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


About the author: Tom


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