Milling Frolic
at Highland Village Museum,
Iona, Cape Breton
(10 October 2012)

A tourist wanders in to the MacDonald House on the grounds of the Highland Village Museum. "Oh, what is this?" she asks the group assembled around the table, hands gripping cream-colored cloth. "This is psychotherapy," says Jim Watson, leading into his next Gaelic-language song.

It's actually a milling frolic, a recreation put on by the village for the tourists passing through, but it certainly is cathartic. Smashing down woven woolen cloth in time to a cappella song and story is rhythmic and enchanting. Queensville native Jim is full of stories and laughter, but is by no means the leader of the frolic. "No leader," he says, explaining that in the old days there would have been a woman with milling experience who would have led the group, but today is just a demonstration of the process, not the real thing.

"There was typically someone who came around and measured with their fingers and said, 'You need so many more songs'," until the process was complete, said Jim's son Colin Watson, one of the frolic guides. The purpose of the beating was "so the weft and weave get closer together," said Nona MacDonald-Dyke from North Shore, yet another of the guides of the frolic.

At a real milling the cloth would be wet, but not for today's purposes. And I'm certainly glad. "They would use a few things" to wet it, says Nona's husband, Stephen Dyke. This sounds ominous, and it is. "They would save the urine from the chamber pots until it was stale," Jim tells us. "When it would reach that state it was called maghstir," he says. "It's about the chemical elements," he's quick to defend. "It had many purposes." The board on which we beat the cloth is channeled, so that all the wetness, of whatever type, would run off the table as it was beaten out of the cloth.

A frolic was more than just work, as the name implies. "It was a time," says Jim, "It was an occasion." "They were very territorial though," says Nona. In as little as a 7-mile radius "They'd go around and tell the people 'There's a frolic.'"

Today is a good example of that social aspect. "The cloth is just there to keep time, otherwise, we're just socializing," Jim says with a smile.

music review by
Katie Knapp

12 January 2013

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