Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, September 14, 2021


 "Legend of the Dropping Well" by Hugh Miller (1802-1856) (from Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland; or The Traditional History of Cromarty, Chapter XXIII,  revised second edition, circa 1851.  [Note: the first edition of the book was published in 1834; the second edition was expanded by about one-third; according to the author's note, the extra material was written at the same time as the original material -- about 20 years previously, between 1829 and 1834.  This would put the second edition being published in the mid-Nineteenth Century.  The earliest second edition I could find on the internet was the 1851 edition from the Boston publisher Gould and Lincoln, which was taken from the London second edition.  I could not find an exact date for the second London edition.]

Hugh Miller was a self-taught Scottish geologist and writer, folklorist, and evangelical Christian.  He became one of Scotland's most influential palaeontologists and was adept at popularizing science to a large audience,  In later life he became the victim of severe headaches, depression, and delusions -- most likely what we would call today psychotic depression, perhaps brought by the stress of overwork.  Fearful that one day he may harm his wife and children, he opted for suicide, shooting himself on December 24, 1856.  The day before his death he was checking the proofs on his book on geology and Christianity, The Testimony of the Rocks.  Miller's widow arranged the posthumous publication of many collections of his essays and religious works, keeping Miller in the public eye for another half century. 

As a youth, Miller was rather wild and rambuncious -- he left school after punching his teacher.  He was fascinated by the Scottish coast around Cromarty, and would often take hikes with his uncle, exploring the shoreline and caves.  His uncle was of a scientific bent and would describe the rocks and flora and fauna in a manner that fascinated Miller.  As a young man, Miller went to sea and one experience, where he viewed hundreds of dead bodies along the shore, stayed with him.  Despite his family's wishes for him to go into the ministry (and despite his own Christian zeal), Miller eventually became a stonemason, gaining a reputation for hard work and honesty.  In his spare time, Miller would write poetry and sketches about the life and lore of Cromarty.  He was also appointed accountant for a newly-opened bank in Cromarty, thus he was balancing three jobs at once.  From 1840 until his death, Miller served as editor of a Christian newspaper based in Edinburgh, The Witness.

Miller was a man of many interests and passions.  His Scenes and Legends in the North of Scotland remains an important book of Scottish life and folklore and a tribute to the imaginnation of the Highlands.

As to "The Dropping Well," it is "a small cavern termed the Dropping Cave, famous for its stalactites and its petrifying springs."  Located a few feet above the beach, there is "from a crag which overhangs the opening there falls a a perpetual drizzle, which, settling on the mos and llichens beneaths, converts them into stone."  Once a popular location, the accrued stone from the moss and lichen had made it a place of mystery and its dark recesses are not entered.  There is a story of a mermaid being spotted at the cave opening, and another of a strange old bearded man who sat before the cave unmoving for three days and who vanished following a storm which left many bodies on the beach.  There is also a tradition that a townsman once entered the cave and heard from above the ringing of a pair of tongs from the hearth of a farmhouse in  Navity, some three miles away.

A certain wastel and neer-do-well named Willie Millar, who was given to inventing tall tales, supposedly decided to check the aforesaid tradition.  Armed with sprigs of rowan and wych-elm sewn into the the hem of his waistcoat and with a bible in one pocket and a bottle of gin in the other, he bravely entered the cave.  It was dark and there were a number of natural cisterns filled with sparking water along the way.  Alas, Willie tripped by the ninth cistern and falling against the cave wall, broke his bottle of gin, the contents of which ran into a small hollow in the marble floor.  Such a valuable porperty being destroyed di not phase Willie.  He lay down and beginning lapping the gin from the cavern floor.  Then he stopped for a moment and began drinking again.  Feeling refreshed, Willie went on deeper and deeper into the recesses.  Eventually he came to an immense chamber light by burning firs trees.  The floors of the chamber were scattered with  half-eaten body parts and a bloody axe was hanging on the wall.  There was a bugle of gold hanging from a large man(?)-made column.  Willie took the bugel and blew into it.  The walls of the cavern shook and a corner of the large room was exposed, revealing a large. bloodied hand reaching for the weapon on the wall.  Willie ran, petrified beyond belief.  When he finally came to his senses, he was lying by the ninth cistern with the broken bottle of gin bedside him.  He had been in the cavern for nearly a full day.

Years later, a young boy of twelve (who had a character even worse that Willie Millar's) decided to test Willie's story and entered the cave himself.  Yes, there was a large cavern with an overturned marble table but nothing else of Willie's story seemed true.  Some time later, he heard a voice behind him which he recognixed as that of a dead friend, telling him to meet the voice at "the Stormy," which he took to mean a large rock by the sea.  There he waited but his dead friend did not appear.  Instead a large bee buzzed his head and could not be shooed away.  Nearing his ear the bee told him to dig and so the boy did, revealing a large spring of clear, pure water.  The spring, known known as Fiddler's Spring, has magical properties that can cure illness -- a belief that remained current as the author wrote this tale.

So, not a story really, but an interesting take on a local legend.  I first came across the tale in an anthology titled Weird Tales Scottish published by William Patterson of London in 1884.  At the time Patterson issued a number of anthologies titled Nuggets for Travellers, five volumes of which (#5-9) were in his Weird Tales series, one each representing stories from England, Scotland (#6 in the series), Ireland, Germany, and America.  When reprinted by another publisher later that year, the series was called Tit-Bits for Travellers.

For those interested, here are the contents of Weird Tales Scottish:

  • Sir James Dick Hardy*, "The Vision of Campbell of Invarawe"
  • Sir Walter Scott, "The Tapestried Chamber"
  • John Wilson, "Highland Snowstorm"
  • Hugh Miller, "Legend of the Dropping Well"
  • Sir Walter Scott, "Wandering Willie's Tale"
  • Allan Cunningham, "The Haunted ships"
  • John Mackay Wilson, "The Unknown"
  • uncredited (actually Robert Dale Owen), "The Rescue"
  • W. Grant Stewart, "The Witch of Laggan"
  • Mrs. Gordon (Margaret Maria Brewter Gordon), "Allan Mactavish's Fishing"

Both Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland (both editions)and Weird Tales Scottish are availble to read on the innternet.

*  Interestingly, Miller dedicated Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland to Hardy.


  1. I'm always curious about wastels and neer-do-wells in tales.

    1. Then, George, you will probably love my autobiography...if I ever write it.