We believe you have to know where you’ve been to better understand where you are going!
We need to know the history of the land to understand how best to take it forward, to improve it and restore it (repair it if you will) for future generations.
Several months ago we had a group of local Archaeologists visiting the Reserve to study possible neolithic stone cairns.
Today, as well as Neill and John, we were joined by local geologist Jim Blair, more local enthusiasts (including some who came ‘across the water’ from Lismore) but… we were also fortunate to have Sally Foster from Stirling University join us too.
Neolithic theories advanced to possible Iron Age remains, but without further work and possible excavation it’s very hard to tell.
One theory was that they were actually not stone burial cairns but Shielings –
A shieling also spelt sheiling, sheeling, and shealing, is a hut, or collection of huts, once common in a wild or lonely place in the hills and mountains of Scotland and northern England. The word also refers to a mountain pasture used for the grazing of cattle in summer.
The term shieling is mainly Scottish, originally denoting a summer dwelling on a seasonal pasture high in the hills, particularly for shepherds and later coming to mean a more substantial and permanent small farm building in stone. The first recorded use of the term is around 1568.
The shielings 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.
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 shieling huts were invariably 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 raised poles was erected, 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.
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 first storing and then carrying home the milk produced by the cows and goats. 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.
There are several ready explanations why the custom of taking cattle and goats to the shielings was given up: firstly, the 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, and by no means least, the Highlands experienced rural depopulation, from the clearances onwards as people were shipped all over the world plus younger folk were drawn to the growing industrial areas in the south.
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 wind.