A common topic discussed in folklore from all over the world is the well as a sacred site. The tradition of pilgrimage to wells is still practised although not as widespread as it was in the past. In 1581 the practice was actively frowned upon in Scotland and the result was an Act of Parliament ‘against passing in pilgrimage to chapels, wells and crosses, and the superstitious observing of diverse other popish rights’. This Act set out to put the public on the straight and narrow as pilgrimages were thought to be misguided beliefs rather than evil practices. In later years the Church essentially absorbed some of the practices into their doctrine.
The process of the pilgrimage was quite a rigorous procedure for those who were desperate for results. The following is a list of key elements that were adhered to in Scotland:
• The trip to the well was done at a very specific time whether a time of day or a day of the year. The day of year coincided with the patron saint of the well, for example, pilgrimages in honour of Moluag take place on 25th June. The most popular times of day for the pilgrimages were sunrise and sunset.
• The ritual of the pilgrimage required a circumambulation deisil (clockwise) around the sacred site; this was commonly repeated three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost and it was believed to enclose the sacred space.
• Silence was observed with the exception of prayers or incantations at the well.
• Tokens such as pins, coins, shells, and buttons were left at the well as a sacrifice. There are records of more substantial sacrifices being made for example Hector Mackenzie was recorded in the presbytery of Dingwall 1678 for sacrificing a bull on Inis Maree to Saint Maelrubha hoping to cure his wife.
• At clootie wells a piece of cloth from the patient’s clothes was taken and pinned to a nearby tree or bush. It was believed that the disease would be transferred from the patient to the cloth.
• For those who were unable to travel water would be taken from the well and conveyed to them. It was very important that neither water nor container touched the ground on this journey and the water was called uisge sèimh. Carmichael explains why it is so called in Carmina Gadelica iv: “The person who draws the water must observe silence from the time of setting out to the time of returning from the well, whence the name ‘uisge sèimh”. In the notebooks Carmichael notes that water was taken from Tobar Chriosd, Vatersay for this purpose.
For a more detailed account see Aude Le Borgne's Clootie wells and water-kelpies: an ethnological approach to the fresh water traditions of sacred wells and supernatural horses in Scotland (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh: 2002).
In the next blog entry we will examine more unusual practices associated with wells and saints.
Beith, Mary Healing Threads: Traditional Medicines of the Highlands and Islands (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1995)
Carmichael, Alexander Carmina Gadelica, vol. IV (Edinburgh, 1941) p. 132.
CW107/11 fo. 21
Le Borgne, Aude. Clootie wells and water-kelpies: an ethnological approach to the fresh water traditions of sacred wells and supernatural horses in Scotland (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh: 2002)