Women’s Work

One of my favorite words is serendipitous, which can be defined as occurring or discovered by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Two events occurred over the last week that, to me at least, seemed serendipitous.

Well, maybe serendipitous isn’t the right word. Irrespective of word choice, this week’s class readings happened to converge meaningfully with my attempt to binge-watch Seasons 1-5 of Outlander. For anyone not familiar, Outlander is the Netflix show based on Diana Gabaldon’s popular series of books. The show follows the life of Claire, a woman who is magically transported through a circle of standing stones from post- WW2 era Scotland two hundred years into the past.

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I don’t plan on devoting a great deal of space to relating all of Claire’s adventures. Gabaldon just released book #12!! The important talking points for this blog post are as follows: Claire (a nurse) finds herself living with a group of highlanders, the MacKenzie Clan. She is appointed as clan healer due to her medical expertise. Claire finds herself traveling throughout the highland region of Scotland (northern Scotland and its outer islands) while the clansmen collect rents. Ostensibly, at least. It soon becomes apparent to Claire that their mission is two-fold: the collection of rental income for the laird of Clan MacKenzie AND drumming up support for a Jacobite uprising.

Still with me? I know … what is the connection between the medieval dream vision poem Piers Plowman and a historical romance set in pre-Jacobite Scotland? We are almost there.

While the men are collecting money, Claire is left to her own devices. Claire is most assuredly a curious type. Meandering away from the men, she hears the sound of women singing. But, this is not singing as performance or for simple pleasure. The women our time-traveling nurse comes upon are engaged in the process of wool waulking.

Check out the scene below:

Garik Avetisov “Outlander Wool Waulking Song” ; Outlander I, episode 5: Mo Nighean Donn

Gabaldon provides a more detailed explanation in the book version:

“Hot piss sets the dye fast,” one of the women had explained to me as I blinked, eyes watering, on my first entrance to the shed. The other women had watched at first, to see if I would shrink back from the work, but wool-waulking was no great shock, after the things I had seen and done in France, both in the war of 1944 and the hospital of 1744. Time makes very little difference to the basic realities of life. And smell aside, the waulking shed was a warm, cozy place, where the women of Lallybroch visited and joked between bolts of cloth, and sang together in the working, hands moving rhythmically across a table, or bare feet sinking deep into the steaming fabric as we sat on the floor, thrusting against a partner thrusting back.”
(From DRAGONFLY IN AMBER, Chapter 34, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Copyright© 1992 by Diana Gabaldon.)

One word: URINE.

Claire is invited to join the women in their work. The communal aspect of the experience is created not only by sharing the work, but also by passing time while singing Gaelic waulking songs, such as Mo Nighean Donn (My Brown Haired Girl). The lyrics and translation for which are provided here.

English transaltion*
Oh how my mind is heavy
as I’m north west of the Storr (1)
My brown haired girl hò gù Hì rì rì hù lò
My brown haired girl hò gù.
My brown haired girl, I remark
At the fair of the young women.
Hì rì rì hù lò  My brown haired girl hò gù.
And we will walk hand in hand
Hì rì rì hù lò  My brown haired girl hò gù.
Regardless of any living elders (2).

Gur e mise tha fo ghruaim
‘S mi ‘n taobh tuath dhan an Stòr.
Mo nigh’n donn hò gù Hì rì rì hù lò
Mo nigh’n donn hò gù 
Mo nigh’n donn shònruich mi fhéin thu
ann an broad nam ban òg
Hì rì rì hù lò Mo nigh’n donn hò gù 
‘S bidh mo làmh na do làimh
Hì rì rì hù lò Mo nigh’n donn hò gù 
Dh’aindeoin èildeir tha beò.
Mo Nighean Donn, TERRE CELTICHE BLOG, https://terreceltiche.altervista.org/outlander-wool-waulking-songs-2/

The video below provides more detail about waulking songs in Scotland. The speaker is a member of a contemporary waulking society that is attempting to preserve both the songs and techniques involved in working wool.

Seasons in Music: Waulking in a Winter WonderlandFaculty of Arts & Social Sciences at The OU
From Wikipedia entry on Fulling; Detail of engraving showing Scotswomen singing a waulking son while waulking or fulling cloth,1772.
By Unknown author – http://www.marariley.net/celtic/scotland.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3653017

Carding and Cloth-Making in Piers Plowman

While Langland’s Piers Plowman provides some insight to the working classes and the somewhat tumultuous death of feudalism, I was taken with the occasional references to the burgeoning textile industry. As Andrew Galloway points out in his essay, ”Langland and the Reinvention of Array in Late-Medieval England,”:

“One of his [Langland] poem’s unusual intersections with transitions in clothing and cloth-making can, however, be explored through a single, brief simile, though it raises as many questions as it answers. Dame Study, the poem’s keenest observer of novelty, says that knowledge nowadays is impossibly corrupted: ‘Wisdom and wit now is no˙t worþ a kerse / But if it be carded wiþ coueitise as cloþeres kemben hir wolle’ (B.10.17–8) (p. 611).

Not only can it be argued that Langland had more than a passing awareness with the various processes involved in cloth-making, he most likely would have known who was involved in the labor at each stage:

“Preliminary carding is indeed menial women’s work, an alternative to and simultaneous step with ‘comb ing’, with which it is often formulaically paired, as elsewhere in Piers Plowman, and often depicted in medieval English manuscript art. 22 Combing and carding to pre pare wool for spinning are proverbially what ‘wives’ do” (Galloway p. 613).


I must admit that I do not understand enough about the various stages of processing wool—especially prior to the Industrial Revolution — to give the subject its due. What is apparent to me is that the dirtiest aspects of the job were frequently the province of women. And, it is both comforting, and somewhat heartbreaking to hear the songs they used to keep on task. I don’t know if their is an equivalent to the Gaelic waulking songs; that might be the next rabbit hole I travel down.

Works Cited

Galloway, Andrew. “Langland and the Reinvention of Array in Late-Medieval England.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 71, no. 301, 2019, pp. 607–629., https://doi.org/10.1093/res/hgz123. 

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