Every month this year I am covering the veneration of water in a different item, 12 in all. This month it will be the clootie or rag. As the title suggests.
Many years ago when my interest in the subject was first piqued I visited the famous Madron Well. To be honest I was not very impressed with the well; a square concreted hole in the ground, if I remember devoid of any atmosphere. No what impressed me was what was attached to the trees; hundred and thousands of bits of cloth. I had no idea why they were there but clearly there was significance to them. Soon after I purchased the Bord’s influential Sacred Waters and all was explained.
Basically, the custom would involve the piece of rag, traditionally although rarely now, a piece of clothing, being dipped upon the well’s water rubbed on the afflicted area and then hung on the tree. As this cloth rooted, so it was thought the ailment would disappear. A word on nomenclature the word clootie commonly used for the rags is a recent spread it is originally limited to Scotland.
As far as I am aware no countrywide study has been made of the distribution of the custom, but it appears largely to divided into two blocks in the British Isles. From my research, I have found no evidence of the custom in the south –east. It is traditionally absent from all the counties south of the Thames i.e Kent, Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire. Similarly there appears no record in the home countries of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire, although only two of these counties have been fully studied. As we travel westward it is encountered in Somerset with Compton Martin’s Rag Well and Cornwall as well as parts of Wales, although Devon is lacking any evidence and that for Dorset appears modern (see below).
It is absent from East Anglia, which is interesting because in Lincolnshire, a county boarding Norfolk it is frequently read about. Here there are eight seven such sites and one is simply called the Ragged Springs. For example at Utterby the:
“Holy Well, on the east side of the parish, is in repute for medicinal virtues, among the vulgar, who, after using it, tie rags on the surrounding bushes, to propitiate the genius of the spring”.
Of the traditional pre-20th century sites none continue the tradition and ironically another, probably non-holy well, the Ludwell has become the focus of a modern rag leaving tradition. Interestingly, it is recorded in Nottingham, but absent from the rest of the county. Do is there any record in Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Staffordshire.
The record in Nottingham is interesting as there is confusion between the sites of the famed St. Ann’s Well and that known as the spring is called the Rag Well. To the west only Cheshire has a record. Hole (1937) noted that at Audley End a holy tree:
“those who came to the well hung rags or other offerings upon.”
Yorkshire has a number of sites, as noted above. St. Helen’s Well, Great Hatfield near Hull has a plaque reading:
“Before the sunrise, dear Helen, I stand by this spring and intreat thee, sweat saint, good health to me bring, for with eyes firmly fixed on this ancient hawthorn, see I place thee a rag from my dress today”
An early reference of one is for one is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner which describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Most famed Yorkshire rag well was that almost lost at Thorpe Arch, where photos from the turn of the 19th century show it festooned with torn strips. Haigh (1875) says that:
“twenty years ago the Rev E. Peacopp, curate of Healaugh, informed me that shreds of linen were to be seen attached to the bushes which overhang this well”.
Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm”.
The ritual was described as having to be done before sunrise where the cloth would be dipped in the well and then tied to the tree whilst making a wish. Of St Swithin’s Well Stanley, in his Ancient Wells of Wakefield, 1822:
“when the well was open it was near the hedge on which used to be hung bits of rag with which people had washed. These were left hanging under the delusive idea that as the rags wasted away so would the part affected, which had been washed, therewith proceed to mend and become sound”.
In Durham Jarrow’s Bede Well and in Northumberland the Lady Well, Cheswick were both rag wells. However, Scotland has three of the most famous rag or cloottie wells. The most famed is that which despite the given name of St. Curidan is better known as the Clouttie well and is the one which has attracted the greatest controversy. Found in Munlochy on the A832, here rags festoon every mm of the surrounding trees and became so unsightly that the decision was taken to remove many of them and surf the bad luck! The well is particularly visited on Beltaine, the day before the 1st of May and traditionally children were left over night to cure them much like Madron’s Well.
This distribution would suggest an association with our Celtic heritage, although that perhaps is not strengthened by the Lincolnshire sites. Another theory is that it may have been a tradition associated with the Gypsy community and certainly Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and the West Country are certainly traditional grounds. However, this does not explain the absence from areas such as the New Forest in Hampshire.
An ancient tradition?
The placing of clooties is linked to Patronal days or the Christianised pagan Gaelic-Celtic feast days: Imbolc (1st February), Beltane (1st May), Lughnasadh (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). It is possibly that the clootie was an offering to a deity at the spring.
A modern tradition
Visiting holy wells across the country one is struck by the presence of rags on a wide range of sites, many of which would not have had them before I assume. I would imagine that few of the people attaching the rags or more often ribbons are doing it for memento reasons rather than healing ones, to leave something there as a token. Yet by doing so they are continuing an ancient tradition…only spoilt by the use of modern non biodegradable fabrics. This is clearly what is going on at St. Kenelm’s Well where there are clothes on a nearby bush and similarly at St. Augustine’s Well, at Cerne which according to Thompson & Thompson (2004) book on Wells of the Mainland had:
“a few coloured ribbons hang from neighbouring trees – evidently an attempt to perpetuate its memory as a rag-well”.
And so it continues. Many wells and springs beyond the natural range appear to be growing in their clottie collections. A quick look on the internet even shows a few which I have done and I can still see the ribbon, sadly it wasn’t as biodegradable as I thought! How to confuse the researcher!!