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  Holy Wells and Magical Waters

St Tredwell's Loch, Papay

“There is a small lake in the middle of the island, and an island in the lake on which is a small chapel.”
Descriptio Insularum Orchadiarum. Jo Ben. 1529

Up until the early years of the 19th century, the people of Orkney regarded the waters of St Tredwell’s Loch in Papay as medicinal.

As a result, the loch, and the 12th century St Tredwell’s Chapel, built on what was once an island but is now a peninsula, was one of Orkney's most visited pilgrimage sites for centuries.

In 1700, in his A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness, the Rev John Brand wrote that those seeking a cure would walk around the loch in complete silence – to talk to anyone, he noted, would prevent the cure from working.

The circuits done, the “afflicted” would enter the water, or bathe the afflicted body part, making sure to leave an offering – usually a rag, piece of cloth, or money.

Brand was particularly sceptical of this practice, writing:

“How it cometh to pass, that this Loch should accomplish the cure of any I leave to my Reader to judge, whether it be by any Medicinal or healing Vertue in the Water, which I incline not to think the Cure being so circumstantiated.”

He did, however, concede:

“It is but in few, in whom the effect of healing is produced.”

The chapel, from which the loch took its name, was dedicated to St Triduana.– a nun thought to have travelled north into Scotland from Northumbria in 715AD to convert the Picts.

Dedications to Triduana are found throughout Scotland, where she goes by a number of names, such as Tredwell, Trodline and, in Old Norse, Trollhaena.

According to legend, Nechtan, king of the Picts, became enamoured with the young nun, despatching messengers to tell her how beautiful her eyes were. Incensed, Triduana plucked out her eyes and sent them, impaled on a branch, to the king.

As a result, her shrines became particularly associated with eyes and the chapel in Papay became a place of pilgrimage for anyone suffering eye problems.

An example is detailed in the Orkneyinga saga, and relates to an incident in 1201 when Earl Harald Maddadson of Orkney captured Jon, Bishop of Caithness, put out his eyes and cut out his tongue.

The blinded bishop sought out the "resting place of the holy Trollhaena" where his eyes, and voice, were miraculously restored. This resting place was probably on mainland Scotland, but it shows the cult was well established, and popular, by the start of the 13th century.

A later account was recorded by Brand:

“As a certain Gentleman's Sister upon the Isle, who was not able to go to this Loch without help yet returned without it, as likewise a Gentleman in the Countrey who was much distressed, with sore Eyes, went to this Loch and Washing there became sound and whole, tho' he had been at much pains and expence to cure them formerly.”

Pagan origins

Like other wells and springs in Orkney, it is likely that the traditions surrounding St Tredwell’s Loch had their roots in pagan custom – practices that were christianised when the site was taken over by the church.

Archaeological evidence shows that the chapel was built on top of a mound containing a complex of prehistoric buildings that may include an Iron Age broch and earth-house.

We know the significance of bodies of water to the prehistoric people of Orkney, so it seems likely that the original figure of veneration was a pagan goddess, or spirit, possibly associated with fertility or healing.

The long-established customs surrounding the loch and the island within were subsequently absorbed by the church, who then adapted to incorporate the figure of St Tredwell as the popularity of her cult grew and reached Orkney towards the end of the 12th century..

There is one strange snippet of folklore surrounding the loch that is particularly intriguing. It was said that the loch’s waters would turn blood red as a presage to a “disaster” befalling the “Royal family”.

There are numerous similar examples of  “prophetic” wells throughout Scotland – with some turning to blood, others rising or simply making noises to signify a forthcoming event.

Regarding St Tredwell’s Loch, the significance of the “Royal family”, however, has been lost. But Rev Brand had no doubts:

“As for this Loch’s appearing like Blood, before any disasture befal the Royal Family, as some do report, we could find no ground to believe any such thing.”
A Brief Description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland Firth and Caithness