations between heads and ancient wells and springs.

There were many legends which tell how a holy well came into existence at the place where the severed head fell, usually a saint's head. This happened at Saint Winifride's Well in Holywell, Flintshire and at Watchet in Somerset, where Saint Decuman, a Welsh saint, had established a hermitage. He was attacked and beheaded by local pagans, Saint Decuman's Well springing up where his head fell (in another version the well was already there and Saint Decuman washed his head in its water). At Marnoch in Banff it was customary for many years, as part of the practice of Christianity, to wash the skull of Saint Marnoch, who was said to have been buried there around 650AD. The water in which the the skull was washed was used to heal the sick.

 

So the 17th century events recorded at the Well of The Heads actually have their origins much further back in time, and are just one example of the continuation of pagan practices throughout the Celtic areas of Britain.

 

Janet & Colin Bord
Fortean Times- Issue: 95 Page: 41.