History and healing properties by Helen Williams
The Balm-Well is associated with St Catherine of Alexandria by a medieval tradition: a healing oil is said to flow at the shrine of St Catherine in Sinai. A phial of the oil was brought to St Margaret of Scotland in the 11th century, and either a drop was spilt (or the phial was broken depending on the version) creating the oily healing balm (Watson 1972, p.137). This is a black tarry substance which was an effective ointment for some skin complaints and was also used to relieve the pain of sprains, burns and dislocations. The tar still floats on the surface of the water, and a clear ‘tide-mark’ is visible where the tarry water has flowed after the well has flooded during heavy rains. The inside of the well-house and the grill that shuts it off are heavily coated with tar and there is a tarry smell (leading the youngest member of the party to pronounce a verdict of ‘Yuk!’ on the whole place!). The non-legendary, more prosaic origin of this deposit is probably the bituminous shale beds which are a feature of the geology of the area: there is also a long history of coal-mining nearby. This black deposit also accounts for another name for the well, ‘The ‘Oyly Well’, which was certainly used in the seventeeth century (Mackaile 1664).
As noted above, the well’s royal connections included St Margaret, wife of King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, but James IV at the beginning of the sixteenth century and James VI (James I of Great Britain from 1603) in the seventeenth, patronised the well. There were also foreign visitors: in 1535 a member of the diplomatic mission from Christian II, King of Denmark, Norway and Sweden visited the well, and, fifty years later, Lupold von Wedel of Pomerania was so impressed that he had some of the balm collected for his own use (Watson 1972, p.138). Early in the sixteenth century, a convent dedicated to another Catherine (St Catherine of Sienna) was established in Sciennes, a few miles to the north. Although the well and the convent were dedicated to different saints, the nuns made an annual visit to the Balm-Well.
In 1617, while revisiting Scotland, James VI (and I) apparently ordered that the well-house and steps be built, to make access to the balm easier (Watson 1972, p.138). In spite of several waves of destruction, including an early bout by Cromwell’s army, encamped nearby, a well house, with a stepped approach, remains. It was apparently in poor condition in the 1860s but had been rebuilt by the 1880s, when it was recorded, though it is not clear whether it had been rebuilt on its original pattern. The small obelisks shown in the photograph in Morris (Morris 1982, p.97) have now gone, leaving only the marks to show where they were once fixed. How much of the original stone remains is debatable, and some has certainly been replaced by concrete, but the worn and enigmatic lintel, carved with a shield and saltire cross, the letters ‘A P’, and the date 1563 is still decipherable.
The carved lintel above the door showing the date ‘1563’, the initials ‘AP’, a shield and the saltire flag Ian Williams, 2000
The balm was thought to be particularly effective as a treatment for skin conditions, especially ‘the itch’ (that is, scabies) which was very common in the dirty and overcrowded conditions, compounded by undernourishment, in which the majority of the population of medieval and early modern Scotland lived. The standard treatments of the time included ointments made with tar, as well as bathing in the water of healing springs. The balm from St Catherine’s Balm-Well fulfilled both these functions, and was also regarded as effective for some minor injuries. A medical expert from the seventeenth century apparently believed that, taken internally, it was also a suitable treatment for a wider range of conditions ranging asthma to hysteria, although whether those treated felt better or merely did not come back for more is not recorded. (Watson 1972, p.139). The name of the local settlement, Liberton, has given rise to the suggestion that there had been a leper colony in the vicinity, and that Robert the Bruce, among others, had been treated at the Balm-Well. However, this is highly unlikely as there is no record of lepers living in the area and it is now thought that the name Liberton is differently derived.
The Balm-Well remained well-known and popular until the end of the eighteenth century, but during the nineteenth century interest in it became confined to locals who still regarded the balm as an effective remedy for skin complaints, and to antiquarians. (Watson, 1972, p.140). One of these, Dr G A Fothergill, writing in 1910, described the well in detail, as well as the supposed healing powers of the water. He also sarcastically observed that rather than rely on the balm ‘the corpulent, overfed hunting man, whose body may be subject to eczema, is recommended by his physician to eat less and hunt more’, and followed this comment with a poem:
|‘Some went to St Katherine’s Well|
That magical, wonderful well,
To be rid of their bigness –
Their burden of beef –
In the full belief
They’d be quit of their sickness
And return as sound as a bell.'(cited in Cant 1987, pp.134-135)
He also commented that the well is now ‘but balm to the antiquary and curious visitor’, although he also noted that a few people still valued its water’s healing properties.
Originally a chapel to St Catherine (known as St Catherine of the Kaims) stood nearby, (Watson 1972, p.138) but the remains of this structure had apparently disappeared before the construction in 1806 of a house named, confusingly, St Katherine’s. This dwelling was designed by its first owner, John Simpson, and built by David Bell, although it has been altered since. One of its residents was the Lord Advocate who presided at the trial of Burke (of Burke and Hare fame), and visitors included Sir Walter Scott in 1825. (Wallace 1998, p.193). In the twentieth century, it has served as both a children’s home, and a centre for the elderly, before lying derelict for some years. It has since been restored, and remains a beautiful building, now used as a restaurant named ‘The Balm Well’, after the well which can be clearly seen from its front windows in an expanse of lawn.
The main text on this well, apparently used by all commentators on whom I relied, is: Dr G A Fothergill, Stones and curiosities of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1910. This is a rare work and was not available to me. Those which I have made use of are listed below.
Cant, Malcolm (1987). Villages of Edinburgh, Volume 2, pp.134-136. Edinburgh: John Donald.
Mackaile, M. (1664). The Oyly-Well: or, a topographico-spagyrical description of the Oyly-Well, at St Catharine’s-chappel in the paroch of Libberton. Edingburgh: Robert Brown.
Morris, Ruth and Frank (1982). Scottish healing wells: healing, holy, wishing and fairy wells of the mainland of Scotland, pp.95-97. Sandy: Alethea Press.
Wallace, Joyce M. (1998). The historic houses of Edinburgh, 2nd edition, pp.192-193. Edinburgh: John Donald.
Watson, W. N. Boog (1972). ‘The Balm-well of St Catherine, Liberton’ in The book of the Old Edinburgh Club, Vol XXXXIII, part 3, pp.137-141. Edinburgh: Bishop & Sons for the Members of the Club.
How to find the Balm-Well
Map reference: NT 273 684
It is found just east of the Howden Hall Road (A701), south of Liberton village. The well-house is in the grounds of the house which used to be known as St Katherine’s, but is now a restaurant called ‘The Toby Carvery, Liberton’, opposite Mortonhall Crematorium.