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Reminiscences of Old Scots Folk
Summer Shielings in the Glen


YOU WILL FIND THEM ALL OVER THE hills of Scotland, in Highlands and Lowlands and Hebrid Isles—little green hillocks and open spaces high up the hillside or the glen, with rickles of grey stones and heaps of ruined walls by the side of the brown burn. To come on them to-day, when the evening sun is shining and the plovers and whaups are mingling their cries with the husheen of the mountain stream, is like reading the romance of an olden Scots life that has gone from us never again to return.

I can see them in many a remote place while I write— far up the sides of Lawers; behind Schiehallion, where the deer are feeding now; among the lonely Lammer-moors; or far out in Skye or Harris, where to-day the salt Atlantic winds are blowing. But always in my dreamings of the shieling days I come back to a place of ruins far up in a little glen that runs from the spatey Lyon River right into the heart of Lawers and Ben Glass. For there, one summer eve, I sat with one whose heart has in it the deep understanding of the hills, and whose eyes can see far ben into the dim-lit regions of the long ago. After a great day on the hills, whose sunbaked tops were still patchy with winter snow, we sat down among the shielings to rest when the sun was setting. Ballad and song floated out in the calm airs of evening to the sound of the crooning stream as we talked of the shieling folk and the ancient customs of the vanished races, till the silent glen was peopled once more about us, and the cattle were lowing at milking time for Mary and Ishbel to come with their stools and coggies.

The summer shielings were little shelters or cot-houses which the glen folk built high up on the hills or corries. There in summer-time the grass was sweet and green, and in the cooler airs the cattle and sheep roamed free. A whole highland township would flit for the summer months from the shoreland or laigh-lying places to the summer shielings, driving their cattle be-fore them; the men doing the herding, and the women following with the little bairns, each carrying some essential dish or bundle of provender for the long sojourn among the hills. The old done bodies, who could no longer climb the steep braes, were left behind in the farm or croft with some to tend them in case of need; and if in the summer-time a stranger came to the township to seek his way, or do some troke of business, he might find the place all empty and deserted.

Oh, it was a happy time of the year when the nights grew warm and light, and the days long with the northern sun that scarcely sleeps, for then it was time to be off to the shielings. The young folks laughed with glee, the older folks got their goods and chattels all together, and the little bairns knew that holiday-time had come, when they could run happy and free among the cattle on the hills, or catch the brown trout in the clear streams.

The Bairns Bairn

Once up the glen and arrived at the shielings, the little summer shelters were opened again, and new ones were built for new folks come. See them to-day— these wee, narrow houses built of rough mountain stones, with low doorways and tiny windows. Thatched with turf and rushes, and built of walls so thick that no winter storm could undo them, the shielings were but summer camps in stone and turf for the ancient peasantry of Scotland. Here in the thick walls of some of them you can still find little square recesses. These were cupboards, or homely contrived dairy presses, for milking-pans to rest in. One, two, three, six, eight—surely in this ruined wall we have the dairy or milk-house, where butter pats and cheeses and bowls of sweet cream rested in the cool darkness under the thatch long ago!

At early morn the shielings were all astir—for the men went out to look at their stock and to herd the sheep, while the lasses,with milking-stools tucked under one arm and a pail under the other, sang as they went up the hills together calling the cows to the milking-place. All through the livelong day the women were busy on the green sward at the burnside churning the butter in the kirns, and pressing the cheeses between the heavy stones. And the little barefooted bairns, free from all the restraints of the dominie, ran about the sunny braes, gathering the blaeberry or the luscious cloudberry higher up, and guddling with bare arms in the burns for the bonny speckled trout which were so sweet to the taste at supper-time.

What sweet singing there was at the milkings in the old shieling days! Many of the most beautiful love-songs which have been handed down to us were composed and sung by the lads and lasses who did their courting far up among the hills in the bonny summer gloamings, when Mary milked the cows and Colin herded them down to her from the pastures.

