The old Stromness Library sits at the bottom of Hellihole Road. The road sign is newly restored along with many of the other Stromness street signs, hand-painted on the blue. The old sign was sometimes tampered with, the ‘i’ obliterated and the area revealed as ‘Hell hole Road’. But what does the name mean? Well, it’s all about a well.
Once Stromness had over 70 wells, one of them was celebrated for its health giving waters. It is marked on an 1882 map as ‘Covered Mineral Well’ and in brackets ‘Chalybeaty’. Haley Hole lies just outside the town. The name is believed to be a corruption of the Old Norse Heilagr meaning ‘Holy’.1
Chalybeate means water rich in iron salts and the burn across from the well runs red.
An analysis of the water collected on Christmas day 1862 showed a high percentage of sulphate of lime, chloride of magnesium and sulphate of iron, and a moderate percentage of chloride of sodium. The analyst was Dr Murray Thomson, who wrote a book on the mineral wells of Scotland. 2
The well was known of in ‘Viking times’ – The Orcadian c.1927.
Pilgrims came from across Orkney to visit Haley Hole, the miracle well. It was known as a cure for scurvy amongst other ailments. 3
The well seems to have been forgotten about until the early 20thC. when the efficacy of the waters was rediscovered. A farmer who bought the land cleared out the well:
‘Then he began taking a drink of it every morning for no reason other than mere curiosity. To his great wonder and astonishment, however, his complaint of asthma abated and finally disappeared.’ – The Orcadian 19 May 1927.
The Mineral Well, as it was now known, became a mecca.The Orcadian recorded
‘visitors this season, almost without exception, ask about the whereabouts of the mineral well. Some come armed with bottles which are duly filled and carried away, while others content themselves with a good drink of the health-restoring waters’.
Ernest Marwick talks about earthenware jars of the well water being sent to his sick father weekly by his Stromness friends. 4
The well, now forlorn, is still signposted in the town in the form of Hellihole Road, the road used by pilgrims to reach the well.
1 Orkneyjar (Sigurd Towrie) article on Sacred wells here
2&3 Marwick, E. 1991 p.303 An Orkney Anthology ed. Roberston, J. Edinburgh. Scottish Academic Press.
4 Marwick, E. 1974 p.135 The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland. London. BT Batsford Ltd.