Loch-mo-Naire Pilgrimage, and the Serpent

Today 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 the depths.

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 Antiquities, 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), the 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 World War. (Tourists still visit and perform the rites, and perhaps a tourist is but a pilgrim with a digicam.)

From Wilson's Almanac