Sometimes we must remember to appreciate the beauty that can be found in our neighbourhoods. Certainly, with the current COVID-19 crisis, this is a maxim to follow now more than ever. The beautiful part of living in Edinburgh, Scotland is that this is easy to do no matter where you live in the incredibly historic capital city.
With this in mind, we recently decided to head out on an ‘explore and discover’ mission because we wanted to look for a mysterious, historical landmark that we knew was in our neighbourhood. The legend attached to the site involves ancient Egypt, an early Christian martyr, a Scottish Saint, and Scottish Royalty. My love of Egypt was well-documented in our article on the Ancient Egypt Gallery at the National Gallery of Scotland. Therefore, any Edinburgh legend with a connection to Egypt was a strong factor in our desire to look for this peculiar site. So, join us as we head out on our walking tour; be sure to slip on some comfortable shoes, and don’t forget your sunglasses because it’s a beautiful day to explore Edinburgh!
Liberton Tower and Vistas
As we set out on our adventure, we were pleased to find that the weather was in magnificent form- the sun was shining (it’s always sunny in Edinburgh😉), and there was a gentle breeze to help keep us cool on the unusually warm spring day. The Wee Walking Tours canine family members- Finn and Sawyer- are always eager to assist with our research and happily came along for the exploration. The first stop of our journey was Liberton Tower (I’ve written about this location before, so be sure to check out that article after you finish this one). From here, you can see spectacular views that include the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh Castle, Arthur's Seat, Craigmillar Castle, and the Pentland Hills to the south. If you look out to the sea, you can even spot Bass Rock (which we discuss in our Tantallon Castle article). Finn and Sawyer also love to visit their llama and goat friends that live on the farm next to the Tower. However, as much as we were enjoying the sites, we knew we needed to continue to our next stop- St Katharine’s Park.
St Katharine’s Park
The Park is in St Katharine’s Brae (for those who’ve read our Braemar Castle post, you’ll remember that brae is the Scots word for hillside), and is a favourite of Finn’s and Sawyer’s as there is much to explore. For example, there are beautiful wood carvings throughout as well as a wildflowers meadow. The meadow was created in Spring 2011 to ‘increase the bio-diversity value of the site’.
After Finn and Sawyer enjoyed a run through the Park, we set out once again. I was quite excited as we were finally headed to our main destination for this walking tour- the mysterious landmark I alluded to at the beginning of this post.
The Legend of St Catherine’s Well
Our final tour stop is in quite an unassuming location. Located just a few miles south of the Edinburgh city centre in Liberton, is a charming building that was originally built at the beginning of the 1800s. Of course, the building has served a variety of purposes over the centuries including as a children’s home. Interestingly, it is now a Toby Carvery restaurant (for readers outside of Scotland and the UK- Toby Carvery is a restaurant chain that specialises in the traditional roast dinner).
However, the gorgeous stone building wasn’t our destination- just a nice place to help us locate the historical landmark we were looking for. Finn and Sawyer set out exploring the lovely wooded area next to the restaurant and were quick to help us locate our landmark housed in a wee stone building. I eagerly ran over, and, feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, carefully peered inside anxious for what I would see. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, but I finally saw what we had been looking for- a well filled with dark, oily-looking water. The Well is known by a few different names, but most commonly as the Oily Well or St Catherine’s (sometimes Katharine’s) Well. Let’s explore a bit more of the legend of this mysterious site.
Now, as our last stop was St Katharine’s Park and the well we were exploring is known as St Catherine’s, you probably won’t be surprised to find out that the woman at the centre of the story surrounding the well is St Catherine of Alexandria. St Catherine was said to be born in Alexandria, Egypt around 287. Catherine was an early Christian, but there were still many in Egypt during her time who followed the pagan beliefs- including the ruling Roman Emperor, Maxentius. Catherine spoke out against him and his persecutions of Christians. As a result, she was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually beheaded. During her imprisonment, it is said that she converted many to Christianity including Maxentius’ wife. She and her followers became martyrs.
St Catherine’s body was brought to the highest mountain next to Mt Sinai and was eventually found by monks from the Sinai Monastery. The legend says that her body was excreting oils that had healing properties. This is where her connection to Scotland comes in. For it is said that Queen Margaret of Scotland (who ruled Scotland upon her marriage to Malcolm III in 1070 until her death in 1093 and later was canonised as St Margaret) had a phial of this oil. The myth is that oil from Queen Margaret’s phial was spilt and a spring arose out of that.
The resulting well and its oily water became famous for its healing powers- particularly for the skin. Over the centuries, people visited from all over continental Europe looking to heal various skin ailments. Kings of Scotland also visited St Catherine’s Well including King James IV in the 16th century. Later, King James VI (the son of Mary, Queen of Scots) famously visited and had a stone well-house built to protect the sacred landmark. Unfortunately, as is the case for so many historic locations throughout Scotland, Cromwell’s army later vandalised the well. In the late 1800s, restoration work was done on St Catherine’s Well- albeit using a bit of odd, hodgepodge methods. The results of this refurbishment are what we now see today.
About 100 years ago, visitors stopped going to St Catherine's Well for its healing purposes. We now know that the water is oily because of the shale deposits around the well. Additionally, this also explains why some people were able to ‘heal’ skin conditions. Many people- especially Scandinavians (think of Neutrogena and tar shampoos)- understand that tar-like substances are good to treat skins conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
Regardless, the legend of St Catherine’s Well is quite an amazing tale. St Catherine’s influence is widespread throughout the Liberton neighbourhood of Edinburgh as she is also the namesake for the Catherine of Alexandria Catholic Church.
I hope you have enjoyed our virtual walking tour and our ‘pilgrimage’ to St Catherine’s Well. After all, it isn’t often when you can link ancient Egypt and an early Christian martyr to a wee well in the woods of Edinburgh. It’s always fun to find historical surprises and Edinburgh never fails to supply in that department!
When you visit Scotland- be sure to check out our Edinburgh walking tours. Sawyer and Sami would love to help you explore more of the myths and legends that abound in the city centre!
Until next time- Explore & Discover!