Jill Smith’s Zodiac Journey: Aquarius
TOBAR BHRÍGHDE (Bride’s Well), MELBOST BORVE
Isle of Lewis
Photo: Mhairi Law
Although Aquarius is an Air sign, it is commonly known as the Water Carrier, so has this strange mixture of Air and Water.
Within the period of Aquarius comes the Celtic festival of Imbolc, which is also the time to celebrate she who has many variations to her name, such as Bride, Bridget, Brigid or Bríghde. In the Hebrides, in the past, she had a particular identity as Bríghde of the Isles, a blending perhaps of an ancient goddess with the later St Bridget. She was greatly revered and called upon for blessings on daily tasks, and aid in times of need. There are many legends associated with her as both goddess and saint. (See my book Mother of the Isles).
I celebrate Imbolc on February 1st, though many hold it on the 2nd, which is the Christian Candlemas.
At Melbost Borve, to the north of the Isle of Lewis, a simple but beautiful well dedicated to Bríghde sits, now almost un-noticed, on a croft overlooking a bay where the ocean is often extremely wild. Nearby is Teampull Bhríghde, the ruins of a tiny chapel, now almost completely overgrown.
Since I first met this well in 1983, I have visited it most years to celebrate Imbolc, though in recent years it has become more difficult for me to be there on the precise date, but I usually manage to visit within a few days.
It was obvious to me that the Aquarius of this Zodiac Journey should take place at Tobar Bhríghde. I had hoped we could be there for February 1st, but the weather on that day and on many days either side was due to be heavy rain with storm-force winds. Amazingly, amongst all this was one beautiful clear, bright, dry day with only a light breeze. We seized this day and were well rewarded.
To begin with I stuck a length of willow, cut from a bush in my garden, into the earth to one side of the well. This represents Bride’s wand, with which she touches the earth and brings on the growth of Spring.
Wearing my Air outfit I placed the Aquarius cloth and wooden sign beside the well. The cloth represents a lightly clouded sky.
On the capstone of the well is the imprint of a horseshoe. Bríghde is associated with smithcraft, so although I was once told it was put there for good luck, it seems very appropriate. Near it I placed one of the shoes from my pony Polly, with whom I travelled for much of the Gypsy Switch journey in 1984/5.
On either side of the entrance to the well I placed several objects which I bring here most years: a metal statuette of a female smith with anvil, given to me when they were young by my daughters Tiffany and Saffron; a piece of driftwood in the form of a figure with outstretched arms which I had found in the bay near here several decades ago; a blue candle in a jar; a blue tea-light in a metal holder formed of Celtic patterns, and a Bridget’s cross sent to me many years ago by someone in Glastonbury (which also has sites dedicated to Bride and a strong following of her). When I visited Tobar Bhríghde last year with Iain Morrison of Fruitmarket there was already a beautiful Bridget’s cross there made from a local stiff grass – and it was still beside the well, having weathered a year of sun, storms, winds and heavy frost and snow.
I also placed a candle from St David’s in Wales, given to me years ago by my friend Helen Anthony. Near St David’s is a well dedicated to St Non, the mother of St David, and a Non’s chapel which contains a beautiful stained glass window depicting St Non and also St Bride (Ffraid in Welsh).
Lastly I placed a small ceramic figurine made and given to me decades ago by the wonderful sculptor Phillipa Bowers. A female figure, it is formed from a coiled serpent. In the Highlands and Islands there was a verse spoken at Imbolc – “Early on Bride’s morn, the serpent will come from the hole; I will not harm the serpent, nor will the serpent harm me”. I imagine that the serpent is the energy of the emerging Spring.
Each year I take a little of the clear, pure water from Tobar Bhríghde, drink some of it, pour some into the horse-shoe imprint and take the rest home. The following year I bring back most of that water and return it to the well in gratitude for another year where we have been blessed with enough to sustain us.
This year I brought back some taken at sunrise on February 1st 2023 when I was at the well alone, and some from February 2nd when I was there again with Iain Morrison. I returned the mixed water to the well, filled the small jar in which I had brought it with this year’s water and drank a little. This year I had also brought a green glass flask which I had used in many performances and celebrations in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In those days I often ‘anointed’ standing stones with water from such places as Chalice Well in Glastonbury and the Swallowhead Spring near Avebury in Wiltshire. I filled the flask with some more of the well water and poured it onto the horseshoe imprint.
I lit the candle in a jar with one match and the St David’s one with another. Even with a low level of breeze it is often difficult to light these flames and get them to remain for long. This year they stayed alight a long while, the one in the jar having eventually to be blown out.
Imbolc is a fire festival and its fire is a candle-flame, and Bride’s flame is that of inspiration and poetry, so I then wrapped around my head and shoulders a beautiful blue scarf given to me for my 80th birthday by the poet Jane Goldman. I associate the colour blue with Bríghde. I then sat a while contemplating the well.
I had also brought with me a cloth I had tie-dyed for performances and installations I carried out with the late Helen Rowson at a Glastonbury Festival in the early ‘90s. It had been the lining to an artificial well and I have used it since as an altar cloth for Imbolc celebrations in my home. I stood behind Tobar Bhríghde and flew the cloth in the light wind of this beautiful day in the Aquarius Air sign.
All this was my honouring of Bríghde, Imbolc, Aquarius and the element of Air, joining in spirit with those who celebrate this time in many parts of the world.
I felt almost overwhelmed by the beauty of this day amongst those of such darkness and storms.
As ever, I am so grateful to Mhairi Law for photographing these actions so wonderfully and for sharing these special places with me on each of my Zodiac days.
We have now turned half of the Zodiac circle!
The blessings of Bríghde on you all.
Jill Smith, Isle of Lewis, January 2024
See also www.jill-smith.co.uk
Main images: Mhairi Law