The trees stand knotting their neckties at the well’s mirror,
in the deep dark sound of its water.
A pale young man is making three circuits
of the Hill o Hurdie, against the stream of crowds.
A Ross County sports jersey is strung between two trees
– the old hanging god.
T-shirts wrap trunks with marker messages:
I love you Big Time.
Black-clad teenage boys put up knee-pads like hardened skin,
bend under rag-laden boughs
where sickness and suffering hang and no-one touches those or
lets them brush against them.
Synthetic trainers dangle by a lace, grow slime green.
Women hook a branch with a crook for yellow dusters: There’s
your cloot frae last year, Jessie!
No more room on this one! A wealthy matron,
Mercedes-borne, straddles the stream,
flicks her silk scarf to one side
and drinks – Ah, delicious!
A child leaves a poem written to the place.
A tiny doll hangs by the throat at the black well-mouth.
The weak thin young man descends, takes water from the trough,
and puts it on his chest. His wife seals that with a kiss.
He wears his hospital wristband.
People are getting over everything,
using these rip-rag gallows trees.
Flying between the traffic, the rags are filled with lost bodies
and as the wind blows it out, look, there’s someone in the shirt!
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2009. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2009 was Andrew Greig.
Valerie Gillies’ The Spring Teller is a valuable book of poems charting the wells and springs of Scotland. Such a great and resonant project. This concerns one of a number of strange, haunting ‘clootie wells’ that in their spontaneous, grass-roots nature remind me of those painful ragged roadside memorials – except these wells are dedicated not to loss but to hope and yearning for recovery.
‘Munlochy’ takes an open form, with observations inspired by jottings from my notebook. My fieldwork at the time was conducted around the springs and wells, of which Munlochy is one of the best-known. Voices of people who were visiting it give their own rhythm. Here, too, is the deep dark solo voice of Munlochy Well which I recorded on site.
This poem is a key to open The Spring Teller collection. It describes the traditional day for visiting one of the ‘rag wells’ in the Black Isle. This practice is thriving, and the poem shows the kind of ‘offerings’ or mementoes left at the well. The custom is for a rag or ‘cloot’ to be tied up there: as it disintegrates, out in the elements, so its owner will be healed, gradually, of any illness.
The visitors hope for health, and something deeper goes on: the force of all these encounters with the well.