Sheilings - a Scottish way of life

The Shielings in Scotland

The Origins of the Shielings and their function

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Where to see Shielings

I have often seen, in modern housing estates, those cosy little bungalows  with the name ' The Shieling ' painted on a polished and varnished chunk of a tree. I never really gave the name much thought until I read an old book which totally destroyed the blissful image created by the words - 'The Shieling '. This article was inspired and largely sourced from that book. I have now forgotten the title and author of the book, and for that I apologise to the reader and to the author of the book.

Very often whilst browsing O.S. maps of Scotland I have noticed little black rectangular marks, high in the hills, bearing a legend like 'Shielings (5). One day whilst visiting Killin in Perthshire I took it into my head to investigate one of these 'Shieling' sites marked on the map and conveniently close to a public road between loch Tay and Glen Lyon. What I found there is the second reason for this article.

The following is an extract from the diary of an English army officer, not long after the 1745 Jacobite rising: "In summer the people remove to the hills, and dwell in much worse huts than those they leave below; these are near the spots of grazing, and are called shealings ... here they make their butter and cheese".

Even allowing for the above Hanoverian army officer’s jaundiced view of the Highlands in mid-l8th century Scotland, a stay at the shielings must never have been an easy way of life for those involved.

What were the Shielings?

wpe1.jpg (16525 bytes)The shielings were the little rough homes, up on the hillsides, in which the farm communities from the glens lived  during the few weeks in the summer when the animals could benefit from the lush pastures high up in the hills above the farmed lands on the floor of the glen.
Moving their cattle and goats to fresh grazings for a number of weeks between June and August not only rested the home grass, but helped prevent diseases caused by lack of nutritional trace elements developing in the animals through continual use of the same ground. There can be little doubt either, that before the introduction of huge numbers of sheep into the Highlands of Scotland, the hills and mountains offered a much richer pasturage than is to be found today. Sheep graze the grass down to its roots and such grazing frequently destroys the grass, resulting in erosion of the soil and in the excessive growth of the modern curse of the hill farmer - bracken!  The cattle and goats kept by the original highland people grazed in a less destructive way. With good feeding on the high level grazings, the cattle were quickly brought into prime condition, essential for those about to be taken to the autumn fairs. The animals’ absence from the home steadings in mid-summer also removed the risk of them trampling the ripening crops grown on what was then unenclosed ground.

Throughout most of the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, about six to eight weeks seems to have been the customary length of time spent at the shielings. The residents of the summer shielings were almost all women and children, for after the move was made up to the high ground, most of the men returned to the steadings to tend their fields. For those at the shielings, the approach of harvest time and the impending cattle sales signalled the return home.

An Riol site at the Ben Lawers hill road (beyond the loch - photos on right)

The site is spread out on both sides of the un-named road which goes over from North Lochtayside to Bridge of Balgie centred on the ruin and green tin shed which sits at the north side of the road.  The Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists (A.C.F.A.) surveyed half of the site in May, 2008 and recorded over 100 structures some very faint and small which have been dairy stores and some larger, more up-standing drystone sheiling huts with every size and shape in between!  A.C.F.A will be back at the site in the weekend 23rd, 24th and 25th May to try and finish recording the site.  We will be happy to show visitors some of the site if anyone wants to come up and see us - just ask for me - Anne Macdonald.

Community Life at the Shielings

The women and children’s mid-summer stay at the shielings glenlyon3.jpg (12746 bytes)was preceded by a visit from the men to ensure the huts were in good repair and to lay in a stack of peat turves as fuel. The locations chosen for the shieling huts were invariably sited near a dependable source of running water , yet on a high enough spot to be out of reach of flash flooding after heavy rain. Round or rectangular, each hut’s permanent stonework (just occasionally made of turf) was confined to a few courses of free-standing large stones, usually on a well-drained natural mound. On top of the low walls a temporary arrangement of raised poles was erected, supporting a roof covering of peat turves or heather thatch. A hole in the roof at its highest point served to let out the smoke from a central hearth. Some huts had a storage compartment attached to one side, its purpose to keep the cheese and butter made at the shielings well away from the heat of the open fire. In other cases the storage buildings were quite separate, only distinguishable from the living quarters by their smaller size. Conversely, the remains of a cattle or goat enclosure can usually be identified by being larger than the huts.

On the appointed day of the move, the women took with them to the shielings their clothes and blankets, distaffs and spinning wheels together with flax and wool, plus several weeks’ supply of oatmeal and salt with the necessary cooking pots. Also needed were their milking stools and wooden utensils for making cheese and butter — the only practicable way of first storing and then carrying home the milk produced by the cows and goats. In the ancient Earldom of Lennox, which took in all but the northern-most part of Loch Lomondside, two cheeses from every household were stipulated as part of each tenant’s annual rent. A stay at the shielings was also an opportunity to gather the wpe2.jpg (25916 bytes)wild plants used in herbal medicines and to collect lichens for dyeing wool.

The few descriptions of going to the summer shielings which were set down on paper before the thread of living recollection was broken all seem to confirm that it was a keenly anticipated social occasion. Memory can sometimes play tricks, but the very last people in Scotland who in their youth had moved with the animals to the upper pastures, when interviewed in later life by social historians always spoke of their experiences at the shielings with a nostalgic warmth.

