The first reference to waulking came in the 13th century. In the 1950s machines took over the process and with them a part of Scotland's cultural heritage lapsed into her history.
Waulking is a finishing process that is applied only to woven wool (tweed). In Ghàidhlig, Gaelic, the process of waulking is called luadh ("loo-ugh") and the songs of waulking are known as orain luaidh ("or-ine loo-ie"). There were four parts to the waulking process. The first, similar to the fulling process, entails shrinking the fabric so in its thickening a certain quality of wind and waterproofing is realised. Then cleansing the cloth, folding the cloth, the process of giving it tension after which came a rite of consecration. Waulking was a daylong project and once begun it had to be finished in one session.
When cloth had been woven and removed from the loom, a luadh session was planned. The waulking women, called na mnathan luaidh in Scots Gaelic, assembled at the house of the owner of the cloth after breakfast. The tweed, up to 70 yards long, was sewn together at the ends to make a continuous loop and then it was soaked in human urine, fual or graith, saved in each house for this sole purpose. The ammonia served to not only deepen and intensify the dye colors but also to remove the oils of melted livers of dogfish used to dress the wool.
Waulking of cloth was done by pounding the material against a board or trampling it with feet, more often the former than the latter. Six to fourteen women, one on each end and equal numbers down the sides, would sit around the waulking board, or, as often, a door was taken off its hinges was set up. The cloth would be pulled towards you and beat on the board then passed slightly to your left before pushing it back, moving it in a four-time clockwise direction. Cloth that was initially eight (middle) finger lengths wide would be three inches narrower when the process was complete in addition to being softer, thicker, and more tightly woven.
For some 400 years, accompanying this work were waulking songs, òrain luiadh, a musical form unknown elsewhere in Western Europe. Waulking was measured by song - not time - it was never said, "it will take another half-hour" but rather "it will take another song". The songs, which have common themes of love, war, hunting and sewing, are very rhythmic and were composed to keep the beat as the cloth was being waulked. The best singer, the ban dhuan, 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. One of the oldest Gaelic songs in existence is Seathan, Mac Righ Eireann*, a waulking song appearing in the Carmina Gadelcia, which would take well over an hour to sing in completion.
Once the waulking process was finished there followed a ceremony of consecration, involving three women. The oldest would lead with the other two following according to age. The first woman would take the folded cloth and move it round a half turn clockwise saying "Cuirim ca deiseal" "I give a turn sunwise." Freeing her hands she seized it again and gave it another half turn to complete the round saying "am freasdal an Athar" "dependant on the father." The other two women repeat the process saying instead in the name of the son, and in the name of spirit.
* Capercaillie's Skye Waulking Song features lyrics from 'Seathan, Mac Righ Eireann' and can be found on their Nàdurra CD.