An anonymous ‘cleaner’ has kind of destroyed an ancient site in Scotland. But unlike most acts of cultural destruction, this person performed a ‘pro-clean-up’ of the Highland’s famous Clootie Well.
The Tidy That’s Sparked A Highland Fury
I was born in Inverness, only 12 miles from this site, and my grandparents often took me to the Clootie Well to experience the legendary ‘eerie’ site. Here, where the wishes of people, some now passed, hung in the trees like ghosts, a mystery person has performed a clean-up, which according to BBC has caused ‘a fierce debate,’ locally.
‘Clootie Wells’ are only found in Celtic areas of Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall. Munlochy’s Clootie Well is today located right on the edge of a secondary country road, but traditionally it was set in deep woodlands beside an old track. Long before Christianity, Celtic pilgrims travelled from far and wide to the Clootie Well water spring where they covered the branches of the trees and bushes in the surrounding hillock with rags (cloots).
Author, Ashley Cowie at the Clootie Well Site in 2020, before the clean-up. (Author provided / @ashleycowie)
What Kind Of Magic Is This?
In pre-Christian times the operative magical principle behind the tradition of hanging rags was the perceived ‘shedding’ of ailments, which the slowly disintegrating clooties represented. The pieces of cloth were dipped in the water of the holy spring before being tied to branches while prayers of supplication were whispered to the earth goddesses . In an August 18, 2020 post from my @ashleycowie Instagram account, I explained that in deep history people believed ‘that sick children who slept near the well overnight, on the full moon, would be cured’.
When Christianity slayed the old Celtic goddesses between the 5th and 12th centuries, they overlaid her curing powers at this Highland well with one of their own archetypes – Saint Curetán, whom the well is dedicated to. The secret healing powers of this particular Celtic Saint are entrapped within his name: ‘Cure’ tan. Either Way, Pagan Celtic, or Christian, this site has always been associated with the healing of sick children.
An Ancient Magic Well, Poisoned By Plastic Clothes
Local historian Dr David Alston said the problem today is that many of the cloots are manufactured from ‘synthetic materials.’ In the past almost all clothing in Scotland was made from hemp which rotted back into the earth comparatively quickly. But the modern clothes being left at the site are becoming toxic to the environment. For a long time, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) have maintained the well and surrounding landscape, and they have advised visitors on the hanging of biodegradable textiles, like cotton or wool.
According to Undiscovered Scotland , in October 2019, following ‘locals’ concerns that the site looked more like a fly tipping hotspot than a sacred place,’ FLS undertook a major clean-up of the site. Paul Hibberd, FLS’ regional visitor services manager, told BBC that forest rangers constantly remove ‘inappropriate items,’ like for example, ‘shoes, electrical equipment and a Venetian blind.’ The BBC spoke with resident Mhairi Moffat who said locals have been calling for the centuries old well to ‘become a protected heritage site .’
A Healing Well In Desperate Need Of Healing
I was there at the well only 2 years ago. The paths were really dangerous for dogs with the number of crushed cans and smashed bottles and there is no arguing that the site needed a good sorting out. However, there are many ways this could all have been done with respect, perhaps a local ceremony before the clean-up, or afterwards to reconsecrate the site.
A vigilante with 200 black bags has taken away any opportunity to have offered a modicum of respect for the millions of accumulated miles travelled by pilgrims to the site. What’s more, these faithful folk are most often trying to heal their ill children, not themselves. So, seeing reports of the mess this clean-up has caused, there will be a lot of broken hearts, not without a deep sense of irony considering it’s supposed to be a healing well.
By Ashley Cowie