case studies

Case Study: Transhumance and Shielings

Ruined shieling at Airigh a’ Bhealaich, Lewis. Part of a group of shieling huts, the 8m by 4.8 m building was of stone and turf construction with two rooms, © RCAHMS

Transhumance and the construction of shieling-huts as summer shelters are widespread on the Scottish mainland and Western Isles, but absent from the Northern Isles.  This practice had two interrelated purposes, to make use of upland pastures to produce cheese and butter from the cows and sheep by the inhabitants of the permanent settlements and the removal of grazing animals from the infield in the growing season.  Huts, generally smaller in length and breadth than township houses, varied with the vernacular construction of the area.  Corbelled stone roofed structures or beehive huts and multi-cellular structures occur in the Hebrides, whereas turf-and-timber were common materials everywhere, leading to tell-like mounds from repeated use in some areas (see Cheape 1997 on comparisons between areas).  Strictures from estates with respect to the use of turf and timber led to increased use of stone during the 18th century and early 19th centuries.  As well as the shieling-huts, smaller subsidiary structures occur with them in the central Highlands, possibly a variant of the multi-cellular huts of the Hebrides, suggesting a separation of function, such as the dairy from the habitation.  Midden heaps are a common feature in front of the huts and offer the chance of recovering information about the economy. 

The economy of transhumance may, however, be more complex. Whisky still sites can be found in the vicinity of shieling sites and may explain the occasional presence of corn-drying kilns for malting the barley. The presence of rigged areas at some shieling sites may indicate episodes of cultivation too, or else outfield exploitation. Conflict with other land-uses is another factor. Hunting reserves in forests specifically precluded access for grazing, as in the central Cairngorms by several of the surrounding estates and this is reflected in the absence of shieling-huts. The grazings did not go out of use with the end of transhumance, but were usually turned over to sheep and the numerous sheepfolds, sheep-dips and stells are evidence of this, as well as bothies occupied by shepherds. Although the conversion of land to sheep-runs was the occasion for the ending of transhumance, this occurred in the Southern Uplands in the 17th century as opposed to the late 18th and 19th centuries in the Highlands. Pollen sequences from shieling grounds indicate that cultivation was a far more common aspect of land-use than may be anticipated from limited written evidence on shieling use (Adam 1960; Davies submitted). This flexibility may have provided a means of coping with stress or capitalising on economic opportunities.

Excavations of shielings (e.g. Atkinson et al. 2003) have been limited and there is room for more, with exploration of the different types of structure, the transhumance economy and the dating of their use. However, Stewart (1990) suggested from examination of a township in Balquhidder that excavation may provide relatively limited evidence for material culture and practice (Stewart 1990). The modern period offers the chance to investigate the people involved and the farms from which they came, looking at the whole social and economic base. The question of the extent of the practice also needs to be better understood. Shieling was not practiced on Coldingham common, for example, the inhabitants of the surrounding towns being obliged to return their herds to their township grazings at night. How far was access to summer grazing was limited to upland edge towns and how did the inhabitants of the northern Isles manage summer grazing? The closeness of shieling-huts on Skye to the arable fields suggests an expansion of arable over time as they seem too close to be necessary, or indeed, permissable. Such changes in settlement perhaps forced a change in the summer grazing pattern. Indeed, recent research on Lochtayside, suggests that the pattern of transhumance changed over time, although the reason for this needs further exploration. Some research has been done on the effects of the change from summer grazing to a sheep economy on the land cover, but not in sufficient detail to enable direct comparison with the literature on socio-cultural and economic impacts and concerns over nutrient depletion under extensive sheep grazing are unproven (see Section 9.2). Recent research on south Lochtay indicates that shielings served a different role in this new sheep economy, with some sites undergoing profound ecological changes during the first half of the 19th century, corresponding with the period of rising sheep numbers, with increasingly homogeneous grassland replacing a species-rich grass-heath mosaic. This is part of a wider decline in landscape and species diversity associated with increased stocking densities, and driven by market prices (Hanley et al. 2008). It is a sober reminder that the current concerns over global biodiversity loss are not a new feature of Scotland's landscapes. Was transhumance itself an agent for change in the ecological balance? The growth of droving is also part of the modern rural economy and how this worked alongside transhumance and what changes occurred in the rural landscape has been little researched archaeologically. Finally, a long-term perspective is necessary to see how changes to the environment and the economy changed the placement and nature of shielings over the period and up to today.

