In Scottish Gaelic , an òran-luaidh (noun masc., Plural: òrain-luaidh , scots : waulking song ) is a “song of treading “, a notion that could also be translated as “songs to tread” or “singing”. of foulerie “.

The treading songs are part of what are sometimes called work songs . For the most part, folk songs used to have a utilitarian function. This is of course the case of lullabies, but also of all the songs of work, which served as much to punctuate the tasks as to break the monotony.

Manual crushing is a task that has now disappeared, as workers have been replaced by industrial machinery. However, the gestures of the treading are still practiced with the singing to tread, on the occasion of festivals, in particular in the Outer Hebrides .


Etymology and origin

Word-to-word, òran-luaidh means “song of treading”: luaidh is the genitive of luadh , whose Celtic root would be [ploud], a word that evokes movement or displacement 1 .

The crushing was indeed intended to soften the wool. It had to be moved, by foot or by hand, by various means.

This origin is to be compared with the equivalent scots waulk 2 , whose protogermanic root would be * welk- (roll, bend), which combined with the old English wealcan , would also have given the English walk 3 (walk).

But if crushing songs are a specificity of Scottish Gaelic culture, we know however that the crushing was practiced in much of Europe, at least since Roman times: for the Romans, for example, the fullo (genitive -ōnis, ” fuller “) was a person who pressed the stuffs 4 .

The French verb “fouler” comes from elsewhere and sometimes also serves to denote the idea of ​​movement (“treading the land”) sometimes even with a metaphorical sense: “trample”, “trample on foot” can meaning to ignore, scorn, or oppress for example 5 .

In Scotland

Engraving of Scottish singing during the treading, circa 1770

The purpose of the crushing was to degrease and soften the woolen fabric ( tweed ). The wool had to be handled until it felt. The work was done in groups in ponds or on hard surfaces. To punctuate the task and break its monotony, so singing singing and rhythmic singing: òrain-luaidh.

They were traditionally sung by women, because they were the ones who took on this task, but their subject could be the story of a man: in Càit an do dh’fhàg thu m ‘fhichead ginidh? 6 the narrator is a man who borrowed money to buy a boat, but also to offer a dress and shoes to his beautiful.

Today, some of these songs are still very much present in Gaelic culture, but sometimes also in British culture. Coisich, Rin 7 (“Come on, my love”) is probably the best example: this òran-luaidh, aged at least 400 years old, entered the Top 40 of the British charts in 1992, when the version interpreted by the Scottish band Capercaillie was taken over by a television program on Prince Charles.

Principle of the ran-luaidh

A crushing session often started with slower songs, then the tempo would speed up as the wool softened.

The workers made it turn gradually to the left to work hard. According to some superstitions, it was said that turning the wool to the right, or counterclockwise, was bad luck.

Another superstition wanted to avoid singing the same song twice during the same crush, which partly explains why some òrain-luaidh contain a lot of verses and why there are many songs to tread. More than avoiding bad luck, it is likely that the real goal was to avoid boredom.


The òrain-luaidh are generally composed of quatrains . When the song was composed of a chorus and verses , a single worker sang the verses and the others only accompanied him for the chorus.

As with many popular songs, the lyrics sung during the treading vary a lot. Depending on the length or dimensions of the wool that was to be treaded, singers could for example add or remove couplets. The verses of one song could also appear in another, and sometimes the main singer improvised, incorporating anecdotes or winks into the life of the community.

Each quatrain can consist of four different verses or on the contrary, play on repetitions. The quatrains of Abu chuibhl, for example, alternate two identical verses and two unique verses, the aim being to bring each time the fall of the last verse on a different toponym. 8

Sometimes there is no chorus: the last two verses of each quatrain form the first two of the next quatrain. This is the case, for example, with the structure of ‘S fliuch an oidhche’ (‘Rainy is the night’), another name for Coisich a Rin.


Another characteristic, the chorus of songs to tread is often made of unintelligible interjections , whose function is similar to that of “tra la la lère” in French.

In some songs to tread, the chorus and verses are clearly differentiated. But in others, some interjective voices of the chorus are repeated in the quatrains.

In Canada

In the eighteenth century, during the Fuadaich nan Gàidheal (“the expulsion of the Gaels” in English: Highland Clearances ), the Scottish diaspora exported traditional methods of treading, especially in Canada.

In Nova Scotia , particularly Cape Breton , the milling is known as milling . Unlike what was done in Scotland, men also took part. As in Scotland, this now extinct practice is still celebrated today at cultural festivals.

It is probable that in Canada this Gaelic practice was transmitted to the Acadians : the authors of Treasures of the French popular song. Around 50 songs collected in Acadia note for example that in Acadia , “We also sing all kinds of songs to rhythm the treading of fabrics, including: My father has built house (No. 457), It is the beautiful Françoise (No. 80). ” 9

These songs are not strictly speaking òrain-luaidh: It is the beautiful Francoise is a French song, imported in Canada around 1650 by the soldiers of Louis XIV , who fought the Iroquois 10 . However, their structure lent themselves well to crushing. The cultural practices of the Gaels would have mixed with Acadian music and the cultural heritage of New France , to give birth to Francophone songs to trample.

Notes and references

  1. ↑ ( in ) MacBain, Alexander, An Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language , ( read online  [ archive ] )
  2. ↑ ( in ) “Waulk v.,” Dictionary of the Scots Language , ( read online  [ archive ] )
  3. ↑ ” walk (v.) ”  [ Archive ] , on Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper, 2001-2016
  4. ↑ Félix Gaffiot, Latin-French Dictionary , ( read online  [ archive ] ) , p.  693
  5. ↑ « ” treading “, definition in Dictionary Littré »  [ archive ] , on
  6. ↑ ( gd ) ” What’s wrong with me?” by Mary Morrison (1938) »  [ archive ] , on Tobar an Dualchais
  7. ↑ ( gd ) ” Coisich a Ruin ”  [ archive ] , on Tobar and Dualchais
  8. ↑ ” Abu chuibhl ‘ ”  [ archive ] , on The Goldfinch , (accessed December 8, 2016 )
  9. ↑ Massignon, G. and Delarue, G., Appendix I. Catalog of songs collected in Acadia during the 1946-1947 investigation of Trésors de la chanson populaire française. Around 50 songs collected in Acadia. , Paris, Editions of the National Library of France, (read online  [ archive ] ) , p. 295-307
  10. ↑ ( in ) ” That’s the beautiful Françoise ”  [ archive ] , of The Canadian Encyclopedia