Going to the Shieling

Emily and Effie at the Shieling

From left, Emily Macdonald Gisla, Effie Maclennan 36 Cliff, and two visitors, visiting a shieling.

From Emily’s Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) – observing from Gisla Lodge the girls going to the shielings at Airigh an Fhorsa and Bo Nighean Mhuirich.  The ones Emily mentioned visiting near Loch Coirgeabhat may be at Airigh an Uisge

Crogabhat, one of our fishing lochs, is a mile from the bungalow, and there we constructed a concrete boathouse which is useful as a lunch hut too when it is cold or wet.  About a mile beyond it are two shielings to which we occasionally make an expedition.  Shielings are small huts of stone and turf, where girls live for six weeks in the summer while herding the village cattle, brought there to feed on the fresh hill grass of the surrounding moor.  This serves a doubt purpose, as it gives the grass round the village a chance to grow, while at the same time the cattle are getting the benefit of moorland feeding.  The shielings are often as far as ten miles from the villages, and the day of migration thence is full of excitement.

Of course, we at Gisla can only guess at all the bustle of preparaton that must have gone on since the early morning, but any time after midday the first of the precession begins to pass the bungalow.  Groups of cattle of various sizes pass by, accompanied by old women and young girls, and dogs anxiously helping them with the herding.  These all turn on to the moor just beyond the boundary of our garden, and there the humans sit down to rest and await their friends still on the road, while the cattle begin to browse, and the dogs fuss around and interest themselves in canine affairs. 

After a while, a couple of boats can be seen coming up the loch, and we rush down to the shore to see the unloading.  In them are the men, with a miscellaneous collection of bedding, stools, milking pails, churns, meal bags, pots, kettles and all the paraphernalia required for a stay of some weeks on the moor.  Also a number of calves too young to walk the whole distance with their mothers and of course more dogs.  After leaving the boats, the men load the good into creels which they carry on their backs, and joining the women folk who have already arrived, the whole procession starts off for the distant shielings.  There are four lots in Uig [by this stage, when they were falling out of use], and these people I have just described have a much longer way to go than those occupying the sheilings we sometimes visit.

Two or three girls are left in each of the two little huts, and these have entire charge of sixty or seventy head of cattle for about six weeks. Once a week, people come out from their villages to fetch back the cheese and butter the girls have made, and to bring out anything they may need for use during the following week.  This is not the only contact they have with the outside world, however, as the young men often pay calls on them in the evening, when the time is passed with local news, story-telling and singing, fun and laughter.  I have no doubt that many a romance has its beginnings in these beautiful spots, and that old married couples look back to happy memories of shieling courtships.  Other visitors, if their credentials and good faith are known, are always made very welcome and one is never allowed to leave a shieling without taking a cup of tea or a glass of milk and some home-made bannock scone and butter. 

The shielings are pretty well dismantled at the end of each season, and at the beginning of the next the men go out to repair any damage done by winter storms and make the huts wind and water tight.  The girls themselves add all the little feminine touches.  They often paper the walls with illustrations from newspapers and periodicals, and they arrange the cups and dishes in niches left in the walls for the purpose.  More than half of the accommodation in the little house is taken up by the box-bed, which runs the whole width of the place.  The fire is made against the opposite wall, with a hole above it to let the smoke out, and there is always a stream near at hand where plenty of fresh water can be obtained.