folklore, traditions, and stories from Scotland

Well Worship and Sacred Pools: The Healing Waters of Saint Triduana

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In the 4th century, the relics of Saint Andrew were brought to Scotland by Saint Regulus, an event commemorated by the naming of the town of St Andrews on the east coast. Travelling with Saint Regulus’s entourage was a Greek nun, a consecrated virgin named Triduana. The young woman settled in the parish of Rescobie in Angus where she led a quiet life, dedicating herself to God, until her beauty attracted the attention of Nechtan, king of the Picts.

The king became completely enamoured with Triduana, and sent her message after message, gushing about how in awe of her beauty he was, especially her dazzling eyes, and imploring the bewildered nun to marry him. In desperation to rid herself of Nechtan’s advances, Triduana plucked out her eyeballs and mounted them on wooden pins, offering them to the king’s emissary with the message, “take what your chief desires.” As a result of Triduana’s self-mutilation she became associated with eyes and ophthalmology, and many miraculous cures of eye afflictions were attributed to her.

Triduana took up residence in the parish church in Restalrig just outside of Edinburgh, and she eventually died there after a life devoted to fasting and prayer. In 1477 James III of Scotland made the church a Chapel Royal and ordered the construction of the King’s Chapel, a two-story building attached to the church. The lower half of the chapel, built partly below ground level, was dedicated to Triduana, and a sacristan of the church noted in 1545 that there was “a chamber and garden beside the church with the offerings made to the altar to maintain the lower aisle of the church, the altar of Saint Triduana therein situate, the books, wax candles, and other necessaries.”

The are several accounts of healing at the chapel, two of which are noted in the 17th century Acta Sanctorum.

A certain woman of a noble family in England, having lost her eye sight, prayed devoutly, but in vain, at the shrine of many saints, for its restoration. At length the holy virgin Triduana, appeared to her in a dream, saying, “go to Restalrig the place of my sepulture, in Scotland, where your sight shall be restored.” By obeying this injunction, her deserts were sufficient to recover the use of her eyes.

Afterwards a little girl, daughter of the same noble person, falling from a window thirty feet high, had almost all her bones broken; and lost an eye. Her mother, not unmindful of the virtues of the blessed Triduana, prayed fervently for her daughter, whose health was restored immediately, and she recovered the perfect use of her eyes. Such is the legend.

During the Reformation, the chapel was flagged as ‘a monument to idolatrie’, and almost entirely destroyed. When restorations began on what remained of the building in the early 1900s, the lower aisle was filled with earth and assumed to be a mausoleum, but in 1907 the earth was gradually excavated and the chamber began to continually flood. Attempts were made to seal the floor to stem the flow of water until it was eventually discovered that there was a natural spring under the floor, leading to the belief that the lower half of the chapel had, in fact, been a well-house, or pool.

In 1553 the Scottish poet and Makar, David Lyndsay, writes of flocks of people making pilgrimages to Triduana to ‘mend their eine’ (eyes), referring to her as ‘Sanct Tredwell’, this alteration of the name suggesting that a healing well certainly existed on the site at that time. Indeed, in Orcadian folklore Triduana is known as Tredwell, and she has a loch dedicated to her on the island of Papa Westray.

The Orcadian version of her story places her in 710AD, travelling north with Saint Boniface to convert the Picts to Christianity and ultimately ending up on Papa Westray. It states that she died there and was buried in the chapel that stood on the peninsula in the loch. The chapel was consequently one of Orkney’s most visited pilgrimage sites for centuries. In 1810, the minister of Westray, John Armit, noted that:

“Such was the veneration entertained by the inhabitants for this ancient saint, that it was with difficulty that the first Presbyterian minister of the parish could restrain them of a Sunday morning from paying their devotions at this ruin, previous to their attendance on public worship in the reformed church. Wonders, in the way of cure of bodily disease, are said to have been wrought by this saint, whose fame is now passed away and name almost forgotten.”

The waters of Triduana’s eponymous loch were regarded as medicinal, and people in need of healing would walk a circuit of its shore in complete silence before entering the waters or bathing the afflicted body part in them. Breaking the silence would render the attempt useless. An offering to Triduana would then be thrown into the loch, usually a small piece of cloth or a coin. In the early 1700s, the Reverend John Brand recorded instances of healing at Triduana’s loch:

“A certain Gentleman’s Sister upon the Isle, who was not able to go to this Loch without help yet returned without it, as likewise a Gentleman in the Countrey who was much distressed, with sore Eyes, went to this Loch and Washing there became sound and whole, tho’ he had been at much pains and expence to cure them formerly.”

There are interesting similarities between the story of Saint Triduana and that of Saint Brigid of Ireland. Both saints are closely associated with wells and springs, and both existed around the same time. King Nechtan, who was gifted Triduana’s eyes, once famously sought the prayers of St Brigid whilst living in exile in Ireland, and was restored to his kingdom. One of the many miracles attributed to Saint Brigid of Ireland, recalled in a 9th century biography, is similar to the story of Triduana:

After Brigid promised God a life of chastity, her brothers were annoyed at the loss of a bride price. When she was outside carrying a load past a group of poor people, some began to laugh at her. A man named Bacene said to her, “The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man though you like it or not.” In response, Brigid thrust her finger in her eye and said, “Here is that beautiful eye for you. I deem it unlikely that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.” Her brothers tried to save her and wash away the blood from her wound, but there was no water to be found. Brigid said to them, “Put my staff about this sod in front of you”, and after they did, a stream came forth from the ground. Then she said to Bacene, “Soon your two eyes will burst in your head”, and it happened as she said.

In The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, Patricia Monaghan suggests that Triduana could be a localised name for the Celtic goddess Brigid, who St Brigid is a Christianisation of. Brigid’s triple goddess aspect may be reflected in Triduana’s name – tri meaning three, and eudannach meaning having many faces.