Great Scot! All about Waulking or Milling Frolics

I thought I would start this week off looking at a very specific type of Scottish song associated with the waulking of cloth.  It is only in Scotland (and by migration to Nova Scotia) that waulking became closely associated with traditional Gàidhlig songs. Women used the rhythmic songs to both help them in their work and also to pass the time more enjoyably.

Waulking (also known as fulling) is the process in making cloth where it is beaten to make it thicker and water resistant (especially needed in Scotland). Fulling mills were introduced in medieval times but in many more remote and self-sufficient areas, the process continued to be done by hand up into the 20th century. As part of the exodus of Highland Scots during the Clearances after the failed uprising in 1745, the process was carried to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in the new world where the process became known as milling.  There are still milling frolics held today in an effort to maintain old traditions.

A short explanation of milling:

For those of an Outlandish persuasion, Diana Gabaldon does a great scene describing waulking in Dragonfly in Amber:

I hid a smile at the mention of wool waulking. Alone among the Highland farms, I was sure, the women of Lallybroch waulked their wool not only to the old traditional chants but also to the rhythms of Molière and Piron.

I had a sudden memory of the waulking shed, where the women sat in two facing rows, barefooted and bare-armed in their oldest clothes, bracing themselves against the walls as they thrust with their feet against the long, sodden worm of woolen cloth, battering it into the tight, felted weave that would repel Highland mists and even light rain, keeping the wearer safe from the chill.

Every so often one woman would rise and go outside, to fetch the kettle of steaming urine from the fire. Skirts kilted high, she would walk spraddle-legged down the center of the shed, drenching the cloth between her legs, and the hot fumes rose fresh and suffocating from the soaking wool, while the waulkers pulled back their feet from random splashes, and made crude jokes.

“Hot piss sets the dye fast,” one of the women had explained to me as I blinked, eyes watering, on my first entrance to the shed. The other women had watched at first, to see if I would shrink back from the work, but wool-waulking was no great shock , after the things I had seen and done in France, both in the war of 1944 and the hospital of 1744. Time makes very little difference to the basic realities of life. And smell aside, the waulking shed was a warm, cozy place, where the women of Lallybroch visited and joked between bolts of cloth, and sang together in the working, hands moving rhythmically across a table, or bare feet sinking deep into the steaming fabric as we sat on the floor, thrusting against a partner thrusting back.

Gabaldon, Diana (2004-10-26). Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander) (pp. 459-460). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Here is a modern version of a traditional waulking or milling song:

Mary Jane Lamond – Oran Luaidh

If you ever have the chance to travel to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, you can experience many aspects of traditional Scottish-derived Cape Breton culture at the Gaelic College (Colaisde na Gàidhlig)  at St. Ann’s.  They do a variety of cultural demonstrations during the tourist season (June-October).  See this link for more information.

The Highland Village Museum  (An Clachan Gàidhealach) in Ion, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia is another excellent place to experience the Cape Breton Gàidhlig culture as well.

More resources on fulling/waulking:

One thought on “Great Scot! All about Waulking or Milling Frolics

  1. Pingback: Waulking the Wool | A Dram of Outlander

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