Edinburgh has a long involvement in the religious history of Scotland. From St Cuthbert founding a site of worship near today's Princes Street Gardens and Queen Margaret becoming a saint, to John Knox wrestling the church away from Catholicism, and the Great Disruption which divided the church of Scotland in 1843, the city's cultural history is closely tied to its religious history.
Whilst the city's many churches and cathedrals remain as major testaments to city's religious life, smaller sites and monuments survive as less ostentatious demonstrations of faith. In particular, a number of holy wells still function and can be observed around the city itself.
Probably the grandest of these surviving wells is one of the last to be discovered. Adjacent to the Water of Leith, between Stockbridge and the Dean Village, you'll find St Bernard's Well, complete with its Grecian temple surrounding, and the goddess Hygieia continuing to watch over those who come to take its waters.
St Bernard's Well was discovered in the eighteenth century, and gave rise to some of the development of this area, as the former Raeburn Estate sprouted houses to accommodate those who had travelled from afar to take the water from this spring. Rich in minerals, the water from St Bernard's well came from a source entirely separate from the Water of Leith, and quickly developed a reputation for having restorative, if not actual healing, powers.
The temple-structure around the well was designed by Alexander Nasmyth, making it a fit attraction for those who could afford to travel and stay in the properties on nearby Mineral Street (now Dean Terrace). The pump mechanism drawing the water up still works, although it is only rarely open to the public.
Near to St Bernard's Well is the lesser-known St George's Well, with a less ostentatious pump house, although the spring is now integrated into the private gardens off the Water of Leith pathway.
Another area which became popular for its holy wells was Holyrood Park. The area had a number of underground water supplies, which partly accounts for the the district developing a number of breweries, who capitalised on the supply of fresh water for their industry.
But Holyrood Park itself had 7 holy wells at one time, although most of them are either lost or have dried up today. Two are still known, and one still functions - that of St Margaret's Well, easily accessible from Queen's Drive, just before St Margaret's Loch.
The well is today housed in an enclosed structure, and viewed up close reveals its distinctive vaulted internal ceiling. (A second well dedicated to St Margaret used to flow from the base of the castle rock. Today a plaque marks the spot, although the well is long since gone.)
It is believed that St Margaret's Well was discovered near to the site of the encounter that David I had with the stage in 1128, which led to the founding of Holyrood Abbey. The water today has slowed to a trickle, but is nonetheless technically still 'functional' as a well after nearly 900 years.
A little further up the slopes of Arthur's Seat, you may be able to discover the second surviving well in the area, just underneath the ruins of St Anthony's Chapel. Originally the spring was associated with the chapel building, and may have been the reason why this outpost of faith got built in the first place. Although it is not generally flowing, a small stone basin can be found directly adjacent to a large rock, from beneath which the water originally flowed.
Neither of these holy wells would act as a significant draw to the city today, but at one time they would have been a major reason for people travelling to visit Edinburgh, along with the churches and associated reliquaries in the town itself. As such, their heritage as part of the city's tourist culture is important in understanding how and why Edinburgh has been a popular destination for visitors for nearly 1,000 years.
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