Stories of ancient wells and springs have long captured my attention, so when a rogue frog on the loose in a small village of Wales became the focus of A Trace of Copper, I seized upon the opportunity to include one in my story. Where better for such a creature to make itself a home?
While Seren’s Well or Ffynnon y Seren (of my story) does not really exist, hundreds of such wells or springs are scattered across the countryside of Britain and Ireland.
Often associated with a pre-Christian nature spirit or a local goddess whose influence was thought to confer healing qualities to the water, such water sources were often a destination where pilgrims would perform ritualistic ceremonies. Later, as Christianity began to replace pagan worship, ritual elements were incorporated into the new religion and many such wells were dedicated to a saint and/or had a chapel or religious statuary placed nearby.
Ailments that such waters were thought to cure are numerous, making an exhaustive list almost impossible, but include such complaints as sore eyes, infertility, warts, leprosy, toothaches, gout, ulcers… Some wells were thought to bring good fortune (favorable marital prospects or a good harvest) while others entered the realm of magic, promising such things as long life and beauty. The list of reputed effects is long, complicated and, at times, oddly specific.
To achieve your goal, simply drinking or bathing in the water was often not enough. Time-honored rituals had to be followed – and some wells were active only on specific days of the year or at a specific time of day. One might, for example, need to drink the well’s water from a skull, walk around the well a certain number of times, recite an incantation. Offerings were almost always required. A pin, a pebble, or a piece of cloth fastened to a tree.
Which brings me to clootie wells. (Clootie is a word meaning “a strip of cloth” or “rag”.) At such wells, an afflicted body part is washed by dipping your cloth into the water, after which the rag is tied to or draped over the branch of a tree. According to legend, as the cloth rots, the illness will fade. (An argument against arriving with synthetic materials.) But should you ever visit a clootie well, be careful! To remove a rag from its tree (or any offering left) is said to transfer the ailment to you.
Did you notice how I shifted into the present tense?
The Munlochy Clootie Well
This past summer, we took a family trip to the outer edges of Scotland. During the planning stage, I very carefully hunted THIS MAP to find any holy wells that intersected with our route and was thrilled to find one that looked particularly interesting. The Munlochy Clootie Well (an ancient well, its existence first recorded in AD 620) lay north of Inverness, and I insisted we detour and make our own pilgrimage. They’re accustomed to the odd locations I invariably tack on to our trips.
Despite the sounds of nearby construction and the occasional car passing, stepping into the woods surrounding this well felt decidedly strange. Cloth of all kinds hung from – or was tied to – nearby trees. And, yes, we brought our own strips of cotton cloth with us. There was no chance I wouldn’t take this chance to participate in such an ancient tradition.
Below you can see the source of the water, emerging from beneath the roots of the trees. It flows downhill to collect in a stone trough before pouring over and continuing on its way. My entire family took turns dipping a strip of cloth into the well before hanging them to nearby trees.
Whenever I’ve dragged my family to historic sites, all of them have felt museum-like. Not so here where a car park led to a path… to where the “offerings were quite clearly modern. That’s nearly 1,400 years of continuous pilgrimages!
Scroll down to watch a video I took of the site!
Though USA TODAY bestselling author Anne Renwick holds a Ph.D. in biology and greatly enjoyed tormenting the overburdened undergraduates who were her students, fiction has always been her first love. Today, she writes steampunk romance, placing a new kind of biotech in the hands of mad scientists, proper young ladies and determined villains.
Anne brings an unusual perspective to steampunk. A number of years spent locked inside the bowels of a biological research facility left her permanently altered. In her steampunk world, the Victorian fascination with all things anatomical led to a number of alarming biotechnological advances. Ones that the enemies of Britain would dearly love to possess.
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