Magic Bathing in the Far North February 9, 2014Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback
This was a story that came up in the search for nineteenth-century superstitions relating to Loch Ness. We are c. 1870. The lake in question is apparently Loch mo Naire (which might be the Serpent’s Lake or the Lake of Shame) aka Lochmanur just on the northern tip of Scotland.
Dipping in the loch for the purpose of effecting extraordinary cures is stated to be a matter of periodical occurrence, and the 14th appears to have been selected as immediately after the beginning of August in the old style. The hour was between midnight and one o’clock, and the scene, as described by our correspondent, was absurd and disgraceful beyond belief, though not without a touch of weird interest, imparted the darkness of the night and the superstitious faith of the people.
Note does the ‘disgraceful beyond belief’ mean that those brought to the loch were stripped nude: the lake of shame? If so the ‘touch of weird interest’ becomes rather sharper than it otherwise would be. What kind of ill were brought to the loch?
The impotent, the halt, the lunatic, and the tender infant were all waiting about midnight for an immersion in Lochmanur. The night was calm, the stars countless, and meteors were occasionally shooting about in all quarters of the heavens above. A streaky white belt could be observed in the remotest part of the firmament. Yet with all this the night was dark — so dark that one could not recognise friend or foe but by close contact and speech. About fifty persons, all told, were present near one spot, and I believe other parts of the loch side were similarly occupied, but I cannot vouch for this—only I heard voices which would lead me so to infer.
The gentlemanly author concentrated on a group on his particular bit of shore. Note that the three ablutions is found time and time again in folk magic. There are perhaps a score of sources known to this blogger from the nineteenth century alone.
About twelve stripped and walked into the loch, performing their ablutions three times. ‘Those who were not able to act for themselves were assisted, some of them being led willingly and others by force, for there were cases of each kind.
There is here a particularly sad case of a Victorian ‘maiden’ who objected to the bathing, but was dragged in anyway. She was ‘strictly guarded’. Again does this mean that she was nude and that her virtue was threatened?
One young woman, strictly guarded, was an object of great pity. She raved in a distressing manner, repeating religious phrases, some of which were very earnest and pathetic. She prayed her guardians not to immerse her, saying that it was not communion occasion, and asking if they could call this righteousness or faithfulness, or if they could compare the loch and its virtues to the right arm of Christ. These utterances were enough to move any person hearing them. Poor girl! What possible good could immersion do to her? I would have more faith in shower-bath applied pretty forcibly and often to the head.
Interestingly no men were seen in the water: despite the reference above to impotence. Make of that what you will.
No male, so far I could see, denuded himself for a plunge. Whether this was owing to hesitation regarding the virtues of the water, or whether any the men were ailing, I could not ascertain.
The final passage is particularly interesting because there are parallel traditions of trying to calm water horses or kelpies with coins thrown as sacrifices into the water.
These gatherings take place twice year, and are known far and near such put belief in the spell. But the climax of absurdity is in paying the loch sterling coin. Forsooth, the cure cannot be effected without money cast into the waters. I may add that the practice of dipping in the loch is said to have been carried from time immemorial, and it is alleged that many cures have been effected by it.
Here is evidence from a modern visit. The only other nineteenth-century account I’ve found is the following from 1885:
There is a loch in Strathnaver in Sutherland, to which people constantly resorted for all manner of cures. They must walk backwards into the water, take their dip, and leave a small coin as due offering. Then without looking round, they must walk straight back to the land, and so, right away from the loch.
