Faith in Cowal | Pilgrim Trails

Explore Scotland's Early Christian Landscape

St Modan’s Well

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NS 00285 84468 – St Modan’s Well has for centuries been merely a hole in the ground; hidden on a hillside above Kilmodan Church. Even if you had the exact co-ordinates you might have missed it. You simply had to know where it was. At one point it was lost entirely due to changes in surface drainage caused by forestry work, Then, in the 1970’s, the Forestry Commission erected a standing stone nearby, to make sure they didn’t further damage the site. Nowadays, this site is under the care of Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust (CGDT) and the well has been marked with a wooden structure so that it’s easier to find.

The walk to get there, and the crisp, clear water issuing from the well, are both experiences worthy of your time and attention. The route to St Modan’s Well takes you through Stronafian Community Forest, which is also managed by CGDT (the same people behind The Loch Lomond and Cowal Way). And what a wonderful job they have done with the grounds! The trail is waymarked and easy to follow; replete with incredible wooden sculptures to enjoy, and a picnic bench with a great view, near Lephinkill chambered cairn. The whole loop should take no more than 2hrs at an easy pace.

Park your car in the large lay-by just above Glendaruel village, at ///markets.zaps.both. If you’ve visited Kilmodan Church first, you may wish to leave your car or bicycle there, and walk out of the village to find Stronafian Community Forest. The start of the route is easy to find as it’s marked by a large wooden welcome sign just by the roadside at ///slippers.shortage.saved. The route takes you up a set of steps toward a recently installed stone circle with another wooden sign at it’s centre. Follow the path up past the circle as it ascends sharply eastwards through the woods and then bends north, routing you above a waterfall.

It’s a short, but steep ascent if you’re not used to hiking, so take your time heading up through the forest, there’s so much to see! The natural beauty and biodiversity of the forest is evident regardless of the season. The path is marked with yellow plastic circles mounted to the trees, but also with wonderful sculptures, benches, bridges over burns, and painted stones. The purpose of the community path is to loop you up to Lephinkill neolithic chambered cairn. Once you’ve conquered the steep climb, the path rises gently toward the cairn – and the picnic spot  – with commanding views over the valley. It then continues north before eventually returning you to the road.

However, if you wish to find the holy well, then you must stray from the main path. After the cairn, the path heads north before turning west at ///monorail.tinsel.enacts and descending through an avenue cleared between fir trees. Standing at this junction, there is a sign directing you straight ahead for St Modan’s Well. The trail here is not as distinct as the path leading down through the trees but you should be able to see the wooden well erected near St Modan’s Well, located to the northwest of where you stand. As you head down the trail, you should also be able to see a solitary standing stone further down the hillside; this is where you need to be.

The well itself is nondescript; the pool of water over which the wooden well sculpture now sits, accompanied by the standing stone (pictured below from ///february.defender.emulating) is not precisely where the ancient well was situated. Changes to surface drainage, due to Forestry work, made this secondary pool more of a feature than the original wellspring. The actual holy well is found just a little further upstream, to your right as you look down at the new structure. The original well has been marked by some stone flags, and taking a drink from it made easier by new pipe works but aside from that, and a few white quartz stones left as offerings, it remains as it always was; a humble hole in the ground.

From here, you can either head back uphill to the main junction, or simply walk the trail downhill as it follows the stream then rejoins the main path. This stream crosses the meandering path twice more, as it strikes out directly to the River Ruel, and in both spots it pools. In these pools you may find more white stones; offerings from pilgrims who were not able to find the well, but have at least identified the stream that springs from it! 

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A century and a half ago the Ordnance Survey six-inch map showed St Modan’s Well on the hillside above Kilmodan (i.e. ‘St Modan’s Church’, the medieval church-site in the Clachan of Glendaruel).  The name suggests that there was a local tradition of honouring this saint not only in the more formal setting of his church, where priest or minister would have led the community in prayer and preaching, but in the wild places, on the hillside in sun and wind and rain.

Sadly, the 1869 map is the earliest reference we have to this hillside spring, but it is likely to have been honoured for a long time before that. Indeed, the map shows it as an antiquity (in Gothic lettering), so the surveyors at the time clearly thought of it as an old place. St Modan’s Well appeared on the second edition of that map (thirty-odd years later),  but has since disappeared from all maps.

The hillside on which it is found has been covered in commercial pine forestry, obscuring the landscape and damaging the fragile system of drainage and water-flow. Various efforts to identify the well have been made in the last few decades. Canmore (part of Historic Environment Scotland) placed it at NS0028 8446, which is the grid-reference we obtained by overlaying a geo-referenced online map on top of the 1869 maps. But the Cowal Archaeological and Historical Society, and its guiding star the late Betty Rennie, obtained other very different grid-references for it – apparently finding other features on the hillside which were not the St Modan’s Well shown on the old map.

In the summer of 2015,  Faith in Cowal, with some willing volunteers, rediscovered the well. Read about the search for St Modan’s Well on our blog. Some pieces of quartz, a bright white hard stone, were found in it.  These stones were often used as a simple offering or gesture of prayer at holy wells – also in graves. Their presence here may indicate the use of this well as a place of prayer or pilgrimage in the past. Now that the spring has been found it is hoped to make something of the site, to help pilgrims to find their way there from Kilmodan church.

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COVID-19

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Most of our sites are still open, and will make for a nice, socially distanced way to celebrate your faith, or to partake in a pilgrimage.

HOWEVER

They are small sites, with small parking areas. If there is already a car in the parking areas, THINK TWICE about visiting. Perhaps try a different location. Don't stray too far from home (there are sites all over Cowal), and stay at least 2m/6.5ft away from other groups at all times. Please stay up to date with with current government guidelines (click the picture link).