Every part of Argyll and the Isles has its secret places and hidden touchstones to other times. Knowing about these gives us alluring insights into where we live and offers our visitors the experience of being insiders, gifted with specialist information and getting under the skin of a place in a way that tourists, in the normal run of things, cannot do.
This is the sort of information that can demonstrate the almost impossible riches of Argyll and the Isles – the identity that has successfully brought together this most slippery of places in a common name.
Tell us about your own secret places and For Argyll will act as a running transmitter and repository of these deep secrets, passing them on to the Argyll and the Isles website when it is is ready to receive them.
We’re starting the ball rolling today with a delightful and mysterious secret, found out on the western margins of Mid Argyll and all but unknown.
About a quarter of a mile north of the Ardfern road end (B8002) on the A816 between Lochgilphead and Oban, down below a rising chicane in the road and above a little burn, stands The Watchman – guarding a clear spring, with a cup to offer a drink to thirsty travellers, surrounded by the tatterdemalion rags that signal a Clootie Well.
These are places of Celtic pilgrimage, wells or springs with a tree or trees growing beside them where strips of cloth or rags, first dipped in the water of the well, are tied to the branches of the tree with a prayer offered to the spirit of the well, all as part of a healing ritual.
The Watchman is so secret that he has few visitors so the rags fluttering around him in the trees are few and discreet where in popular holy places, they come thick and fast.
He is a round and smiling head atop a stone, dated 1714 and inscribed with his message to travellers. Most of the words on the front of the stone can be read with care.
‘MY NAME IS WATCHMAN
HEIR AM I STILL WATCH
ING DAY AND NIGHT
WELCOMING ALL PERS
ONS THAT COMES HEIR
TO DRINK FOR WHICH
END HEIR YOU SIE
A DRINKING CUPE
And you do. We think it was once an iron cup and in the ground at the left of the front of the stone is the top of an iron peg driven into the ground and with a place where an iron chain was once attached, possibly to the base of a bell shaped drinking cup. Beside the iron peg is what seems to be a single remaining link of the chain.
The Watchman still offers a cup – now an aluminium one inscribed inside with the Watchman’s benign head and the words: ‘To drink of it for nought’ – taken from the now all but illegible inscription carved into the rear face of the stone, rendered by researchers as: ‘This effigies which you sie heir are beholding all that comes to its neir to this new found spring which heir runs our of a rock and are welcome to drink of it for nought at funtain IIIrd March 1714 this al by Barbrec’.
Thanks to the story she posted here on the internet, we know that this aluminium cup was quietly given to The Watchman by Debbie Saward.
She and a companion or companions visited The Watchman and made a special tryst with him, possibly in 1984 or 1985, to repair his circumstances. During this compassionate and generous spirited visit, with no cup then in his gift, she presented him with the inscribed aluminium cup he remains able to offer to those who seek his help.
She and her friend/s dug clear the narrow channel that leads the water from the spring he guards to the burn below,. They lined it with stones buttressing its sides and brought from the beach at Ballochroy to the south. They cleaned out the well trough itself, carefully sieving the rotting vegetation for offerings of coins, objects or little stones – and finding none. For a supposed wishing well, this was strange – but given the Watchman’s period of angry absence, a tale we repeat below, this may be understandable. Few have seen him since his return and earlier offerings may have been taken with him on his known journey down the Kintyre peninsula.
In what Debbie Saward calls ‘an apology for disturbing the well’, before they left they placed in the well pool ‘a large quantity of smooth white quartz pebbles (a sacred material since the Neolithic period, at least) also from Ballochroy and small pebbles of green marble form Iona (reputedly giving protection from drowning)’.
None of these pebbles are visible now because the leaf mould of the years between then and now has covered them, although the water above this natural debris seems clean and clear.
There are inscriptions on the sides of the stone which are now both illegible and masked by the angle irons at each side of its back, holding it in position.
The Watchman’s resentful trip to foreign parts
At some stage following The Watchman’s original installation above his spring, the then owners of the Barbreck estate sold it and moved to Campbeltown, in the north east of the Mull of Kintyre.
