Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall, Vol. 2, by William Bottrell, , at sacred-texts.com
Much has been written of the remarkable cures effected by its holy waters, and the intercession of St. Madron, or Motran; when it was so famous that the maimed, halt, and lame, made pilgrimages from distant parts to the heathy moor.
It is still resorted to on the first three Wednesdays in May, by some few women of the neighbourhood, who bring children to be cured of skin diseases by being bathed in it. Its old repute as a divining fount has not yet quite died out, though young folks visit it now to drop pebbles or pins into the well, more for fun and the pleasure of each other's company, than through any belief that the falling together, or the separation of pins or pebbles, will tell how the course of love will run between the parties indicated by the objects dropped into the spring; or that the number of bubbles which rise in the water, on stamping near the well, mark the years, in answer to any question of time; but there was not such want of faith, however, half a century ago.
A short time since I visited an elderly dame of Madron, who was a highly reputed charmer for the cure of various skin ailments; I had known her from my childhood; and my object was to glean what I could about the rites practised, within her remembrance, at Madron Well, the Crick-stone, and elsewhere.
She gave the following account of the usages at Madron Well about fifty years ago. At that time, when she lived in Lanyon, scores of women from Morvah, Zennor, Towednack, and other places, brought their children to be cured of the shingles, wildfires, tetters, and other diseases, as well as to fortify them against witchcraft or being blighted with an evil eye.
An old dame called An’ Katty, who mostly lived in the Bossullows, or some place near, and who did little but knitting-work, picked up a good living in May by attending at the well, to direct the high country folks how they were to proceed in using waters.
First she had the child stripped as naked as it was born; then it was plunged three times against the sun; next the creature was passed quickly nine times around the spring, going from east to west, or with the sun; the child was then dressed, rolled up in something warm, and laid to sleep near the water; if it slept, and plenty of bubbles rose in the well, it was a good sign. I asked if a prayer, charm or anything was spoken during the operations? "Why, no, to be sure," my old friend replied, "don't ’e know any better, there musn’t be a word spoken all the time they are near the water, it would spoil the spell; and a piece rented, not cut, from the child's clothes, or from that of anybody using the well must be left near it for good luck; ever so small a bit will do. This was mostly placed out of sight between the stones bordering the brooklet, or hung on a thorn that grew on the chapel wall.
Whilst one party went through their rites at the spring, all the others remained over the stile in the higher enclosure, or by the
hedge, because, if a word were spoken by anybody near the well during the dipping, they had to come again." The old woman, An’ Katty, was never paid in money, but balls of yarn, and other things she might want, were dropped on the road, outside the well-moors, for her; she also got good pickings by instructing young girls how to "try for sweethearts" at the well. "Scores of maidens"—the dame's words—"used, in the summer evenings, to come down to the well from ever so far, to drop into it pins, gravels, or any small thing that would sink." The names of persons were not always spoken when the objects which represented them were dropped into the water; it sufficed to think of them; and as pins or pebbles remained together or separated, such would be the couple's fate. It was only when the spring was working (rising strongly) that it was of any use to try the spells; and it was unlucky to speak when near the well at such times.
The old woman that I visited said she had never heard that any saint had anything to do with the water, except from a person who told her there was something about it in a book; nor had she or anybody else heard the water called St. Madron's Well, except by the new gentry, who go about new naming places, and think they know more about them than the people who have lived there ever since the world was created. She never heard of any ceremony being performed at the old Chapel, except that some persons hung a bit of their clothing on a thorn tree that grew near it. High Country folks, who mostly resort to the spring, pay no regard to any saint or to anyone else, except some old women who may come down with them to show how everything used to be done.
There is a spring, not far from Bosporthenes, in Zennor, which was said to be as good as Madron Well; and children were often taken thither and treated in the same way.
Such is the substance of what the dame related; and she regarded the due observance of ancient customs as a very solemn matter.
In answer to the questions of "What was the reason for going round the well nine times? Leaving bits of clothing? Following the sun, &c.?" It was always the same reply, "Such were the old customs, and everybody knew it was unlucky to do any such work, and many things besides, against the sun's course; no woman, who knew anything, would place pans of milk in a dairy, so as to have to unream (skim) them, in turn, against the sun, nor stir, cream in that direction to make butter.
By following down the well-stream or hedge, mentioned above, we come to the Chapel. In its southern wall may be noticed an opening for letting water from the brook, which runs near it,
flow into a baptistry in the south-western corner of the Chapel. Entering the door-way, on the northern side, one may remark that this primitive fount appears to have been arched over after the manner of our old bee-hive huts, by the upper rows of stones slightly overhanging. The altar table-slab; or mensa—still remaining at the east end—has a square pit worked in its centre, probably to mark the spot—over reliques—on which the monstrance was placed. A step makes the division between the little nave and sacrarium; there are also the remains of stone seats which were carried all around against the walls.