Brian Lavelle | Scottish writer & sound artist

The Physic Well, Corstorphine

This is a post about the site of the ancient physic well in Corstorphine, Edinburgh, and what is - and isn't - there to see.

The remains of the well are located behind Dunsmuir Court, an unassuming small estate of flatted houses just off Ladywell Road, west of the old High Street of Corstorphine. The lady of Ladywell is undoubtedly connected with this well - but whether she is the biblical mother of Jesus or some earlier pagan association I've not been able to uncover. Sadly, there is no information at the site of the well to set any of this in context.

We took a walk just after New Year, on a cold bright morning when the grass was just slightly encrusted with frost in places and the sun was dazzling.

The commemorative plaque for the physic well is located at the bottom, northern end of Dunsmuir Court, and is now fenced in with what looks like a relatively new set of metal railings. They are slightly incongruous, but perhaps they help to protect the stones and plaque from damage. Earlier pictures I've seen have the stones open to the edge of the grass. This site and the surrounding area are part of the conversation area covering the old village of Corstorphine, so that might explain why it's been enclosed in this way.

The physic well itself isn't located exactly where these large stones are laid: instead it lies (or rather lay) about 40 yards to the east (in this picture, off to the left beyond the two large trees). The plaque inset into the stones explains this in more detail:

Up close, you can read: 'Much prized in the Eighteenth Century for its medicinal waters this well was on the southside of the Stank Burn & some 40 yards east of this spot where its well head was rebuilt in 1972 when the burn was culverted.'.

The well itself has been completely covered over and no doubt destroyed by drainage works in the early 1970s. The Stank Burn was apparently a drainage ditch, perhaps to take water away from marshy ground in the neighbouring lands. This marshland could be quite treacherous, it seems. I'm reminded of the story about an unusual little niche in the wall of Corstorphine Old Parish Church: above the great east window of the chancel, the niche houses a lamp on the outside of the stone wall. In medieval times the light from this lamp guided travellers along the side of the loch and safely through the marshes to Corstorphine. The light still shines today, guiding revellers home through the graveyard.

According to an entry on the Megalithic Portal site, the medicinal nature of the well's water 'was highly reputed in the eighteenth century, so much so that a coach ran 8-9 times each weekday from Edinburgh. The well was to the west of the High Street, on what is now Dunsmuir, and houses were built to accommodate those who came for a course of the waters.'

A large house further along Corstorphine High Street, the Mansion House, built around the middle of the eighteenth century, is said to have been a hotel or lodging house for those who came to the village to take the waters of the Physic Well in the hope their maladies would be cured. The house was demolished in the middle of the twentieth century, to make more room for the local primary school.

Sources and further reading:
The Megalithic Portal -
Geoff Holder, The Little Book of Edinburgh (The History Press, 2013)

#walking #Edinburgh #psychogeography #Edinburgh Drift #Corstorphine #physic well