The habit of tying a piece of rag or cloth to a tree so that people might be cured was once a more commonplace practice in Scotland but has now been largely discontinued. The Clootie Well at Munlochy is the best-known example and the only place where it is still practised to any great degree. It is mentioned in several texts:
A short mile from the church on Hurdyhill there is a well to which sick children are brought that languish long in ther malady, so that they almost turn skeletons,’ the substance as the people think being taken away by Spirits called Fairies and the shadow left. The children are left all night at a particular season in summer, the friends watching at a distance, and they say many more do recover than do not.
MacFarlane’s Geographical Collections 1, pp. 207
The manuscripts of F. C. Diack MS2776 marks the following feature above Rosemarkie in a list of Gaelic place-names:
Fuaran feil a flatʃ (‘put bit of cloth on bushes’)
feil a flatʃ is pseudo-phonetic for Gaelic Fèill a’ Phlaid’ ‘the festival of the plaid’. This is clearly a reference to the Clootie Well at Munlochy, or possibly another one near by. Diack gives the headform as Fuaran ‘spring’, this is not known otherwise and it is possibly meant to denote a description rather than a place-name.
The well is situated on a hill called in English, Hurdyhill or Hill O’ Hirdie. The Gaelic form of this hill is Cnoc Gille Churdaidh, as recorded both by Watson and Robertson:
“Hurdyhill G. Cnoc-gille-churdaidh, cf. Kincurdy. This hillock is famous for fairies, and possesses a holy well once in great vogue and still visited.” Watson 1904, p. 141.
Hurdyhill Cnoc Gille Chùrduith under Shantullich ¼ mil[e] W[est] of Munlochy.
Knock Hurdie’s Well efficacious in curing children’s ailments
Tobar Cnoc Gille Churduith
Robertson, p. 122
There was a certain amount of discussion by scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century about the meaning of the name, especially in relation to the Gaelic name of the Black Isle. There was a mistaken belief that the name of the saint Duthac was present in both names. The following are extracts of letters to various newspapers from a Rev. John Sinclair.
Cnoc-gille-chiur-Duith; literally translated, the hill of the servant that Duthac sent. This is an interesting little hill with a highly suggestive name. It is situated under the farm of Shantullich, is of a rounded form, evidently deposited (in part) from a glacier, and it has got a sacred well, to which offerings are made, one-third way up its north-east side. Evidently Duthac, when preaching elsewhere, sent a servant to officiate in this district in his stead, and the side of this hill was his favourite place for addressing the people from. The well is called Tobar-cnoc-gille-chuir-Duith – that is, “the well of the hill of the servant that Duthac sent.” Amongst people speaking in the English language it is shortened into Knock Hurdie’s well; but in Gaelic the name is always given in extenso. In pronouncing it the accent in the Gaelic is laid on Chùir, which, with duie, becomes in English Hurdie. I never yet heard a native of the district translate the name or associate it with a servant of Duth. Evidently Duth and his servant have long since been forgotten, and only preserved as fossils in the place name!
Rev. John Sinclair, ‘The Black Isle’ in The Celtic Monthly, 1898, vol. vi, p. 153
Sinclair also wrote two years later:
The hillock, with the fine well at its side, about half-a-mile north from Munlochy as the crow flies, is, by its very name of “Cnoc gille-Chuir-duith,” evidently connected with one of Duthac’s band of missionaries – “gillie” meaning a servant or minister of the saint. In a Gaelic song composed by William Allison, the bard, and published in the form of a broadside in 1847 on the occasion of Sir Ewan Mackenzie and Lady Sarah’s home-coming from Australia, the name of this hillock is alluded to in a very imaginative stanza:-
“Bha Cnoc-Gille Churduith
Air dusgadh le cuid sitheach:
Bha Smiteach agus curam air
Gun dunadh iad an tir
’S nach faigheadh e boine buirn
’A dheanadh curan té.
Woke with its ‘Men of Shee;’
Poor Smith was very much afraid
The land should closed be,
And that he could not water get
To make a cup of tea.”
The above quotation shows that this was the real name of the hillock in 1847. And its meaning is, “The hillock of the servant that Duthac sent.” There is a briar bush close to the well, on which may be seen a number of rags attached as offerings to the genius of the well. The bard refers to the hill as haunted by fairies, and curiously many other saints’ wells throughout the Highlands are supposed to be favourite resorts of those imaginary beings.
John Sinclair, Northern Chronicle 21/11/1900
Fortunately we have a reply from none other than W. J. Watson, an excellent Gaelic scholar who was later to go on to publish a book The Place-Names of Ross and Cromarty (mentioned above):
Cnoc gille Chùrduith has the accent on ‘chur’ the ‘u’ of which rhymes with ‘cùram’, and is, therefore, long, and for both these reasons cannot possibly represent the verb ‘cuir,’ send. Did the name involve Duthac, the accent would assuredly fall on the part containing the saint’s name. I need not speak of the extreme rarity of finite verbs in place-names. The only cases I have come across are some humorous Aberdeenshire names, (e g., ‘Fill the cup), and even these may be corruptions. Finally, whatever may be the explanation of Knock Hurdy, or Cnoc gille Churduith, the name cannot be separatd from Kynchurdy, near Fortrose, where a chapel stood in ancient times. The existence of the chapel at Kincurdy, and of the holy well on Cnoc Hurdy mentioned by Rev. Mr Sinclair – it would be important to know its name – also the ‘gille’ (servant, follower; cf. Gilchrist, Kilpatrick, Gillebride, &c.j in the G[aelic] Cnoc gille Churduith, all point to the places having been really called after a saint. And, once on [t]his track, thanks to the hint supplied by Mr Sinclair, we have no great difficulty in recognising our friend Curitan, a great man in his day, apparently the confidential adviser in things spiritual of King Nechtan, and closely connected with Rosmarky.
W. J. Watson 28/11/1900
Although Curitan’s, or Boniface’s, name in Gaelic was Curadan, it seems in Curdaidh we have a hypocoristic form or shortened form; such shortenings were very common in Gaelic saints’ names. For other examples of Curitan in Scottish place-names see here. He was especially associated with nearby Rosemarkie, and has a cluster of dedications in this area.