Seathan, the Son of the King of Ireland is a Scottish Gaelic waulking song. It has been called the Queen of Songs.
Many elements in the song may seem strange to us now, but the piece holds together through its many variations of line, theme, rhythm and structure. Professor Derrick Thomson notes of the song, that it is ‘…unique in its building of detail…(and) skilful use of incantation. The incremental repetition is used as a passionate incantation…’ (Introduction to Gaelic Poetry)
There was a tradition amongst earlier Scots Gaelic writers for adapting structures from one area of writing or composing, to another. The unlettered poet Duncan Ban MacIntyre composed his long and wonderful poem Praise of Ben Dorain entirely by memory (it was transcribed later); the poem utilises the structure of the cael mor (big music) of the Scottish bagpipe repertoire of laments, the pibroch.
Gaelic poetry is a syllabic poetry, and based on sound structures ‘to make them easier to remember, with rhyme not as important as repetition, alliteration and rhythm’.
Seathan… has a very complex structure, and a harrowing theme that explores the pent-up emotional landscape of grief and loss and love. It takes the personal experience and puts it into legendary, almost mythical context, that in no way belittles the personal, but helps kick-start the mechanism of coping.
A waulking song is a work song, specific to the home-based cloth industry, one of the ‘central institutions of a female subculture in Gaelic society’. As an activity waulking is heavily rhythm-based, and comes late on in the cloth making process, where the cloth has already been hand-woven into skeins. These could be up to seventy yards in length. Their ends were sewn together to form a loop. It was then soaked in a solution of stale urine and water (my sources do not tell from where the former was obtained). The purpose of this was to ‘neutralise the oils of melted livers of dog fish… used to dress the wool.’
What strikes one most strongly here about these practices amongst the outlying crofts and island communities is their sheer ingenuity. Faced with the intractable problem of preparing the harsh, wiry, lanolin-heavy wool of native sheep these crofting, sea-dependent people experimented with chemistry; a basic kind perhaps, their resources being very scarce…. And it was a matter of trial and error: the loss and hardship following on from failure to find the right compounds could have been severe.
Each community must have developed its own variation on a basic practice. Economic forces would have regularised methods over time. In this we can read the struggle of local communities to retain identity whilst procedures were standardised around them. By the time Harris Tweed became industry-sized local practices would have already been lost to a streamlined, though more economically stable, method.
The ownership of the source of materials for dressing wool in Renaissance Florence, the alum mines, was a major bargaining tool; it facilitated Medici connections with the Papacy.
The cloth being waulked was worked by the women of the community. There are cases where men were allowed into the process, but only as on-lookers, or singers. Waulking consisted of two groups of women facing each other across a table, with the cloth between them. Generally, they would pick up the cloth and bang it down, then slide it along. Other methods worked at a section of cloth before moving it on, until the whole was considered done.
‘Done’ was measured by the middle finger of the chief singer: ‘A cloth that was about eight finger lengths broad would be three inches narrower when it was ready.’ ‘Done’ was a cloth made softer, thicker, more tightly woven.
The waulking breaks down the prepared fibres so that they split lengthwise, retaining their columnar structure. The result is similar to felting, but not so extreme; it produces a heat-retaining, relatively water-resistant cloth material.
And so we have a highly rhythmic and regular activity, centred on all-women groups. Their songs became not just accompaniments, but expressive: ‘frank, intensely vivid… statements of women’s experiences.’ Thomas Tennant recorded: ‘… they (the women) grow very earnest in their labours, the fury of the song rises; at length it arrives to such a pitch, that… you would imagine a troop of female demoniacs to have assembled.’ That is, the whoops and calls of the women accompanied their work as they waulked harder and harder. Also note that the work and thereby the song, builds in intensity as it progresses.
The ‘Queen of Songs’, Seathan… runs at close on two hundred lines in its written form. It has been estimated it would take over an hour to perform, complete with chorus parts. As waulking sessions lasted for about three hours, the rest of the time accompanied by lighter songs, we can imagine the intense bonding of a waulking, and the huge emotions that came into play whenever this song was performed.
There have been a number of present day singers: Capercailie, the Scots Gaelic musicians have recorded an excerpt. The singer Flora MacNeal has recorded a version that was passed down orally from her mother’s cousin. This version takes the form of a lament.
The first written version of the song is contained in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica (originally published 1899); this also has two much shorter variants, which he had also collected orally.
Seathan… would undoubtedly be the product of many singers, and added topical improvisations. Professor Thomson writes: ‘Its style and language… argues for a sixteenth century to seventeenth century origin, and if that were so it would suggest that the metrical pattern is a still older one, for here we have an assured and mellow use made of the patterns…’. He asserts, ‘…the song has a highly distinctive drive which unifies it… we see in it the unity imposed by an artist’s imagination.’
