Chalybeate well

The mineral well (chalybeate well) beside the road just to the west of the community garden site had two periods of fame according to Ernest Marwick (Robertson 1991, 303):

As the ‘Haley Hole’ (hence the present road name ‘Hellihole Road’ leading from the town) it was visited by pilgrims from all over Orkney, who regarded it as a miracle well. The water was famed as a cure for scurvy and similar disorders. The name is undoubtedly from heilagr – Old Norse for holy – so it’s probably been considered sacred for some time.

Then, in the middle of the 19th century, it was advertised as ‘The Mineral Well’ and had a well house built over it to protect it from birds and animals. The stone built house had a wooden door and a ladle so visitors could drink their fill. By now the water was regarded as a more general tonic which visitors and townsfolk drank frequently.

The well is marked on the Ordnance Survey 1882 map (Orkney Sheet CVI.7, National Library of Scotland).


Andrew and Sam inspect the well house. A large single slab of flagstone forms the roof and the facade is slightly curved towards the road. The doors are now missing and the well is filled with rubble, however water still fills the interior in wet weather. Antonia recently spotted a faint ‘W’, or more precisely conjoined ‘V V’s – Virgin of Virgins (Virgin Mary) – inscribed into the lintel stone above the door. This symbol is often found associated with holy wells and was thought to provide holy protection.

Analysis of the water on Christmas Day 1862 by Dr Murray Thomson, who wrote a book ‘The Mineral Wells of Scotland’, showed it to contain a high percentage of sulphate of lime, chloride of magnesium and sulphate of iron, and a moderate percentage of chloride of sodium.

The well was still considered to have health-giving properties in the early 20th century.


Robertson JDM (editor) 1991 An Orkney Anthology. Selected works, Ernest Walker Marwick. Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh.

4 Responses to “Chalybeate well”
  1. Jon Barker says:

    Is anyone responsible for the upkeep of this well ?

    • dhjl says:

      Hi Jon,

      I think the well falls on the road verge land which is OIC, so officially, them I suppose. The adjacent field (the other half of our one) is owned by OHAL. Someone has cleared a few stones out of the well shaft recently. It would be great to fully clear it out and put new gates on etc. I had half thought this is something the community garden could do when we have established ourselves a bit more.


      • Jon Barker says:

        Hi Dan,
        Thanks for your reply. I live in Stenness and would be pleased to give an extra pair of hands to help / maintain this well – or any other Holy Well in the West Mainland.
        All the best,

      • dhjl says:

        Thanks Jon. Keep an eye on this blog, and fell free to come along to a work day to have a look at the well with us. Cheers, dan

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