Friday, 22 August 2014

Clootie Wells

Water is essential for life. We can survive quite long periods of time without food but only a few days without water. Despite the fact that we live on a planet where most of the surface is comprised of water the pure, clean, fresh water that we need to drink is an incredibly valuable commodity. Some nations have it in abundance and others have so very little. The fundamental relationship between water and life is the reason why scientists trawl the universe looking for planets that exhibit properties indicative of water-rich environments and the same fundamental relationship between water and life was what made our ancestors revere it, wonder where it came from and who was controlling it.

Waterfall in a Celtic Rainforest

As life-giving water often emerged from holes in the ground or oozed from cracks in cliffs it was assumed that it must be coming from another dimension, a world that we did not inhabit. It must also be controlled by the forces or spirits that lived in that world, for some times it flowed freely and other times it dried up. In these ancient times and without the science to explain it, it is perhaps not surprising that man superimposed his own beliefs upon this life-giving substance.

Across the world there are many examples where wells have assumed a greater function than solely providing water. There is evidence of gifts being left and rituals performed. In the Celtic lands, wells were often places where the veil between this world and the next was thin. It was a place where thanks for abundant crops and good health could be proffered, often by leaving tokens of gratitude such as coins, jewellery, pins, pottery and even animal bones. It was also a place where prayers could be made to the spirits in the hope of ensuring ongoing good health and prosperity. If the gods controlled the water that sustained life then they could be responsible for good health beyond the simple provision of water. Such wells were places where the sick could be cured and good health could be sought. With Celtic traditions drawing on even older pagan beliefs these wells were often places of ritual and ceremony on key dates in the ancient pagan calendar: 1st February - Imbolc, 1st May Beltane, 1st August Lughnasadh and 1st November Samhain. Christianity would subsequently subsume these dates and to some extent these traditions into the new order.

Not so long ago there were hundreds of these important religious wells across what is now the UK. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, they were not restricted to what we regard as the Celtic nations. It seems that their roots go further back into the mists and myths of time. Today we only have local folklore, a few documents and some names that provide valuable clues regarding what is now simply a well but which was once much more than that.

Clootie (cloth) wells were one such manifestation of these ancient beliefs. Customs varied slightly around the country but the principle was fairly universal. Leave a strip of cloth for the spirits of the well, make a wish and as the cloth rots away the spirits would, if they accepted your offering, grant your wish. On account of the moisture from the well leaching into the surrounding soil there was often a prominent tree in the immediate vicinity of the well. This tree, like the well itself, assumed an important role in the ancient beliefs. With the most prevalent function of these clootie wells being to seek a cure for the ill, a strip of cloth from the sick individual would be tied to the tree and the necessary offering and prayers made at the adjacent well. If anyone tampered with, or removed the cloth from the tree they would take the illness from the sick person and bestow it upon themselves.

The Clootie Well at Munlochy, Black Isle

Today there are three clootie wells in the UK that still, to varying degrees, cling to the past and fulfil, at least for some individuals, a function beyond the provision of water. It is difficult to assess whether it is simply the continuation of an ancient custom with no real reverence for the beliefs that lie behind it, whether it is a minority of individuals who genuinely believe in the ancient ways or if it is new-age disciples who have a different agenda but wish to root their beliefs in the past. All three of these wells are located near Inverness. One is not far from Culloden battlefield and the other two are located on the Black Isle. Of these, it is the one at Munlochy on the Black Isle that is by far the biggest and most visited. This well and the beliefs that surround it go far back in time and although the well was 'adopted' by the christian church in an effort to erase the ancient pagan beliefs it is perhaps the latter that are most evident when visiting this place.

The Clootie Well at Munlochy, Black Isle
Located in a wood close to the main road the well at Munlochy is easily accessible. It is a strange and  somewhat eerie place. There are probably some who seek hope or answers in the same way that some people are superstitious. There may be some who truly believe in the ancient ways and there are many others who simply leave a strip of cloth because that is 'what you are supposed to do'. The problem is that if you believe in the ancient ways then it is preferable to have the cloth disintegrate as rapidly as possible, for then you benefit from a quick cure. Hanging modern synthetic fabrics is not a good idea and yet the place is festooned with such!

For me, the most interesting of these wells is the small and little known Craigie well near Avoch. It is in an isolated location close to the shore and when I visited, it only had a few simple pieces of cloth tied nearby. The fact that anyone had made the journey to find the well and had resisted any overload of modern day fabrics suggested to me that these cloths were more likely to have been left by someone seeking answers to real problems. Much more so than at Munlochy, I pondered who these individuals might be and what troubles they carried.

Craigie Well at Avoch, Black Isle

Robert Chambers of Chambers' Dictionary fame also wrote a famous Book of Days. It is a fascinating work that outlines many of the important festivals, dates, events, rituals and phenomena that contribute to our culture. For anyone that is interested there is an excellent first hand description of Craigie well in use in the 1800s that can be found in the last section of the page on the following link:-

It provides a fascinating insight into ancient beliefs that even then had begun to lose some of their original potency.

The next time you run the tap for fresh water take a moment to think just how important this commodity was to your ancestors and how it connected them to their world of beliefs and its powerful spirits.

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Monday, 10 February 2014

The Bass Rock and The Northern Gannets

The inhospitable but amazing Bass Rock
The Bass Rock, or simply 'The Rock' as it is referred to by locals, is a volcanic plug that rises out of the waters of Scotland's Firth of Forth and dates back some 320 million years. It shares a common ancestry with the not too distant Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh and also Castle Rock on top of which stands Edinburgh's world famous castle.

