Sacred and Holy Wells and Springs – Guidelines on use

There is a strong tradition of taking the waters or drawing the water from a sacred spring at certain times of the year, or for traditional charms and invocations. These waters are used in 40% of the Scottish folk magic charms for which we have a written record, and so are an important and irreplaceable part of our Scottish heritage. 

Today some springs and wells have dried up, moved location or been intentionally sealed in some way. 

The principle of ‘do no harm’ can be applied to springs and wells by asking yourself a few questions before you decide to take any water:

Is the water safe to take for my purpose?

 If you don’t know the answer, leave it to flow. Some well/spring water is definitely not safe to drink, even if it was in the distant past. It may not even be safe to wash your hands in some waters (there are many wells colonised by bacteria that can cause illness, for example E. coli ).  

What is my purpose in taking some water? Is there enough water to justify taking any?

 Is it to drink (see above) or keep? Water from springs and wells will eventually grow algae even if kept in the dark. If the water flow is plentiful there is little harm in soaking a rag or taking a small amount to take home with you – learn how to passively fill your container facing it downstream of the flow, which is Scottish tradition. If you have a definite purpose for the water, such as a spiritual ceremony, take only the smallest quantity you need to use symbolically – a few drops or as little as 10 ml in a small clean bottle can be plenty. 

Clootie Wells (rag wells)

Traditionally, clootie wells were sites where people sought healing for an illness. Pilgrims would tear a small strip from their clothing (usually made from cotton or linen) and then tie it to a tree or bush close to the well or sacred spring that was reputed to have healing properties. Tying a clootie was a prayer or petition to the guardian associated with the well, who was sometimes a spirit of place, a saint, or a local deity, and who was somehow connected with medicine and healing. The idea is that as the fabric degraded over time, the person’s illness would lessen. When the cloth had completely disintegrated, they would finally be cured. 

In the past, such wells and healing places were often not easy to get to, but today these sites are often heavily visited. The amount of footfall means these sites can be devastated by visitors who leave clooties made of synthetic fibres, and who do not understand the significance and respectful exchange between the sacred site and the pilgrim who sought healing. As mentioned, modern ribbons and clothing are usually made of synthetic fabric that does not break down over time. This contributes to the overall pollution of the site and leaves plastic in the environment. It also harms the trees, which can end up covered in hundreds of clooties. 

If you must leave something, please only use thread made from a fully biodegradable, natural material that will not detract from the enjoyment of others or harm the trees and wider environment. For example, you could use a single thread made from cotton, hemp, or flax, or even a plaited or woven piece of your own hair. Tying items can do damage, so simply leave your offering draped over branches. Polluting the site will not bring the blessings you seek, so please DO NOT LEAVE anything that does not biodegrade. 


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