Tuesday 9 August 2011

The Old Woman of the Mill-Dust

A 6/8 jig still popular amongst musicians, especially pipers, is Cailleach an Dùdain (‘The Old Woman of the Mill-Dust’). Alexander Carmichael notes down three versions of a port-à-beul (mouth music) that accompany this tune but they all appear to be unfortunately rather fragmentary. The most complete version is given at the very end of one of his longest fieldwork notebooks (CW120):

An toir thu do nighean domh
Chailleach an dudain?
An toir thu do nighean domh
Chailleach an Dudain?
An toir thu do nighean domh
Dheanainns mire rithe
Ghleusainn fiodha[l] dhi
S dhannsainn cridheil rithe
Chailleach an dudain!
&c &c

Elsewhere in Carmina Gadelica, Carmichael has a long note about the curious ‘resurrection’ dance which accompanied the playing of this jig:

One dance is called, ‘Cailleach an Dudain,’ carlin of the mill-dust. This is a curious character-dance. The writer got it performed for him several times.
It is danced by a man and a woman. The man has a rod in his right hand, variously called ‘slachdan druidheachd,’ druidic wand, ‘slachdan geasachd,’ magic wand. The man and the woman gesticulate and attitudinise before one another, dancing round and round, in and out, crossing and recrossing, changing and exchanging places. The man flourishes the wand over his own head and over the head of the woman, whom lie touches with the wand, and who fills down, as if dead, at his feet. He bemoans his dead ‘carlin,’ dancing and gesticulating round her body. He then lifts up her left hand, and looking into the palm, breathes upon it, and touches it with the wand. Immediately the limp hand becomes alive and moves from side to side and up and down. The man rejoices, and dances round the figure on the floor. And having done the same to the right hand, and to the left and right foot in succession, they also become alive and move. But although the limbs are living, the body is still inert. The man kneels over the woman and breathes into her mouth and touches her heart with the wand. The woman comes to life and springs up, confronting the man. Then the two dance vigorously and joyously as in the first part. The tune varies with the varying phases of the dance.
It is played by a piper or a fiddler, or sung as a ‘port-a-bial,’ mouth tune, by a looker-on, or by the performers themselves. The air is quaint and irregular, and the words are curious and archaic. In his West Highland Tales Iain F. Campbell of Islay mentions that he saw ‘cailleach an dudain’ danced in the house of Lord Stanley of Alderley. He does not say by whom it was danced, but probably it was by the gifted narrator himself. In October 1871, Mr. Campbell spent some time with the writer and his wife in Uist. When driving him to Lochmaddy, at the conclusion of his stay, I mentioned that there were two famous dancers of ‘cailleach an dudain’ at Clachan-a-ghluip. We went to their bothy, but they were away. The neighbours told us that they were in the direction of Lochmaddy. When we reached there we went in search of them, but were unsuccessful. Some hours afterwards, as I was coming up from the shore after seeing Mr. Campbell on board the packet for Dunvegan, I saw the two women racing down the hill, their long hair and short dresses flying wildly in tlie wind. They had heard that we had been inquiring for them. But it was too late. The packet, with Mr. Campbell on board, was already hoisting her sails and heaving her anchor.

With regard to the name of the jig itself the cailleach may well refer to the Corn Dolly or Maiden, the last sheaf to be taken in from the harvest which in some regions of the Highlands and Islands was referred to as the cailleach. And if this is the case then the dust even on the mill floor could still retain the spirit of grain. Perhaps the ‘resurrection’ dance associated with the tune can be interpreted as mimicking the life, death and rebirth of the cailleach while she is meant to represent the spirit of the grain.

Carmina Gadelica, pp. 206–07.
CW120/344, f. 100v.

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [© carstenflieger.com]