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Down Memory Lane: Washing away the pain at ancient clootie wells in the Highlands

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The clootie well near Munlochy remains popular.
The clootie well near Munlochy remains popular.

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Inverness Courier reporting how six Cameron Highlanders fulfilled an agreement made in the desert heat that, if they survived the war, they would meet again on the first Sunday of May at St Mary’s Well at Culloden, writes Bill McAllister.

While fighting in North Africa, they had tied "cloots", or bits of cloth, to a well in a Tunisian olive grove as the nearest they could manage to its Culloden equivalent.

The soldiers’ 1946 reunion was a symbol of Inverness’s attachment to the old well with its "raggedy trees".

When the 51st Highland Division was surrounded and captured in 1940, holding the line for the Dunkirk evacuation, locals flocked to place ribbons at St Mary’s Well and pray for the troops.

This weekend is the first Sunday of May, traditional day for visiting the woodland well.

In the 1930s, up to 12 special buses would be run from Inverness on that date.

Up to 4000 people would attend and the tradition carried on as a mass event into the 1950s.

Coins dropped in the well would be later retrieved to benefit local charities.

The numbers are fewer now, but the cloots are still on the trees, showing folk still pay homage to a tradition dating back to Celtic times, of holy wells as a place of healing.

Ancient beliefs saw people wash injured or ill parts of their bodies with well water then attach the cloth to a branch, hoping their problem would disappear as it rotted.

When I wandered through Culloden Woods the other day, there were plenty of cloth strips at the well, although it was disappointing to see modern non-biodegradable items adding tackiness while showing people did not understand the ritual.

Holy wells still exist in Ireland, the UK and northern Europe – although in 1581, following the Reformation, Parliament passed a law banning pilgrimages to such wells.

Their woodland locations, however, made it difficult to enforce and Christianity simply absorbed the practice – water, of course, is used in baptism.

Uniquely, the Culloden well is surrounded by a seven-foot high circular wall, apparently to cover the modesty of those bathing in the water. It once had a roof, seats and a caretaker, who was also regarded as a priestess.

A pleasant forestry track leads along to the well. There was once a St Mary’s Chapel nearby which was derelict before the Battle of Culloden erased all traces. Chapelton Farm, Balloch, is the last link to the chapel.

The well has been referred to by other names – Tobar na Coille, or Well of the Wood, the Blue Well or the Well of Youth. The adjacent burn trickles timelessly as the trees look down on what was once open moorland.

There were a whole series of other sacred wells around the town and wider Highlands. General’s Well at the Bught, facing Ness Islands, was believed to cure rickets, while Clachnaharry has the Well of the Washing Burn, credited with curing skin diseases, and, just over the railway bridge, another where a daily drink kept demons at bay.

The Clootie Well near Munlochy remains extremely popular and is linked to St Boniface, founder of the first church in Rosemarkie around 620AD.

The Druids regarded fire as the prime element, but water was next and their reverence for it lies at the root of holy wells and springs.

Victorian times, of course, saw the wealthy flock to spa locations, such as Strathpeffer, to take the waters.

Myth and nonsense coupled with New Age mumbo-jumbo? Probably.

Yet the sense of standing at what has been a holy place for over 1000 years offers a special ambience to St Mary’s Well.

Column sponsored by Ness Castle Lodges.

Related column: Blood lust united people in horror after battle

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