Springs, culture and customs

‘Tha cluanaig ann an iomall sléibh
far an ith féidh lus biolaire
‘na taobh sùil uisge mhór réidh
fuaran leugach cuimir ann’

At the far edge of the mountain there is a green nook
where the deer eat water-cress,
in its side a great unruffled eye of water,
a shapely jewel-like spring.

from Sorley Maclean ‘Fuaran’, 1943

Springs, wells and water have long been an important part of human culture. ‘Fuaran’ or ‘fhuarain’, the Gaelic for ‘a spring’, appears in many hill names. A good example is Beinn an Fhuarain in Assynt, where a long south-facing slope is striped with the vivid green lines of mossy springs. Water must always have been a preoccupation with people in Scotland, given our wet climate. Water has been associated with sanctity from earliest times and is or has been used in the rituals of many religions. In prehistoric times wells, springs and rivers were often associated with pagan goddesses, and in Christian times with saints. Tobermory on the island of Mull is Tobar Moire or Mary’s well. The well can still be seen in an old ruined chapel close to the town. Tibbermore just to the west of Perth is also Mary’s well or perhaps big well Tobar Mór. Wells and springs dedicated to St Mary or St Bride were frequently fertility sites, resorted to by young women on the eve of marriage in the hope of guaranteeing that children would be born. Holy wells were often regarded as places of healing, with certain wells associated with particular afflictions. The ‘cloutie wells’ are a survival of this belief. Sufferers hung strips of cloth from trees beside the well, and as the cloth decayed so did the affliction disappear. A number of wells and springs became the site of religious pilgrimages and were regularly visited over many years.

Rituals associated with wells and springs persisted into the 20th century. For example there is a well-known cloutie well on Culloden Muir. In 1937, a crowd of over 12,000 people assembled here to drop coins in the water, drink from the well, wish for something and tie a rag to one of the nearby trees. Still today, you pass areas such as these with rags tied to trees near wells!

Mountain Springs and Bottled Spring Water

The relationship between mountain springs and the liquid sold in bottles as mountain spring water is not always as straightforward as the labels on the bottles would have you believe. For a start there is no such thing as a Scottish mountain spring with naturally fizzy water, so anything you buy with bubbles in it has had carbon dioxide added in a processing plant.

According to European and British legislation, ‘natural spring water’ must come from an unpolluted underground source, must be free from microbial contamination and must have received no treatment apart from filtration to remove sand and silt. Water sold as ‘spring water’ usually comes from an underground source but does not have to be bottled on the spot. It may be treated to alter its chemical composition or to remove pathogenic organisms. Nevertheless of 29 brands of still bottled waters sampled by ‘Which’ in April 1991, almost all were contaminated by large numbers of bacteria. It is worth noting that adding a slice of lemon to a glass of spring water does more than improve the taste: the citric acid in the lemon juice is also a potent killer of many bacteria!

Water may be extracted from springs either from a natural exit or from a bore-hole. Where the water emerges in a natural spring at the surface of the ground, the source is enclosed by a box or tank to shield the supply from pollution. The water flows into this collecting tank and is piped out to be filtered and then either bottled or transported for further processing. This, of course, means that the plant life of the original spring does not survive.

City-dwellers accustomed to paying high prices for bottled water may envy the inhabitants of the more isolated parts of Scotland, where untreated natural spring water comes out of the taps and people bathe and wash their clothes in it as well as drinking it. Many people have a private supply, drawing their own water from their own spring. It is usually necessary to construct a tank or chamber around the spring to collect the water and build up a head of pressure so that the water can be piped to the house.

Scottish spring water is the basic liquid from which whisky is made. It imparts a finer taste to tea than treated tap water, and, of course, makes wonderful porridge!

In many ways we all depend on springs and flushes. Fill a glass with water and some of the molecules in that water may well have bubbled out of a tiny mossy spring high in the hills. The water from springs and flushes fills our reservoirs and is piped to houses, factories, shops, offices and hospitals, and drives turbines to generate electricity.

The Glenlivet Distillery
The cloutie well at Munlochy, Black Isle
 All text and images © 2004 Scottish Natural Heritage. All Rights Reserved. No unauthorised reproduction of any part of this work is permitted without the prior written pernission of the Publishers.