NS 00285 84468 – St Modan’s Well is to the uninitiated, merely a hole in the ground; hidden on a hillside above Kilmodan Church. Even if you have the exact co-ordinates you might miss it. The walk to get there though, and the crisp, clear water issuing from the well, are both experiences worthy of your time and attention. Don’t judge a well by its looks! The route to St Modan’s Well takes you through Stronafian Community Forest, which is managed by the Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust (CGDT), the same people behind The Loch Lomond and Cowal Way. And what a wonderful job they have done with the grounds! There’s a well way-marked trail, replete with incredible wooden sculptures to enjoy, and a picnic bench with a great view, near a chambered cairn. The whole loop should take about 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 past a waterfall.
It’s a lengthy 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 (by now much needed) 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, the path falls away to your left and you will see a large wooden throne awaiting you. St Modan’s Well is located to the northwest of where you stand, behind the trees on your right as you face the throne. There are tracks – produced by surface drainage – leading north and east from here. If you about-face and head a little way up the eastern track (which borders a gully), perhaps to ///hometown.occupiers.woods, then turn around to face northwest, you should be able to see a solitary standing stone further down the hillside; this is where you need to be. Return to the junction and follow the north track. It will quickly wend westwards leading you downhill to the well at ///various.ritual.exhaling.
The well itself is nondescript; changes to surface drainage have disguised the spring, so that it looks to be merely a continuation of the rivulet above. It is only the standing-stone, and the presence of white quartz stones in the pool below the spring, that help to identify it. Not much is known about the stone; it’s not recorded on any maps, nor mentioned by previous pilgrims to the site, so it must be assumed to be a recent placement, perhaps used by the forestry commission to remind them not to plant their pines here before the land was sold to CGDT.
From here, you can follow the stream downhill until it rejoins the path. This stream crosses the meandering path twice as it strikes out directly to the River Ruel and in both spots it pools. In these pools you will 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. Should you wish to sit on the wooden throne instead of visiting the well, then these pools may perhaps suffice as somewhere to offer your own stone and prayers. But if you wish to taste the sweet, crisp water issuing forth from just above the well, then you’d do best to get as close to the source as possible!
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 mapp (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.