SITUATED just off a road near Inverness, it is an ancient site of pilgrimage with a history stretching back possibly as far as the seventh century.

But the modern world of backpackers and coach tours has taken its toll on Clootie Well in Munlochy, the Black Isle, where legend has it a rag or cloot dipped in the healing waters and tied to a tree can cure sickness or ailment.

Now officials from Forestry and Land Scotland have teamed up with community groups for one of Scotland’s most unusual clean-up operations.

In a bid to preserve the site and protect the environment, they removed 50 bags of unsuitable offerings last month, including underwired bras, polyester flags, umbrellas, sunglasses – and even a medical back brace.

But locals were careful to maintain the unique atmosphere of a place steeped in mystery and long associated with pre-Christian traditions.

John Stott, chair of the local Knockbain Community Council, said the woods surrounding the well had become a mess.

He said: “It had got out of control, and the cloots weren’t actually biodegradable, by and large.

“A lot of the material, as most modern materials are now, wasn’t biodegradable, therefore it’s never going to go anywhere.”

Mr Stott said the site had expanded as it grew more popular with backpackers and tour companies.

He said: “It had started to spread out to the point where it was taking over a huge section of woodland, as opposed to the actual Clootie Well site itself, which is, let’s say, 25 yards by 25 yards or something like that.

“The cloots had actually extended out to 500 or 600 yards. It was just a huge expansion of the site.

“But at the actual site round the Clootie Well itself, we didn’t remove anything other than possibly inappropriate stuff such as umbrellas, sunglasses, a pair of trainers.

“There was a colossal amount of stuff around that was totally inappropriate.”

However, Mr Stott said those involved were careful to show respect to people who had placed genuine offerings around the well.

He added: “It’s people’s wishes, people’s hopes, obviously, that they are hanging on these trees.

“We did it with as much respect and dignity as we possibly could.”

He continued: “The idea basically is you hang up a wee bit of cloth, and as that cloth biodegrades it draws away the illness of the person who you have hung it up for.

“So that’s the theory, if you like, or the history of it. But things like sunglasses are clearly never, ever going to biodegrade.”

He said those who initially expressed concerns over the clean-up were reassured once the purpose of it was made clear.

And he suggested an annual drive to keep the surrounding area tidy could be in order in future.

He added: “I wouldn’t quite say we haven’t scratched the surface, but I’m quite sure the same exercise could be done again and it still wouldn’t actually affect the character.

“I would like to see some kind of annual event – done tastefully, done as a family thing, just to make sure that we keep on top of the non-biodegradables and we don’t end up back in the same situation.”

Clootie wells – or sites drawing on similar traditions – can be found elsewhere in Scotland and the UK, but few possess the unsettling atmosphere found in Munlochy.

Its strange power even inspired elements of Ian Rankin’s novel The Naming of the Dead.

While it is associated with a holy well, such healing traditions pre-date Christianity and the area has become an important site for those with a variety of beliefs and none.

Maree Morrison, of Forestry and Land Scotland, said 30 volunteers took part in the clean-up from the local communities of Munlochy, Avoch and Knockbain, as well as from further across the Black Isle and Easter Ross.

She said: “The site was expanding rapidly, with the surrounding woodland being badly affected by non-biodegradable items as they built up over the years.

“There were cloots tied around trees and information posts in the car park.

“The items had crept out from the well up to 250 metres out into the woodland, and the local community felt that it was getting too much and was detracting from the traditional nature of the healing well.”

Ms Morrison said volunteers removed a variety of unsuitable items including empty dog poo bags, entire pairs of jeans, a window blind and even an electrical sander.

Forestry and Land Scotland is now requesting that any offerings left at the site are restricted to natural cotton or wool. Any plastics, polyesters or other materials will be removed.