Ortha nan Gaidheal


DURING the winter months the women of Highland households are up late and early at 'calanas ' - this comprehensive term embracing the whole process of wool-working from the raw material to the finished cloth. The process is an important factor in the internal economy of a Highland family. The industry of these women is wonderful, performed lovingly, uncomplainingly, day after day, year after year, till the sands of life run down. The life in a Highland home of the crofter class is well described in the following lines :-

'Air oidhche fhada gheamhraidh
Theid teanndadh ri gniamh,
A toir eolas do chloinn
Bith an seann duine liath,
An nighean a cardadh,
A mhathair a sniamh,
An t-iasgair le a shnathaid
A caramh a lian.'

In the long winter night
All are engaged,
Teaching the young
Is the grey-haired sage,
The daughter at her carding,
The mother at her wheel,
While the fisher mends his net
With his needle and his reel.

'Calanas' is an interesting process. The wool is carefully sorted and the coarser parts put aside. It is then washed and laid out to dry, and again examined and teased, and all lumps and refuse taken out.

If the wool is meant to be made into very fine cloth, it is drawn on combs of specially long teeth; if into ordinary cloth, it is carded on the cards without going through the combs. After carding, the wool is made into 'rolagan,' rowans, and spun into thread, which is arranged into hanks. At this stage the thread is generally dyed, although occasionally the wool is dyed after the teasing process and before being carded. The work of dyeing requires much care and knowledge and practical skill. It is done with native plants gathered with patient care from the rocks and hills, moors and fields and lakes, and with certain earths. When it is considered that a thorough knowledge of plants is necessary, their locality, their colouring properties, whether of root, stem, or leaf, and the stage of growth or decay, it will be understood that those who use them need much intelligence All Highland women are practical dyers, some more skilful than others. From infancy they are trained in 'calanas,' and in plants and dyeing; the whole clothing, including the blankets, of the household being dependent upon their skill and industry. Are there any other women in any class who can show such widespread skill and intelligence as these Highland women show in wool-working and dyeing operations? Home-made tartans and other fabrics, made many generations, sometimes centuries, ago, are not only wonderfully fine in texture, but all the different colours are remarkably bright and beautiful.

The Celts must have had an eye for colour in very early times. The Book of Kells is said by experts to be the most beautiful illuminated manuscript in the world. It is believed to have been written in the Columban monastery of Iona, and to have escaped the Norse destruction of MSS. and been carried to the Columban monastery of Kells. Not only are the forms of the initial letters in the MS. marvellously intricate and artistic, but the different pigments used in colouring are still bright and beautiful and fresh, while the colouring of copies made during this century is already sickly and faded.

The pattern of the tartan or other cloth to be woven is first designed on a small piece of wood, the thread being placed on the wood according to the design proposed. This is called 'suidheachadh,' setting. It is a work that requires patient care and skill in order to bring out the pattern correctly.

The Chant of the Warping is feelingly intoned by the women in warping the web. When a word or a phrase has struck their minds, they stop singing in order to emphasise the sentiment in a word or a phrase of their own, beseeching Mary's beloved Son to give them strength to observe His laws. These pious interjections and momentary stoppages may not add to the beauty of the singing, but they do to the picturesqueness.

Niall MacFhionnlaigh, A' Chiste Ghàidhlig, a chuir na teacsaichean seo gu léir bho Carmina Gadelica air an làrach-lìn aig Sabhal Mór Ostaig ann an 1995
2001-04-09 CPD