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.