Sunday, 12 May 2019

Mediaeval Well Stone Discovery

There has been much recent excitement due to the discovery of a mediaeval well stone in the vicinity of Balintore Castle. This carved stone not only marks the presence of its well, but the cross inscription shows a “healing well” which together with other archaeological evidence in the area indicates there once was a religious community nearby.

recently discovered mediaeval well stone

It is thrilling to learn that Balintore was, if not the Lourdes of Angus, then certainly a spiritual place of some small pilgrimage. Nowadays, the site of the well would be considered remote, but in the Middle Ages “remote” was the norm, so Balintore was no more remote than most other places.

There has been a delay in writing this blog article as there was concern about the security of this archaeological artifact. It was discovered when a sheep dip edging was overturned, but now is in a safe place. I should really say “rediscovered” as the stone appears in the Victorian written record. As I am constantly finding out during my restoration, the Victorians were often a step ahead! In a 1862 name book:

St.Andrews Well: A well known name applied to a fine spring of pure water near "Longdrum". It is built with stone. On the top of a slab is a carved figure, much defaced, supposed to be a cross.

However, by 1958 the well and its associated stone had been lost:

This well, or spring, no longer exists. A cavity in the short embankment by the streamside denotes its site. The sculptured slab was not seen.

Visited by OS (J L D) 22 September 1958.

I was taken to see the place where the stone is now safely stored and to the site of the original well. What a privilege!  It is clear that the position of the spring has changed over time, and the associated stream now passes perhaps 10 metres distant  from the original site of the well.

well stone in safe location with museum quality supports

site of original well - note faint carvings on other stones

The cross can, it seems, be directed at the Cistercian order or “Benedines”, a breakaway from the Benedictine order. The coat of arms shows the cross with flared arms. This feature was often simplified to the end bar to each arm as on this stone. The simplicity of the cross would indicate a rural site away from an abbey.

a Cistercian coat of arms

The stone, if a spring marker, would have been oriented vertically with the base showing signs of being below the earth and possibly with some chip marks where pinning stones were hammered in to secure it. There are still some tests to be carried out e.g. morphological and chemical analyses which will reveal whether the stone is from the locality. However, my layman’s eye says it is from the surrounding landscape.

One would hardly call the cross ”much defaced”, but it is definitely aged as the cross is rubbed gouged rather than chiseled which would date it pre-15th Century. Interesting that St. Andrew’s Well would have a Cistercian cross rather than a St Andrew’s cross but that is how it would have been if created by/for the abbey.

Carving experts say it has changed function from well to grave slab and back to well again, which pleased my layman’s eye as my immediate thought on seeing a photo was “grave stone”. However, in the flesh, although roughly the shape of a coffin, it is perhaps just half the length.

I await, with much keenness, the full results from the evaluation of the stone by experts. This blog entry includes some of their initial tentative findings, so expect updates on the details and I will provide any required attributions.

I am particularly intrigued by the transition from grave marker to well stone. Was the interred person of a “saintly” disposition i.e. someone whose magic would have enhanced the power of the healing well? This is pure speculation of course, but there is presumably no other way to illicit the fascinating human narrative, that underpins this artifact, once treasured and now treasured again.