A Tangled Web, Excerpt One: The Clootie Well
Amanda heard a series of thuds, immediately followed by an exclamation from Erica.
'Shine that torch this way, will you Amanda? The head's fallen off and bounced back down these steps.'
Amanda did as Erica had instructed. 'I thought shop dummies had fixed heads?'
'I can't say I'd thought about it one way or the other,' said Erica, 'but this one clearly has a detachable head and it's well and truly detached.'
'I can see it,' said Helen. 'It's just beyond the corner where the path turns at the bottom of the steps.'
Amanda saw Helen go back down the stone steps they'd ascended, then bend down and straighten, holding up the nurse's head triumphantly, like a barbarian conqueror with her latest victim. Amanda turned and shone her torch ahead of them, along the path which seemed to be cut into the side of a slope. There had been occasional pieces of cloth tied to the branches of trees beside the path but as she looked ahead, she could see more.
'I'm not going any further until you tell me what you've brought me to, Erica. This place is seriously creepy.'
Erica laughed. 'Welcome to the Clootie Well. Actually, this seems to be the “Clootie Well Lite”. The last time I was here was the year before Covid and there were strips of cloth and items of clothing hanging off just about every branch, all the way back to the car park. It was pretty overwhelming in places. It looks like someone's had a tidy-up.'
'What is it?'
'It's a rather weird remnant of an ancient tradition once commonly found in Scotland and Ireland, of holy wells to which pilgrims would come and make offerings, usually in the hope of having an illness cured. They would come and perform a ceremony that involved circling the well three times before splashing some of its water on the ground and saying a prayer. They would then tie a piece of cloth or "cloot" that had been in contact with the ill person to a nearby tree. As the cloot rotted away the illness would leave the sick person.
'An alternative tradition suggests that sick children would be left here overnight to be healed. Presumably, any with the physical or spiritual strength to survive what would have been an exceedingly unpleasant ordeal were likely to recover anyway. You can think of the whole place as an ancient predecessor to Raigmore Hospital.'
'But the stuff that's here now must be modern.'
'Yes, it seems many people still believe that leaving an offering will be, or might be, of benefit to them or others. I got the impression on my last visit that many choose to leave items made of modern synthetic materials that will never rot away. This does little for the local environment and neither, according to the traditions of the well, can it do anything for the health of the individual needing to be cured. I suppose if us doctors were ever able to do our jobs perfectly, then no one would feel the need to keep the tradition going.'
'And you thought this would be a good place to have your photograph taken with Florence? In the middle of the night?'
'Absolutely,' laughed Helen, having climbed back up the steps with Florence's head. 'It shows your sister is a genius as well as a wonderful human being. It would have been better with more in the way of offerings on view but the spookiness of the place gives it a real edge and the medical connection makes it a sure-fire winner.'
'We don't have much further to go,' said Erica. 'If I remember rightly, the outflow from the well appears from a hole in the ground which is at the bottom of another set of steps, down this time, a little ahead of us. It's where you used to get the densest collection of offerings left by modern pilgrims. If Helen and I stand by the outflow, with Florence between us, then I think that will be the photograph we want. Yes, here it is. Again it's been cleaned up, but there's still enough stuff here to get the effect we need.'
They'd carried Florence down more steps and Erica used one of the torches to illuminate a dark hole decorated with pieces of cloth hanging from a bush on the slope above it. A small stream was flowing out of the hole.
'We can stand on the far side, on the slightly flatter ground in front of that tree. That will allow us to include in the pictures some of the offerings that are here and the mouth of the well itself.'
'You're going to have to show me how to operate your camera,' said Amanda.
'It's not a problem. I can set it up so it's simply a case of pointing and shooting. Focus and exposure will happen automatically and with the large flash attached to the top, it will show this place off at its best, or worst. You just need to hold it straight and press the shutter release. Can you give me a little light?'
Helen provided the torchlight while Erica set up the camera and Amanda held on to Florence. Amanda noticed how much her breath was steaming and realised that it really was getting quite cold.
When all was ready, Erica, Florence and Helen lined up.
'Take the iPhone pics first,' said Erica. 'I'll shine this torch on the ground at our feet to give you enough light to frame us properly and for the cameras to focus.'
Amanda hung the large Nikon on its strap around her neck while she juggled three iPhones, taking several pictures with each. She saw that Erica had been right. The limited flash on the iPhones did just about illuminate enough of the surroundings to show where the pictures were set, but they rapidly faded to black beyond the two women and the mannequin.
'Now I'll take some with your large camera.'
'Zoom the lens to get us in, along with some of the background. Take a few exposures, to allow for any wonkiness, though give it a short time between each to allow the flash to recharge from the batteries.'
'Thanks for your vote of confidence.'
'It's nothing personal. It's just that I know how unwieldy that thing can be with the flash on top.'
Amanda took half a dozen photographs with Erica's Nikon. With the mirror cutting off the scene in the viewfinder at the moment of exposure - and flash - she couldn't see the results as she took them, though she was aware that on one occasion the flash didn't fire properly. She left it longer before taking the next picture.
Then she walked over to Erica to return the camera.
'Let's take a look,' said Erica. 'It's best to find out now if there are any problems with the pictures rather than when we get home. That way we can retake them if we need to.' Helen held on to Florence while Amanda stood next to Erica, both peering down at the small screen on the rear of the camera.
'You've done a good job, Amanda. Thank you.'
'My pleasure, Erica. You certainly get to see much more of the background than on the iPhone pics. Hang on, what's that? No, go back to that previous picture. Look, it's a wider angle than the others and there's something on the left side of the frame, up against a tree a little higher up the slope.'
Amanda turned and shone her torch into the darkness, then gasped. For a split second, she thought that someone had been here with a mannequin before them, before realising that what was sitting against the tree was no mannequin.
Helen had shone her torch in the same direction. 'Oh no!' She dropped Florence and clambered up the slope.
'Give me the torch, quick, Amanda,' said Erica. 'Can you hold the camera and bag?'
Amanda watched as Erica climbed up to where Helen was now crouched down, then reluctantly followed. She felt she was faced with a choice between keeping Florence, now discarded on the ground, company in the darkness or going to join Erica and Helen in the torchlight, with what seemed to be the body of a woman.
'Is she dead?' asked Amanda.
'She is, I'm afraid,' said Helen, 'though probably not for very long. She's got deep wounds across both wrists, and there's a knife on the ground beside her.'
'She killed herself? In this weird place of all places?'
'It seems so,' said Erica.
'We can't do anything for her now,' said Helen. 'Let's call this in, then I'll stay here with one of the torches to make sure no wild animals interfere with the body. I think the two of you had better take Florence back to the car and wait for the police. On the bright side, I think we can be pretty confident that we've managed to get the weirdest picture that's ever going to be taken of Florence.'