we look at an ancient healing waters custom from Scotland
that was practised annually on August
4, leading one to postulate (do you like that? "leading
one to postulate") that it was a Lughnasadh commemoration.
Its rites contain actions that remind one not only of Celtic
practices, but also the Christian sacrament of baptism.
Loch-mo-Naire, a lake in Strathnavon, Sutherlandshire, famous
for its supposed miraculous healing qualities, was a site of
pilgrimage for the lame, sick, impotent, and mentally ill.
At midnight, these faithful unfortunates would gather on the
shore of the loch to drink from its sanative waters, strip
naked, and walk backwards into the loch. After immersing themselves
three times, they would throw offerings of silver coins into
An old tradition informs us how the loch obtained its wondrous
qualities and its name. Long, long ago, an old woman had somehow
come to own some bright crystals, which, when placed in water,
had miraculous powers of rendering the liquid an infallible
cure for all “the ills to which flesh is heir”.
As the fame of these wonder-working pebbles soon spread far
and wide, it soon attracted the greed of a member of the neighbouring
Gordon clan, who made up his mind to secure the miraculous
crystals for the Gordons’ exclusive use.
To this end, Gordon feigned sickness, but the moment he presented
himself to the crone, she divined his intention and fled. Escape,
however, was impossible, because she was old and her pursuer
had youth and swiftness on his side. Yet rather than surrender
her charm-stones she threw them into the first lake to which
she came, exclaiming, as she did, "Mo naire!", meaning, “shame!” She
then prophesied that the waters of Loch-mo-Naire would heal
all who dipped in them or drank of them, except for those who
belonged to the accursed Gordon tribe. (No offence intended
if you're a Gordon!)
Writing in 1897, William S Walsh (Curiosities of Popular
Customs and of Rites, Ceremonies, Observances, and Miscellaneous
JB Lippincott Company) tells us that the tale of the crone
is evidently very much more recent than the superstition
connected with the lake’s healing charms. Loch-mo-Naire does not,
in fact, mean ‘the loch of shame’, but ‘the
serpent's loch’, the word for serpent, nathair, being
pronounced exactly in the same way was naire meaning ‘shame’.
Walsh writes, “This manifestly points to the great
archaeological fact that almost everywhere the serpent
is represented as the
guardian of waters supposed to possess curative virtues.
It is also the recognized emblem of Asclepius (Aesculapius),
god of the healing art, who himself sometimes appeared
in the form of a serpent.”
A WWW source local to Loch-mo-Naire asserts that the loch’s
name derives from that of an ancient Celtic goddess and
that the immersion rites continued there until the First
(Tourists still visit and perform the rites, and perhaps
a tourist is but a pilgrim with a digicam.)