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Waulking songs and information

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Article by Craig Cockburn mailto:

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.

Name origins

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".

The process of waulking may also have given rise to the surname "Walker". About 2 miles south-east of Burnley in Lancashire there is a small village called Walk Mill in the Parish of Cliviger. In the book 'A Pennine Parish, the History of Cliviger' (Thornber, Titus., 1987 Rieve Edge Press Ltd. ) the author describes the origin of the name of the village thus:

"... along side the river was a Fulling or Walk Mill ... The process of fulling was a laborious one in which men trampled on the cloth inside tubs of a mixture of water and fullers earth. Hence the name walk, and the surname Walker. The earliest record is of a Richard the Fuller who had a 'millpool' in 1270 AD."

There are other cases of fulling referred to as 'walking' in the medieval history of the Pennine region which may question be the origin of the term "walking" before it mutated to "waulking". Titus Thornber's suggestion that the surname Walker is connected with the occupation is interesting.


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 ISBN 0 08 032471 1) 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 Lamond, Runrig, Christine Primrose, Cathy Anne MacPhee, Flora MacNeill, Eilidh MacKenzie, etc 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.

There are many individuals and groups who have recorded a waulking song or two on an album of Gaelic music, but there are four albums of exclusively waulking songs which may be of interest:

1) Orain Luaidh - Waulking songs
Published 1986 by the Harris Tweed Association (sorry no address) This is an excellent tape and has a 29 page A5 book with it which has lyrics for every song, a translation and some notes. There is a 5 page introduction which gives more information and additional reference material. Most of the contributions are from the Western Isles although one is from Cape Breton

2) and 3) both published by Greentrax records
Cockenzie Business Centre, Edinburgh Road, Cockenzie, East Lothian EH32 0HL Tel: 01875 814155 Fax 01875 813345 mailto:

2) Waulking songs from Barra
This is published in the excellent "Scottish tradition" series which is essential for anyone really interested in authentic Scottish traditional music, particularly from an academic standpoint. This series is produced with the School of Scottish Studies, part of Edinburgh University and the world's foremost authority on Scottish ethnology. All the recordings (which cover both Highland, Lowland and Shetland traditions) have extensive books and notes to accompany them. The cassettes are not general mass market music and the song ones are all unaccompanied. They are however outstanding and in particular William Matheson's Gaelic Bards and Minstrels is incredible. I don't have the waulking tape in this series but I do have 3 others and they are both excellent!

3) Bannal - Waulking songs. Bannal is a group comprising many well known singers, they are:
Kenna Campbell, Catherine Fletcher, Christine Grant, Wilma Kennedy, Mairi MacArthur, Chrissie MacInnes, Maeve MacKinnon and Mary C MacLean.

4) The South Harris waulking group has a tape "Waulking songs from Harris". This is available from Lewis Recordings, 1 Millburn Road, Inverness

The tape comprises 18 distinct songs of between 1 and 3 mins each and is all unaccompanied with all the women except Chrissie MacInnes having a turn at solo. Most of the women are known soloists in their own right. The tape is excellent entertainment value for listening to in the car but is spoiled considerably by not having any notes on the individual songs and more importantly no lyrics whatsoever in either Gaelic or English with the album and no indication that lyrics are available. This isn't the first time Greentrax have let me down in this way - Canan nan Gaidheal has no Gaelic lyrics either. By contrast Temple records have an excellent reputation for printing lyrics and given the choice between both companies I would feel happier buying a Gaelic recording from Temple knowing I would be able to get lyrics.

In addition to the albums mentioned above, it is also worthwhile to get the tape "Music from the Western Isles", by Greentrax records. The accompanying booklet explains waulking songs as well as other types of Gaelic song. The tape is not exclusively waulking songs but is a "sampler" featuring different types of Gaelic music and song.

There is also a good number of waulking songs on the album "A tribute to the North Shore Gaelic singers", published by B&R Heritage Enterprises, Iona, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.


The main and best source for information on waulking songs is
Hebridean Folksongs by J L Campbell and F Collinson, first published by Oxford University Press in the 70s. There are 3 volumes, which you may be able to find in a library, and volumes 2 and 3 have recently been republished (at 29.50 each, sterling!). Volume 1 has an excellent bibliography, with additions in volume 3. The songs are the repertoire of singers from Barra, Uist and the small islands in that area. The School of Scottish Studies' published series, Scottish Tradition, includes Waulking Songs from Barra, and the booklet that goes with it is informative. This is available as cassette or CD from Greentrax Recordings. Music from the Western Isles, in the same series, also has some waulking songs and some notes on the genre. Orain Luaidh, published by the Harris Tweed Association, has an accompanying booklet with texts and translations into English. Orain, by Christina Shaw, published by Acair, has four waulking songs. C.S. was from Harris. The South Harris group are quite good, but there is at least one bad error in the way the words come within the rhythm.

The School of Scottish Studies' magazine Tocher contains texts of waulking songs, with their tunes, particularly Tocher 50. Tocher is published by:

The School of Scottish Studies, 27 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LD mailto:

More information

For more information on waulking, see the Harris Tweed website at

or The Smithsonian's article on Harris Tweed for more info and further links

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Q-HTML V3.4 by Craig Cockburn created this page on 19-Jun-2012 at 08:06:26