The Black Isle on the east coast of Scotland is just a short jaunt if you’re travelling from Inverness, heading north over the Kessock Bridge. Neither an Isle or black it’s a strange choice of name but it’s not the only thing that’s strange! The Clootie Well in Munlochy is a strange and bizarre sight.
The lush green fields and forests, the quaint villages and the little bays and beaches are what make the Black Isle so loved by locals and visitors. Driving along the road into Munlochy, on the A832 from Fortrose to Cromarty, the eerie sight will catch your eye. If you know nothing of this magical place it’ll definitely take you by surprise.
Spreading out from a central tree (a clootie tree), branch after branch is filled with colourful rags, some ancient, some obviously new, some with rhythms attached and some tied around the trunk itself. Clootie Wells are rare, only really found in Celtic area in Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall. Usually a well or a spring with a tree beside it, these Clootie Wells go as far back as pre-Christian times when a goddess was said to live in the well. With special healing powers people would arrive at the well hoping that they would be cured.
With the arrival of Christianity came the “Saint” and the Clootie Well at Munlochy is dedicated to St Boniface, the Patron Saint of Germany.
Although people visit the well all year round there are special times for pilgrimage to the well which is always the feast days of the saints, so The Beltane in May, the Imbolic in February, the Lughnasadh in August and the Samhain in November.
Traditions vary from place to place and over the years. Those who are ill go in the hope of curing their ailments. The patient ties a piece of cloth, belonging to themselves, to the branches of the tree and rumour has that as the rag disintegrates so does the illness. Some traditions involve dipping the rag in the well first, some wash their body with the rag first and some throw coins into the well. Some circle the well a certain amount of times and some leave more sacred gifts for the saints like crosses, rosaries or medals.
Over the years in Munlochy the collection has grew and it’s now a colourful mish mash of clothes, rags, shoes, scarves, and many other things! I don’t know how much of the ritual is now traditional and how much is tourists and travellers wanting to join in the fun but it’s a fascinating sight to say the least. I think perhaps some of the meaning has gone for some, such as those leaving plastic bottles in shoes (highly unlikely to disintegrate!) and those leaving luminous yellow work vests. I do like though that tourists have began leaving clothes with the dates of their visit written on them, as well as where they have came from, like an unusual take on the visitor book!
After parking at the nearby car park (for free) I must have spent at least an hour wandering around. It’s an eerie and strange atmosphere, especially while looking at the old faded rags which had obviously been there for decades. It’s spread out a lot further now than the branches of one tree and looks bizarre amongst the plain jane trees of the surrounding forest.
As well as the Clootie Well in Munlochy there is actually another Clootie Well on the Black Isle, Craigie Well in Avoch, where rag wool and human hair can be found. These were used as charms against sorcery. These are the only two of such wells in Scotland.
Cornwall has a few “Cloughtie” wells – Madron Well, Sancreed Well and Alsia Well. An ancient tradition at Madron Well involved girls from Penzance walking to the well before sunrise and when they arrived they would tie two grass blades together with a pin and drop it into the well. The amount of bubble which rose to the surface denoted the number of years before the girls would wed!
Ireland is also home to Loughcrew Well near Old Castle in County Meath. The site was once a megalithic burial ground, when visiting the tombs people would tie ribbons to the surrounding hawthorn trees.
This is certainly a quirky place to visit on your trip to Scotland, but beware when you go – don’t try and remove a rag from Munlochy Clootie Well as the ailment from the patient will transfer to you! We wouldn’t want that, would we?
Read more about The Black Isle on the Visit Scotland website