The ancient Highland shielings inspiring 21st Century living

They were simple huts lived in during the warmer months by families taking their cattle away up into the hills for summer grazing.

How shielings were depicted in Pennant's Voyage to the Hebrides in 1776. PIC: Creative Commons.

The shielings were mainly lived in by women and children who usually left for the hills on Beltane, May 1, the first day of summer.

Some would stay until Lammas Day on August 1, the start of harvest season.

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Remains of a shieling above Loch Reasort on the isle of Lewis. PIC:

Time at the shieling would allow cattle to feed on rich summer pastures while keeping the animals away from crops growing down in the straths.

The spell away was regarded as a particularly special time year with a rich tradition of song, poetry and stories forming around the time in the hills.

Now, the Shieling Project at Struy near Beauly, is working to get young people appreciating this old way of life and how its principles can be applied to good living in 21st Century.

Dr Sam Harrison, founder of the social enterprise, said the ways of the shieling helped young people get back to basics and offered an alternative to screen time and consumerism.

A reconstructed shieling at the Highland Folk Museum PIC: High Life Highland.

Peat cutting, looking after animals and cultivation of food are among activities offered at the project.

Dr Sam Harrison: “You can go from looking back to looking forward. The shielings are about outdoor life and it is about being resilient, tough and strong.

“It is about making buildings from local materials, growing and cooking your own food and entertaining yourself.

“The shieling holds lots of different issues together.

“The shieling tells us how to treat our landscapes, how to build things, how to build culture and identity and how language fits with the landscape.”

The use of shielings is thought to have dated from the end of the Iron Age with the Vikings adding their own versions of huts to the landscape.

The earliest account of a shieling was made by Thomas Pennant in Voyage to the Hebrides published in 1776.

He wrote: “I landed on a bank covered with sheelins, the temporary habitations of some peasants who tend the herds of milch cows.

“These formed a grotesque group; some were oblong, some conic, and so low that the entrance is forbidden without creeping through the opening, which has no other door than a faggot of birch twigs placed there occasionally; they are constructed of branches of trees covered with sods; the furniture a bed of heath; placed on a bank of sod, 2 blankets and a rug; some dairy vessels; and above, certain pendent shelves made of basket-work, to hold the cheese, the product of the summer.

“In one of the little conic huts I spied a little infant asleep.”

The diet at the shieling consisted largely of dairy, with cheese, curd and butter made from the cow’s milk.

A ‘lucky cheese’ for children was also made from curd from milk collected on the last day at the shieling, according to accounts.

Diet was supplemented by oatmeal - with large amounts of salt also taken to the summer grazings - and supplemented by foraged plants such as chickweed, wild mustard, watercress, mugwort and wood sorrel.

Whisky still sites can be found in the vicinity of some shielings and may explain the occasional presence of corn-drying kilns for malting the barley, according to research.

Dr Harrison said shielings were largely phased out during the 1700s and 1800s when drovers sought out cattle to buy.

Demand for salt beef during the Napoleonic Wars helped bring subsistence living to an end with the exchange of money coming into play, Dr Harrison added.

However, it is known the shielings were still occupied in summer months on the Isle of Lewis until the 1950s.

Dr Harrison said: “Basically everyone packed up their stuff, including all their cows and animals, and headed to the shieling.

“It was hard work but also, people loved being up there. They loved the freedom of it.”

Dr Harrison said the ecological value of the shieling should be valued as much as their social and cultural impact.

He added: “The shieling was an effective ecological model for 800 years or more. It was a pretty good system for the hills.

“Cows are eating everything and their manure helps the soil. The hills go through two to three months of intensive grazing and then left for nine months. The hills were farm more ecologically diverse than they are now with wildflowers, grasses and herbs.

“The story of the shieling is not just about people but of the landscape too.”

Six modern sustainable bothies have recently been built at the Shieling Project, with hopes to restore an ancient shieling in Glen Strathfarrer around an hour’s walk away.

Dr Harrison said: “Up on the hill we actually have a historic shieling. We have got the real thing.

“It really is a big area of green and you can still see the impact the people and the cows made. There are the ruins of around 27 structures here.

“They would have been really quite small structures built mostly out of turf. You can see the outline of each building and a doorway.

“Most of the shielings were part of quite big settlements, sometimes you would find as many as 50 huts. They are almost like little villages.

“We have this idea of shielings being romantic, lonely places but they were usually pretty bustling. They were often hoaching with people.”

According to a paper by Professor Hugh Cheape of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI on the isle of Skye, the shieling system has survived into the present day in Norway, parts of Sweden and Finland and the highlands of Central Europe.

The agricultural system was also common in the north of England.