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St Catherine's Well

(Oily Well, Balm Well, St. Katherine's Well)

An historic spring contained in a small B-listed well-house in the grounds of the Toby Carvery (Balmwell Hotel) at Howden Hall in S Edinburgh, the Balm Well of St. Catherine is also known as the Oily Well because it contains a small amount of oil which has given rise to its fame as a curative of skin conditions. This derives from the oil shale rock through which the spring water passes.

The well takes its name from St. Catherine of Alexandria, a 4th C. Christian martyr. It was known to King James IV (1473 - 1513) and, in 1526, was visited by philosopher Hector Boece (1465 - 1536). Tradition suggests the well originated through the spilling of a phial of healing oil brought to Queen Margaret (c.1045-93) from St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, where the oil was said to emanate from the saint's corpse. The well-house bears the date 1563, but this is most-likely erroneous because it was built in 1617, on the orders of King James VI (1566 - 1625), to permit easier access. This original structure was demolished in 1650 by Oliver Cromwell's invading troops, who were encamped nearby, and was observed to be dilapidated in 1861. The well-house was rebuilt in the 1880s, which is probably when the wrongly-dated lintel was installed.

A chapel known as St. Catherine of the Kaims stood nearby but this was gone by the time a house was constructed here in 1806, confusingly called St. Katherine's. This became the home of Sir William Rae, who was Lord Advocate presiding over the trial of William Burke (1769 - 1842). Visitors include Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832) in 1825. St. Katherine's became a children's home, a centre for the elderly, and then lay derelict for some years before being converted to its current use as a restaurant.

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