By Tim Porteus

A WHILE back I came across a reference to the “Bickers Well” in Musselburgh.

I hadn’t heard of this before so I looked into it.

I found a little information about it.

It was located in Dam Brae and was said to contain water with special qualities that helped make a perfect pot of tea.

There is little explanation as to what exactly these qualities were, but it seems to have been widely believed and accepted in the past.

Tea, of course, became popular in Scotland, and by the 19th century it had become an important accompaniment to the often mundane diet of working class people, providing a refreshing non-alcoholic alternative to beer.

For the poor, tea drinking wasn’t linked to formal social rituals as it was with the upper classes.

Tea was the drink of the working class as they worked.

So, a well in the heart of the town which was believed to supply good tea making water will have been a busy and popular place.

Many people, likely mostly women, would have congregated around the well.

In the OS name book from the 1850s, it was clearly recorded that the well was listed as the “Vicker’s Well”, but then goes on to state that “no person in the locality knows it by that name”.

Everyone called it “the bickers well”.

Perhaps this was a result of local dialect changing the name over time.

But Paul Bennet, in his interesting website “The Northern Antiquarian” says “there is the obvious possibility that the “bickers” – as in chit-chat and gossip – related to it being where local folk simply met and chatted”.

Perhaps the reputation of the well’s water for making quality tea also meant people from further afield considered it worthwhile to detour here, in order to make that extra special “Bicker’s Brew”.

One account says it was once surrounded by old trees.

All of this conjures an image of an important social meeting place, with people meeting under the shade of old trees, exchanging views and information and having a good blether while they wait their turn to draw water from the celebrated well.

Was the belief in the goodness of the water rooted in some older tradition?

Perhaps it was a revered holy well, as some have suggested?

It seems to have been associated with the vicarage of St Michaels nearby, which roots the well in Musselburgh’s ancient past, and gives a reason for the name Vicar’s Well.

The well was replaced by a pump sometime in the nineteenth century, and then was blocked up, and became forgotten.

When I’d discovered all this I set out to find the location of the well to see if there was still any evidence of it.

Dam Brae is now named Kilwinning Place and I studied a nineteenth century map which marked the exact location of the well, then compared it to a modern one and set out on my quest.

I found the location. I’m sure of it, and took a photo.

But there wasn’t really anything of much interest to see other than a slab on the ground where I believe the well once stood.

It seemed so forgotten, and put me in a melancholy mood for a moment.

I reflected on the way something that had been a tradition for so long, and such a part of many people’s lives can just vanish, and be utterly forgotten.

I know it was just a well and so might not seem important.

But it was a meeting place for ordinary people for generations.

The simple shared routines and places in our lives are often the ones we remember with nostalgia.

We don’t think of them as history or worthy of recording; until all memory has gone, and it’s too late.

I thought about this as we were going on our local family walk this week.

I suppose we all know we are living through a time that will be recorded by history.

But when all this is over, and things are back to “normal” what simple things will you, and your family, remember from this time; and what will you want remembered?

For me, this includes seeing the Greenhills carpeted with wildflowers for the first time that I can remember, watching children cycle on empty streets and deserted car parks, and queuing in shops, keeping our physical distance while also trying to stay social.

For sure the toilet roll panic will be part of history.

But all of us will have special moments and places that connect to the emotions of this time.

There will be stories of people’s wonderful community spirit, what it felt like to be confined in the house for weeks, and how we entertained ourselves.

We are all historians of our own time, and we should find ways to record and remember the simple, but important, things we have felt and encountered during this time of crisis.

Because memory fades, and as the fate of the Bickers Well shows, if memories are not recorded or stories of them not told, they will be forgotten.

And so this was why I decided to re-visit the story of the Bickers Well for my column this week.

It may have originally seemed there was not much to tell about it.

Yet once there was.

But the memories and the stories connected to it seemed so simple and obvious at the time that nobody really thought them important enough to record or keep treasured.

Now all that remains of those stories is a slab on the pavement.

The technology we have makes it easier now to share and record our lives.

So let’s use it to consciously be historians and storytellers of this difficult time; to capture images and feelings, the happenings that may today seem too simple and commonplace to record, but in future will be a fascinating insight to our lives in this historic event.

For me, that is the lesson of the Bickers Well.