Rags to Ditches: Mysterious Celtic Clootie Wells

(Image: F. Leask, cc-sa-3.0)

Unhindered by the technological trappings of the modern world, an old Celtic tradition persists in the British Isles that transcends paganism and Christianity.  Almost always characterised by strips of cloth or rags hanging from the branches of trees, clootie wells remain places of pilgrimage reputedly bestowed with magical healing properties.

(Images: Richard Dorrell, cc-sa-3.0; Jim Champion, cc-sa-3.0)

In Scotland and Ireland, pieces of cloth (clooties) are dipped in the holy well or spring and then tied to a branch.  The offering is accompanied by a prayer to the spirit of the well – normally a saint, or a goddess or nature deity in pre-Christian times.  Frequented during healing rituals, or simply to honour the spirit, clootie wells are likely a continuation of the ancient Celtic tradition of leaving votive offerings in wells or pits.

(Image: Ronnie Leask, cc-sa-3.0)

The practice varies depending on local tradition.  At some wells, the affected part of one’s body is washed with a rag, which is then tied to a branch.  At others, the ritual may include circling the well a set number of times before offering a coin, pin or stone.  Votive offerings of rosaries, crosses and other religious symbols may also be hung from branches.

(Image: Jim Thomson, cc-sa-3.0)

Legend has it that the ailment is shed as the clootie gradually disintegrates over time.  Specific clooties also often represent the type of ailment that a sufferer seeks to be rid of.  For instance, an old rag may indicate an ailment, while a new, clean piece of cloth is used as an offering to the saint or other deity.

(Image: I Like, cc-nc-nd-3.0)

Most popular on saints’ days, or the old Gaelic festivals of Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh and Samhain, clootie wells were popularised in Ian Rankin’s novel The Naming of the Dead, which featured the well at Munlochy on the Black Isle.  Such places exist throughout Scotland and Ireland, as well as the English county of Cornwall, an ancient and romantic landscape steeped in myth and legend.  A similar theme is explored in the Robin of Sherwood episode Lord of the Trees, where offerings are left to Herne the Hunter at a summer festival known as the Blessing.  (More on Robin Hood here.)

Related Articles:
Lost Villages and Shipwrecks on Scotland’s Mysterious Islands
6 Fiery Festivals and Ancient Midsummer Traditions
The Fisherman’s Chapel and Maritime Myth
Summer Solstice at Stonehenge

 

Around the web

  • Protection free

    never seen like this, only now….

  • http://twitter.com/CelestialElff Celestial Elf

    Fantastic Post thank you:D
    thought you might enjoy my Beltane Blessing machinima film
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VElZSplpxQc
    Bright Blessings
    elf ~

  • Vanaals

    The Japanese have a similar tradition of writing prayers and wishes on slips of paper, then folding and tying them onto tree branches. Perhaps there is an ancient connection between the Celtic and Asian cultures. Especially with the discovery of red haired mummies clothed in woolen tartans found in Central Asia. And the images of blue demons in Japanese imagery first struck me as reminisent of blue Pictish warriors.

  • Leejpalmer

    Hi, I live in Cornwall and we have a cloutie wishing well in madron. It’s used a lot and I try and visit it a few times a year to get photographs.

  • Leejpalmer

    Hi, I live in Cornwall and we have a cloutie wishing well in madron. It’s used a lot and I try and visit it a few times a year to get photographs.

 
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