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)


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