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  Holy Wells and Magical Waters

Bigswell, Stenness

Perhaps the most renowned of Orkney's holy wells was situated at Bigswell in Stenness.

But contrary to popular belief, the well had no name – or at least no name that survives today. Bigswell is the name of the area and a corruption of the old Norse words bygg and vollr, meaning either barley field or the field belonging to Bygg.

Lying to the south-east of the Standing Stones of Stenness, there are two wells in the Bigswell area that “claim” to be the old sacred well. One lies in a marsh at Bigswell, the other on an area of sloping ground across from Upper Bigswell.

At one time, opinion favoured the one in the marsh as being the original curative well. This was based on a series of alleged alignments with the Standing Stones of Stenness, around two miles to the north-west.

However, it is more likely that the one on the slope is the actual well. Not only is it by the old road through the valley between Stenness and Orphir, but water springing from a hillside was once thought to be more potent and therefore more highly revered.

The well was thought to be most potent at Beltane, May 1, and Midsummer, June 21, and at these times was visited often by those seeking cures.

The afflicted would circle the well three times "sunwise" before drinking the water and heading off to complete the healing rituals at the nearby Odin Stone. Children were also bathed in the well before they too were taken to the holed monolith.

The well was thought to be particularly efficacious for those suffering from "the falling sickness" (epilepsy) or those with mental disorders. These unfortunates were "cured" by plunging them into the cold water of the well. Once removed, they were bound to a nearby post and left overnight.

If this rather harsh treatment was not successful, the procedure was carried out again.

Lovers were also known to drink from the waters of the well before swearing the Odin Oath at the holed monolith nearby.

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