A cursory check of the internet will show the perceived view of rag wells – most commonly called – clootie wells are that they are a Celtic pagan as summed up by the 21st century source of all information it seems Wikipedia:
“Clootie wells (also Cloutie or Cloughtie wells) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas.”
The online article goes on to list three sites in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland – to emphasise this! However, the earliest recorded site is not only in England, but a fair distance from traditional Celtic homelands being on the north east in Yorkshire!
It is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner earliest reference is made to an association with a well. It describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that:
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Francis Grose in his 1773 The Antiquities of England and Wales also records that:
“Between the towns of Alten and Newton near the foot of Roseberrye Toppinge there is a well dedicated to St Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion that a shirt or shift taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show whether that person will recover or die; for if it floated it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life: and to reward the saint for his intelligence , they tear off a rag off the shirt and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts: where I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rhime in a paper mill.”
However by Rev. John Graves 1808’s The History of Cleveland all mention of hanging rags appears forgotten or not known by the author who states that:
“Within the parish, at the northern extremity of Cliffrigg-Wood, and about two hundred paces to the eastward from Langbargh-Quarry, there is a copious spring of clear water, called Chapel-Well, which had formerly a bath &c. and was, till of late years, much resorted on the Sundays in the summer months by the youth of the neighbouring villages, who assembled to drink the simple beverage, and to join in a variety of rural diversions. But the harmlessness of this innocent recreation was at length destroyed by Spiritous liquors, furnished by the village-innkeepers: when the custom became discountenanced, and was soon after discontinued”
Yet when the Rev. George Young in his 1817 History of Whitby he does refer to the festivities but mentions the rags suggesting the custom was still concurrent:
“At the north end of Cliffrigg Wood, a little to the east of Langbargh quarry, is a copious spring, once the resort of superstition. It was supposed that when a shirt or shift was taken from a sick person and thrown into this well, the person would recover if it floated, but would die if it sunk. A rag of the shirt was torn off and hung on the bushes, as an offering to St Oswald, to whom the well was dedicated; and so numerous were the devotees, that, as an ancient writer states, the quantity of rags, suspended around the well, might have furnished material for a ream of paper. It is called Chapel Well, having once had a chapel, or cell, beside it, with a bath and other conveniences. As superstition is the handmaid of impiety, it is not surprising to find that a sunday fair was held here for many ages: this disgraceful nuisance is now happily removed.”
Perhaps the loss of the merrymaking resulted in a loss of the custom as when Frank Elgee visited in the 1930s noted in his 1957 A Man of the Moors, extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Frank Elgee (published in 1992) he described as:
“18 July 1936. “This evening we took the bus to Langbaurgh Quarries to examine the site an ancient Chapel and its sacred Well, which are close by…a spring flowing out of an iron pipe to meet a pool muddied by the feet of cattle”.
He had hoped to find fragments of the garments hung over the pool, in past times, as charms against disease, but was disappointed.
The site today?
A visit by Graeme Chapel on the Yorkshire holy well website noted that:
“The site of this once famous well is located just to the north of Great Ayton village, in a small fenced off area at the edge of a grassy field. Today the well is a wet boggy area at the foot of a Hawthorn bush (dead?). The wells healing waters appear to have had chalybeate properties, as orange-red deposits are still visible on the boggy surface of the spring, unfortunately the spring head is now so choked that the waters seep away instead of flowing along its former drainage channel. However probing through the mud reveals what may be a paved or cobbled area in front of the spring.
Finding the exact site was a bit of a challenge. Despite being marked on the old OS maps and guidance: a couple of sites appeared to suggest to be the exact one. Sadly it was completely forgotten – no rags and not even any water – but the indication of a dead hawthorn and a soft soil suggests the correct site. No sign of any pavement except some stones nearby and no chalybeate water! Unfortunately, it was largely inaccessible being surrounded by barbed wire! However, archaeologically it would sound that may would possibly be some significant remains hereabouts – not only a well, but a bath and suggestive by the name a chapel perhaps?
Graeme Chapel’s excellent Yorkshire holy well continues:
The well lies on the parish boundary between Great Ayton and Guisborough, while to the west of the well a little used single track railway line lies a little too close for comfort, but the view to the east is dominated by the mountain-like peak of Roseberry Topping (anciently called Odinsberg) where legend has it, Oswy, the young son of king Oswald, drowned in the Odinsbery spring high up on the hill top.
A footpath leading up to the summit passes near to the well and it is possible the two places were connected in local tradition.”
Now the Odinsbery spring has often been confused with the chapel well and as Chapel notes it seems likely the two were linked. The legends associated with this site deserve a full exploration but what is interesting is that Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells records a version of the legend of Oswy, the ill-fated drowned son of Oswald:
“strolling out one day with her child, they met a party of gipsies, who were anxious to tell her the child’s fortune. After being much importuned, she assented to their request. To the mother’s astonishment and grief they prognosticated that the child would be drowned.”
Why do I make reference to this? Well one of my theories about rag wells is their association with the travelling community and although this does not explicitly mention the well it suggests that gypsies were found in the area. Indeed I saw several traditional pony and trap and caravans in the area. However, it is clear that everyone has forgotten this spring!