To reach Bass Rock necessitates crossing the waters at the mouth of the Firth and Forth and it is only when doing so that you realise just how inhospitable and inaccessible The Rock is. Even in a gentle breeze the waters around the steep cliffs that rise from the depths have a notorious swell and dangerous swirling currents that make landing on The Rock very difficult.

Trips to the Bass Rock can only be arranged through the Scottish Seabird Centre in nearby North Berwick as they have exclusive landing rights. I have made the crossing on a small traditional Scottish fishing trawler and there is only one place where the boat can manoeuvre alongside the cliffs to permit me to disembark. It is not an easy operation and involves a delicate approach to a steep staircase that forms part of the vertical cliffs. The boat rises and falls precariously as the crew get a temporary mooring and the few of us who have made this crossing disembark.

Once off the boat, it is a short climb to a more level area and here I get the first chance to take in my surroundings. Over to the west I can clearly see the Scottish Coastline and above me The Rock still towers ever higher but it is the birds that dominate the scene. Everywhere I look there are thousands and thousands of seabirds. The sky is full of them and those that aren't flying cover the rocks and cliffs all around me.

Seabirds cover the Bass Rock
I climb higher and come to an old fortified wall through which I have to pass before continuing. It is here that I first become aware of the dark secrets of this place. Although unoccupied today it was not always so and The Rock has a sinister past. In the 6th century it was home to St Baldred, a Christian missionary and recluse and the place where I am now standing is the site of an ancient castle dating back to the 13th century. It was also the site of a crown prison in the latter part of the 17th century. Here, in terrible conditions, many Covenanters and Jacobite supporters were imprisoned and died for their beliefs. Being at the mouth of the Forth on the approach to Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh resulted in Bass Rock becoming an important part of Scotland’s historic defences  Canons from the castle could fire down on approaching ships and Mary Queen of Scots had a garrison here, including French troops, in the early 16th century. The dank history of the place is palpable in the crumbling stones around my feet.

A further climb takes me to the site of an ancient chapel. This is as far as I can go and standing below the 105metre summit of the Rock that still rises above me I find myself in the middle of the largest single-rock gannet colony in the world. Sixty thousand breeding pairs of northern gannets surround me.

Northern Gannet with Nesting Material
Birds soar overhead, some carry nesting material while others proffer seaweed and feathers as courtship gifts to their mates. 
Chicks and parents sit on nests so densely packed that there are more than two nests to every square metre of ground. Looking down to the sea I watch gannets fold their wings and turn themselves into avian missiles plunging up to five metres into the water at speeds of up to sixty miles per hour (96 km/hour) in search of fish. The scale of the spectacle is breathtaking. 

Northern Gannet with Gifts for his Mate
The northern gannet  is the largest indigenous seabird to be found in the UK with a wingspan of just under two metres. Some 60% of Europe’s gannets make Scotland their breeding ground and the latin name of the species, Morus bassanus reflects the significance of Bass Rock in its classification. They have a lifespan of up to 35 years. Mature birds are strikingly white with a long neck and yellow blush around their heads and weigh around 2.4–3.6kg. The ends of their wings are black. They have long pointed grey-blue beaks with black linear markings and a stunningly vivid blue eye surround. Early records reveal that gannets have been occupying The Rock since at least the 6th century. Bass Rock offers a safe and suitably remote site with an adjacent rich supply of fish. It is an ideal location for raising offspring. Although most gannets start to settle on The Rock from March some will arrive as early as late January. Most will stay until late October although some may leave earlier.

Mature Northern Gannet
Young birds usually pair at around three years of age with pair bonds generally lasting for life. Once the mature birds have arrived on Bass Rock they await their mate whose arrival will instigate a courtship and bonding ritual comprised of stretching wings accompanied by often prolonged rubbing and ‘fencing’ with their distinctive beaks. They are highly territorial and nest sites are fought over and protected fiercely. Straying into another pair’s territory will result in a noisy confrontation and often an unpleasant clash of beaks. One of the reasons these birds prefer rocky stacks is that the wind uplift permits an almost vertical take off and landing from the nest site. A bird that has to walk through the territories of others in order to reach its nest will be made to suffer.  

Northern Gannet with Chick
Only a single egg is laid, usually between mid April and mid June and it will hatch around six weeks later. One parent remains with the chick at all times while the other searches for food comprising mainly fish. The parents will feed the bird for about 11 weeks after which time it will attempt the dangerous journey of gliding down to the sea. This is the stage at which the young bird, or guga as it is known, and its parents separate. Alone at sea, gugas have to learn quickly how to fly and fish in preparation for their journey south along with the rest of the gannets in October. At this stage the mortality rate is high with approximately 75% of youngsters coming to grief during their descent or succumbing to starvation and exhaustion in the ensuing weeks.

Northern Gannet with Chick
With much talk in the news these days about dwindling fish stocks it is good to see the gannets faring well. Part of the reason for this is that summer fishing is generally good on the rich fishing banks close to The Rock. However, the birds are capable of travelling significant distances to get food and have been recorded fishing as far away as 200km from Bass Rock. Because of this they fare better than some other seabird species.

For gannets born on Bass Rock those that survive the harsh journey towards adulthood will head to areas around the Mediterranean with some traveling down the west coast of Africa. Some of the young birds will return to the place of their birth in their second year although for others it may be later and they may make the journey several times before being ready to breed.

As I leave the Bass Rock behind and return to the Scottish mainland I am in no doubt that I have witnessed one of the world’s most amazing wildlife experiences on an ancient rock that has also played a significant part in Scotland’s history.

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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands