The Keening Wake

The Keening Wake is a heritage project which will identify, collect and preserve heritage that can inform and inspire current generations to better deal with loss.


What is The Keening Wake?

The Keening’ Wake is a Heritage Lottery Fund backed project led by Way of the Village aiming to  learn about past keening practices in Scotland. Keening is an important part of our heritage. Today grief is tucked away, hidden, and saved for private moments, and yet it lingers on in our suicide and ill-mental health statistics. The communal practice of keening and lamenting together can perhaps remind us to trust the more visceral aspect of our feelings when the unbearable happens.

The keening woman (bean-tuiridh), wailed laments – the Gaelic “tuireadh” means “lamentation” or “death-song”.  The word keening originates from the Gaelic caoineadh meaning “crying”.  Keeners often sang or spoke their elegiac laments and death lullabies while clasping the corpse or lying by the graveside.  Some believed the act of keening enabled the deceased soul to leave the body.  Of course, it also served the social function of expressing the community’s grief and paying respects to the dead. Some say the common practice of speaking eulogies at funerals came first from the keening tradition where the deceased would be honestly described and praised.

Keening women would usually have been paid for their services, and the best keeners would be in high demand.  The unique wording through formulaic structures and rhythms used for keens belied the depth of the Gaelic song and music tradition, and even today a singer would be honoured to be told she has the voice of the keener.

The keening tradition is said to have died out in the 1960’s in Ireland and many decades earlier in Scotland, but there may still be living memory of it (albeit fading fast). There are some recordings, but nowhere to our knowledge has this part of our heritage been gathered together as a cohesive and accessible story.

As part of the project, Way of the Village has engaged a number of volunteer fieldworkers to collect oral histories from people who may have some knowledge of the tradition of keening, possibly even through first- or second-hand memories of such keening in their native areas.

We will:

  • Recruit a lead heritage researcher
  • Engage a number of volunteer fieldworkers to collect oral histories from people who may have some knowledge of the tradition of keening in their native areas o from their own field of study.
  • Receive consultancy and training from ‘Local Voices’ to ensure both a sensitive and thorough approach.
  • Identify references to keening in Scottish literature, song, poetry and lament tradition.
  • Create a Keening Wake website that showcases our findings.
  • Deposit copies of recordings with the School of Scottish Studies so that all archive material is appropriately stored and managed into the future.
  • Collaborate with story-tellers to share both our journey and the heritage gathered at an event, ‘The Keening Wake’ which will engage an even larger audience in local Highland heritage.

We hope this research project is itself akin to a Keening Wake. It will honour the legacies of the Keeners, who mourned for others but who may not themselves have been mourned.

About the team

When Laura Nicolson buried her grandmother and mother in South Uist, she realised she was a part of something that has become rare: a community steeped in heritage healing itself of its losses. Maeve Gavin was similarly affected by her grandfather’s funeral in the west of Ireland. She later encountered a west African grief ritual which inspired her to start working with groups in Scotland ‘grief tending’ in community. Way of the Village was the founded in 2009 to foster ‘village’ approaches to emotional health, drawing on cultural heritage as an inspiration. We have recruited an experienced multi disciplinary research team including Déirdre Ní Mhathúna, Madge Bray, Bria Mason, Jen Porah, Maeve Gavin and Nerea Bello. Many thanks also to our project consultant Chris Wright of Local Voices.

We are especially thankful to our funder for this project The Heritage Lottery ‘Stories, Stones and Bones’ and those that helped to launch it: author and activist Alastair McIntosh, storyteller Margot Henderson and Mairi MacFadyen the Storytelling Network Co-ordinator for Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland.

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