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Behold the Hebrides
Lone Shieling
Old-Fashioned Methods in the Hebrides

A SHIELING is a quiet, dreamy thing; and the memories of hours and days passed at an island shieling are as fresh and as fragrant as the winds that are wont to blow over a June garden at noontide.

The old-fashioned agricultural methods which still obtain in the Western Isles certainly have their disadvantages in this age of opulence and ugliness, because the little croft is no longer what we would term an economic unit in the modern sense. And so all the minor activities associated with it must be earnestly and diligently attended to if the crofter, whose lot under present circumstances seldom errs on the side of ease and comfort, is to make ends meet at all. His return is invariably small and disappointing; and, if he means to accumulate a little produce in his mean store-house, so as to tide him over the cold, wet winter months, he must needs labour exceedingly hard on a soil which is as barren as it is cumbersome to till.

And yet those whom from the lone shieling and the misty island mountains divide, and a waste of seas, never forget their island-homes and the memories of their peat-reeked shielings.

Cattle left to graze in a large, fenced enclosure may give little labour and anxiety, because they cannot go astray and need not be attended to except at regular intervals; but the well-fenced farm possesses neither the poetry nor the interest of a Hebridean shieling, where there are no fences, and only a few dilapidated dykes here and there. As a rule, however, there are no boundaries for miles and miles, and one can wander on indefinitely without seeing any signs of a dyke where two or more common grazings may impinge upon one another.

In Gaelic the shieling is called an airidh. Strictly speaking, it refers to the driving of the cattle to the hills in the early summer, and remaining there with them during the warm months, for, when they have cropped the grazing grounds nearer home, it becomes necessary to take them where pasturage is rich and more plentiful. After the summer is over, the cattle are again driven home to their respective townships.

It is the young women who usually accompany them to the shieling, because they are better adapted to the work connected with cows, such as milking and the making of cheese and butter. At night the women of the shieling shelter in little huts scattered here and there on the moor. These summer homes are constructed of turf or of stone, because, unfortunately, many of the islands are entirely wanting in trees.

A shieling house is as simple and unpretentious within as it is without, for the women-folk only bring with them such necessary utensils as may be required in the preparation of their food. Of course, they take with them milk-pails and churns, and cogues, and cheese vats, and such like things; but ordinary household furniture at a shieling can be dispensed with. The seating requirements, for example, are often supplied by a plank stretched between a couple of large, flat stones; while meals are eaten at a readily improvised table.

The fire is of peat, and is laid on the floor. It is never allowed to go out because, when it is not needed for cooking purposes, a few peats are placed on it, and it is left to smoulder away quietly. As every one is aware, a peat fire will keep in for hours if not disturbed; and it is easily kindled when attended to. There is seldom any scarcity of fuel at the shieling, for the peat-moss is often within a short distance; and indeed it is customary to cut and stack peats at shieling-time, and to build a small heap of peats on the leeward side of the shieling hut, so that an adequate supply is always ready at hand. It may be of interest to you to know that in some of the Islands it is usual for one member of the party to carry a smouldering peat all the way from the township, in order that the fires may be lit from it on arrival at the shieling.

There are, as a rule, no feather mattresses and pillows at a shieling; the beds are made of fragrant heather and bracken, and sometimes of dried moss gathered around the door of the hut. During the day the maidens of the shieling are engaged in making dairy produce, or in watching the kye lest they should wander away across the moors. Their idle moments are occupied in preparing wool, or at the spinning-wheel. These are the scenes from which many of our most beautiful melodies have emanated, for the Hebridean weavers and spinners are wont to sing at their work.

At the shieling even the tiresome duty of washing-up after meals is made easier, because this can be done in a ready fashion at the little mountain-stream near-by, from which the shieling receives its water-supply.

It ought to be mentioned, too, that while the women and children are absent at the shieling, the men who are not at the fishings are busily repairing the thatch, and otherwise redding up the crofts in preparation for the winter storms.

In bygone days some parts of the Hebrides were noted for their shielings. Dean Munro, who travelled through most of the Islands about the close of the sixteenth century, tells us of the shieling on the Island of Lingay. ‘Narrest to Gigay,’ he writes, ‘lyes ane ile callit Lingay haffe a myle lange ane verey guide ile for gressing, pastures, and for a shieling, appertaining to the M’Neill of Barray.’

Raasay long ago was famous for its shieling; and Martin tells us that the islanders flocked thither with their families in the summer-time for conveniences of grazing and fishing, and sought shelter in the great caves on the west side of the Island, having been able thus to dispense with turf-built huts.

Lone Shieling

A shieling in Uist in the fifteenth century was remarkable not only on account of the excellent summer pasturage it afforded, but also because the deep valley in which it lay was reputed by the natives to be haunted by ghosts, whom they called the ‘Great Men.’ This belief still lingers among many homes in the neighbourhood. In the olden days it was held that whatsoever man or woman entered the valley without having first completely resigned himself or herself, would assuredly go mad. Those who were accustomed to sojourn there renounced their claims to earthly things by repeating a short invocation to the ‘Great Men’ who ‘spirited’ the valley, and under whose guidance and protection they immediately placed themselves upon entering.

When Martin visited Uist he tried hard to persuade the inhabitants to abandon this silly piece of credulity, explaining to them that their imaginary protectors were deserving of no such extravagance. But they assured him that their belief had been confirmed by a woman who entered the valley unawares and instantly became mad, having failed to resign herself. He tells us, too, that the Protestant minister often endeavoured to expose their deception but without avail, partly because of the implicit trust they had in their priest, but chiefly because ‘when topics of persuasion, though never so urgent, come from one they believe to be a heretic, there is little hope of success.’

The shieling which is in my mind as I write is situated in the Lews, far away among the Bens of Barvas. I want you to imagine yourself there on a midsummer day, surrounded by warmth and sunshine and peacefulness, where

Bog myrtle swings across the dreamy hour,
Its noontide fragrance like an incensed flower.

Picture yourself lolling around a shieling hut where a lovely sheep-collie basks in the sunlight at the doorstep; and imagine that the soft breezes are filling your nostrils with the scent of gorse and clover and sweet grass. Such is the atmosphere of a Hebridean shieling on a summer day.

But to appreciate a shieling to the fullest one ought to visit it as the daylight fades and the sun dips low beneath the hills, for it is then that the cattle softly wend their way across the sleepy moor, because milking-time draws near.

The shieling is often in the vicinity of a loch or mountain tarn; and the little herd wades round the edges and drinks of the cool water after the glory of the summer day is over. And, when darkness falls, the moonbeams trace their silvern paths of light across the loch where, I suppose, the little gnomes and fays are wont to play.

Now construct in your mind’s eye the picture of a cosy shieling house nestling quietly among the hills, where the light of a lantern, or of a flickering candle, streams through the open doorway across a benighted moor. No whiff of wind is breathed upon the listless gloom of the shieling; nor is any sound heard except, perhaps, the faint tinkling of some crystal burn, or the screech of the cailleachoidhche—’ the old woman of the night,’ as the owl is called in Gaelic—that hides in the peat-moss close at hand.

And in the dead of night the great ships in the Atlantic pass far beyond the shieling; and through the darkness they whisper a word in passing...

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