Tuesday, 26 February 2008
These still occur in Celtic areas and at one time would have been a very familiar sight to our ancestors. These are associated with Holy Wells, but I shall write separately about these on another occasion. A Clootie wells or spring is always associated with healing. Almost without exception they have a tree growing beside them, frequently Whitethorn or Ash, upon which strips of clothing, or rags, have been tied to facilitate healing. In fact the name 'clootie' comes from the Scottish dialect, where a 'cloot' is a cloth or rag. In England we have the old saying "Cast not a clout till may is out", so a similar root for the same word.
Watery places were seen as liminal areas in our Celtic past - places where one might make a contact with the Otherworld and its pantheon of gods who seemed to exist in trees, rocks, springs, rivers and other natural features of the landscape. One might intercede with the gods in one of these liminal areas - caves, swallowholes, bogs, lakes, rivers - were all perceived thus and there are many archaeological records of votive deposition - anything from cauldrons, presumably once-whole chariots, swords and slave chains at Llyn Cerrig Bach http://people.bath.ac.uk/liskmj/living-spring/sourcearchive/ns1/ns1mg1.htm
to the bog bodies of the Jutland peninsula such as Tolland Man and Graubelle Man, and similar found in Ireland and the famous Lindow Man from the Cheshire peat bogs. http://archaeology.about.com/od/bogbodies/Bog_Bodies.htm
Whether the bog bodies were killed as an offering to the gods, or placed there so their spirits would not return to haunt the living having been killed as a punishment for social infringements in life is not known, only conjectured.
But I digress - liminal areas, as you have seen, were very important. At the Clootie Well, practices varied. At some wells one might wash the area to be healed in a cloth dipped in the well, and then it would be tied to the tree and as it disintegrated, so would the healing be affected (I know of wart cures along these lines too - notably a rasher of bacon which was rubbed on the wart and then buried). In other areas of Scotland and Ireland it was deemed sufficient to merely dip the cloot into the water, with a suitable prayer of invocation to the local god - or after Christianity came, then the Saint associated with the well. Certain wells were associated with healing certain ailments - eye problems perhaps, madness, skin problems - even leprosy.
Other wells might be used as a means of divination - the ritual involved putting an article of the sick person's clothing on the surface of the well. If it floated, healing would take place; if it sank, death would ensue. If it floated to a particular part of the well, then a prognosis would be drawn from this. There are many associations of fish and eels with wells and being health-giving. For instance, fish at Ffynnon Wennog in Cardiganshire, where trout bearing what appeared to be a golden chain around their necks, dwelt. Sadly these fish were destroyed during the Civil War.
Sometimes the cloth was literally a rag, but it might also be a strip of the clothing of the person to be healed, or it might be a brightly-coloured strip of good cloth. Sometimes circling the well a particular number of times was called for, and an offering of a coil, pin or stone. Particularly in Ireland, religious votive offerings might be made - either tied to the Clootie tree or dropped in the well - rosaries, crosses and other symbols of faith. Craigie Well at Avoch on the Black Isle has offerings of coins and clooties.
I could write so much more . . . Go and find for yourself. Here are a few links you may care to explore:
http://www.megalithic.co.uk this is a fabulous site - check out holy wells and sacred springs if you can drag yourself away from the rest of the site!