There are records of a considerable number of rag wells in Lincolnshire and as such a cluster can be identified. In a couple of posts we shall be exploring the sites focusing on some in detail such as the significantly named Ragged springs near Cleethorpes to the north of the county which is the focus on this blog post.
First it is worth considering the name. The springs themselves whilst possibly being an ancient site, noted by the fact that the earliest name for the parish is Heghelinge. One may make the assumption that perhaps this derives from the springs. However, this is at variance to the view of the Cameron (1985-2002) as it is noted that Hægelingas is derived from ‘the sons or followers of a man named Hægel’ rather than healing, although it is of course a strange coincidence perhaps.
The first reference appears to be Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, which of course takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown, but often from local accounts. He records it confusing under another nearby village and states?
“Lincolnshire GREAT COTES, ULCEBY. Here is a spring celebrated locally for its healing properties. It rises from the side of a bank in a plantation, and is overshadowed by an ancient thorn, on the branches of which hang innumerable rags, fastened there by those who have drunk of its waters.”
Gutch and Peacock (1908) note that a:
“Mr. Cordeaux visited them not long since for the purpose of discovering whether pins are ever dropped into them, but the bottom of the water in both cases was too muddy and full of leaves to allow accurate examination.”
According to Gutch and Peacock (1908) each well had a different use, one spring being a chalybeate one was done for eye problems, whereas the other was for skin problems. They continue to note that a:
“F S, a middle-aged man, who grew up in an adjoining parish, states that when he was a lad, one spring was used for bathing, and the second for drinking. The latter was considered good against consumption, among other forms of sickness. . . . What the special gift of the bathing well was F S cannot say. He often plunged his feet into it when a boy, but he does not venture to assert that it had any great power in reality, although ‘folks used to come for miles,’ and the gipsies, who called the place Ragged Spring or Ragged Well, frequently visited it. A Gentleman who hunts with the Yarborough pack every winter, says that he notices the rags fluttering on the shrubs and briars each season as he rides past. There is always a supply of these tatters, whether used superstitiously or not, and always has been since his father first knew the district some seventy years ago.”
The custom apparently continued until the 1940s, indeed a visitor in the 1920s noted that even the trunks were covered with longer pieces of rag. A picture in Healy (1995) shows a number of rags on the bushes as seen below.
It is worth noting that perhaps the presence of a large thorn perhaps suggests a great antiquity to the site The springs are still marked on the current OS map, as Healing Wells, in a small plantation, but they are, as the photo shows, only marked by circular indentations in the ground, the first spring being the easier to trace and appears to have holes, although these may be made by animals.
The springs are now quite dry, perhaps that the clogging of the springs noted above continued as the springs were forgotten, resulting in the current situation. Lying around the springs are a range of metal buckets in various stages of decay and some metal pieces which may be remains of a metal fence around it. I was unable to find any sign of rags although the man I asked in the whereabouts referred to them as the ragged springs. So there name maybe remembered even if the custom has long since been forgotten.
This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.
Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:
a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record
b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties
Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history
I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!
Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?
Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well
Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?
Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors
Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!
Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!
Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed
Bags – good luck for school
Plaster casts – speak for themselves
Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!
There is certainly an otherworldly feel to the woods of Alderley Edge. Unsurprisingly, it is a landscape which boasts three mysterious springs: the Holy Well, Wizard’s Well and the Wishing Well.Roeder and F. S. Graves in 1905s Recent archaeological discoveries at Alderley Edge by C Roeder and F S Graves, in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society states:
“Well and the Holy Well. These, and especially the latter, were in ancient times connected with well-worship, and propitiatory offerings were made by people to the presiding deities, and also were frequently resorted to in Christian times, but doubtless the cult was observed here in much earlier days.”
They detail the cures and nature of the votive offers:
“Their healing powers were considered to be unfailing; the barren, the blind, the lame, and bodily-afflicted constantly made their way thither; maidens whispered their vows and prayers over them, their lovers and their future lives being their theme. Crooked silver coins were dropped into the well, but these have been cleared out long ago. At the present time the devotees are satisfied, in their economical habit, to offer mere pins and hairpins; the custom is not dead yet, for some of the immersed pins are still quite uncorroded and bright. Some of the sex deposit the pins in their straight and original form, others bend them only at right angle, and as many again seem to consider the charm alone to act effectively when carefully and conscientiously doubled up. Maidens of a more superficial cast just give the slightest twist to the object. To judge from the state of corrosion, and the old-fashioned thick, globular heads, some of these pins must have been in the well for at least sixty years. We have brought three cases to show the various forms into which the visitors have tortured the pins, and classified them into groups. There are occasionally to be seen also a few white pebbles in the two wells.”
The Holy Well
The Holy Well is first mentioned in an 1763 Court Rolls of Bollin Fee in a perambulation however its first written account is in Memoires of the Family of Finney, of Fulshaw, (near Wilmslow) Cheshire, by Samuel Finney of Fulshaw, Esquire’, in 1787. Which noted:
“Lower down the Hill, just below the Beacon, is a Spring of very clear Sweet Water, that issues pretty plentifully out of the Rock, called the Holy Well, which, no doubt, in times of Superstition, had its Virtues, which are now unknown, though many young people, in the Summer time, resort to it in parties, and regale themselves with this water, which is still supposed to have a prolific quality in it.”
