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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Articles and photography copyright of Tom Langlands

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