Listening to a waulking song on Radio nan Gaidheal this morning (via a nifty iPad application) I realised I’d never blogged about the subject. No time like the present I guess.

Waulking (in Gaelic luadh) is the technique of finishing newly-woven tweed by soaking it and thumping it rhythmically to shrink and soften it. Waulking was the final stage in the long, laborious process of producing homespun cloth and was all done by the women’s hand in the old days. While they beat the tweed they sang songs which served served to keep the rhythm and lighten the work.

When Harris Tweed comes off the loom it is stiff and harsh, and the weave is quite loose. Waulking thickens and softens it. Nowadays, of course, this is done by machinery, but formerly everything was done by hand.

The cloth was soaked in “household ammonia” more commonly known as stale urine. This useful chemical, known in Gaelic as maistir, helped make the dyes fast, and to soften the cloth.

For the women-folk who took part, waulking was an enjoyable social occasion, with plenty of fun and gossip as well as hard work. And, as is the way when a group of women get together socially, the menfolk were often the song topic of the day.

Waulking was a widespread practice, but it seems that only in Scottish Gaelic culture was it accompanied by singing. Or, at least, it is only here that the songs have survived.

This was a very ancient tradition, and some of the songs are centuries old. Being passed on orally, they have been transformed into many differing versions, which adds to the interest. Many of the songs are loosely structured in order to make a song last long enough for the work, lines might be imported from another song, or perhaps a few lines of improvisation could be thrown in.

One woman sings the verse of one or two lines. It seems effortless, but takes a lot of skill and practice to get the timing exactly right. The rest join in the chorus, which in the oldest songs are composed of meaningless vocables. Later songs may have some words in the chorus as well.

The waulking would begin with a slow song, increasing in speed as the cloth dried, and the women got warmed up. In Uist and Barra, after being waulked the cloth was rolled up, and patted to smooth it out to the accompaniment of a clapping song (oran basaidh) which was a fast, cheerful song, sometimes an improvised “pairing off” song, when the names of those present would be linked with local young men.

Since waulking was such an important part of female culture, women wishing to make a song would compose it as often as not in waulking-song style, whether a love song, lament, praise their homeland, a lighthearted, “fun” song, anything that was part of everyday life. The songs were often straight from the heart, full of passion, but utterly without sentimentality.

Waulking died out in the mid-twentieth century, but the songs are certainly worth preserving and “worked” to keep them alive.

Thanks to Sgioba Luaidh Inbhirchluaidh (Inverclyde Waulking Group) for the info!