It’s Beltane’s Day on Thursday – a pagan fire festival which goes back to pre-Christian times, which was supposed to encourage the crops to grow. In more recent times it has been a tradition for young girls to rise early to wash their faces in the dew on 1st May.
This got me thinking about traditions that still continue. Just along the road from us is the Clootie Well, a rather strange remnant of an ancient tradition, once commonly found in Scotland and Ireland, of holy wells to which pilgrims would come and make offerings, usually in the hope of having an illness cured. This tradition dates far back into pre-Christian times, to the practice of leaving votive offerings to the local spirits or gods in wells and springs.
The holy well at Munlochy, also known as Hill O’Hirdie or St Curitan’s Well, is said to date back to, and probably beyond, the time of St Boniface or Curitan, who worked as a missionary in Scotland in about 620AD. Pilgrims would come and perform a ceremony, which involved circling the well sunwise three times before splashing some of its water on the ground and saying a prayer. They would then tie a piece of cloth or ‘cloot’ that had been in contact with an ill person to a nearby tree. As the cloot rotted away, the illness would leave the sick person.
An alternative tradition suggests that sick children would be left here overnight to be healed. Presumably those that survived the terrifying ordeal of being left out overnight in what is, quite frankly, a rather creepy location would have been likely to recover anyway.
The Clootie Well is still used today, although people tend to leave garments made of synthetic material that doesn’t rot. This isn’t environmentally friendly and nor, in terms of the tradition, will it do any good for the person needing a cure! It’s probably fair to say that the well is now the focus for a range of alternative world views and will undoubtedly be visited on Beltane.
Despite its slightly creepy feeling, the Clootie Well is worth a visit. There is a dedicated Forestry Commission car park right next to it and a footpath to the well.