The song is sung by a leader amongst the women, the others come in on the chorus vocables, which mostly consist of a meaningless ‘breathing’.
In translation we miss the distinctive rhythm and word music of the original. What is conveyed to us though is the impression of a mature and controlled work. Taken away from its active, communal role we can only speculate on the sheer visceral power of the song, performed in the cramped conditions of a waulking, and accompanied by the physically exhausting, odoriferous, and emotionally draining activities that surround the waulking session.
Professor Thomson comments that the form of the song is that of, ‘… the rhyming paragraph technique… used also in the finest of Irish keens (The Lament of Art O’Leary) dating from 1773.’
Firstly, rhyming paragraphs are unlimited runs on one end rhyme around a central theme. It is another example of a borrowing from another field, in this case using earlier written poems from the classical period. Also, the close connection between the classical poets and practices of Ireland and Gaelic Scotland has a long history.
Secondly, the Lament of Art O’Leary represents one of the last examples of ‘orrain mor’ (in Scots, ‘big music’), as against the lighter ‘airs’ of dance and celebratory songs. The Lament… is based on a specific historical event that represents the state of Ireland at that time: the hegemony of the English Planter families.
It has been suggested that the Lament… can be read as constructed in five parts, ‘… each one referring to a particular phase of the wake and funeral ceremonial… a possible latent discourse at the crucial stages of the obsequies.’ (see the divisions given in The Celtic Miscellany, Penguin Books. Also, we have to take into consideration, as the notes point out, that the arrangement of stanzas in all extant written records vary greatly at times). This is apposite to what Professor Thomson says of Seathan…: ‘On a psychological level we see the song being used as therapy, and clearly this is a highly important aspect…’
What unites both works are similar cultural and religious backgrounds: the Gaelic culture of Scotland came directly from Ireland, and kept strong links even though the languages changed. As late as the 1770’s Alexander MacDonald, could write his magnificent Birlinn of Clan Ranald (influenced by Homer’s Odyssey) about the building, equipping and sailing of a boat to Ireland. It is, in effect, a poem of farewell to Scotland after the old clan system suffered its last, devastating defeat at Culloden.
The Roman Catholic sensibility informs both works. They are both based on the keening at the wake of dead kinfolk. In the case of Seathan… it can be read as a lament for the whole Gaelic culture, in its inclusiveness of reference, as well as clan sensibility. Its appeal is both to the personal experience of loss in love; the experience of early widowhood, utilising the laments from earlier inter-clan wars; and the loss of first love. It turns into humankind’s experience of love and loss, without stinting or avoiding the intensity of the emotions roused, or the harrowing sense of loss that is the lot of those who are left behind.
In waulking songs the rhythm must fall at exactly even intervals. Scottish Gaelic is metrically a syllabic language. It has certain similarities and implied practices with classical Latin; in Gaelic the stress is nearly always on the first syllable, and so is suggestive of trochaic structures, similar to the one popularized by Prudentius, contemporary of St Ambrose.
It can be seen from the translation that there is a wide and sophisticated use of classical rhetorical figures, with anaphora dominant as the emotional charge builds, and, as we have seen, the waulking rhythm speeds up, intensifies. Metonymy in particular is very skilfully employed, the term ‘calf of my love’ as well as being a biblical image (The Song of Songs) also refers, to as we see in stanza 18, to its economic importance and thereby as a metonymy of status. The term also occurs in the Lament…
Nor must it be underestimated as a term of endearment; as such it is very informing to see the way it is used. Affection is only divorced from the articles of daily life, that is, as an emotional force in itself, in the overlying appeal of the whole song. Love is always predicated. In this way the whole song can be seen as an exploration of the emotional landscape, as much as the details explore the Gaelic cultural landscape.
Historically it was this point in the life of Scottish Gaeldom that it became difficult to separate the culture from the emotions. Earlier practices show how a person can be divorced from a particular culture yet be accepted by a related one: exile from Ireland need not mean outlawdom perpetua. There are many instances of Irish exiles thriving under Scottish protection. Yet what is happening at the time of the composition of the song, is a defensive identification.
The use of epithets, ‘son of the king of Ireland’, and ‘daughter of a king’, of the wanderings of the hero and heroine, of their wide cultural claim: silken clothes, red-gold pillows, both raise the personal experience of love, and the pain of loss of love, into a larger context through a recognition of personal experience, and thereby personal worth – the acceptance of the self and self-worth – into the arms of a larger community/perspective. The subjective experience is made large in an environment of overwhelming physical forces: death by sea, death by war.
The primacy of subjective experience in a cultural sphere can be seen in the unwillingness to give up the body of the loved one even to the Church and Christ himself, whose claims and promises are seen as by no means beyond question.
I would suggest that the performance of the song, along with its concomitant physical activities, enacts a whole physical and emotional catharsis, for a culture, and at the climax of the economic survival of the community, by the traditional holders of that culture’s ethos: its women.