Hartfell Spa – A Quest for the Mind, Body and Spirit

By: Nadiah Rosli

The signboard that greeted our group under clear blue skies in Moffat on May 7th located just a few metres before the Annandale Water Hall set the tone and pace for our quest. Akin to the winds that carried the word, ‘Hartfell Spa’ on the isolated road, we echoed each other’s names against the backdrop of this Border landscape. This exercise wasn’t merely a genial induction held between 9 individuals. Instead, it marked an immediate space of inclusivity and attentiveness to each other and our surroundings. Place names like our own, after all, are imbued with meaning, stories and memories. Indeed, this was a fitting introduction to the retreat guided by Environmental Artist, Jan Hogarth and Folklore Expert and Scottish Ethnologist, Dougie Strang to find the healing water of Hartfell Spa.

Dougie Strang, folklore expert and performers shares with us the secrets of Hartfell Dougie Strang, folklore expert and performers shares with us the secrets of Hartfell, the folklore of the landscape and reminded us of our ancient relationship to nature.

Dougie Strang, folklore expert shares with us the secrets of Hartfell's landscape

Dougie Strang, folklore expert shares with us the secrets of Hartfell’s landscape

What’s in a Name?

River Annan – In Irish mythology, Anu (or Ana) is the name of a goddess or great mother.

As we began our walk towards Hartfell, the highest hill in Dumfriesshire, we were informed that the gradation of space is not only defined by height. Culture and nature too, have stitched their enigmatic cloak across the landscape. Through Dougie’s engaging stories, together we unearthed Hartfell’s contours that have been carved by history, mythology and imagination throughout the centuries. The junction of 3 rivers (Clyde, Tweed and Annan) can be found on these hills which were also the abode of Neolithic dwellers, the Frisians and Celts. Perhaps, its most famous resident is the sixth century figure, the Wizard Merlin, who was believed to have spent his last years of exile in the wild forests of these Southern slopes.

We climbed higher on a grassy track and were asked to converge at the spring in silence. It was not just in sight that we approached the waters as all of our senses were magnified and the path demarcated our own zones of intimacy. Each step towards the Spa was connecting us to our presence at the hills while disconnecting us from the hustle and bustle of our lives. From ancient seers to the sickly, those who made their journey to the Spa were most likely guided by both external and internal compasses. We too, were pilgrims that day; our bearings shifting to what each of us were seeking for in the sojourn.

Pilgrims on our way to find the water

Pilgrims on our way to find the water

The Hartfell Quest was a delightful opportunity to journey into a sacred place through moments of solitude and conviviality, via interwoven paths of myth, folklore and language. An invitation to explore the landscape through sight, smell, sound, touch and taste enlivened the quest and heightened the stories heard as we walked. This confluence of the senses proved to be an enriching way to commune with the landscape and the other folk on the journey at a beautiful level of depth, glimpsing lives lived through experience, cultural values and memory – Jon Randall, Quest participant

Hartfell Spa

Hartfell Spa

Drinking the water from a victorian spa drinking jug

Drinking the water from a victorian spa drinking jug

The waters of Hartfell Spa which are rich with iron salts and minerals are famous for its healing and prophetic properties. It seems Hartfell water cures nearly everything according to a gentleman’s description in a Victorian travel book talking about Moffat’s medicinal waters: “I have likewise known many instances of its particular good effects in coughs proceeding from phlegm, spitting of blood, and sweatings; in stomach eruptions attended with headaches, giddiness, heartburn, vomiting, indigestion, flatulency, and habitual costiveness; in gouty complaints, affecting the stomach and the bowels;in obstructions and diseases peculiar to the female sex. It has likewise been used externally with great advantage, in teterous eruptions, and obstinate ulcers. Such is the strength of Hartfell water that it must be used sparingly”

We followed the gully and stream that brought us to the Spa and the quest culminated in the drinking of the water. One by one we entered through a small arch that led into a stone cellar. The wooden fence creaked as we had to bend low into the vaults. It is thought that Hartfell is an entry into the other world and this gesture at the Spa was somehow symbolic of the intersection between the tangible and intangible, the physical and the spirit. Soon, the rising wind was our receptive company and it could be appreciated why the Spa was a main source of spiritual wellbeing and inspiration for so many before us.

Jan Hogarth explaining the history of the Spa. Hartfell spa was discovered in 1748 by a John Williamson, whose memorial can be found in the old Moffat cemetery. It was considered into Victorian times and in some cases, even today as having healing powers.

“I thoroughly enjoyed our quest. I am still processing my experience. I enjoyed connecting with the land, the ever changing terrain and energy, the views and character of the water that flowed through the valley and trickled off the hills. Witnessing and sensing nature from so many perspectives, ancient nature, newness of saplings, the here and now in an instant of flowing water, nature’s embrace as I experienced the comfort and warmth of sitting in the grass. The engagement of the animals; the deer, the birds, the sheep and the poppy and penny too!

What stood out for me is despite being in love with nature I tripped myself up by believing I was more connected than I truly was. The moment of realisation came in the well, when silly me drank out of the muddy puddles on the well floor. Only when I turned around to leave did I spot the well the natural spring water!

Susie sharing her stories

Susie sharing her stories

Happy to report that even the muddy water up at Hartfell Spa is clean and pure – I suffered no ill-effects.” Susie Jamieson, Quest participant

After having lunch nearby the Spa, we headed down with a partner and exchanged stories of connection to nature, place and life. Later on the grass and heather, we shared our personal reflections. The Hartfell Spa was a conduit for these experiences as it was markedly a pensive occasion, fueled and nurtured by the 3-hour walk to the Spa.

“I enjoyed the relaxing company and a chance to talk about experiences and memories rather than the usual “what do you do” stuff. I also thought the mother of the rivers formation was awesome.” – Phoebe Marshall, Quest participant

The retreat concluded at the Annandale Water Hall with afternoon tea. These treats weren’t the only things that nourished us at the end of the journey. With our spirits refreshed, the encounters and connections we experienced – with fellow Quest participants, the landscape, folklore and stories of Hartfell will continue to be signatures that rest on us as we return to our daily routines.

The famous scones

The famous scones

“Cosmic speculation in good company, beautiful surroundings, rounded off by excellent scones!” – Will Marshall, Quest participant.

Nadiah is a postgraduate student of Environment, Culture and Communication at University of Glasgow, with a wide experience of conservation, including working as a Marine Communications Officer with WWF-Malaysia, an Environmental journalist with the Malaysian News Agency and a Programme Development Coordinator with APE Malaysia, a social enterprise working on improving captive wildlife welfare in the South East Asian region.

For more information about the Hartfell Quest and for opportunities to join the next one contact jan@wide-open.net or tel. 07801232229