“Aye, yon Clootie Well is a strange, strange place, is it no?” ventured the barman as he pulled at the beer pump lever, filling a pint glass to a frothing head.
“That'll be twa punds fifty lad.” he added as he placed the brimful glass on the bar counter.
I handed over the money and picked up the glass, taking a large slurp of the dark refreshing liquid.
“Yes, the Clootie Well is one of the weirdest places I've seen in Scotland. It's strange to think that people still tie clothing and rags onto the trees, hoping that illness will be cured, when we have a great National Health Service and scientific medicine.”
“Aye lad, but hope and belief are everything tae mony folk. The power o' belief can be awfay strang.” the barman said as he polished a glass.
Awfay strong, indeed, at least here on the Black Isle I was thinking, And the Black Isle is not an island, but a peninsula - and it's not even Black. I was in the village pub in the wee town of Munlochy north of Inverness. It was mid-week, early evening and in the off- season for tourism. I had stopped in for a beer and a pie before driving onto Cromarty where I hoped to stay the night. Around the corner from the pub and just two hundred yards up on the Cromarty Road was the strange and famed Clootie Well where I had just been walking. The late afternoon sun had yellowed the October woodland, setting afire the last straggling leaves on the near bare branches and seemed to ignite the rustling leaf litter at my feet. My quest to find St Boniface or Curidan's Well had finally borne fruit.
But these trees bore some very strange fruit, I thought as I had stumbled along the thin gravel path that led to the well. The sunlight flashed and flickered through the web of trees and lit up the colourful strands and drapes of cloth and clothing that hung from the branches. The trees were weighted down with cloots – a Scottish word for cloths. Some were ancient and rotted to shreds but some were fresh - hung up only a day or even only a few hours before my visit. The woodland sounds of birds singing and the sough of the wind through the branches were joined by the tinkle and gurgle of the water welling up from the ground and flowing to a nearby burn. Every now and then, the whoosh of a car on the Cromarty Road disturbed the tranquil other-worldliness of this strange Celtic place known as the Munlochy Clootie Well.
I had read that an old chapel once stood on this site where Celtic peoples revered the healing waters guarded by subterranean water spirits. But it had gone to ruin. Pilgrims to the well would circle it three times in a sunwise direction (diesial). They would drink from the well and then take a cloot that had been in contact with a diseased or injured part of their body, soak it in the well water and hang it on a tree branch. By a process of magical transference, as the cloot rotted away, they believed, so the disease would be vanquished.
For countless centuries folk have come here to leave offerings, hoping for miracle cures. Mystical holy trees such as the Rowan, Holly or Yew were preferred, and it is no surprise to find these growing near the well, draped with multi-coloured cloots.
It is considered very bad luck to take away any offerings, such as coins in the well or cloots on the trees. These scraps of hope are left to rot away the pain and suffering of life. I saw women's bras , childrens socks and mens underpants hanging among this extraordinary collection of belief and hope. For countless centuries folk have come here to leave offerings, hoping for cures for disease and affliction. By a process of magical transference, as the cloot rotted away so the disease would be vanquished. Mystical, holy trees were preferred for tying cloots such as the Rowan, Holly or Yew and it is no surprise to find these growing near the well, draped with multi coloured cloots.
“You must get quite a lot of tourist here in the summer?” I asked the barman.
“Aye, a' they wee tour buses, like Rabs Tours and Glens Tours and the Magical Mystery Tours come here. Because it's close tae the road the Clootie Well has become quite a tourist attraction, but it gets a lot of abuse and disrespect. Most o' they tourist dinnae ken what it's aboot so they hing up fitba' jerseys, nylons and stuff that winnae rot awa'.
Then the 'White Settlers” in the village, wi' their fancy bungalows, dinnae like the Clootie Well. They say it's an eyesore and a mess. They want it fenced aff frae public access. They say it devalues their hooses. I think the truth is that it gies them the willies and freaks them oot. We locals, ye see, are kind o' traditional....ken an' hing on tae oor auld ways, like guisin’ at Halloween, blackenin’ at waddins and oor Clootie Well wi’ its kelpies and banshees.
“So you believe in fairies and these old Celtic superstitions?” I said.
“Aye, I suppose I dae!” the barman replied emphatically.
