For hundreds of years in the Scottish Highlands, ritual lament was a central custom of funeral wakes and burials. Old widow women, in tattered clothes, covered in dirt and ashes, with hair streaming in the wind, led other women, relatives and friends of the dead, in group keening, or caoineadh.

This highly dramatic expression of grief would once have been a common sight and sound across the region. Keening women would chant rhymes praising the dead and cursing their enemies, alternating with choruses of wailing cries, screaming, tearing their hair, and rending their clothing.

But keening was far from being a random emotional outpouring. Rather, it was a skilled, highly choreographed, demanding and sensitive task, expressing personal pain and anguish on behalf of the community, arranging that the deceased could cross over into the community of the dead.

In this talk, Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart will discuss the evidence for keening in Scottish Highlands, examine how, why, and when the custom began to die out. He will investigate disorder, violence, and bagpipes at Highland funerals, and examine how not only keeners, but all women came to excluded from burials. Finally, he will trace the introduction of new standards of respectability and self-control, according to which ritual lament was seen as something hypocritical, old-fashioned, even primitive. The art of keening became forgotten or misunderstood, a cause of shame for a younger generation.


Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart is a Senior Lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, University of the Highlands and Islands, and Course Leader there for the MSc in Cultar Dùthchasach agus Eachdraidh na Gàidhealtachd (Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History). He has lectured and published extensively on the history, literature, material culture, ethnology, folklore and popular culture of the Scottish Highlands from the seventeenth century onwards, and is often interviewed on these subjects for radio and television.

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Jun 29th 2023 8:00 pm - 09:30 pm

£5 - £10 & By Donation

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