Nostalgia - Discover Sheiling Life in Lewis

The sheiling at Loch Sgarasdail was built by Donald's grandfather in 1870.
The sheiling at Loch Sgarasdail was built by Donald's grandfather in 1870.

In 2007 the Gazette’s sister title Back in the Day, which features nostalgia items, ran a feature describing Island sheilings by the late Donald MacDonald of North Tolsta.

The article gave a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Sheilings, or summer bothies, were once to be found throughout the hilly parts of Scotland, as so many place-names show, but the practice of going out to live in these primitive dwellings lingered longest in the Western Isles.

After the arable land was cleared of the stock which had wintered there, those fortunate enough to have Shielings took their cattle out to the moors in order to preserve the pastures close to the villages for use in the winter months, and also to make butter and cheese from the rich milk produced by the cows in summer.

It is not known when this practice of summer migration originated, but that it was in existence during the Norse occupation of Lewis, from the ninth to the thirteenth century, is shown by the numerous ‘shaders’ (Norse saetr) or Shielings, to be found there.

Shielings were of three types: the ‘both’ (pronounced boh), the ordinary ‘airigh’ or shieling, and the ‘tigh earraich’ or spring dwelling.

The ‘both’ was circular in shape, with a base diameter of about ten feet and about seven feet high.

The interior wall rose perpendicularly for three feet before it began to be corbelled, until finally, a hole was left at the apex for the admission of light and the escape of smoke. Placing a hat stone on top could close this. The stone wall was then well covered on the outside with a thick layer of turf to seal the drystone structure.

The fire was placed against a wall, on either side of which there was an opening about three feet by two, which served as doors.

In some cases, a short tunnel had to be crawled through to reach these entrances, the windward one of which was always blocked up.

The low stone platform that served as a bed was placed opposite the fireplace, and as the floor space was limited, recesses were left in the walls to be used as cupboards.

The ‘airigh’ type was very similar to the ‘both’ in construction, except that it was somewhat rectangular in shape, was slightly larger and had a ridged roof, covered with overlapping slabs of turf.

Holes were left on either side of the ridge pole above the fireplace for light and ventilation. This roof was low, for timber was scarce in the isles.

The two doors were wall high, and between each door and the bedplace was a stone or turf seat.

A foot-high coping ran along the front of the sleeping platform to prevent the bedding from falling onto the clay floor.

The third and latest type, the spring dwelling, was an extension of the ordinary shieling by adding another room to it, where the milk cows and calves could shelter on cold or wet nights.

This building was much superior to the rest.

FIRE WAS IN MIDDLE OF THE FLOOR

The fire was either in the middle of the floor of the dwelling place, or against the stone partition which separated the humans from the animals.

In later shielings chimneys were installed. In the Ness district it was common to find the bedplace occupying part of the wall, which was made doubly wide at this part for the purpose in order to gain more floor space.

By 1914 the ‘both’ type had gone out of existence and the others had become quite comfortable and belied their outward appearance.

Shieling time, May to July, was a happy time, and although there were wet summers these were seldom remembered afterwards.

Life on the moors benefitted man and beast.

Many an invalid regained his health out on the moors, while it was difficult to believe that the sleek, frisky beasts that returned home in July were the scraggy, listless ones that had left there some weeks earlier.

Death was seldom associated with this life, and when, as occasionally happened, such an event occurred, the shieling was never again occupied.

These summer bothies were found by rivers, by lochs or on hillsides.

These shieling sites were never more than six miles from the villages they belonged to, except those occupied by the people of the island of Bernera, whose animals had to swim across a narrow sound and then still had a long hard trek ahead of them, and those belonging to the Point district, which lay some fifteen miles distant, but the tenants of these could transport their goods and chattels in carts and gigs.

Before the actual migration took place the men-folk went out to repair the shielings from the ravages of the winter storms that often played havoc with the walls and the precious roof timbers.

When the long awaited day arrived there was tremendous excitement in the villages, not only among the people but also among the animals.

The older cows knew quite well what the commotion meant, and on being let out of their byres made straight for their summer pastures, with the leader of each herd out in front.

The younger beasts followed, but the calves, let loose for the first time in their lives, gambolled about in all directions, soon to tire themselves out.

Some of these youngsters required much pulling and coaxing to cross even the smallest burns and yet, before long, they had no hesitation in wading or swimming across lochs with their heads close to their mothers’ flanks.

The animals were followed by the men, women and children, strung out in single file, with each person heavily laden with all the necessary requirements for their moorland sojourn, clothes, food and utensils of all kinds. Ropes for hauling cows out of bogs were not forgotten either.

EVERYTHING HAD TO BE CARRIED

Everything had to be carried, and was carried cheerfully, in creels, in sacks or in bundles, over boggy tracks formed by their ancestors’ feet over the centuries.

In the wettest places, flat stones, bleached white over the years, helped the older people.

What talk and what laughter as these processions wended their way further and further into the moors!

The youth of both sexes naturally gravitated towards each other, and many a lad arrived at his destination more heavily burdened than when he set out.

The younger members of each party hurried to the shieling, and the sight of the smoke rising from newly lit peat fires encouraged those following after.

