THE Eight Merkland folk are going to the shealing.
The yeld cattle and queys and stirks have been for weeks three
miles up the hills, in the care of two herd boys who sleep on
fragrant heather in one of the shealing huts, and cook their own
food, until the women folk will come and take the management.
Some times when the storm rages, and they hear shrieks and wails
in the bosom of the blast after going to bed, the boys feel
rather eerie, especially if the dogs sit up on their tails and
raise a lament, or show fear by rushing whining upon the bed.
But, notwithstanding such trials, the boys like the wild, free
life, and now they are reckoning on being very merry indeed.
The cows and calves have been sent off, after the morning
milking, in two detachments; and now the men and women folk are
packing the shealing "arnais," [Furnishing] milk vessels, kirns,
cheese presses, and so forth, with bed-clothes, pots, food, and
some planks and beams to repair the huts. They pack them upon
the light peat carts, which can be taken wherever a horse can
go, on no road at all.
Until near the end of last century, the upper, or brae end of
the glen, for ten or twelve miles, was forest and shealing land
altogether ; and there was, moreover, a side glen, some seven
miles long, to which the people of the other barony sent their
cattle and families. Under the old order of things, going to the
shealing meant, therefore, a general migration of women,
children, and cattle about the beginning of June. The tenants
and their men servants remained at home, to take care of the
crops and secure them ; but they ever and anon went to see their
people in the heath-covered huts, fifteen, twenty, or more miles
away. Although there was much herding to do, the young boys and
girls enjoyed shealing life amazingly. So did the grown-up
girls, who laboured incessantly at their wheels, until the long
daily task of many dozens was accomplished. So did the matrons,
although the milking, butter-making, cheese-making, and flax and
wool spinning, not to mention cooking and oversight in all
things, left them very little leisure. So likewise did the
husbands and sweethearts left behind, whenever they were able to
pay a visit.
At the time when the shealing system still remained in full
force, blackfaced sheep were not yet generally introduced.
Cattle, horses, and goats were kept in great numbers. The small,
reddish-faced, indigenous breed of sheep still maintained its
ground, and yielded good wool, but rather poor mutton. These
sheep were hardy animals, but, for all that, each farmer housed
his own little flock in dead winter, while the shaggy young
cattle had to fend for themselves on the open pastures as long
as the grass and heather were not covered with very deep snow.
In some respects the system of farming followed by the Glen
people for many centuries might be called rude club farming, but
it was very efficient for producing the maximum of food for man
and beast. It ensured the careful cultivation and sufficient
manuring of every bit of cultivable land, and it left for the
sheep-farmers, that followed the old set, the green shealings
and improved hill-side grazings, which they have been exhausting
The Glen braes were turned into large sheep walks early in the
present century, and about the same time the shealings of the
side glen, to which the thirty tenants of the Marquis of
Inchaddin, on his Glen barony, used, ever since the Bruce's
time, if not before, to send their women folk, children, and
cattle every summer, were also put under sheep. With the
disappearance of these two great shealing tracts, the poetry of
the Glen life diminished much, and so did the production of food
for man and beast. It was in vain that the forester bard, Duncan
Ban of the Songs, invoked blessings on the foxes, in the hope
that they would keep down the blackfaced sheep. The flocks
flourished, and the old system decayed even more rapidly than he
But thevfolk of the Eight Merkland, although they had now a
large stock of blackfaced sheep, did still, at the beginning of
Queen Victoria's reign, keep up the shealing system in a small
way. Far up their own proper hills, there is a patch of green
grass, sweet to the taste of calves, and excellent rough
pasture, on which all kinds of cattle thrive well in summer, but
which is of very little use to the sheep in winter. By sending
the cattle some three months to this shealing grazing, the
wintering for the sheep on the lower grounds is protected from
being eaten down to the roots, and herbage on the high pastures
which would have been wasted is utilised.
A few days after Kate Ruadh's wedding the airidh [Shealing.]
migration day comes round; for all communal matters, weather and
Sabbath permitting, the same things are done on the same day of
the month or moon, year after year. So, after the morning
milking, the cows and calves are sent off to the uplands in two
bands, under sure control. On the migration day almost all the
inhabitants of the two "toons" that hold the hill in partnership
go to the airidh, although only two old women with spinning
wheels, the herding boys, and the dairymaids remain to be
inhabitants of the shealing huts. The old women and the boys are
to be in permanent residence there for a couple of months; but
the maids go down to the hay harvesting on good days, and return
in time for the evening duty at the buailidh.* In fact, as
already mentioned, the bigger boys have been living in the
shealing huts, and herding the queys, stirks, and horses, for
some weeks before this time. The boys who have gone through this
experience, and cooked their own simple food for several weeks,
feel warranted to assume vast superiority over the little
calf-herds that only come up the hills with the women.
It is a day of noise and bustle. The children are in their own
and everybody's way, and try to be everywhere at the same moment
; the dogs, in a similar state of excitement, keep barking, and
making senseless little runs about the quiet, meditative, old
mares that are being yoked into the light peat-carts, which can
be taken where there is no road at all. The packing is done at
last. Kirns, cheese-presses, milk vessels, bed-clothes, oatmeal,
salt, pots and pans, and crooks, with different sundries,
including the indispensable "baigein leasaich," or curiously
pickled calf's stomach, which yields the rennet for curdling the
milk, are stowed in the carts.
