The Tradition Of The Shieling

So what is a shieling?

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.

old shieling pics

Delving into the past at the project

The Shieling Project is dedicated to learning more about this rich tradition. We have undertaken an archaeological survey and dig of our nearest shieling at Allt Moraig. Here we discovered the ruins of 27 structures and during the dig we excavated two of these more fully. We are also gathering stories of shieling life from all over Scotland, with a focus on our local area. We hope to continue this archaeological and historical research and match it up with our experiences milking and grazing our cattle.



More on shielings

At the risk of over-simplifying the ‘Shieling’, it might be defined as:

  • a grazing area in the hills, away from arable and cultivated ground and occupied seasonally in the months of summer
  • as a summer dwelling, in the form of a small structure of stone and turf
  • as a legal entity, included in grants and titles to land
  • a way of life, recalled in the memories of older generations and in stories songs and oral tradition

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.

Excerpt from an introduction by Professor Hugh Cheape, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Shieling Project Event 1st November 2014

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Photos by the Shieling Project, Mhairi Baird, George Logan and David Powell

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