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  Holy Wells and Magical Waters

Manswal, Birsay

Manswal in Birsay, not far from Boardhouse, was regarded as highly medicinal because the relics of St Magnus rested there, presumably on their way from Egilsay to Birsay.

A separate tradition in the parish is that the well was where the saint’s body, or bones, were washed before their enshrinement at Christchurch in Birsay.

I tend to favour the latter version.

The proximity off the kirk to the well makes it hard to believe that a rest would be required this close to their final destination. It seems more likely that St Magnus’ connection to the well was a typical church “hijacking” of a pagan well – in this case using a revered figure to sanctify the watercourse.

Whatever the origin of its sanctity, it is said that water from the well cured the blind, people with leprosy, crippling conditions and even insanity.

After his death in Egilsay around 1117, Magnus was denied a Christian burial by Earl Hakon. Instead, he was buried where he fell.

After a plea by Thora, the saint’s mother, Hakon relented and allowed Magnus’ corpse to be retrieved. It was transferred to Birsay, where it was interred at Christchurch, the church Magnus’ grandfather, Thorfinn Sigurdsson, had built.

Unfortunately, although the well's reputation survived through the centuries, there is little documented about the traditions or rites surrounding it.