Waulking Songs

Fulling, milling, or waulking of home-made cloth for household use was carried out in Gaelic Scotland by pounding the material against a board or trampling it with the feet. The techniques are of great antiquity and were also used elsewhere, but they happened to survive in the Hebrides into the twentieth century. The process of waulking is called luadh ("loo-ugh") in Gaelic, and the songs of waulking are known as orain luaidh ("or-ine loo-ie").

waulk 2
Wool Waulking by Keith Henderson, c. 1927-8

Waulking songs are rhythmic songs that were made up to accompany the work and coordinate the beating. One person leads the group, like a shantyman on a ship, singing well-known verses or making up new ones on the fly. The rest then come in on the chorus while the leader takes a breath. A verse may be a single line or a couplet. The refrain often has no or few recognizable words among rhythmic nonsense syllables called vocables. The refrains are the most primitive part of the song and are the only relatively stable element in a very unstable body of texts, lines, and sections that were moved from one song to another during improvisation. Modern recordings and texts have tended to stabilize the words, but different collected and printed versions of the same song are often found.

waulk 1
Miss Penny Morrison and group of ladies at the waulking board,
Iochdar, South Uist, June 1970

The luadh was the culmination of the whole process of cloth-making and was one of the central institutions of a female subculture in Gaelic society. A night at a waulking was a tremendous social outlet for women. The songs have a strong element of gossip in them, of exchangings of secrets, of comments on men, good and bad. A matchmaking song or two might be sung towards the end of the proceedings. These used standard texts, with names of girls and their suitors inserted at appropriate points in the song, and formulas for acceptance and rejection. Although some songs are light-hearted and trivial, many are intimate, frank, intensely vivid, and expressive statements of women's experiences.

Hill ù ill ì ill è hó
Horó 's tù mo chuachag
Hill ì ill ù ill è hó

Gur muladach tha mi
'S mi air àirigh Ghlinn Cuaicheadh

Mi cur rif' air an osan
Dol a chrosadh Ghlinn Cuiaicheadh

(vocables, nonsense syllables)
Horo, you are my darling
(vocables)

Sad am I
At the shieling of Glen Cuaich

Putting a reef in the hose
About to cross Glen Cuaich

cloth
Newly woven cloth, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

When cloth had been woven and removed from the loom, a luadh session was planned. The best of food was prepared, and a waulking board of planks or a door was set up. The woven wool or tweed, up to 70 yards long, was sewed together at the ends to make a continuous loop. Then it was soaked in a solution of stale urine and water to neutralize the oils of melted livers of dog-fish that had been used to dress the wool. Neither the oil or urine solution was pleasant to work with. Six to fourteen women would sit around the waulking board and work the cloth by beating in on the board and moving it around in a circle. In some areas, the cloth had to move clockwise around the board, in others it was worked in one way and then the other. In some areas, one part was worked for a time and then moved on, in others the whole tweed was worked around the board continuously.

waulk 3
Waulking the cloth in Barra

The woman who was best at singing began with a slow song, and then a warming up song, and after that a short, light song to encourage them because they were getting tired. Then the hostess would measure the width of the cloth with her middle finger, and usually there was not much shrinking in it after the first three songs. After the next three songs, it would have shrunk more when it was measured. After the next three songs, it ought to be ready. A cloth that was at first eight finger lengths broad would be three inches narrower when it was ready. It would be noticeably softer, thicker, and more tightly woven as a result of the shrinking.

When the cloth was as thick as desired, it was rolled up on a roll and a clapping song was sung. Then the women washed themselves and gathered for some food and a dram. The young men put the waulking board away and the young people would collect for a dance.

oldwaulk
'Women at the Quern, and at the Luagh, with a view of Talyskir'
From a woodcut in Pennant's
A Tour in Scotland

First-hand accounts and recordings testify to the liveliness of the old ways of waulking. Someone today might compare the sound to the wild chanting of American Indians. Thomas Pennant in A Tour of Scotland, written in 1772, describes a session of hand and foot waulking as follows: "First they begin to work it backwards and forwards with their hands, every female uses her feet for the same purpose, and six or seven pair of naked feet are in the most violent agitation, working one against the other; as by this time they grow very earnest in their labors, the fury of the song rises; at length it arrives to such a pitch, that without breach of charity you would imagine a troop of female demoniacs to have been assembled."

In the Hebrides, men were allowed to sit and watch and sometimes even joined in the singing, but sometimes men were banned from waulking sessions altogether. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, it is the norm for men to dominate around the board at a "milling frolic" (the equivalent of a waulking session). When milling was a practical necessity in Cape Breton, women would start the process off while the men were at work, and the men finished it when they got home.

waulkJPG
International Folk Music Council meeting,
Laval University, 1961
Gaelic group milling cloth.

By the late 1940s, the finishing of Harris Tweed was being taken over by mills, and the last domestic waulkings took place in the 1950s. Since then, the songs have been adapted for solo singing, and occasionally a team of women will dress up to take part in a waulking purely for entertainment. In Cape Breton, milling frolics continue as social events. Those interested in keeping the Gaelic language alive often introduce the songs and techniques to learners.

waulk demo
House of Scotland
Gaelic Class doing a waulking demonstration at the 1999 San Diego Scottish Highland Gaames

Sources of pictures and information used in this article

Susan Self, House of Scotland Gaelic Class