Healing Waters and Highland Bothies In the News
The 99% Invisible Podcast recently had an article about the network of free “bothies” which provide shelter to hikers or cyclists traveling through the countryside. A bothy is a basic shelter, usually left unlocked and available for anyone to use free of charge. Bothies are found in remote mountainous areas of Scotland, Northern England, Northern Ireland and Wales. They are particularly common in the Scottish Highlands.
I recently ran across as article mentioning a practice of hoping to heal people of various illnesses, physical and mental by bathing in a Highland loch. It is said to have taken place as a regular practice in the month of August as late as the 1870’s at Lochmanur or Loch mo Naire in Sutherland County in the far north of Scotland.
An eyewitness described one such occasion comes from the 1880 book The Mysteries of All Nations, by James Grant:
“The hour was between midnight and one o’clock in the morning, and the scene was absurd beyond belief, though not without a touch of weird interest, imparted by the darkness of the night and the superstitious faith of the people. The lame, the old, and young were waiting for an immersion in Lochmanur or Lochmonaire. About fifty persons were present near one spot, and other parts of the loch were similarly occupied. About twelve stripped and walked into the loch, performing their ablutions three times. Those who were not able to act for themselves were assisted, some of them being led willingly and others by force, for there were cases of each kind. One young woman, strictly guarded, was an object of great pity. She raved in a distressing manner, repeating religious phrases, some of which were very earnest and pathetic. She prayed her guardians not to immerse her, saying that it was not a communion occasion, and asking if they could call this righteousness or faithfulness. No male, so far as I could see, denuded himself for a plunge. These gatherings take place twice a year, and are known far and near to such as put belief in the spell. But the climax of absurdity is in paying the loch in sterling coin.”
The cure was taken by “impotent, the halt, and the lunatic immersing themselves, or being immersed by their friends.” Although at the time “impotent” could refer to being physically debilitated due to stroke or paralysis or being “mentally impotent” due to something like dementia.
A local minister who apparently often denounced the practice reported that people came from some distance away to seek out a cure: “Numbers from Sutherland, Caithness, Ross-shire, and even from Inverness and Orkney, come to this far-famed loch.” Another witness at the time claimed on one occasion to have seen more than 50 people take to the waters. Even when there were only a handful of bathers it seems there were often many more “present to see and be seen” at the ceremony.
A blogger I stumbled on while looking into this practice supplies a story for supposed magic power of the loch. It is said that local priestess, or witch owned crystal stones which could turn water in to an infallible cure for all ills. As news of these wonders spread a man from Clan Gordan pretended to be sick in order to steal the stones from the woman and keep them for himself and his family. The woman realized the scam, and tried to run from him. Unfortunately being up in years she could not run far and before he could take the stone it is said she threw them in the lake shouting “Ma naire” (shame!) and that the waters would heal all who came, except for those of Clan Gordon. Her shout of “Ma naire” is supposedly the origin of the name of the loch. But while it makes a good story, the blogger explained that Loch mo Naire does not really mean “the loch of shame,” but “the serpent’s loch,” – the word for serpent, “nathair”, being pronounced much in the same way as “naire” meaning shame.