Can anyone fill in the gaps here? Strange that such a custom is so poorly documented. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
16 Feb 2014: KR writes I don’t know whether your article regarding Lochmanur came from Bullfinch’s Mythology or from some other source. In case you didn’t find it in Bullfinch, I include here the parts of the Bullfinch page dealing with it [see below], as there are other related comments included therein. You will notice that the author here relates this dipping or immersion in the lake with the same faith in holy wells, and thus to pre-Christian Practices. This reminds me of your earlier post regarding how many years a practice might survive when handed down through unwritten means: apparently the answer being “a very, very long time.” 😉 It is only in relatively recent years that the word “impotent” has become reserved to the meaning “sexually impotent.” I think the author was referring to persons who were physically impotent (perhaps through stroke or paralysis) or mentally impotent (through Alzheimer’s and/or mental illness.) The same thing happened to the word “intercourse,” so earlier sources may speak of one having “intercourse” with an entirely innocent meaning, ie., conversation. The “close guarding” of the maiden may have been as much a prevention of her escaping as a protection, since she was so unwilling to participate in an immersion she apparently thought was unholy. One wonders what her “sickness” might have been. In that time, it might have been simply that she was not demurring, but very outspoken, at least regarding what she had been taught about religion. The poor girl was trying to be conscientious in her Christian faith. One wonders if she later thought her soul was lost through this forced immersion? One wonders how she came to be there, without already having some understanding of the “old ways?” Perhaps an orphaned maiden sent to a distant relation? Questions for a novelist to answer perhaps. KR goes onto quote from Bullfinch’s Mythology, which was not my source but that shared my source! Dipping in a fountain or lake in Scotland for the purpose of healing diseases, is a matter of frequent occurrence. In the beginning of August (old style), between midnight and early morning, may be seen the impotent, the halt, and the lunatic immersing themselves, or being immersed by their friends, in Lochmanur, Sutherlandshire, in the full expectation that benefit to mind and body will be secured by the operation. One who has witnessed the strange scenes within the last ten years, i.e. since 1870, gives the following graphic account of the superstitious actions he beheld: “The hour was between midnight and one o’clock in the morning, and the scene was absurd beyond belief, though not without a touch of weird interest, imparted by the darkness of the night and the superstitious faith of the people. The lame, the old, and young were waiting for an immersion in Lochmanur or Lochmonaire. About fifty persons were present near one spot, and other parts of the loch were similarly occupied. About twelve stripped and walked into the loch, performing their ablutions three times. Those who were not able to act for themselves were assisted, some of them being led willingly and others by force, for there were cases of each kind. One young woman, strictly guarded, was an object of great pity. She raved in a distressing manner, repeating religious phrases, some of which were very earnest and pathetic. She prayed her guardians not to immerse her, saying that it was not a communion occasion, and asking if they could call this righteousness or faithfulness. No male, so far as I could see, denuded himself for a plunge. These gatherings take place twice a year, and are known far and near to such as put belief in the spell. But the climax of absurdity is in paying the loch in sterling coin.” Another writer says he has seen even more than fifty dipping in this loch in one night. A third eye-witness never saw more than two or three of a night venturing into the loch; but many more, he adds, were present to see and be seen. And there are persons who have declared they derived benefit from bathing in it. The late Rev. D. Mackenzie, minister at Farr, who often denounces from the pulpit the superstitious practice of dipping in the loch, says, in his description of it in the New Statistical Account of Scotland: “Numbers from Sutherland, Caithness, Ross-shire, and even from Inverness and Orkney, come to this far-famed loch.” The holy well of Kilvullen, on the Irish coast, is as good as Lochmanur. Every year, in the month of August, there are high festivals held there. The water has a wonderful repute for healing qualities. It has worked miraculous cures ever since the great saint of Kilvullen flourished in the parish. The inhabitants have vague though reverential notions of the date of St. Kilvullen’s existence. That he was of foreign extraction would appear to be proven, some way or other, through a boulder lying on the beach, on which, it is stated, the blessed Kilvullen travelled here direct from Rome, with a commission from the Pope to convert the Irish. To wriggle under a cavity in this stone and come out on the other side, is an infallible remedy for lumbago. Dr. Arthur Mitchell, while lecturing on Scottish superstition, said: “The adoration of wells continues in certain aspects to the present day, from John-o’-Groat’s to the Mull of Galloway. I visited a well at Craiguck, in the parish of Avoch, Ross-shire, some years ago, and found numerous offerings fastened to a tree beside it; and of at least a dozen wells in Scotland the same thing is more or less true. An anxious loving mother would bring a sick child to such a well at early morning on the 1st May, bathe the child, then cause the little one to drop an offering into the well—usually a pebble, but sometimes a small coin. Then a bit of the child’s dress was attached to a bush or tree growing on the side of the well. These visits were paid in a spirit of earnestness and faith, and were kept more or less secret. Some of the wells have names of Christian saints attached to them; but I never knew of a case in which the saint was in any way recognised or prayed to. There is reason to believe these wells were the objects of adoration before the country was christianised, and that such adoration was a survival of the earlier practice to which Seneca and Pliny referred.” However much the custom of seeking health by bathing or dipping in lakes, or drinking from certain springs, may be deplored, it is tolerable compared with the superstitious belief that prevails, of epilepsy being cured by the affected person drinking water out of a suicide’s skull, or by tasting or touching the blood of a murderer.’ Thanks KR!