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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

The Story of St John's Loch, Told and Re-Told.
George Watson.

When looking into the background of the church at Dunnet, it was impossible to ignore references to St John's Loch.

Hunspow, although now slightly displaced, probably contains the earliest form of the loch name. It is derived from the Norse Jons-pollr = John's Pool. An alternative to John may be the dialect word Shon used to describe a bog or quagmire. Such a name would have been formed when Norse or Norn was still spoken locally, say in the 12th or 13th century and describes a small expanse of water in a boggy area.

This is not at odds with the earliest account of the loch written in 1700 which says:-
"Nigh to it (an old chapel) ...... there is a Loch called St John's Loch, concerning which there goes a fabulous Tradition, that on St Stephen's Day there was a pleasant Meadow in that place, where now the Loch is, and on St John's Day thereafter, it was turned into this Loch."

Now St Stephen's Day is the 26th December and St John The Evangelist's Day is the 27th December, making the loch appear miraculously in a single day. For practical reasons St John the Baptist is a better choice. His day is the 29th August which would have given sufficient time for a loch to develop naturally. There are traces of at least three mills on the outlet stream, so blockage of the drainage may have been deliberate.

Once the story of the loch's remarkable genesis had taken hold, it would have been easy to graft healing properties onto the legend.

For one hundred and forty years nothing was written about St John's Loch. It was bypassed or ignored by the usual visitors to the county. Even the First Statistical Account (1791), failed to name it, let alone tell of its virtues. Maps of the locality produced at this time identify it as Dunnet Loch or The Loch of Dunnet. There appears to have been a campaign to extirpate all traces of the pre-Reformation Church and customs associated with it. It was not until the publication of the 1st Ordnance Survey map that the old name was reinstated.

In 1840 the Rev Thomas Jolly, wrote the definitive account of the loch for the New Statistical Account:-
"A few of these (trout from the Loch of Syster) were put into the Loch of Dunnet, or St John's Loch, a few years ago, by Dr John Jolly. It is not yet ascertained if they have bred. St John's Loch is much resorted to on the first Monday of May, and the first Monday of August, November and February, O.S., by invalids from all parts of the country. They walk round it, bathe, throw a piece of money into the water, and are out of sight of it by sunrise. Hypochondriacs and nervous people may sometimes feel better after this, from the power of imagination and exertion; but those seriously ill are of course worse for it, and die occasionally by the road.

The secret of the matter seems to be this: there was a Catholic chapel (St John's) at the east end of the lake, to the waters of which the saint must have communicated virtuous qualities. The money is evidently the offering to the altar; hence the very worthy practice of curing the sick and enriching the church. After the reformation, the practice of throwing the money into the loch would begin, it being possible that the minister would instruct them to do so. It is astonishing, that in these days such a superstitious rite should be continued; but so it is, and people who should know better have recourse to it. I do not think it does much good to the people in the parish; it seems most efficacious to those at a distance."

The Rev Jolly used both the old and new names to identify the loch. By 1840 he had clearly persuaded his own flock to abandon the loch, but was still troubled by visitors from outwith the parish.

Visiting the loch had ceased by the time the Ordnance Survey map makers arrived c1872 and Sapper Robert Kane's report is a re-write of the Rev Jolly's account, with one or two interesting additions. The people who resorted to the loch came from "all parts of the county, and even Sutherland and the Orkneys". He noted that the first Monday of each quarter was known as 'The Raith'. In a passing reference to St John's Loch he called it "halie lock" in which he claimed to have found a coin.

The next account, first published in a series of articles on place-names in the Northern Ensign in 1902, took the complete healing ritual and transferred it lock stock and barrel to Loch Heilen:-
"The Loch of Hailan means the healing loch.
Its reputation for miraculous cures died out before 1800, but persons came to the loch of Dunnet to be cured as late as 1825 or 1830.

The person who desired to be cured of an ailment had to bathe in the loch between "sun and day", ie between daybreak and sunrise, on the first Monday of a "raith" (quarter), leave a silver coin in the loch and go through other forms which I have forgotten. My father, born in Dunnet in 1806, told me that he and other Dunnet boys used to search the edge of the loch for coins after each "first Monday of a raith" and that he found some or saw some found. He never saw any of the bathers. Curiosity in a youngster is not strong enough to make him get up and walk a mile or so in the raw morning "between sun and day."

Mr D B Nicolson was the author, and when he re-used the same material in John Horne's County of Caithness in 1907 he prefaced it with a note explaining that, "Though the articles were written by him, they came from [his] father's knowledge, and appeared in the father's name." His father, also a D Nicolson, had been the schoolmaster in Wick and it was therefore D B's grandfather, who had searched the loch for coins, as a boy.

We know this attribution to Loch Heilen is incorrect because D Nicolson, the father, was actually one of the 'authorities' consulted by the Ordnance Survey about the place name Loch Heilen.

They described it as, "A large loch on the district of Greenland, known by this name." No hint of healing here!

After this mistake, later writers were noticeably vague as to which loch was the healing one.

In 1926 Mr A Polson who had been a schoolteacher at Dunbeath wrote:-
"There is a loch in Dunnet to which some Caithness people went to be cured. They threw a penny into the water and then walked or were carried "withershins", or the Gaelic unlucky way, round the loch, and were then taken home.
If after this they were no better, their want of faith got the blame; if they were better the cure was ascribed to the mystic virtues of Halie Loch."

It is therefore not surprising to find in a gazetteer published in 1982, no fewer than three healing lochs ascribed to Dunnet parish:-
"Halie Loch, the only loch we know which patients went round widdershins, against the sun.

Loch Heilen, between Greenland and Lochend ...... [Followed by a precis of Nicolson's account in the Northern Ensign].

St John's Loch, The ritual was as for the preceding loch, though the writer in the NSA thought the waters were more efficacious for those coming from a distance than for parish dwellers."

As we have seen Loch Heilen was a mistake and 'Halie Loch' existed only as a literary allusion to St John's Loch, the original healing loch in the parish.

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