Shielings (airighean in Gaelic) were summer pastures, usually at some distance from the township and used over generations, and possibly centuries, by family groups. In the spring the men would go out to repair and prepare the simple stone huts and replace the turf roofs, and by mid May the girls of the family would drive the cattle out to the shieling. They would spend several months out on the hill, living simply, milking and making butter and cheese; there was regular traffic to and from the villages as the dairy produce was taken home. Lewis was amongst the last places in Scotland to end the tradition; the last full shieling season in Uig, and then only practices by a few from Valtos, was 1947.
Shieling huts, and in some cases fanks and small pens, are scattered all over the Uig hills. The few remaining beehive huts, with corbelled roofs in an ancient style, were not in use after at least the mid-19th century, and may be very much older; they may have been more permanent dwellings, and some were probably monastic. Those airighean in use latterly are oblong in shape, with one or two rounded ends, and the latest to be built are regular square ended buildings with gable ends and less substantial walls. They were simply furnished, with a heather bed, a fire at one end and recesses in the thick walls for storage.
This is a growing list of known shielings and other associated structures in Uig – not yet complete. The location is approximate (feel free to offer adjustments) and the condition is indicated:
A – good solid walls at full height, possibly a new roof
B – a bit tumbled but still some height, interior shapes
C – well tumbled but clearly recognisable
D – a mere pile of stones or vestigial ring
E – just a memory – in the placename or tradition, or a suspect green lump in the landscape
Gearraidh refers to a cluster of shieling huts, within which there may be several named airighean. A downloadable tick-list will be available soon but please exercise great caution if taking to the Uig hills. Principal dangers include breaking an ankle on rough ground miles from any phone signal, and getting lost when the mist descends.
There are shieling photos here and in due course there will be a page for each site with many more photos.