- 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 grazing 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 grazing, 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 6 to 8 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)
Bridge of Balgie
centred on the ruin and green tin shed which sits at the north side of the road.
Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists
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
drystone sheiling huts
every size and shape in between!
The site is spread out on both sides of the
un-named road which goes over from
Community Life at the Shielings
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
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.
The women and children’s mid-summer stay at
the shielings 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
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 1st 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, 2 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 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
was the 1st 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
There are several ready explanations why the
custom of taking cattle and goats to the shielings was given up:
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
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
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
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
area, where the remains of huts on
the south-west side of
were examined by the Lakeland authoress
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
Shepherd, wrote of such an instance after his visit in late May
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
Locating the Shielings
The Shielings found most accessible are:
Lochan na Laraig: 0.25
mile north of the loch on the access road to Ben Lawers reserve on Tayside.
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.
hour walk from track end at Immeroin farm in GlenBuckie. Follow track south
from farm, shielings 200m to right where burn exits woods.
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 1st 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 grazing 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
above Craigrostan and Ardess, where landless members of the MacGregor clan were
actively encouraged to set up home during the brief period of MacGregor
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 1 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
helping a woman with
her creel across the Cuisiadar river on the Ness moor A goat - an uncommon sight
on the moor - can be seen to the left of the photograph
village names include:
||Allt Ruigh Mhath, Strathavon
- 'The Burn of the Good Shieling'
||Sròn na h-Airghe Diubhe,
Argyll - 'The Ridge of the Black Shieling'
||Airighean Loch Sgarasdail,
Lewis - 'The Shielings of Loch Sgarasdail'
||Airigh na Gaoithe, Lewis -
||Airidh-mhuilinn - 'The
Shieling of the Mill'
Fhionnlaigh, Skye - 'Finlay's Shieling'
The Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant (1726-
The Welsh naturalist
described in his
Voyage to the Hebrides in
1772 (first published in
1776) the earliest detailed
account of Scottish shielings:
“I landed on a bank covered with
sheelins, the temporary habitations of some peasants who tend the herds of milch
cows. These formed a
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
I spied a little infant asleep.”
Early dwellings in Lewis, known
as a ‘bothan’, would have been built with corbelled stone roofs. This would
have restricted the size of buildings to relatively small structures. The
later ‘Airigh’ (pl. Airidhean) typically had a timber-framed roof, which allowed
for larger buildings.
The Bothan was
a crude sort of a bothy for keeping calves in before they would stray and get
bogged down. At every shieling there was a long slab stone erected upright and
firmly in the ground, it was called 'clach tachas nam bo' (the cow's
The cows, after they were milked, used to scratch their noses and necks on it.