In the summer nights, too, the cattle and the sheep were sometimes driven away altogether. The Fairiesgot the credit of many of these cattle raids, and they invariably carried off a young milkmaid to milk the cows morning, noon, and night. But the Fairies were blamed for what was oftener a regular raid on the shieling herds by wild rieving highland caterans. So on one occasion Colin lost his cattle and Mary his betrothed along with them. On a dark night they were driven away, and when Colin went out in the early morning not a cow was to be seen on his pastures, and no trace of Mary the milker could he find. So, over the hills he wandered, in search of his cattle and his true love; but late or early he neither saw nor heard what his heart and his eyes were seeking. He knew that the cows would not give milk unless they heard the voice of the milkmaid singing—and Mary herself knew well that those who had carried her off with the cattle, whether Fairies or caterans, could not stop her singing her milking songs at the darkening.

So this was the song which she sang to the cattle of Colin each evening, knowing right well that he was seeking her, and would come to her when he heard the voice of her calling—

"A maiden sang sweetly
As a bird on a tree,
Cro' chaillean, Cro' chaillean,
Cro' chaillean for me.
My own Colin's cattle,
Dappled, dun, brown, and grey,
They return to the milking
At the close of the day.
In the morning they wander
To their pastures afar,
Where the grass grows the greenest
By corrie and scaur.
They wander the uplands
Where the soft breezes blow,
And they drink from the fountain
Where the sweet cresses grow.
But so far as they wander,
Dappled, dun, brown, and grey,
They return to the milking
At the close of the day.
My bed's on the shian
On the Canach's soft down,
But I'd sleep best with Colin
In our shieling alone.
Thus a maiden sang sweetly
As a bird on a tree,
Cro' chaillean, Cro' chaillean,
Cro' chaillean for me."

So Colin heard the voice of his beloved singing in the summer night, and followed her from place to place until both cattle and love were found again.

The sheep were sheared by the men, and the wool was all cleaned and prepared by the women at the summer shielings. The peats were cut and cast and stacked in great heaps on the moor to dry. There was plenty of work for old and young, for men and women, for lad and lass, through the long summer days and the short-lived summer nights. It was an ideal open-air life for the whole peasant community.

And then, when the summer died, and the chilly autumn days came, with longer nights and later dawnings, the shielings were deserted once more. The doors in the little stone houses by the burnside were shut, the bairns were gathered together, and the whole happy company wandered down again to the township in the glen, on the laighland, or the seaboard. The cattle that had been driven up both lean and hungry returned from the green shielings fat and sleek and full of milk. The peats had now to be driven or carried down from the moors to the lowlands. The wool was brought home to be carded and spun,waulked or woven in the long dark winter days and nights at home. And while the women were busy round the peat fires of winter, the men told their tales and legends in ceilidh, with the blue reek making wraiths among the black rafters of the kitchen roof, and the faces of listening children peering down from the trap door of the garret, where they were supposed to be long since a-sleep in their heather beds.

Such was the happy, romantic life of the summer shielings. It is all gone now. For the glens are empty, and the little houses high up on the hills are lying in heaps of grey ruins with nettles and briers growing all about them in the silence of the grassy banks by the mountain stream.

Up the green glen, by the lonely shielings,
Silence-encircled and far from men—
I hear the songs of an old-time people,
In summer twilights beneath the Ben.
Sweet was the milking song of Mary,
Strong was the love of Alan at parting,
Happy the barefooted children that played there,
By the clear stream, with the brown trout darting.
Now the grey ruins lie scattered and moss-grown
Up in the rain-beaten corrie to-day;
Gone are the milkings with Mary and Alan,
Their children lie dead in a land far away.
The brown stream sings its coronach, keening,
The children of Alan for sheep were banished;
The dancing, the laughter, the happy old faces,
The life of the shielings for ever is vanished.
No more the call of the cattle at dawning,
No more at the ceilidh the fine tale is said,
No more will strong men woo lily-white maidens-
The wet winds are moaning lament for the dead.


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