On arrival at their destination the women prepared an alfresco lunch, while the menfolk lit fires all over the dwellings, even on the bed platforms to drive out the winter cold.

The younger folk applied themselves to self-apportioned tasks, or to the gathering of moorland grass and heather for the beds, but at the same time making sure that they were within call when the meal was ready.

To prepare the bed, the fires were removed from it and then thin layers of dried turf were laid on the heated stones.

On top of this was placed a thick layer of heather, to be itself covered with a thicker layer of grass. Rushes were seldom used as they made a hard bed and took longer to dry.

On top of the grass was laid a blanket, then two sheets and a couple of blankets, and a nice springy bed was ready to be occupied.

When everything was shipshape, the older members of each family who had been used as porters, returned home, leaving usually the mothers and their children in their lowly homes.

Many of these children would not see their homes again for months.

After the cows were milked in the evening and the milk set in basins in the wall recesses, supper was eaten, and then each mother, with head closely covered according to St Paul’s command, conducted family worship by singing a couple of verses of a psalm, reading a chapter from the Bible and then kneeling down in fervent prayer.

No sooner were the tired youngsters between the sheets than the scent of the crushed heather and the strong moorland air seemed to overpower them and they fell sound asleep, but the mothers, as they lay beside them, found it difficult to follow their example.

So many thoughts occupied their minds: their sleeping children; how strange everything seemed; the bare walls; the cries of the moorland dwellers; the cackling of grouse; the plaintive childlike bleating of a strayed lamb and its mother’s stronger answering cry.

LONESOME SOUND OF THE MOOR

The wind with its varying cadences had a lonesome sound as it blew over the heathery roof and searched out every nook and cranny in the walls.

Even the animals felt the strangeness, for they pressed close to the shieling as if seeking comfort from its inmates.

They moved restlessly about and seemed unwilling to lie down. The mournful cry of the curlew, the piercing whistle of the plover and the eerie drumming of the diving snipe, that bird of the lonely places, added to their feeling of remoteness from their kin.

Even the moors seemed to resent their intrusion of their habitual solitude, and yet all were content. They were where they wanted to be.

The smoored fire and the comforting warmth of their slumbering children made them finally relax; eyes refused to stay open any longer and they fell asleep, trustfully, in their unprotected homes.

Dawn seemed to come early with the slanting rays of the morning sun shining through the smoke vents.

Indeed, there was little or no night, for the greenish tinge in the northern sky showed the sun’s progress below the horizon.

There was much work to be done during the day; children to be fed, cows to be milked, fresh milk to be sent to the villages in pails or some such receptacle, each of which had its mouth covered with a piece of sheepskin to keep the milk from spilling when placed in creels packed with moss to keep them from clattering against each other.

If the shielings were near the villages many of the women used to go home each morning with fresh milk for their own families, and in some cases for their neighbours.

They often took turns at doing this, and worked all day on the croft or at the peats, returning again to the moors in the evening with food for their households, for the heather provided no ready sustenance for mankind, and also carrying fresh grass for cows which had never been trained to give milk without being fed at the same time.

Life for the children out on the shielings, especially during the summer holidays, was as idyllic as it could be.

Herding was unnecessary, so they wandered everywhere and swam whenever possible. There was plenty to eat and drink and their diet could not possibly be more varied.

There was an unlimited supply of milk for the taking, then buttermilk, cream, crowdie, whey, cheese, crowberries, trout, and in the early summer, eggs.

Plovers, ducks, grouse, geese, herons, seagulls and black-throated divers, all provided their quota.

TESTING THE FRESHNESS OF EGGS

To test the freshness of an egg, it was placed in a shallow pool. If its rounded end rose ever so slightly it was returned to its nest, if it didn’t, it could be eaten.

Some eggs, like those of the seagull, had a strong, fishy taste, but youthful appetites were not unduly worried about this.

The diver’s stupidity was taken full advantage of, for her nest was simply a shallow hollow on the marshy margin of a lochan from which she could drink without moving from her nest. When her clutch of eggs was removed she simply made another somewhere else by the lochan. Two settings were usually taken from her in the year, but her third was spared.

On wet days the children learnt folklore, songs, riddles and proverbs. Ceilidhs were also frequent.

The summer months passed far too quickly. The last night at the shieling, the Night of the flitting was a night for feasting, singing and dancing, for many people came to help to carry things back home.

When morning came, and after a belated breakfast, packing was begun and when completed the bedding was taken outside and set on fire, a signal for the cows that they had to go away, and they set off for their homes as eagerly as they had left them three months earlier, closely followed by the same people as then.

Since the turn of the century fewer and fewer families went to the shielings and the Great War of 1914-18 gave this custom its death blow, although a few carried on until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939.

Since then the mode of life in the Western Isles has practically become urban in character. Now the summer moors are desolate.

The sound of happy, childish laughter is never heard of an evening in glen or by loch.

The snipe still scurries across the twilight sky with its weird drumming, but no child snuggles into its mother’s arms on hearing this noise.

Nothing is left to remind visitors but green mounds and ruined walls of a mode of life that has completely vanished.