Waulking is a Scots word for fulling. If you waulk the cloth, it means that you make it thick and felted by soaking and then beating and shrinking it. Of course in the past, you had to do it by hand. Hours and hours of mindless drudgery. And no paycheck at the end. And you a university graduate, too.
But what if you invited some friends round to give you a hand and sorted out some music, and maybe got a few party hats…
That's what they did in the Hebrides. Well, apart from the party hats.
When there was cloth to be waulked, women, as it was only women who did waulking in Scotland, would meet in one house and gather round a big table, or a door that had been taken off its hinges or any other big flat surface on which the soaked cloth could be beaten. The cloth would be spread around the table and every woman would first beat it a few times in front of her and then pass it on to the next woman, always going to the left because of the Gaelic, or indeed Celtic, belief that moving clockwise or sunwise (Scottish Gaelic deiseal) brings good fortune. At first the beating would be quite slow but it would become faster as the cloth was beginning to soften. No matter what the speed, though, the rhythm would remain pretty steady. And so the women would sing. They'd sing what is still known as waulking songs (Scottish Gaelic òrain luaidh) and what is one of the richest traditions of Gaelic song in general.
Thus, what started off as a hard menial task, thanks to the work songs that accompanied it, has become part of cultural heritage. Even though it is believed that the last waulking took place in the 1950s, there are still groups of singers and enthusiasts who organise regular waulking sessions, precisely in order to create the context and natural environment for singing of waulking songs.
What they don't do anymore, however, is soak the cloth in urine, which was traditionally the first stage of preparing it for waulking. Personally, I call that cheating.