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We were halfway through our 9-night Best Of Scotland Knitting Tour with Highlands by KnittingTours.com, entering the highly anticipated spectacular Loch Lomond area in the Scottish Highlands. Today we would visit Auchindrain Township, a preserved site and the last surviving example of a “joint tenancy township.” In the 1700s, joint tenancy was a way for people in an area to band together to work and share, helping each other survive in a harsh environment. Today Auchindrain is a working farm with a collection of buildings and chickens where visitors can wander the farm, take a self-guided tour, step into a cottage, sit by the fire and imagine daily life in that rugged and poor land.
We came to Auchindrain to see Sgioba Luaidh Inbhirchluaidh (Inverclyde Waulking Group), a group formed by Frances Dunlop in 2000. These women demonstrate “Waulking the Wool”, sitting in a circle around a large table and singing work songs while they full the fabric by hand. On this day we were in a traditional cottage where there was a peat fire with the smoke hanging like a light fog, a spinner spinning in the corner and 8 women sitting around a large table with woven tweed fabric in their hands, all singing a work song while they beat and passed the fabric along. In days gone past, this gathering might be one of the few times of the year the women of an area traveled to get together, to work together, to pass along the news and gossip of the day, and to sing work songs to make the labor go quickly. Today the 12-member Sgioba Luaidh specializes in Gaelic work songs, keeping the old traditions alive.
Work songs, an important part of the waulking process, are probably more familiar to us as sung by men with their sea shanties and driving railroad spikes as well as while working in the fields. They were sung to make a dreary task go quicker, to coordinate movements so the work went more smoothly, to pass along the news of the day, and certainly to entertain the workers. The wool waulkers remind us that women had work songs, too. As Scottish immigrants came to the United States they brought these songs with them and spread them to their new homes. Their influence is alive today.
There are many steps to creating wool fabric. The sheep (usually the tan-faced sheep, a species native to Scotland) were sheared, then the wool was washed and the clean fleece dyed, carded, and spun. With this yarn, the looms were warped and yards and yards of cloth was woven. But before woven cloth can be useable, it has to be fulled; this process would shrink the wool, making it tighter, stronger, and softer. Fulling is what the waulking would accomplish. Then it is ready to be cut and sewn and worn.
The waulking could take hours, and it was hard work, but the songs and the sharing of labor made it a social event that people looked forward to. As the songs were sung the wet fabric would be passed along, hand to hand to be beaten on the hard wooden table. At first, the fabric would move slowly around the table and the work songs would start with a slower tempo. As the fabric began to full, the wool could move faster and the song speed picks up. Usually, one woman would sing the verse and everyone would sing the chorus, timing the speed needed for the wool. The songs’ subject matter was also flexible. There were lover’s laments, songs about family, and just fun songs about the lives they were living. Some songs were centuries old and some would be improvised on the spot depending on the news of the day.
The afternoon spent with Sgioba Luaidh Inbhirchluaidh was one I will never forget. The setting was perfect to imagine that time had shifted back, the light beams from the window illuminating the peat smoke in the air, the songs filling the small space as well as smiles and laughter. I wanted to put my camera down and just feel what it must have been like for these women knowing that, once the work was done, they would head back across the fields and acres to their solitude and hearth.
You can experience this visit to Auchindrain on our 9 Night Best of Scotland with Highlands Knitting Tour.
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