A Nova Scotia Gaelic Milling Frolic

by | Feb 24, 2016

Ever since I wrote a blog post on the “Top Ten Differences between Gaelic in Nova Scotia and Scotland” I’ve been wanting to write a longer post about milling frolics.

I gave a brief description of milling frolics in the previous blog post:

A milling frolic is a social event that was born of necessity, and is carried on today for enjoyment. After wool cloth is woven on a loom, it is necessary to shrink the cloth in order to make it warmer and more watertight. In the Scottish Highlands [in pre-industrial times], cleansing and shrinking the newly-woven cloth was done by hand in local communities. It was a social event of shared labour, made enjoyable by singing songs which maintained the work rhythm, preserved traditions, and encouraged original compositions with jokes about local events and personalities.

     Nowadays the real milling is done in factories, but the milling frolic has continued as a social event in Nova Scotia Gaelic communities. This contrasts with Scotland, where you might see a milling frolic performed on a stage or as a historical re-enactment, but not as a social event in the village or church hall.
     Milling frolics involve special work songs which are known as “milling songs” in Nova Scotia (and “waulking songs” in Scotland). Some milling songs are shared with Gaelic Scotland, but quite a few were indigenously composed in Nova Scotia. There is a good but short collection of these songs on a Memorial University folklore website.

Milling frolics take place at least a couple of times a year in Halifax, but not always where you might expect! This one was at NSCAD University, the art school in Halifax. In November 2014, a NSCAD textiles instructor organized a milling frolic with the help of Mary MacLean who formerly ran the Halifax milling group An Cliath Clis.

Gaelic Milling frolic in NSCAD auditorium

The instructor and textile artist Jennifer Green had her students weave a length of wool cloth. The object was to “mill” (or full) the cloth in this traditional manner, so the textile students could have the cultural experience of how this was done by the Scottish Gaelic ancestors of many Nova Scotians.

Wool cloth woven by NSCAD textile students

Wool cloth woven by NSCAD textile students

The cloth had been sewn together to form a large loop. The students sat at the milling table, along with various members of the Nova Scotia Gaelic community who came to help with the demonstration. (This event was held in an auditorium to make it easier for some people to watch even if they were not able to participate.)

Mary started by pouring water on the cloth to wet it. The moisture, along with the friction and heat generated by grabbing, pounding, and rubbing the cloth on the table, all cause the wool fabric to shrink as desired. Wetting the cloth also has the useful effect of reducing the amount of fibers that fly into the air during the milling frolic (although the odds are that you’ll still end up with fibers up your nose!).

Pouring water on the wool cloth before milling

Everyone sitting around the table grabs the cloth and hits it against the table in a kind of dragging/pushing motion. Here are a couple of how-to videos about the rhythm that I made last year in the temporary “Gaels of Nova Scotia” exhibit at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History.

In part 2, we apply the milling rhythm to the chorus of a milling song:

You can see how the milling rhythm works with a group of people in this video from the NSCAD frolic. People make a few mistakes but the overall rhythm is clear and in fact the singer explains it at the beginning of the video: “Mine – Yours – Mine – Pass.” Everyone passes to their left, and the cloth travels around the table clockwise (deiseal in Gaelic).

Different milling songs are sung during the event. One person will decide which song to sing, and start off with the chorus which signals to everyone which song it is. The leader will then sing the verses, with everyone at the table joining in on the chorus. Once that song is done, the leader may continue with another song, or let someone else take the lead and pick the next song.

Mary provided the words so that the textile students, who had not studied Gaelic, could join in more easily on the chorus of each song:

The chorus to the milling song "Seinn O"

Here is a short clip of Mary singing “Seinn O”:

Periodically the cloth was measured to see how much it had shrunk.

IMG_9703 600px

I had to leave the event before the final measurement but as you can see it was definitely shrinking!

The cloth is shrinking!

The cloth is shrinking!

Shrinking the wool cloth makes it warmer and more water resistant. These days, though, unless you are a felter, quilter, or other kind of textile artist, it’s hard to imagine wanting to shrink fabric on purpose. Too bad it happens by accident all too often with a favourite wool sweater…

If you’ve never had the chance to participate in a milling frolic, I hope you get the chance soon. As I’ve said before, participating in a milling frolic is a great motivation for learning Gaelic songs, and a great way to meet other Gaelic speakers and enjoy Gaelic culture.

Milling the cloth at NSCAD

Milling the cloth at NSCAD

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