 Decline in use of the Shielings

There are several ready explanations why the custom of taking cattle and goats to the shielings was given up: firstly, the development of modern farming practices encouraged the people to turn their backs on the old ways; secondly, the hill pastures, which had traditionally been available to all for common use, were turned into single occupancy tenancies with large flocks of the newly introduced blackface sheep; thirdly, but by no means least, Loch Lomondside was the first area in the Highland border country to experience rural depopulation, as the younger people were drawn to the growing industrial textile villages in south-west Stirlingshire and the Vale of Leven.

It is not so easy to say when community shieling life in the Lomondside hills was discontinued, as there are virtually no written records to shed light on its demise. During litigation over the disputed ownership of the north-eastern portion of Dumbarton Muir, which began in 1772, the ruins of shieling huts which had belonged to the contiguous Stirlingshire landowners’ tenants were presented as evidence that the ground had been theirs from time immemorial. But these summer dwellings may not have been abandoned quite so early as their dilapidated state would lead one to believe, for the Dumbarton Burgh records show that when representatives of the town were engaged in riding the town muir marches to check for encroachment by their neighbours, they would routinely cast down any new shieling huts built on the muir by the tenants of the Stirlingshire claimants. More reliable evidence on dating is forthcoming from the Glen Falloch area, where the remains of huts on the south-west side of Parlan Hill were examined by the Lakeland authoress Dorothy Wordsworth in September 1803. These, according to her local guide, had not been in use for about 20 years, which suggests that community shieling life on Loch Lomondside probably ceased in the early 1780s. Significantly, there is no mention whatsoever of the practice in any of the local parish Statistical Accounts prepared and published a few years later.

One reason for this vagueness over dating when shieling occupancy by local communities came to an end is that the practice was sometimes replaced with shieling occupancy by a hired herdsman and his family carrying on much the same life style as before. James Hogg, the literary Ettrick Shepherd, wrote of such an instance after his visit in late May 1803 to the former shieling grounds at the head of Glen Sloy; his purpose to call on a cousin who had been engaged to herd cattle for the Inveruglas estate.

Locating the Shielings

The Shielings I have found most accessible are:

  • Lochan na Laraig: ¼ mile north of the loch on the access road to Ben Lawers reserve on Tayside.
  • Edramucky: Ben Lawers walk from Lawers car park, at bend of  burn as it flows east away from Bien Glas.
  • Lawers Burn: Park at Lawers Hotel (but you must buy something on your return) walk down to the horn carver shop then up the farm track keeping left at the hill walk sign. The shielings are about 1 mile up the track past the second stile.
  • Lianach: One hours walk from track end at Immeroin farm in GlenBuckie. Follow track south from farm, shielings 200m to right where burn exits woods.
  • Glenfinglas: About 4 mile north of Brig o' Turk in Glenfinglas. Left fork of track near head of the loch then thinly scattered both sides of track for 2 miles.
  • Loch Sloy: Various tracks up the hill in vicinity Inveruglas (Loch Lomond). Follow general direction of the large pipes to the Loch Sloy dam. The shielings lie just below the dam
  • Inverlochlarig Glen. A pair of well preserved shielings lie on the west side of the burn about 2 miles north of the farm.

Very few place names refer specifically to shielings on today’s Ordnance Survey maps of Loch Lomondside. Even before the Ordnance Survey field officers first set foot on the ground in the mid 19th century, local recollection of many shieling sites must have been very hazy if not already gone. A positive indication of their former presence is the use of the descriptive terms (under various spellings) shieling or shiel and the gaelic airigh or airidhe, originally applied to the whole of the upland grazings and not just the dwellings.

The few such names in the Loch Lomond area which survived to at least the earliest published maps are:

Shieling Burn, Luss Glen
Shiel Burn, Glen Falloch
Tom na h-Airidhe (Knoll of the Shieling), Glen Fruin
Airigh Sheilich (Shieling of the Willow), Cashel
Airigh a’ Chaorainn (Shieling of the Rowan)

The identification of summer dwellings is not always clear cut. Those just within the altitudinal limit of cultivation were sometimes upgraded to permanent steadings, with crops grown on the most fertile ground where the cattle had regularly been kept overnight. This is believed to have happened to the lower shielings on the east side of Loch Lomond above Craigrostan and Ardess, where landless members of the MacGregor clan were actively encouraged to set up home during the brief period of MacGregor ownership between 1693-1715, in the process pushing the level of all-the-year-round settlement further up the hillside.

In more modern times, shieling sites have been covered over by the waters of the Glen Finlas and Loch Sloy reservoirs, and there is at least one case of hut walls being destroyed during the construction of a hill road. There are instances too of loss by afforestation, both groups and individual huts having been damaged by hill ploughing or covered over with tightly packed trees.

The occasional lone shieling hut can be found on the hills, but as they served a community activity most occur in groups. One summer ‘township’ — Auchengaich or Field of the Mist — stands out from all the others because of its exceptional number of bracken-covered hut remains, over 40 in all. They may not all have been occupied at any one time, for the grazing available in the valley would have been insufficient to support the cattle and goats owned by such a large number of families.

 Although long deserted, the ruins of shieling huts in the mountains and hills still offer a window into a bygone way of life. Sitting quietly amongst a cluster of these weathered ‘ruckles of stanes’ in a glen now empty of its people, it is not too difficult to visualise the hustle and bustle of shieling life; and perhaps, just for a moment, even to believe one can hear the distant sound of women’s voices and children at play carried on the wind.



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