The shieling is a traditional practice of moving up to the high ground or moorland with livestock, to live there for the summer. Young people had a fundamental role at the shieling: they took on new responsibilities, learning about themselves and the landscape beyond their homes. It was a time for making butter and cheese, stocking up on materials from the hills: dyes, peat, heather, and for revisiting the stories that defined the weave of people and place. Shieling life was well established for at least two thousand years in parts of Scotland, and is still a fairly recent memory for some in the Western Isles.
A family’s main dwelling was in the ‘wintertown’ in the low ground and arable, and they and their animals moved from the township to summer pasture in the high ground. These ‘shielings’ were occupied for any time between six and fourteen weeks, perhaps more commonly nine to ten weeks. In May or early June, most inhabitants of the township made an organised and communal move to the shielings. Families carried all their necessities and tools, and the shieling huts were repaired for occupation. The menfolk then returned to the wintertown to carry on the farming work of the summer months, repairing and thatching houses, and cutting and drying the peats for winter fuel. Women and children occupied the shieling for the weeks of summer, herding the animals to ensure they had the best of the summer grazing to put them into good shape, and milking and butter and cheese making. Personal accounts of life in the Shieling dwell on the experience of being ‘on holiday’, of gaining a sense of wellbeing and renewal, and of a freedom otherwise unknown among the constraints of normal everyday life. Gaelic songs celebrate this freedom located within a strong sense of place.
Exerpt from an introduction by Professor Hugh Cheape, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Shieling Project consultation 1st November 2014
We completed our first archaeological dig at our local shieling in April 2016. With the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund we worked with AOC Archaeology, volunteers and local schools to starting delving into the stories of our shieling