We can’t live without it, so therefore fresh water is holy to humans wherever and whenever they have lived. The wells that supply water to a community are guarded and honored, and many have names and stories that have been passed down through the centuries. Where there is a well, you have life, and where you have life, you have miracles, stories, and traditions. Once we returned from our pilrimage to Oronsay, we began our search for three holy wells on Colonsay.
The first and easiest to reach is Tobar Odhran (Oran’s Well — Oran was the brother of St. Columba) at the edge of the lush gardens of the Colonsay estate. An ancient well, it is now guarded by a carved image brought from the nearby abandoned village of Riasg Buidhe over a century ago. Meeting this stone was one of my prime goals for our visit, and I was fortunate to bring away a tiny silver replica crafted by a local artist, so his spirit and spirals will connect me to this beautiful place for many years to come.
Travelling up the island, we next went in search of Tobar na Cailliche, hiking a short ways up a boggy track to the Hag’s Well (and the remains of her home nearby). There used to be a drinking cup attached to a rock, but apparently it was taken into safe hands when the chain broke some time ago. We are assured that it is safe and that efforts are being made to eventually return it to the well. When we saw it, the well was quite overgrown and clogged with algae, but we paid our respects and left coins in honor of the well and its Cailleach guardian (the Cailleach is the Scottish hag, one of the world’s great Goddesses).
We waited until our final day on Colonsay to go in search of Tobar Chaluim Chille (St Columba’s Well), supposedly used by St Columba in the 6th century when he was exiled from his native Ireland. On Colonsay, he realized he could still see Ireland in the distance, so was compelled to move on, eventually landing on Iona, where he set up his great abbey.
Hiking up into the hills above Kiloran Bay was magnificent. The day was gloriously sunny, with the great green hills rising up above white sands and bright blue sea. Sun, sea, and surf — not my usual association with Scotland! Although we later realized the spot is well marked, we missed the clues and did quite a bit of scrambling about on the rocks before finding the traditional well, with its solid lintel and corbelled chamber.
As pilgrimage is about so much more than arriving at one’s destination, the search felt as important as the finding, and was perhaps appreciated all the more for having to scramble a bit. Jeff replaced a few stones to strengthen the roof over the well, and we both followed the tradition of tossing in a bit of quartz and a coin, honoring Columba and expressing our gratitude for the pure water bubbling out and trickling down the hill.
Colonsay is a peaceful place. We found a thriving, friendly community who appreciate and honour the ancient monuments as they quietly integrate them into the life of the island. There is an abundance of flora and fauna, and an overall ease of peace. I can clearly see that too many tourists would trample the island, even as they bring needed money and vitality. It is a dance of cooperation that completely depends on mutual respect.