March 16, 2019
Could 'Ninewells' be a corruption of 'Nine Maidens Well'? As a recent former resident of Dundee, with my wife working at Ninewells Hospital and also knowing of the colourful story of the Nine Maidens Well near Dundee (NO383345) which supposedly gave rise to the name of Strathmartin, north of Dundee, I have often wondered if the name Ninewells, of which there are many instances in Scotland (almost entirely in that part of eastern Scotland associated with the Picts), is connected with the cult of the Nine Maidens of St Donevald to whom several wells in Scotland have been dedicated. According to the 1905 article by J M McKinley ‘Traces of the Cultus of the Nine Maidens in Scotland’, the cult had Pictish origins and was centred on Abernethy where the Nine Maidens moved to after the death of their father St Donevald but was suppressed by the reformist church in the 17th century. The profusion of ‘Ninewells’ place names in comparison to, say, ‘Fivewells’ or ‘Sixwells’ or ‘Sevenwells’ suggests that the name has nothing to do with the number of wells at a particular location and the fact that the vast majority are to be found in Pictland suggests a Pictish connection to the name. Could it be that the distribution of the name traces out the remnants of a once popular cult and the mutation of the name from ‘Nine Maidens Well’ to ‘Ninewells’ was sufficient to prevent obliteration of the name by the zeal of the reformist church in 16th and 17th centuries. Perhaps, also, the story of the Nine Maidens of Strathmartin and the almost identical story of the Nine Maidens associated with the well at Craigs of Logie (NJ499183) in Aberdeenshire were attempts by the Church to provide explanations for the names without having to refer to an ancient cult that they disapproved of. The Nine Maidens of Strathmartin were all devoured by a great serpent as they attempted to take water for their father from the well and were avenged by Martin, the lover of the last to die. He slew the monster at the site of the Pictish stone at Balluderon (NO374375), watched on by a crowed urging him on with the chant ‘Strike Martin!’, and on some old maps the name ‘Strathmartin’ is rendered as ‘Strikemartin’. The Nine Maidens in Aberdeenshire suffered a very similar fate but were dispatched not by a serpent but a bear or boar. Again, it was the lover of the last maiden to die, whose name was Bess, who killed the beast and as he did so he shouted out ‘For Bess!’, which is the supposed origin of the name Forbes!
Any views on this?
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