I was beginning to get a distinct Wickerman feeling from this conversation, when an older man who had been sitting in the window seat, got up and came across the room to the bar.
“I couldn't avoid hearing your discussion. The old superstitions around here are fascinating, are they not? He spoke with a smooth lilting southern Irish accent. He wore a Harris tweed suit complete with waistcoat, bow tie and a flat cap.
“Another drop of the usual please Rab.”
“Coming richt up Paddy.” replied the barman as he reached for the 12-year-old Glenlivet and measured a double into a short glass.
“Let me introduce myself, I'm Paddy McMahon. Although I've lived here now for nearly ten years, I'm not considered a local...more of a regular, at least in this fine establishment. I think the locals here are still a bunch of devil worshippers that dance and fornicate in the woods under the full moon to their bagpipes and fiddles. Is that not right Rab.”
“Oh aye Paddy, chance would be a fine thing,” said Rab returning the smile and the wink.
“Well young man, what brings you to these parts at this time of year?” Paddy enquired.
“Oh, I'm just visiting from Edinburgh, looking at some of the archaeology and strange sites in this old Pictish Kingdom. My name is James, James Gordon...call me Jim. It's nice to meet you. I find these old custom and beliefs fascinating. I'm studying anthropology and sociology at Edinburgh Uni. Most people associate voodoo beliefs with Haiti and Africa but don't think of Scotland as a place where these beliefs existed.”
Ah t’is true,” Paddy nodded. “Scottish and Irish folklore is drenched in the supernatural. There are many references in the old Ballads...for example ...the Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer: where he time travels with the Faerie Queen, and in the ballad Tam Lin, Tam shape-shifts to escape the Fairie Realm are good examples. And then there is Willy's Lady where waxen images are used and witches knots in the hair threaten a pregnant woman's life.
“You know lad, casting spells was commonplace for love, revenge and sometimes for spite or jealousy,” Paddy continued.During the North Berwick witchcraft trials in 1590, they accused a coven of witches of trying to kill King James VI and his new wife Anne of Denmark as they sailed across the North Sea. They said the witches used sorcery to stir up the ocean and wreck the King's ship. They said the witches threw a devil's cat into the sea to drown the King. Apparently, they made a waxen likeness of the King and put evil upon it with a delicious potion of toad's venom, urine, fish slime and such. The witches were tortured into confessing, then burned at the stake."
“Well, Mr McMahon, you seem to know at lot about the subject of witchcraft. While I realise that in the past uneducated people believed in spells, enchantments and witchcraft, we are educated, rational and scientific people, now are we not? Surely we don't believe that these “Black Arts” are real? Do we?”
There was a momentary quietness, broken by a chortle from the barman. Paddy took a sip from his whisky. I took a slurp of my beer.
"Well, well Jim, me boy, let me tell you a story and maybe you'll change your mind. Forty years ago I was a young newly trained doctor, a graduate of Edinburgh Medical School, the finest in the world at that time. I believed unquestioningly in scientific medicine because it worked. We could analyse symptoms, devise cures for disease, illness or injury by the application of methodology, knowledge and practical intervention. We used antiseptics, antibiotics, anatomy and surgery to heal and cure. We didn't use spells and incantations. That was my creed and my idealism. However, after graduating and then spending two years in a general practice in Derbyshire I was bored with boils and bunions and wanted some excitement. I saw an advert for the army wanting doctors. I enquired and was accepted. After some basic training I was posted abroad to Borneo, I think it is called Malaysia now. There I was to look after the medical needs of the Brigade of Ghurkas who had been sent to keep the peace between Indonesia, the Philipines and the British Crown Colony of Borneo. The Ghurkas are hill people from Nepal, fierce warriors from the Roof of the World who signed up as mercenaries to fight for the British.
"When I arrived in Borneo," Paddy sighed, "conditions were primitive. The insufferable heat, humidity and swarms of insects difficult to deal with. My first task was to get the field hospital running smoothly, instigate good hygiene practice and treat the injuries and ailments of the Ghurkas. It wasn't long before I learned that mysticism and superstition were deeply entrenched in Borneo.
