Waulking Songs and Information
by Craig Cockburn

This article promoted by "The Smithsonian" in their Sept 98 issue

Waulking is a process for fulling Harris tweed (making it more airtight). The word 'waulking' is a Scots word from the 14th century meaning the same as "full" in English. The waulking process not only fulls the tweed but also shrinks it slightly. Perhaps the term "waulking" was coined by a non-Gaelic speaker who saw a waulking done by the feet and modified the word "walking." Waulkings were done by both hand and foot, but more usually by hand. The Gaelic name for waulking songs is "Orain Luaidh," luaidh translates to "full". In Scotland, waulking was done exclusively by women whereas in Cape Breton both men and women did it - waulking is often seen in Cape Breton at "milling frolics."

When tweed is made, it needs to be fulled to increase its ability to keep out the wind. Waulking is a process of repeatedly beating the cloth to full it and prepare it for use. Waulking songs are a musical form unknown elsewhere in Western Europe and often sound African. They are very rhythmic and were composed to keep the beat when the cloth was being waulked. This task was only done by women in Scotland, however in Nova Scotia where it is known as milling then it is generally a male task. Often waulking songs were adapted from other songs. Frequently they tell of local gossip, the material is not usually "highbrow." The tweed was generally soaked in human urine (it was someone's job to collect the urine which had been saved in each house). The women were usually seated around a table and the tweed would be placed on the table, or perhaps a door which had been taken off its hinges. There might be one woman at each end and maybe about 4-5 down each side. One person would sing out the verse and then everyone would join in the chorus. The verses and choruses (sometimes there are up to 4 choruses) are very short, sometimes only a few syllables. The chorus is what is used to classify waulking songs I think - nearly always the chorus is vocables.

These are words with no specific meaning, although they have been carefully chosen to fit the rhythm of the tune. I only know of one which has real words - Deannain sugradh ris a nighean dubh (on the Poozies first album). There are a few waulking songs in the book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist (Margaret Fay Shaw, Aberdeen University Press) and particularly Hebridean Folksongs (Campbell & Collinson 3 volumes).

During the waulking, the cloth would be pulled towards you, then passed slightly to your left before pushing it back. This way, the cloth turned round the table in a clockwise manner as it was being waulked. The Gaels are superstitious and believe anti-clockwise to be unlucky. It was important to turn the cloth to ensure the cloth was evenly processed. Waulking as a process is now no longer necessary, machines do it now. However, there are societies which preserve the waulking tradition for historical/tourist reasons. I think waulking died out in the 1950s. One of the oldest Gaelic songs in existence (perhaps 13th C?) is "Seathan", a waulking song which appears in Carmina Gadelica (an amazing source of folklore). Seathan (he was the son of the King of Ireland) is several pages long and would easily take over an hour to sing. The waulking process could last about 2-3 hours and there would likely be a ceilidh afterwards (I hoped they washed their hands first!), with the men being invited back in. I think it was usual to start with slower songs and then to speed up towards the end - the speed of waulking songs varies a lot. "Seathan" and "Gur h-e mo ghille dubh donn" are quite slow whereas "He mo leannan" is usually sung a bit faster and "Tha Mulad,"  "He Mandu," etc., are faster still. One of the fastest is "Beann a' Cheathaich" which has been recorded by Christine Primrose, and in 1995 The Poozies recorded it on "Danceoozies." It was adapted by Marjory Kennedy Fraser and became "Kishmul's Galley."

Today, many bands/singers,  eg. Capercaillie, Sileas, Poozies, Mary Jane Lamont, Runrig, Christine Primrose, Cathy Anne MacPhee, Flora MacNeill, Eilidh MacKenzie, sing waulking songs - they are proving very popular and the strong rhythms make them quite transportable to so-called mainstream culture (mainstream in whose definition?). It was a waulking song sung by Capercaillie "Coisich a ruin" (also sometimes known as "Fluich an oidhche") which became the first ever Scots Gaelic tune to enter the UK top 40 (in 1991?). I believe this song is about 400 years old. There are three variations of this song that I know of.