They did not relocate unaccompanied. They brought The Watchman with them to their new home, which they named ‘Barbreck’ for the one they had left behind.
Watchman found himself put in charge of an existing well in the grounds at his new home.
The much lamented former local history magazine, Kist, reported in a piece on The Watchman that he was seen in his new position in 1833, by William Dobie who recorded the sighting in his unpublished account of his travels: Fragments of Perambulations in Kintyre in the Summer of 1833.
Dobie says that Watchman’s then well was above Kilkerran Cemetery at the foot of Ben Gullion and was known as ‘Barbrec’s Well’. Today this is called ‘Charlie’s Well’ and the speculation is that ‘Charlie’ may have been a familiar name given to Watchman.
It seems that Watchman always had a voice. In his first home at the original Barbreck, people consulting him would ask questions which he was said to answer audibly.
His disgruntlement at being displaced to Campbeltown was a matter to which he reportedly gave vent, shouting abuse at those who visited him at Barbrec’s Well and constantly grumbling at a level of noise which his family found intolerable.
They gave in, bringing him back home to Mid Argyll, installed again on watch ‘day and night’ over the well by the burn at the Barbreck estate. The contentment of his homecoming silenced him and he appears not to have spoken since – or perhaps the rest of us have lost the ability to hear him?
Documentary research has shown both that the Watchman was indeed moved away and that he is restored to his original position.
The Watchman’s links with Celtic folklore and mythology
Since copies of Kist are no longer available, Debbie Seward’s online article, which draws upon the same sources as the article in Kist had done, is a useful source of information on the Celtic cult and symbolism of the head, with the practice of depositing the skulls of people and animals at sacred wells – as with the Well of the Seven Heads, south of Invergarry on Loch Oich.
Wells were also seen literally as the fount of wisdom, as oracles – hence Watchman’s reported vocal responses.
At the end of her article, Saward cites the excellent academic reference on Pagan Celtic Britiain by Anne Ross, where in Figure 93, Ross shows the graphic presentation of the Goddess Coventina, with the same round head and narrow neck we see in Watchman. She notes that Watchman was carved 150 years before Coventina’s Well at Carrawburgh in Northumberland was excavated.
Watchman’s genealogy would appear substantial.
How to find The Watchman
You will need wellingtons (believe us, mountain boots will not do) and possibly a stick for support as the slope to and from The Watchman is short and steep. And bring a ‘clootie’, a long strip of rag you can dip in the well and tie to a tree in tribute to The Watchman’s healing powers and wisdom.
Driving north on the A816 from Lochgilphead, pass the entrance on the left to the B8002 to Ardfern. Drive on to the end of that straight and, as the road rises in a left hand curve, slow down and prepare to park on the left, in a layby by a single storey telephone exchange in the corner where the road swings right again.
Park there and cross the road, walking north (left). This road is narrow and busy, often with heavy trucks so it is advisable to walk well into the grass verge above the road. Walk around the corner – not far – and when you see this drain cover, below, step over the crash barrier and walk on inside it, to the left.
If you look ahead, down below you will see a burn wending its way down the little glen – and The Watchman stone, leaning a little downhill above his spring, quietly and authoritatively keeping bis own counsel.
Walk on inside the steel barrier until you are almost above The Watchman before you make your way carefully down the steep slope.
You will find the ground around him – as Debbie Seward did and as we did – deeply soggy. This is where you will be glad of the wellingtons. We’re talking calf deep or more. If you choose your footings carefully you can limit but not avoid sinking in.
Take your time in Watchman’s world, which will progressively draw you in to its tranquillity and otherness.
Please respect what you find there, do not disturb anything and leave no litter.
And you never know – he might choose you as the one whose question he’ll answer.
For Argyll wishes to thank Chris Thornhill of Ardfern who brought The Watchman to our attention, collected material about it for us, who took us there and who gave us a clootie to leave with watchman; and his wife Mairi who took some of the photographs above.