In June, we had the opportunity to conduct an archaeological walkover survey in the Scottish Highlands. The site was remote, and our role was to ensure that sites of archaeological potential would not be damaged during a major construction project.
Before we conducted the walkover, we first compiled a report from previous archaeological and cartographic sources, where we identified a group of huts. Four rectangular structures are depicted on the First Edition of the Ordnance Survey map, and during our walkover, we confirmed and recorded these structures as shielings. Because shielings are considered a Heritage Asset, we established an exclusion zone around the structures in order to protect them from potential damages.
You may wonder, ‘What is a shieling, and why are they Heritage Assets within our historic landscape?’
Before the advent of modern agricultural practices, transhumance – the seasonal migration of livestock between mountain pastures in the warmer seasons and lower grounds during the rest of the year – was a common practice throughout Scotland and Northern England. With the livestock went their farmers and attendants, who lived during these summer months in upland huts called shielings.
Found as single settlement or in groups, shielings are mostly built of dry-stone construction, though some have been found to have turf foundations. They are generally rectangular in plan with one or two rooms, and the roofs were most likely gabled and covered with turf, rushes, or heather.
The term derives from the Northern dialect of Middle English schele or schale and the Old Norse skjol, which means ‘shelter,’ and skali, meaning ‘hut.’ Shielings appear to have been part of the archaeological landscape since as early as the 5th century in sites such as Dartmoor and Cornwall, and transhumance has been established in the early medieval period throughout Britain through place-names and historical references. Shielings were particularly popular in the high medieval period, and the practice of driving cattle into upland pastures seems to have slowed down by the mid-17th-century. Shieling life continued in areas of the Scottish Isles at least into the 19th-century – the last recorded use of shieling on the Isle of Lewis occurred in 1946!
The results of our walkover survey identified nine shielings clustered amongst the tributaries feeding a stream at the bottom of a glen. Although we could not identify a concrete date of construction and use, they appear to be post-medieval - likely utilized between the 16th-18th centuries. Typical of shielings of this period, they appear to have been built of drystone construction, but both circular/oval and rectangular plan designs were implemented on site. Two of the shielings survived only as small circular enclosures defined by low earthen banks with occasional stones protruding. Partially upstanding walls were identified at two further shielings, while we were able to identify a noticeable corner in the best preserved shieling. The shieling huts were constructed on natural sand and gravel hummocks, which would have provided good drainage and elevated the structures out of the surrounding marsh.
The nine shielings we recorded are more than just a temporary camp, they represent a way of life that is remembered in oral traditions and folksongs. The move from the lowlands up into the shielings heralded longer days and warmer weather, and the event was often a communal ‘exodus’ organized by families, villages, or entire towns. Despite this, life at the shieling could be lonely, as one folksong remarks: “How sad am I, on the shieling of the milch cows!” Generally though, summers at the shielings seem to be characterized as a time of freedom and feelings of peace and contentment.
Due to the nature of commercial archaeology, we often dig only where sites are being developed for construction. This project gave us a unique opportunity to work outside traditional development zones, and we were excited to have the opportunity to learn more about this pastoral way of life.