Tobar an Dualchais - Kist O Riches
The items you can listen to include stories, songs, music, poetry and factual information.
18th century shielings on the Isle of Jura, drawn by Moses Griffiths. In the public domain.
The summer shieling was an important tradition in Scottish rural life for at least two thousand years. In May or early June each year, women and children would take livestock to hill or moorland pastures for grazing and would stay there for the summer, occupying basic dwellings known as shielings or shieling huts.
The shieling huts varied in design and size but were often constructed from a combination of stone walls and turf roofs, traditionally with a hole in the centre to let out smoke from the fire. The shielings also differed in shape, ranging from rectangular structures to oval and circular chambers.
Prior to the women and children going to the shieling, the men of the township would visit in order to make sure the huts were fit for habitation. They would repair any damage done over the winter, prepare heather mattresses, and gather peat for fuel.
The day that the women set out for the shieling was quite a social occasion, with a holiday atmosphere in the air despite the work ahead of them. Clothes, bedding, dairy equipment, spinning wheels, cooking pots and other essentials would be carried to the shieling. The men sometimes accompanied their wives and children to help them settle in and would then return home to carry out their summer work, tending to the crops, cutting and drying peats for the winter, and making repairs to their homes.
Life at the shieling consisted of herding the animals to different pastures, milking cows and making butter and cheese, spinning and knitting, and collecting roots and plants for making dyes. Whisky distilling was also carried out at a few of the shielings.
There would still be time for more carefree pastimes such as storytelling, putting on short sketches and singing. This camaraderie, combined with a healthy outdoor lifestyle, gave the shieling dwellers a sense of wellbeing and renewal, and made a pleasant change from the routine of everyday life in the townships.
There are various reasons why the shieling tradition came to an end. Factors include the introduction of large-scale sheep farming in Scotland in the 19th century, the development of modern farming practices, and rural depopulation. The township of Valtos on the Isle of Lewis was one of the last places in Scotland to end the tradition, with the last full shieling season taking place there in 1947.
The Tobar an Dualchais website has a number of songs and stories relating to the shieling tradition. In this recording from 1958 Joan MacKenzie from Shulishader on the Isle of Lewis sings ‘Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raineach’. In the song a woman praises her beloved and says they would be happy rearing cattle at the shieling bothy on Brae Rannoch.
About the Website
Julie Fowlis and Chris Wright were Tobar an Dualchais' Artists in Residence in 2012