The tradition of making offerings at wishing trees and wells dates back hundreds of years, and can be found all over the world in different forms. In Scotland, Ireland and England, where old Celtic tradition persists, they are known as Clootie wells. A clootie well is a well or spring, almost always with a tree growing beside it, where strips of cloth or rags are tied to the branches, usually in the hope of having an illness cured.
"Clootie" is a Scottish word that means cloth. To make an offering, pieces of cloth or cloot are generally dipped in the water of the holy well and then tied to a branch while a prayer of supplication is said to the spirit of the well. At some wells, the affected part of the body is washed with the wet rag before tying it to the tree. As the rag disintegrates over time, the ailment is supposed to fade away as well. Over the centuries strips of cloths gave way to complete garments. Today, you can find socks, dresses, t-shirts and even pants along with pieces of rotten cloths.
The clootie well in Munlochy, Black Isle. Photo credit
The tradition dates far back into pre-Christian times, when it was believed a goddess or local nature spirit inhabited the well, with special powers of healing. With the arrival of Christianity, local churches began to associate themselves with the holy wells, and the ceremonies began to be overseen by the local priests or saints.
At one point in 1581, during the Protestant Reformation, making pilgrimage to holy wells was made illegal, but the practice hasn’t stopped. The trouble is, many people leave items made of modern synthetic materials that will never rot away, and this hurts the environment.
The most famous clootie well is in Scotland at a place called Munlochy, in Black Isle. Here the well was once thought to have had the power to cure sick children who were left there overnight.
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