The Village Wells

Before the Seaboard Villages were connected to the mains water supply it was an everyday occurrence to meet someone either going to, or coming from the well. When I was very young there were few wells which supplied the villagers needs but in later years the supply was abundant, almost every home having its own well. It may have been that fishermen were too busy to dig while taken up with so many fishing tasks, or that with large families there was always someone on hand to fetch the water, it must be said that at that time children did do most of the carrying. As soon as they were old enough and strong enough to handle a couple of buckets children were expected to share this duty. Whatever the reason, during the mid-thirties when the fishing petered out men found ample time for digging and building, this lead to a sudden rise in the number of wells that appeared.

We were more fortunate than others as we didn’t have far to go for our water, Phemmie’s well supplied water to around half the street and was only about one hundred yards away from our house, despite so many users the well never seemed to go dry. It was quite shallow and water was easily obtained from it. One just bent down with a pitcher and ladled the water into the buckets. To facilitate carrying, a ‘grid’ was used. A grid was a wooden frame roughly three feet square which was slipped over the head and rested on buckets, with the handles on the outside. With the help of this device the load felt lighter and the water didn’t spill. People in the next street used Bellack Merran’s well, which in contrast to Phemmie’s was very deep, the pitcher had to be lowered ten to twelve feet at times, despite this the water was cool, clear and fresh.

I was a little bit older when our next door neighbour dug a well in his garden and for a time we got water there. This well was deep to, the pitcher weighed less which saved a bit of time. Shortly afterwards my father, brothers and uncle all helped dig our own well which also went a long way down. Having reached the required depth, a circular wall of stones was built from the bottom upwards and the well was wide enough to allow someone to get down for occasional cleaning, or for the retrieval of anything that might have fall in. Large stone slabs were laid on top with a hole big enough to allow easy passage for a pitcher or bucket. When not in use, a piece of wood covered the opening and a large stone held it down. Eventually we had a pump inside our kitchen which in some way was connected to the well. We used the pump until the mains supply arrived.

At the far end of the village most folk went to the well in the ‘Parl’ for their drinking water. It to was shallow and the water was therefore easy to get at, unfortunately the load had, sometimes to be carried a long way.

Two pumps provided most of the water used in Balintore. One stood near where the ‘Green’ is now and water was easily extracted by pumping in the normal manner. The other pump which was much further away, by the side of the old football pitch, was a bit different. Each user had to carry a small amount of water to the pump and a sucker(or ‘sooker’ as it was then called). The water was poured into an opening at the top of the pump and this helped to activate the flow when the sucker was inserted and operated, not unlike a plunger. Yet another pump was located at the west end of Park Street, I think there may also have been one or two wells in Balintore and Shandwick, certainly not many though.

Water carrying wasn’t always without hazard. My sister Retta stayed for a time in an isolated cottage half a mile from the village. The nearest well was about a quarter of a miles distance, to get there one had to trudge a deeply rutted cart track or cut across a very rough field. Needless to say, wellies and mackintoshes were much in use during wet weather. The well was, in reality part of a burn which sometimes saw cattle grazing nearby it, this in turn disturbed the silt. The water was then unsuitable for drinking and a second journey was necessary once the sand had settled. It was the Highland Cattle that we feared most. In summer when the burn was dry and they were parched with thirst they needed only one glimpse of a bucket to make them stampede in its direction. We need but one look at the menacing horns of the huge beasts as they charged across the field towards us, down went the buckets and we immediately scurried to the nearest point of safety.

At that time I was familiar with two other wells, one was ‘The Well of Health’ which lay about a mile beyond Shandwick, the other was at Port Culag. I picnicked with my sisters and friends at both of these places. The ‘Well of Health’ was quite tiny, about eighteen inches square and less than a foot deep. The well lay at the foot of the cliff where the spring ran almost on to the sand of the sea shore. One caring person built a surround of stones and cement, embossed with sea shells it looked quite attractive. Unfortunately the storm of 1983 did much more than damage to the coastline than the great storm thirty years earlier. Sadly the well and its surrounding wall disappeared for a time. Eventually the spring trickled through again and once more there was a well, though not quite the same as the one we knew from our childhood.

At Port Culag we often filled our kettles or pits from the well under the hill. According to legend it had been there a long time and was sometimes called ‘Lady’s well’. When sent to fetch water from it, I dreaded the possibility of finding one or more toads staring up at me, ‘paddocks’ we called them. Toads or no toads, when the water was boiled on a fire by the side of the dyke and the tea was made we all sat down and enjoyed it.

‘Help the aged’ is no new slogan. If older people were unable to fetch water themselves their needs were attended to by those who were more able bodied. The days of having to struggle for such a simple necessity as water are long since gone and today, by merely turning on a tap we can have as much as we need. It is considered an inconvenience if water is cut off for a few hours while a burst pipe is repaired, or in summer when there are restrictions and the use of sprinklers is forbidden. Instead of moaning, we should really be thankful for the many blessings we now enjoy, as well as for the great improvements in living conditions, achieved through our connection to the water supply.

Katie Ross