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McIan's Highlanders At Home
Girls Washing

THE important domestic operation of Washing is generally performed by the Highland females, in the clear, purling streams of their native glens, the water from its softness being excellent for the purpose of cleansing.

Blankets and the heavier linen are always taken to this natural lavatory, but smaller articles are occasionally ‘beetled,’ that is, they are laid upon a stone in the river and beaten with a wooden mallet; but treading with the bare feet, as here represented, is the usual process of purification.

This method is generally termed Strampail na Plaideachan, or ‘tramping the blankets,’ as these are the stuffs most frequently washed in this manner.

Companies of young women are sometimes engaged in this work at the same time, and on the margin of the river at Inverness, which is reckoned the capital of the Highlands, fifty or sixty girls may be seen busily employed in this necessary part of their domestic duties, which they call ‘posting,’ and it presents an animated scene, from its singularity, particularly striking to a stranger.

The beautiful banks of the stream are a favourite promenade of the citizens, and the younger portion of the male community are no doubt fond of sauntering by the river, but no offensive curiosity is displayed. Were any persons, by unbecoming levity of behaviour or expression, to draw on them the resentment of these Celtic Naiads, an unceremonious drenching in the Ness would be the least penalty they might expect to pay for their indiscretion.

This simple practice, once equally common in more southern towns, is giving place to genteeler modes of executing a work indispensable in Highland housekeeping.

Allan Ramsay celebrates Habbie’s How, a romantic spot in the vicinity of Edinburgh, as a favourite resort of the rural laundresses of that city, and very prettily describes it, in his interesting composition, ‘The Gentle Shepherd,’ as

"A flowery howm atween twa verdant braes,
Where lasses use to wash an’ spread their clai’s,
A trottin’ burnie wimplin’ through the ground,
Its channel pebbles, shinin’ smooth an’ round;
Between twa birks out o’er a little un,
The water ía’s an’ mak’s a singin’ din;
A pool breast-deep beneath, as clear as glass,
Kisses in easy whirls the borderin’ grass:
Here view twa barefoot beauties clean an’ clear,
First please your eye, next gratifr your ear."

Sir Walter Scott, also, in the ninth chapter of’ Waverley,’ describes the appearance of the Baron of Bradwardine’s maids when at this work:-

"The garden, which seemed to be kept with great accuracy, abounded in fruit—trees, and exhibited a profusion of flowers and evergreens, cut into grotesque forms. It was laid out in terraces, which descended rank by rank from the western wall to a large brook, which had a tranquil and smooth appearance, where it served as a boundary to the garden; but, near the extremity, leapt in tumult over a strong dam, or wear-head, the cause of its temporary tranquillity, and there forming a cascade, was overlooked by an octangular summer-house, with a gilded bear on the top by way of vane. After this feat, the brook, assuming its natural rapid and fierce character, escaped from the eye down a deep and wooded dell, from the copse of which arose a massive, but ruinous tower, the former habitation of the Barons of Bradwardine. The margin of the brook, opposite to the garden, displayed a narrow meadow, or haugh as it was called, which formed a small washing-green; the bank, which retired behind it, was covered by ancient trees.

"The scene, though pleasing, was not quite equal to the gardens of Alcina; yet wanted not the ‘due donzelette garrule’ of that enchanted paradise; for upon the green aforesaid, two bare—legged damsels, each standing in a spacious tub, performed with their feet the office of a patent washing-machine.

"These did not, however, like the maidens of Armida, remain to greet with their harmony the approaching guest, but, alarmed at the appearance of a handsome stranger on the opposite side, dropped their garments (I should say garment, to be quite correct) over their limbs, which their occupation exposed somewhat too freely, and, with a shrill exclamation of ‘Eh, sirs!’ uttered with an accent between modesty and coquetry, sprung off, like deer, in different directions."

The girls generally select a retired and romantic spot, where, in some cases, they are secluded by rocks, with trees, overhanging foliage, and other beauties of the sylvan scene; and here, when the large pot or cauldron is used to assist the labour, they light their fire.

Sometimes two girls trample together in the same tub, when with one arm encircling each other’s waist, they go round, while their motions are accompanied with a simple and melodious song, the arms being frequently changed as they move in a contrary direction. Judging from the hilarity which prevails, the burnside washing seems to be a favourite ‘ploy’ with these damsels.

The Highlanders, like all primitive people, when at work, always accompanied their labours with appropriate songs, which modulated their operations and lightened their toil. The Oran Luathadh is the melody chanted by the women engaged in washing, and is more particularly referable to the ancient practice of cleansing and fulling their woollen cloths.

The process of Luatha’, the ‘waulking’ of the low country, is likewise performed by the feet; but the parties, eight, ten, or more, sit on the ground opposite to each other, having the wet material laid between, on a long hurdle or piece of grooved woodwork. The cloth is then rubbed and tossed about with great vigour and dexterity until it becomes properly thickened, the swell of voices and rapidity of execution rising to a climax as the work proceeds; and the story is told of an English gentleman, who having come unexpectedly on a number of women in the heat of their work, made a speedy retreat, believing he had discovered a company of lunatics! This singular operation forms the subject of one of the prints in ‘Pennant’s Tour in Scotland,’ 1772.

The wash-house, or laundry, in the house of a Highland gentleman, is called Tigh Nigheachain.

The picture was made from sketches stolen from three mountain belles, natives of the lonely vale of Glenco, interesting as the birthplace of Ossian, the prince of Celtic bards, and long the possession of a branch of the great Clan Donald, most of whom were treacherously slain in a winter midnight, by order of King William III., the intention being to cut off the whole. These nymphs bear the euphonious appellations, Isabell ruadh, Caorag ruadh, Morag dubh, and Cairistin dail, but they are, of course, all Mac Donalds.

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