"There was a binding belief among the local tribespeople that spirits jealously guard the natural verdant world and that any uninvited breach would bring grave perils. The local people would hardly do a thing without consulting their local shaman, called a Dukum in Indonesian and a Bomoh in Malay The Ghurkas were much the same, as primitive beliefs still held sway with them in their homeland of Nepal, and in Borneo. Their interactions with the locals - trading with the camp and fraternizing with the local women - only accentuated these beliefs.
"I can imagine," I said, noticing that all heads in the bar were turned to Paddy now.
Life at the field hospital was mostly routine and humdrum until one day a young local woman was brought in by her friend. The woman was running a high fever and coughing. I admitted her and allocated her a bed in the ward. When I did my evening rounds her condition had worsened. It seemed more certain that I was dealing with a case of pneumonia. I administered an injection of penicillin and expected this to be effective. The next morning she was no better, so I gave her another dose. Later in the afternoon she slipped into an unconscious state.
My resources at the field hospital were limited so I got on the radio to my HQ and by pulling a few strings and favours I arranged for her to be air-lifted to the American Hospital in Tokyo. That hospital was state of the art with X-Ray machines and all the other modern facilities. That evening the helicopter arrived and we carefully placed her inside, hoping that she would recover in Japan. Two days later I got a call from the Chief Medical Officer in Tokyo. It wasn't good news.
The Americans had tried everything they had to cure the woman. They agreed that she had all the symptoms of pneumonia but she had not responded to any treatments. They were mystified but considered that the best course of action was to send her back to Borneo to die among her own people. The next day she arrived back at my field hospital close to death. All we could do was make her comfortable in the ward and await the inevitable.
“I felt despondent that evening," continued Paddy. "I went for a long walk through the village and ended up in a low life bar where some of the Ghurkas drank. I knew one of the Ghurkas, a sergeant and got to chatting with him over some beer. I told him how I had tried to save this young woman's life and felt that I had failed her. The sergeant smiled and sighed and said to me”
”It's not your fault. Don't you know she has been cursed?”
“Cursed? What do you mean?”
“Yes, everyone knows that her husband had a witch doctor put a curse on her. She was having a liason with one of the young soldiers and her husband found out.“
"Could the curse be lifted?” I was surprised to hear myself asking, because I didn't believe in such things. But I had taken an oath to save life and so I felt compelled to try whatever I could to save this woman's young life.
“Very difficult I think,” said the sergeant. “You would have to find another witch doctor from another village and see if he could do anything before she dies.”
Paddy paused for a moment, seeing us all on the edge of our bar stools. The next morning the young woman was still alive, but very weak and unconscious. I started making enquiries and was told that there was a powerful Dukum in a nearby village. As soon as I could, I found a translator and we set off in the Land Rover to the next village. We found the Dukum and after some strange negotiations, he agreed to come to the hospital that afternoon to try to lift the curse. Besides the cash payment, he wanted three chickens and a goat.
In the mid afternoon the Dukum appeared in all his gaudy ceremonial finery. I could hardly believe that I was doing this, but I had the chickens he wanted in a cage and the goat tethered outside in the yard. The Dukum took the caged chickens into the ward and began his exorcism. There was much howling and screeching, and herbs and powders thrown on the floor and into the air. Finally he took the chickens one by one out of the cage and cut off their heads. Headless chickens spurting blood ran around the hospital, feathers fluttering while the shaman wailed and cast spells. If my commanding officer had seen this, I would have been court-martialed and drummed out of the army never to practice medicine again.
Paddy drained his glass.
“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked.
“To be sure, lad”
“Double Glenlivet, and a pint of heavy, please Rab”.
“Well, Paddy, did the woman recover?” I was on tenterhooks to know.
“That is the strange thing, I will never understand. Here was a woman at death’s door, unconscious, unaware that she had been cursed, and certainly unaware that another witch doctor had lifted the curse. And yet an hour after the exorcism, she got up off the bed perfectly well and went back to her friends in the village. You know, in Hamlet, Shakespeare says “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamed of in your philosophy.” That just about sums up what I thought after these strange events; they changed they way I thought about health and wellness thereafter.”
An hour later I bid Paddy and Rab the barman farewell and I set off to drive to Cromarty, pondering the stunning story. As I drove out of Munlochy, my car's headlights lit up the roadside as I passed the eerie spectral cloth-draped trees of the Clootie Well. As a cold shiver trembled down my spine, I wondered, what is in those cloots…?