Auchindrain Township | Bell a’Phuill
21663
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Bell a’Phuill

Bell a’Phuill

 For much of the 19th century, this was home to Isabella McCallum, known as Bell a’Phuill. She was thought to be the “wise-woman” of the township, skilled in first-aid and able to make and use medicines from plants to treat sickness and injuries.

The wise-woman was an important person in a place like Auchindrain. Doctors and medicines were extremely expensive, and in rural areas often unavailable. A wise-woman like Bell learned and applied the special and often secret knowledge of plant and herbal remedies: they usually did not understand why things worked or didn’t, but they did know how to treat injuries and common illnesses. Opinions differed about Bell. Some people thought she was a witch and treated her with suspicion. Others, maybe like John McCallum who scratched a love-heart and his initials into the stone of her wall, said she was a kind old woman.

[caption id="attachment_22880" align="alignnone" width="800"]Bell's heart, circled on the side of the building. Bell’s heart, circled on the side of the building.[/caption]

Bell was born in 1822 near Cairndow at the head of Loch Fyne, the daughter of Peter McCallum and Mary McKellar.  The family moved to Auchindrain around 1830.  In 1841 Bell was living in this house as the housekeeper for the young Duncan Munro, one of the tenants. Her parents were then living in the West Township.

Bell’s Gaelic nickname, Bell a’Phuill, means “Bell who lives by the muddy place”: the ford across the burn near her door.  This differentiated her from the other Isabella McCallum in the township, who would also have had an identifying nickname.

In 1842, Bell gave birth to a son, John. We do not know the full story, she and his father did not marry. It looks as though he may have abandoned Bell. She lived out her life as an honoured and supported member of this small community, whilst he disappears from history. John was brought up by his uncle, Neil McGugan.

[caption id="attachment_21665" align="alignnone" width="1024"]The entry in the Cumlodden Parish Register of Baptisms for John McGougan, born on 11th February 1842. He is described as the “natural son” of Alexander McGougan and Isabella McCallum, meaning that they were not married. The entry in the Cumlodden Parish Register of Baptisms for John McGougan, born on 11th February 1842. He is described as the “natural son” of Alexander McGougan and Isabella McCallum, meaning that they were not married.[/caption]

For the rural working class, it wasn’t uncommon for young women to become pregnant before getting married.  If they didn’t, the couple could part and try again with other people rather than go into a marriage that might be childless.  What is unusual with Bell is not that she became pregnant, but that the child’s acknowledged father did not then marry her as she would have expected.

By 1851, Bell was living with her widowed mother in the West Township, looking after her young cousin Mary McPhail.  After her mother died in 1857, Bell moved back to this house. The census data shows that Bell did not settle to any particular occupation. We believe that to an extent she was always supported by the community, which she contributed to in any way she could.  Towards the end of her life, she was on a list of people to whom the Argyll Estate provided free tea and coal. Bell never married and for much of her life lived alone here. 

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