Robert Bakewell’s 1843 Alderley Edge and Its Neighbourhood, who states:
“this well trickles in a constant stream from a cleft in a large rock about 60 yards below the Beacon… the waters of this well are said to be a cure for barrenness.”
Mystical author Alan Garner in his 1998 The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures work tells us much of the site:
“Our water supply derived from the Holy Well, which granted wishes to tourists at weekends, and an income for the child of our family who, on a Monday morning, cleaned out the small change. Yet for no money would that child have climbed the yew that stood beside the well. “If I ever so much as see you touch that”, my grandfather had said, “I’ll have the hide off you”. And there was a memory that could hardly be restored to words: of how the well was not for wishing, but for the curing of barren women; and the offerings were of bent pins, not of pence.”
Interesting Garner notes:
“And Grandad spoke of rags tied to trees there. That had been a long time ago, he said.”
As such it is the only such recorded rag well in Cheshire/Staffordshire/Derbyshire area and perhaps was imported from Wales however the nearest traditional site would be over 100 miles away and as such it is an odd anomaly or evidence of a wider lost practice!
The Holy Well today
The Holy well is situated beneath a piece of rock filling an old stone trough set into the ground with a break at one end allowing its waters to flow out.
In the next post we shall explore the legend of the Wizard’s Well and the mysterious Wishing well.
As the country reflects upon the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum, I thought it would germane to consider one of the county’s most fascinating holy well especially being near a contentious battle of course! Enclosed in a woodland settling is one of Scotland’s greatest clootie well, Tobar na Coille often called St. Mary’s Well, but translated means the well of the wood. It’s position not far from the battle site of Culloden resulted in it becoming called the Culloden Well. Indeed it appears to have even more names – The Blue Well and the Tobar n’Oige of the Well of Youth. Surely, a significant site.
The fabric is unusual as well. It arises in a 18” diameter and 24” deep chamber which is surrounded by a circular building, more like a circular animal pound or dare I say it a urinal. Why the arrangement? Is it to protect the visitors from the vagaries of the spring, prevent animals entering or perhaps protect the decency of anyone who would bath here. However, that later idea is not supported by similar wells elsewhere and the spring is not big enough for a dip I feel.
A moved well
Not far from the well was a Chapel to St Mary, whose only remembrance being the local farm, Chapelton Farm, Balloch. As a site is did not survive the 1746 battle and nothing can be traced on the ground. It is possible that a spring of water near the old chapel was the original St Mary’s well and after the battle it was moved to this spring. This would explain the name changes perhaps and it has only recently become a true holy well.
The most prominent piece of folklore is the traditional rituals done at the well. One should walk round the well three times sunwise and then after drinking from the well tie a rag on the nearby tree. This is because the well was a clouttie well and today the well’s surrounds are adorned with them however even in 1979 the Morrises bemoaned the use of modern fibres stating:
“There were many rags in evidence during the visit…but since the majority were of unrottable man-made fibre it was obvious that the visitors did not fully understand the purpose of this part of the ritual.”
This sadly continues, but there is evidence of traditional fabric. The day to go to the well was the first Sunday in May, which underlines the association of the site with the old Pagan Celtic tradition of Beltaine. A visit on May day would reveal wine!
Morris and Morris (1980) inform us that in the 1930s as a many as a dozen buses were running from Inverness to carry visitors to the spot, who would drop coins and several pounds were recovered from the well and given to charity. Four thousand in all…today some come but not as many. However, even in the 1940s the Inverness Courier reported that on the first Sunday of May six Cameron Highland, wished over a well in a Tunisian olive grow as they tied their cloots that they be back at St. Mary’s Culloden. They survived the War and did meet! Such large crowds attracted the wrong sorts and stories of debauchery were spread by the papers and the more intolerant members of the Kirk.
Interestingly, it is said that the well or chapel gained its name from the belief that Mary herself lived in the area and administered to the sick. This may be based on the idea of a local ‘priestess’ who would stay at the well and help visitors…or more likely a way of endorsing this either Pagan or commercial enterprise.
What’s in a name?
If the real St Mary’s Well lies elsewhere, what can we say of this one. Clearly the name, Tobar n’Oige is not far from Tír na nÓg, well of the dead. This is significant because Beltaine was one of the times where the wraths and spirits could be seen and the gates to the afterlife were open. Or does it refer to the battle not far away? There is a well nearer the battle site which does bear the name, Well of the dead. Did this gain the name when the other adopted St. Mary, or does this suggest a strong Beltaine tradition in the area. The obvious explanation is that this is associated with the battle but that may be coincidental?
All in all in its woodland setting and especially seen on a misty spring day..St Mary’s Well is one of the country’s most romantic sites. One wonders what witness to the strife of Culloden it saw..thankfully we can discuss such matters with democracy.