(Further reading: Bil 1997; Dixon 2009; Boyle 2007; and RCAHMS 1995)

Return to Section 7.3 Workplaces


Case Study: Archaeologies of Plantation - the Early Modern Irish/Scottish border

By the late 16th century, the Highlands and Islands had become established as a problem region in the eyes of the Scottish Crown – a part of the kingdom which exercised too much autonomy of action in the eyes of a centralising government.  James VI, first as King of Scotland and, from 1603, as King of both Scotland and England, embarked on a series of projects to bring this problem region to heel.  Amongst these was a programme of Plantation. 

Aerial view of Campbeltown. Archibald, Early of Argyll, choose this as the location for a new settlement – a Plantation of ‘Lowland men and trafficking burgesses’ (McKerral 1948, 24) – developed at the head of the loch from 1609 onwards. The Plantation town centred on a new castle and was part of a programme of initiatives designed to bring to heel this part of Argyll, traditionally associated with MacDonalds and other kindreds who, in the eyes of the Crown, had been acting a little too independently. The creation of Campbeltown and the wider Plantation of Kintyre should be understood in the context of wider efforts by the Scottish and, after 1603, combined British authorities to pacify and control Scotland’s western seaboard and those parts of Ireland to which it was intimately linked.

Earlier in the 16th century, the English Crown had turned to Plantation as a strategy through which it might expand and consolidate its authority over Ireland.  Towards the end of century, Scotland began to consider Plantation as a means of expanding its control of the western Highlands and Islands: in 1597, Parliament approved the creation of Plantations in Kintyre, Lochaber and Lewis.  The idea was to grant these areas to loyal subjects who would transplant loyal tenants from other parts of Scotland and tie the interests of the western seaboard more closely to those of the wider kingdom by commercialising the local economy, thus making the local population dependant on a stable relationship with wider markets.  Although the Scottish plantations were authorised in 1597, it took several decades for them to become a reality and, after 1603, the project was more emphatically pursued as an attempt to take a joined-up approach to the Highland and Irish problems: the Plantation of Ulster from the early 17th century and the contemporary plantations of Kintyre, Lochaber and Lewis represent a concerted effort to control a resistant North Channel and Atlantic border zone.  

On the Scottish side, sporadic efforts to plant Lewis, particularly by Lowlanders from Fife, met with local resistance and a general lack of support from the kindreds of the west coast and the islands.  The plantation town of Stornaway finally appeared in 1628.  In Lochaber, the small town of Gordonsburgh was created in 1618  – tand later re-named Fort William.  In Kintyre, the burgh of Lochhead  - now Campbeltown - was created by the Crown undertaker in the region, the Campbell earl of Argyll.  Kintyre in particular also saw significant rural plantation, involving the granting of land to Lowland landowners and to members of the Campbell kindred, and the settlement of non-local farming tenants.  The main phase of this Lowland plantation seems to have begun around 1650. 

Understanding of the Ulster Plantation, and the other Irish plantations, has benefitted in recent years from a significant amount of archaeological research. This work has done much to enhance knowledge of the empirical details of plantation and to interpret the Irish plantations in terms of their material implementation and their meaning for the lives of those involved (Scottish, English, Gaelic Irish, Anglo-Irish or otherwise).  This archaeological work has done much to reveal the complexities of the social, cultural, political and economic relationships characterising Plantation-era Ireland.  And it indicates the potential for analysis of the plantations on the Scottish side of the North Channel, on which there has, so far, been little archaeological work (but see Archaeological investigation of these west coast plantations could do much to elucidate the material and practical means by which the Scottish and British states worked to extend their authority and to pacify and stabilise their borders in the Early Modern era.  The archaeology of the Scottish plantations could also do much to develop our understanding of relationships between state and people on the ground, in different localities, and to explore the similarities, differences and connections between plantations in different parts of Scotland and on both sides of the North Channel.

Return to Section 5.2 Constructing the state: defining borders