Wovember Words: Waulking

Here at WOVEMBER we have already looked at some of the actions and words which have historically been associated with shepherding. Here we have another action associated with wool working, which has it’s own unique method and measure.

waulking in Harris

The ends of a length of newly woven cloth are sewn together to make a circle, and the cloth is then placed on a large trestle table and soaked in hot urine*. An even number of women sit at the table, say 12 with six-a-side, and the cloth is passed around sunwise, to the left in kneeding motion. They reach to the right and clutch the cloth, draw in, pass to the left, push out and free the hands to grasp again to the right. One, two, three, four slowly the rhythm emerges.

Ethnomusicologist Margaret Fay Shaw described the practice of waulking the cloth -the process of washing, beating and fulling a length of woven tweed cloth which was practised in the Hebrides and Scottish diaspora areas, such as Cape Breton.

Mostly now carried out as a performance piece or in interests of heritage, waulking was once common practice. The rhythmic action was accompanied by singing in Gaelic, but rather as a mere tag-on activity the singing – unaccompanied by music – was functional and measured the the job at hand.

18th century engraving shows women also waulked the cloth with their feet.

A day long activity, the initial work was slow and heavy, due to the soaked weight of the cloth, and songs were necessarily slower in tempo. When the cloth became drier the pace would quicken and so too would the songs. Traditionally, the waulking song would be led by a soloist singing one line of verse followed by the company joining in with a reply of non-lexical vocables, e.g. Ho ro ro. Subjects of the songs range from tales of  love, lost love, battle, emigration, etc and these could be adapted to leave out a chorus or two, depending on how many choruses were needed to full the fabric. Some waulking songs were an hour long. As the evening wore on waulking could become a social gathering with the traditional songs lyrics were replaced to trade in local gossip, news and mild ridicule of people present or within the community.

While the method of fulling is no longer done by hand, waulking is a strong cultural artefact in the Highlands of Scotland. There is a large catalogue of  waulking songs which have also been preserved. It was believed that it was unlucky to sing the same song twice during a session and perhaps that back catalogue is necessarily large for that reason.

The video below, courtesy of The Wire Magazine, is actually from the archive at the School of Scottish Studies. If you are interested in listening to some of the waulking songs there is a large selection when you search at www.tobarandualchais.co.uk.


[vimeo 20467842 w=500 h=375]

Waulking Song from The Wire Magazine on Vimeo.

* yes, urine. Human urine collected from the houses in the area. Using this ‘household amonia’ intensifed the dye colors and removed residual oils.