Centuries-old source of healing waters in line for restoration

FOR centuries its murky waters were prized by nuns, lepers and royalty alike for their mysterious health-giving powers.

But now the Balm Well, which once survived a destructive visit by Oliver Cromwell's soldiers, is badly neglected – and contaminated with E.coli bacteria.

But salvation may be at hand, as developers today announced plans to restore the well – historically known as St Catherine's Oily Well – to its former glory.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The move involves reviving a contentious plan to close the neighbouring Balmwell House – a popular bar and restaurant – and turn it into offices.

Controversially, Morningside-based developer Edenlaw wants to build dozens of flats and homes in the sprawling grounds.

The firm's Allan Whitelaw said: "As the new owners of the site, we want to ensure that Balmwell House and the surrounding grounds are properly cared for and maintained.

"The site has been left uncared for over many years and we hope our proposals can breathe new life into the area. I am particularly concerned about the neglect of the ancient monument, St Catherine's Oily Well, which is in need of urgent attention. Our aim is to provide homes for families, new jobs and a fully restored area of which the community can be proud."

Sister Mary Steedman, from the nearby St Catherine of Alexandria Parish, said restoring the well was a very good idea.

"I don't think people know much about the well any more, but it has a history," she said.

Last year, council officials threw out plans to create 159 flats at the site of the B-listed Balmwell pub on Howdenhall Road.

The latest scheme involves cutting the number of flats to 24, alongside 22 family houses – with proposals for another 60 flats on a brownfield site put on hold. But residents today expressed fears about the impact of more cars on busy Howdenhall Road or St Katharine's Crescent to the rear.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Labour Liberton and Gilmerton councillor Ian Murray said: "If this isn't the right scheme for the site, then I won't support it."

Community councillor David Hurst added: "I still have concerns over the poor access to the site from what is a major feeder road into the city, but I would like to see the well cleaned up and turned into a public amenity area."

• A public exhibition on the plans will be held at St Catherine's Church Hall on Gracemount Drive on Friday May 16 from 3pm until 7pm and the following day from 10am until 2pm.


LEGEND has it that a pilgrim was bringing a phial of oil used to embalm St Catherine of Alexandria, from Mount Sinai to Scotland, when he spilled it in Edinburgh in the 11th century.

Where the drop fell a spring welled up and created the healing oil found in the waters of the Balm Well.

The black tarry substance still floats on the spring water today, but the more prosaic origin is likely to be the nearby coal seams.

For centuries, the water was used as an ointment for scabies and eczema, and was also used to relieve the pain of sprains, burns and dislocations. It may even have been used to treat leprosy.

The first records of the well date back to 1505, and it was a place of pilgrimage for many Scottish monarchs, including James IV.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Legend also has it that Robert the Bruce was one of the well's patients.

When King James VI visited in 1617, he ordered that it should be fenced in with stones from bottom to top and that a door and staircase should be made for it.

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell's troops nearly demolished the site and it was over 200 years before the well-house was properly rebuilt.

How much of the original stone remains is unclear, but the date 1563 is still decipherable.