Now it is time for making the start ; but how are the excited
children and dogs to be got into marching order ? A dens ex
juachina descends from the oak copse, in the shape of Donnachadh
Amadain, who has been watching all the preparations from the
beginning like a quiet philosopher. Duncan has been roaming the
Glen since Kate Ruadh's wedding. He likes cream and crowdie, and
he knows that there will be a cream and crowdie feast at the
Eight Merkland shealing this evening, before the people that are
to come back say good night to those they will leave behind
them. Just when Duncan appeared on the scene, with his pipe
under his arm, the children were reduced to a state of quiet,
and so were the dogs, by Gilleasbuig Sgoilear, an old man from
another "toon," who had come to renew his youth by going with
the rest to the only, or next to only, shealing now in the Glen.
Gilleasbuig, whose to-name of " Scholar" was exceedingly well
deserved, although he never got much benefit out of his curious
and most miscellaneous store of information, knew how to
fascinate children, as well as grown people, by his wonderful
stories, which, if necessary, he was able to improvise on the
shortest notice. He has held these unruly children quiet and
spell-bound for an hour at a stretch by two fairy tales; but he
wishes to recover his own natural liberty, and the moment he
sees Duncan, he calls out to him, " Good health to the piper—seid
suas." Duncan obeys at once, and, turning his face to the hill,
the children and dogs follow him in most orderly procession, and
give no more trouble to mothers burdened with the cares of the
flitting to the airidh.
Duncan and the children reach the shealing huts long before the
carts and the older people. Gilleasbuig Sgoilear who, with two
or three others, come a little in advance of the second brigade,
is astonished to find Duncan seated on a small mound, busy at
some kind of odd work on a shepherd's crook, and the children
quietly watching him. He had got a piece of cloth, and stuffed
it with moss and heather, then made a close tie round its end,
so as to produce the appearance of a round head and short neck,
with a fat round body below. He next bound the figure to the
crook, and lifting up his work, and surveying it with half-shut
eyes, he pronounced it "ro math," or very good.
"And what may it be at all, at all?" asked Gilleasbuig, who had
been observing his proceedings for some minutes.
"Domhnan a bheannachadh an fheoir" (a Domhnan to bless the
grass), replied Duncan, without hesitation.
"Ah, for sure! Duncan, hast thou words?"
"Ugh, yes. Make a circle."
The other people were come up by this time, and they thought it
rare good fun to make a circle round the Fool, who, standing
high on his bit of mound, or tolman, held the Domhnan above his
head, at the utmost stretch of his arm, and, to Gilleasbuig's
particular delight, repeated words much to the following effect
when turned into English: —
Ghair an Doire!
Be it so,
Where sunlight beams
Where dry lands be
And waters flow,
And green grass grow;
Let fishes seek,
River, loch, and shore.
Ghair an Doire!
Peace and store,
Meat, milk, and corn,
And gifts, galore,
Day's golden orb,
Oh, scorch not
Blight, rot, and plague,
And winds that roar,
Snow, hail, and flood,
And strife and gore,
Be off to Ifrinn, wet and frore.
Ghair an Doire!
Be it so!
We say it high,
We say it
All the puirt the winds can
Gilleasbuig (much delighted)—"Well done, Duncan. It is my
thought there is more in thy block of a head than folk suppose.
But the words are not Domhnan words. No, no; they are much
older. They are Druidheachd words—that they are air Muire."
Peggy Bhuidhe (horrified)—"Keep us all! It is troking with Satan
to be listening to witchcraft words!"
Angus, the shepherd (slyly)—"Aye, Peggy. It is by the Domhnan
that Finlay Combach did his buidseachd. Is it not well known
that in every trouble he used to say to his wife, 'Turn the
Gilleasbuig—"Peggy, thou art a foolish woman ; and Angus—well,
he is a fox; just look at his red head, and the jink of fun in
the tail end of his eye!"
"But whatever was the Domhnan?" asked a middle-aged farmer, who
was repairing a hut door.
Gilleasbuig—"What was the Domhnan, indeed! Why, the Domhnan was
the patron saint. Every parish had a patron saint before the
faith of the Cuigse was established, and the priest went forth
with the image of the saint to bless the grass. Domhnan is just
the Latin word ' Dominus,' which means lord, that being the
style in which the saint was asked to aid the prayers of the
people that honoured him as a friend at Court."
Peggy—"Save us all! It is Papistry, and that is worse than
Gilleasbuig—"The patron saint of this parish was an excellent
Culdee. You may be sure that nothing representing such a good
man, not even Duncan's image, which is not much like a human
being at all, can cause any evil to man, beast, or plant."
Angus—"But you said the words were not Domhnan words at all?"
Gilleasbuig—"For sure, they are not Domhnan words. I know what
the priestly blessing of the grass was, and I wished to learn
whether the meaning of the words used came down from lip to lip,
in spite of the condemnation of these things by the Kirk, near
three hundred years ago."
Peggy—"And you say there is no harm in black druidheachd?"
Gilleasbuig—"No harm whatever, when it is not black at all. Do
you think our heathen ancestors never prayed from their hearts
to the All-Father? Duncan, my good fellow, wilt thou tell me
from whom thou didst learn the Ghair an Doire words? Try, think,
and remember, man." Duncan could not tell, nor would he even try
to remember. Having blessed the grass, he could think of nothing
else now but the coming feast of cream and crowdie.