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Village Songs of Tweed on the Scottish Isle of Skye

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Village Songs of Tweed on the Scottish Isle of Skye

Part of the beauty of living is our very search for beauty itself. We look, don’t we, for beauty in both the everyday and in the foreign landscape? We look for beauty when we travel to foreign lands, in their people, ideas and art and culture. We look, too, to bring a fragment of foreign beauty home. 

Presently, RSE travels to a place of stunning beauty and one known for the beauty of not only its landscapes, but also its culture and cloth. We travel to the open sky and the treeless vistas of Scotland. To the bog and peat and heath, then, we journey, if only in our imaginations, through words and pictures. Travelling is also, however, often a matter of learning as much about ourselves, as we do that of a foreign land.

Scotland has produced fine woolen woven cloth for a very long time. The individual, hand crafted attention has been present for just as long. It is, however, not only the quality that obtains your attention, but it is even more the way that the fabric mirrors the landscape, sky and vegetation of this land. The cloth can be seen, then, as an embodiment of the place. The colours of the sky, land and vegetation all seem integrated, intertwined, weaved over and under with one another to construct, as it were, a perfect mirror of cloth.

You are, no doubt, familiar with the Harris tweed of the Outer Hebrides, and likely the Donegal tweed of the not too distant Ireland, as well.  They are, to be sure, the more famously named. Still, the production of woolen cloths has a wide berth and a long history in these regions. The custom of cloth production on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, too, has a long and intriguing story.

The garments and accessories offer the beauty of woven attire, the comfort of warmth against a chill night, the beauty that derives from its handmade nature. Less hurried. Weighty in its feel. Serious statements of fashion, while remaining grounded, firmly rooted to the earth.

While distinct in their natures and textures and appearances, the tweeds from the different locales, nevertheless, offer a common “tweediness.” Differences persist, to be sure. Still, it is the shared coarseness of texture and the honesty about the weave that draws you. They comfort you in their weightiness, their seriousness, their quality and beauty and warmth. It is a comforting cloth. A no nonsense kind of feel. The jacket or skirt or handbag made from tweed seems to know what it is and offers no apologies. The tweed allows the wearer to do the same, providing he or she comes by that confidence honestly. The garments and accessories offer the beauty of woven attire, the comfort of warmth against a chill night, the beauty that derives from its handmade nature. Less hurried. Weighty in its feel. Serious statements of fashion, while remaining grounded, firmly rooted to the earth. 

That history of the woolen cloth production on the Isle of Skye, and the stories associated with it, are captured in good measure by the memories shared by one Frances Tolmie. Ms. Tolmie (born 1840) from the Isle of Skye also recounts the experience of a young lass named Mary Ross, called Mairi Ranuill in her home hamlet, born circa 1848 “at Killmaluag, not far from Duntulm Castle.” Frances recalls, for example, that the leisure time in the evenings of Mary’s widowed and remarried father Ranald were likely spent mending the harness of his horse by the light of a peat fire.  

We, in fact, owe much to this fine woman who was not content to see the technological and social changes that confronted her mean that the folklore and songs of the recent past would be lost to not only her, but to the world. She asked her mother to teach her the songs that were sung while the local women worked on local cloth. She wished that she had learned and understood more. We are grateful for what we have; we are grateful for what she has left us. (Tolmie, Frances. “Notes and Reminiscences,” in Journal of the Folk-Song Society 4, no. 16 (1911): pp. 143. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4433967)

You might wonder what a mythological Water-Horse in an old Gaelic song has to do with the making of tweed. The point of juncture is that it is one of the central characters in the waulking songs of the women who would full the cloth. Fulling is the process by which the tweed was cleansed, purified and thickened. Thus, the key event which Frances reminds us of centres on the hours spent singing and working the local wool into material call “kelt” (the Irish word Celt refers to “raiment” or “covering”) or drugget. At the time, the word “tweed” was unknown. (Frances Tolmie “A Singer’s Memories of Life in Skye, p. 148)

What we know, too, is that the waulking songs were sung by a group of women working together on the tweed. Memories were shared; moments, lyrics, melodies remembered. Such memories are the ingredients of gatherings of kin and friends even now if you find the right place. The warmth of welcome, like the peat fire brightly burning, is extended even to strangers and travellers. We felt welcome in Scotland, to be sure.  

What we know, too, is that on and around those tables one finds an exquisite mixture of what it meant to live in Scotland in the nineteenth century and well before that. We also get a glimpse of the community of women come together, arm sleeves rolled up, gossip ready at hand, to collaborate on the work to create a fine woven piece of cloth. There were even some present to support the singing of song who did not work directly on the cloth. Community gatherings, these were, for work and talk and song.  The waulking songs had a practical purpose, too, in terms of the timing of the handling of the material. The stages of handling were counted in terms of the number of songs, for example. (http://www.thistleandbroom.com/scotland/waulking.htm

She speaks, too, of the young Mary encountering an elder of the village and pausing to speak with him, to hear of his memories of the village. The moment seems an exquisite one, and one now rather too rare, of the elder passing memories, folklore, histories directly to the youth.

But the songs themselves also give us insight into the folklore that was handed down from the generations that had predated Ms. Tolmie. Indeed, she speaks, too, of the young Mary encountering an elder of the village and pausing to speak with him, to hear of his memories of the village. The moment seems an exquisite one, and one now rather too rare, of the elder passing memories, folklore, histories directly to the youth, who listened without the intervention and encumbrance of a screen. Just the young girl, looking to her siblings, and an elderly man herding cows, pausing on their ways to listen to each other, under a blue sky. (Tolmie, Frances. “A Singer’s Memories of Life in Skye,” in Journal of the Folk-Song Society 4, no. 16 (1911): pp. 147-49http://www.jstor.org/stable/4433971)

We are given a possible taste of the memories and myth that were shared on one of those days between the elderly man and the young girl in one of the waulking songs that Ms. Tolmie records for us, entitled the “Lamentation of the Water-horse” (Cumha an Eich-Uisge in Gaelic). Such myths must have loomed large in the shadows created by the brightly burning peat fire in the long nights of winter. The song itself is, as folklore, evidence of the preoccupations and dreams and fears of the bearers of the lore. It is evidence, too, of the eminent place the horse held in the lives of the villagers. The immensity and depth of the water which surrounded them, the natural dangers which must have seemed to surround them too, all give form to this myth of the horse that originates in the depths of cold murky water. 

Which brings us to the Water-horse itself. Discovering the meanings of words, like islands of meaning, helps us understand. The old Norse word for horse, for example, is ros, and the Shetland word is russi. And we discover that the word for “walrus” is thought to be an inversion of the words for horse and whale, or whale-horse. We remember, too, that the horse and water, were two key elements of Scottish life and mythology, one which explores the fears, dangers, loves and beauty of their lives. 

We will touch on just one such lullaby sung during waulking, entitled The Lullaby of the Water-horse. The following translation from Gaelic is abbreviated:

Oh, sleep thou child, ho!...

Swift, thou art of foot...

And much are thou of the horse...

Oh, the darling son...

Oh, the comely little horse...

Thou art far from home...

(Tolmie, F. et al. “Songs of Rest and Relaxation,” in Journal of the Folk-Song Society 4, no. 16 (1911). http://www.jstor.org/stable/4433971)

Just the name Isle of Skye, itself, is so very suggestive of the vast vistas of ocean and sky. The art of capturing the spirit and beauty of Skye in a hand woven cloth is, itself, a thing of beauty.

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