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Waulking songs (Scottish Gaelic òrain luaidh) are Scottish Gaelic work songs that traditionally accompanied the process of waulking cloth. The women doing the waulking would take turns singing while the rest of the group would join in for the choruses. Naturally, the song's rhythm was the most important as it was supposed to reflect the rhythm of the women's hands beating the cloth, and thus make it easier for them to maintain the steady tempo. It is even thought that some waulking songs may have been originally regular songs whose rhythm was adapted to suit the waulking.

Apart from their focus on the steady rhythm, another feature that almost all waulking songs share is the frequent use of vocables, that is meaningless syllables which are used as a repetitive refrain. In fact, repetition is another common characteristic. It can make some waulking songs go on for a very long time, which must have been pretty useful during the lengthy process of waulking. Especially since it was believed that singing the same song more than once was unlucky, which may explain the great number and variety of waulking songs. Also quite often, typically near the end of the waulking session, the women used to improvise. Local gossip was the usual source of inspiration, and merriment.

I'll try and give you an idea of the way a waulking song works by using a few examples. I'll quote only the first few lines of each song to illustrate the different patterns. The list is by no means complete!

'S E Mo Leannan Mac Fir Baile (Tacksman's Son Is My Sweetheart )

'S e mo leannan mac fir baile
Hi liù, hi liù
'S e mo leannan mac fir baile
Hi liuan is hòro

Aig a bheil na caoraich gheala
Hi liù, hi liù
Aig a bheil na caoraich gheala
Hi liuan is hòro…

Pattern: each line is sung twice but each time with a slightly different tune; the first time it is followed by the first set of vocables (hi liù, hi liù) and the second time it is followed by the second set (hi liuan is hòro).

Notes: This song comes from St Kilda and tells what I'm afraid is a fairly typical Gaelic love story. The man that the girl's in love with had promised to marry her around Hallowtide but when the summer came, he just went and changed his mind. To be honest, she should have suspected something when he promised her a castle with golden walls as a wedding present.

'S I Nochd a' Chiad Oidhche 'n Fhoghair (Tonight Is The First Night Of Autumn)

E ho hao ri o
E ho hao ri o
'S e nochd a' chiad oidhche 'n fhoghair
E ho hao ri ri a ho ho
E ho hao ri ri a ri
A bho a iu a riu u

'S e nochd a' chiad oidhche 'n fhoghair
E ho hao ri o
Chuir iad mise fhair an t-sabail
E ho hao ri ri a ho ho
E ho hao ri ri a ri
A bho a iu a riu u

Chuir iad mise fhair an t-sabail
E ho hao ri o
Ma chur cha b'ann gus a ghleidheadh
E ho hao ri ri a ho ho
E ho hao ri ri a ri
A bho a iu a riu u…

Pattern: The first set of vocables is sung twice at the beginning, followed by the first line and then the second set of vocables. After that the lines are sung as couplets, with vocables between them. The second line of each couplet is repeated as the first line of the next.

Notes: I know this song from the singing of my favourite Gaelic singer, Kathleen MacInnes. It tells how on the first night of autumn, while keeping watch over the barn, the singer heard sounds of hunting. But strangely, it wasn't voices of men and dogs but a voice of a woman and some young lads chasing her. And so the woman had her choice of the pursuers and picked the one who was both skillful and smart. Good on her.

Air Fa Laoi Leo (vocables)

Air fa laoi leo
Ho ri a ri eile
Air fa laoi leo

Chan eil mi gun mhulad orm

Air fa laoi leo
Ho ri a ri eile
Air fa laoi leo

Mise seo gun phòsadh fhathast…

Pattern: each line is followed by the vocables and sung only once.

Notes: This is actually what is known as a clapping song. It was sung near the end of the waulking process when the cloth wasn't passed round any more but was rolled up and beaten in the middle of the table. As a result, its rhythm's faster.

Although it starts with a classic Gaelic line "I'm not without sorrow", it's in fact a light and upbeat song. The girl's sad because she's still single but she says she'll never marry an old man and goes on to list all the faults he'd have (taking ages to get up and mistaking sugar for snow being two of them). She'd much rather have a fit young lad. Ah, wouldn't we all.

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