Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Clootie Well

While on one of my walks up Kinnoull Hill I took the wrong turn and, not unlike Dante Alighieri, found myself in an unfamiliar wood. Upon emerging from a thicket I came across the extraordinary sight of several small saplings whose branches were hung with small flags and other memorabilia. In their midst was what appeared to be a small pond --- not merely a pond. Water drained from it into a small creek, suggesting the pond was replenished by an underground spring. Upon closer inspection I saw a pair of beads, and a match box suspended by a ribbon. The scene had the trappings of a religious ritual, but which one? Modern day druids? Hippies?

I recalled my sojourn in Trinidad where people of Hindu origin often hung small flags near their house. Prayer flags to their various deities, asking for favours in money, health or love. The flags were left there and usually rotted and fell to the ground, a sign that the prayer was granted. In the Trinidadian back country I stumbled across a site similar to the one at Kinnoull, next to a spring that gushed out of the rock and into a pool. Nearby were several lighted candles.

Recently I heard of another such site: Munlochy well on Black Isle, near Inverness. The tree branches over the well were covered with rags. Apparently it’s a Celtic healing ritual associated with certain springs. On a nearby tree, usually an ash, you hang a strip of cloth, a piece of clothing or an object belonging to the sick person, in the belief that the magical power of the spring would thereby reach the sick person.

A short meander via Google brought me to the Clootie Well.

I knew the word, but only from Robert Burns where he addresses the devil,

O Thou! whatever title suit thee
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie.

From Amber I heard about Clootie Dumpling, a desert often served on Burns night. It’s cooked in linen cloth --- or cloot. Hence, Clootie Well.

I wasn’t surprised that an ancient well associated with healing would subsequently become associated with the devil. Isn’t that the way that a new religion supplants an indigenous one? The gods of the old religion become the demons of the new religion. A typical example being the god Pan, whose horns and cloven hoofs became associated with the features of the Christian’s devil. His trident was borrowed from Neptune.

Some of the Clootie Wells have been Christianized. St. Mary’s Well near Culloden is one where people hang crosses and rosary beads in addition to the traditional cloots. When Christianity arrived in Scotland the priests originally tried to stamp out the old beliefs associated with healing springs, but finally realized that people weren’t about to give them up. So they renamed the wells with their own saints. The original Celtic names have only rarely survived.

And so back to Kinnoull Hill and the mysterious spring. On the Internet I found a reference to a Clootie Well on Kinnoull --- Lady Grey’s Well. No doubt she was a person of note associated with the history of the hill.

If you come across such a spring, take it as a stroke of good fortune. You’re in a spot that has been long regarded as sacred; where the spirit of the land is strong. Also, don’t touch the cloots. According to ancient lore, removing them or interfering with them can bring bad luck. In some cases the disease of the afflicted owner.

1 comment:

  1. Paul,

    They are probably just safety devices to keep unwary hikers from falling in the wells.