The Lepers and the Balm Well

The original name of Liberton – a village some three miles from Edinburgh centre – may well have been Lepertown, or the town of lepers because, when leprosy was  prevalent during the Scottish Middle Ages, the unfortunates who suffered that terrible disease were confined to the then village and absolutely forbidden to approach the City of Edinburgh.

Each leper carried a pair of clappers which were sounded to warn of their approach. This gave rise to another name associated with the area – Clapper Field – a further reference to those unfortunate lepers. There is, however, no record of a so called “leper window” in the old Liberton Church, through which lepers could receive  elements of the sacrament while standing outside. Even though severely ill, it was a contemporary requirement that the lepers should benefit from religious instruction, and these leper windows could be found else where in the country.

Conversely, the origins of the name Liberton have been challenged on the basis that records show the first presence of leprosy in 1282 and the name Liberton applied to the village on the hill some 139 years previously. The name occurs in a Charter of King David I when the King farmed a large area of the land and his workers were called Liberteens or free men. Whatever the correct origin of the name, Liberton at any rate became a sort of concentration camp for the lepers of the Lothians.

The Balm Well
Liberton however, was not a hospital as such but provided an attraction for afflicted lepers or those with other skin diseases, due to the famous Balm Well of Liberton which, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries was still well cared for, guarded by trees and solid iron gates. The well was located in the small property of St Catherine’s on the road  south to Loanhead and elsewhere. The well water contained black particles caused by the shale formation of the area where the Clippens Oil Company once had their workings. There was – maybe still is underground -  a large deposit of shale oil in the district, oil which farmers also used to salve externally infirm horses!

St. Catherine’s Well attracted the legendary description of being “About two miles from the town (Edinburgh) a spring on which drops of oil float, gushes out with such force that if you draw nothing from it, the flow is no greater and however much you take away, no less remains. It is said to have arisen from some of the oil of St Catherine which was being brought from Mount Sinai to St Margaret having been spilt on the spot.”

In 1664, Matthew Mackail, an early Edinburgh surgeon, describes the well and relates how King James VI visited in 1617 and ordered the well to be “built from the bottom with stairs up and a cover erected over it.” The King’s directions were carried out but subsequently Oliver Cromwell caused the building to be destroyed.

A chapel once stood nearby in the lands of St Catherine’s. The tradition was that a vessel of the oil of St Catherine’s  was being brought from Mount Sinai – St Catherine’s Shrine – when the bearer stumbled and spilled some, hence the holy oil or Balm Well began its career of healing.  The proximity of the onetime nearby Straiton oil fields is a more likely source of the oil – but one can choose one’s own explanation.

The old Convent of St Catherine’s  – alternatively named The Sciennes – after  St Catherine of Sienna, which stood on the southern periphery of Edinburgh, in what is now the Sciennes area, had its origins in one of the Rosslyn St Clairs, who also probably built the Chapel of St Catherine near the Balm Well, dedicating the former to the saintly Catherine of Sienna who, in the 14th century roused Europe with her powerful personality, life and work, and the latter to the great Alexandrian martyr, Saint Catherine ,who met her death on the wheel – hence St Catherine’s Wheel of firework fame – and whose exiled refuge was at the foot of Mount Sinai where the famous monastery of St Catherine’s commemorates her exile, martyrdom and legendary entombment by angels.

The sisters of The Sciennes house came out in procession once a year to visit the Balm Well and chapel. Near St Catherine’s chapel at Liberton was a small rising called Grace Mount, formerly Priesthill, probably connected to the chapel. Gracemount is the name now adopted as the name for an entire South Edinburgh district.

The Roslin St Clairs seem to have been enamoured of the St Catherine’s of the church for, in addition to The Church of St Catherine’s of Sienna in Edinburgh, and the chapel of St Catherine of Mount Sinai at Liberton, they built a third St Catherine’s among the Pentland Hills as a thanks offering for  victory in a coursing match between the greyhounds of St Clair and those of Robert Bruce. That chapel too, is dedicated to the youthful martyr of Mount Sinai but is now submerged beneath the Pentland Reservoir!

The Sciennes house was the last monastic establishment founded in Scotland prior to the reformation and was the special home of the unmarried daughters of the Crown.

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One Response to The Lepers and the Balm Well

  1. Betty Seaton-Williams says:

    This article was very interesting to me.

    I visited St Catherines in 2009., with my daughter, looking for a memorial stone in the garden. Our Lady Janet Seton retired to St Catherines after Lord Seton was killed. I am researching the Seton women who retired to The Sciennes house.

    Kind regards,

    Betty Seaton- Williams

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