Folkdays: Rag Trees


The walks, especially the less-trodden tracks, around the Clent, Walton, and Wychbury Hills are where I get most of my inspiration, and where I feel my creativity recharging. One of the most special spots on these walks is the dell behind St Kenelm’s church. The spring is said to be where the Anglo-Saxon boy-king Kenelm was martyred, and the trees and undergrowth which still grow there feel powerful in an ancient way.

It is no surprise then, that the people drawn to this spot feel compelled to follow an ancient Celtic ritual, and deck the surrounding branches with rags and ribbons.

The folk tradition of the ‘clootie well’ is a fascinating one: read more about it below.

The trees around Kenelm’s spring are bedecked with all manner of rags, ribbons, neckties, handkerchiefs, and tokens. Some are written with well wishes and prayers, but others are left with no indication of who left them or why. Before I even understood the Celtic tradition of the ‘clootie well’, I was drawn to this strange yet fascinating ritual, and the image of the ‘rag tree’ (as I called it) made its way into a number of my poems. Take this, for instance, from ‘Spirits Raise Bella from the Wych Elm’, in Bella:

The rag tree blooms with curious blossom
heavy with handkerchiefs ribbons spoons
memoriams for a martyred Mercian king
tokens to crown his head damp with dew

My naming of the ‘rag tree’ is not too far removed from the more common term of a ‘clootie well’. A ‘clootie’ or ‘cloot’ is a Scots word for a scrap of fabric, and it is common to find these tied to branches surrounding a sacred spring or well, places of pilgrimage from ancient times. In some cases, the fabric has been dipped in the healing waters, and the disintegration of the clootie over time is thought to bring about the diminishing of an illness. In other cases, the clooties carry a handwritten message, or sometimes, they are simply left as a memoriam: a token of remembrance akin to tying a string around one’s finger, to never forget.

Clootie wells can be viewed through a number of perspectives. They can viewed as historical phenomena, ancient traditions with modern continuances; or they can be viewed as religious, whether that be through pagan or Christian rituals. But for me, the most intriguing lens is the lens of folk tradition. The use of the term ‘folk’ brings a definition back to the people behind something: the ordinary humans who, by holding something dear and passing it down through generations, create a tradition.

As a folk tradition, clootie wells or rag trees are a symbol of the way in which nature inspires people to believe, have hope, and connect with the world around them. A beautiful tree with branches that swing low to human height, in a glade or shaded dell, where water pools or springs forth… A place so ancient and serene that people feel inspired to tie something of their life to it, to anchor themselves there, and leave behind a sign indicating their presence. It is a way to connect with nature, but also with each other: only when many people tie rags and ribbons to a tree is a clootie well born.

For me, the rag tree will always be a familiar yet undefinable thing. I always find joy when I find one, on walks far from home: you can see my photos of my various finds above. To read more about clootie wells, follow these links:

For more ‘Folkdays’ content, see my blog.

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