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Ruined shieling south of Oban

A shieling[a] (Scottish Gaelic: Àirigh)[3] is a hut or collection of huts on a seasonal pasture high in the hills, once common in wild or sparsely populated places in Scotland. Usually rectangular with a doorway on the south side and few or no windows, they were often constructed of dry stone or turf. More loosely, the term may denote a seasonal mountain pasture for the grazing of cattle in summer. Seasonal pasturage implies transhumance between the shieling and a valley settlement in winter. Many Scottish songs have been written about life in shielings, often concerning courtship and love. The ruins of shielings are abundant landscape features across Scotland, particularly the Highlands.


A "shieling" is a summer dwelling on a seasonal pasture high in the hills.[4] The first recorded use of the term is from 1568.[5] The word "shieling" comes from "shiel", from the forms schele or shale in the Northern dialect of Middle English, likely related to Old Frisian skul meaning "hiding place" and to Old Norse Skjol meaning "shelter" and Skali meaning "hut".[6]

Seasonal dwelling[edit]


Plans of three different shielings, of increasing complexity. Shielings were mostly rectangular although often with rounded corners. Some had a single room, others two or three. There were few or no windows in the walls of turf or stone.[7]

A shieling, whether an isolated dwelling or in a group, is a hut or small dwelling, usually in an upland area.[7] Shielings were often constructed of locally available dry stone, or turf.[7] They are mostly rectangular buildings between 5.7–14 metres (19–46 ft) long and 3–8.3 metres (9.8–27.2 ft) wide, although they may have rounded corners or be roughly oval. The rectangular buildings usually had gabled roofs covered in local materials such as turf, heather, or rushes, supported on timbers. The doorway was usually in the middle of one of the long sides of the building, often on the south side; it was often just a gap in the wall, although some shielings had door jambs and lintels made of larger blocks of stone. The smaller shielings consisted of a single room; most were divided into two or three rooms. There were few or no windows.[7] Some sources consider shielings to differ from farmsteads in lacking an enclosure,[8] although they may be surrounded by a bank and ditch, or by a dry stone wall.[7]

18th-century shielings on the isle of Jura, from Thomas Pennant's 1776 Voyage to the Hebrides

The Welsh traveller and naturalist Thomas Pennant wrote the first description of Scottish shielings:[7]

I landed on a bank covered with sheelins, the temporary habitations of some peasants who tend the herds of milch cows. These formed a grotesque group; some were oblong, some conic, and so low that the entrance is forbidden without creeping through the opening, which has no other door than a faggot of birch twigs placed there occasionally; they are constructed of branches of trees covered with sods; the furniture a bed of heather; placed on a bank of sod, two blankets and a rug; some dairy vessels; and above, certain pendent shelves made of basket‑work, to hold the cheese, the product of the summer. In one of the little conic huts I spied a little infant asleep.

— Thomas Pennant, Voyage to the Hebrides, 1776[7]


A ruined shieling close to the Loch Langavat path, Isle of Lewis

The shieling system was widespread across Europe, including upland Britain and Iceland. It survives into the 21st century in Norway, Northern Sweden and the higher areas of central Europe.[9] Farmers and their families lived in shielings during the summer to enable their livestock to graze common land. Shielings were therefore associated with the transhumance system of agriculture. They were often beside streams, which were used as pathways into the hills, or at the far end of the upland grazing land from the migrants' winter dwellings. The mountain huts generally fell out of use by the end of the 17th century, although in remote areas, such as the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides, this system continued into the 18th century or even later.[7][10] Derek Cooper, in his 1983 book on Skye, writes that the buildings on the moors were repaired each summer when the people arrived with their cattle; they made butter and cheese, and gruthim, salted buttered curds.

The scant ruins of a summer shieling at Catlodge, near Laggan, marked by a green area around the building where the land had been cleared, which contrasts with the heather moorland

Ruins of shielings are abundant in high or marginal land in Scotland and Northern England,[9][11][12] as are place-names containing "shield" or their Gaelic equivalents, such as Pollokshields in Glasgow,[13] Arinagour on the island of Coll,[14] Galashiels in the Scottish Borders,[15][16] and "Shiels Brae" near Bewcastle.[7] Turf-built shielings have typically gradually eroded and disappeared, but traces of stone-built structures persist in the landscape.[7] Some shielings are medieval in origin and were occasionally occupied permanently after the abandonment of the transhumance system. The construction of associated structures such as stack-stands[b] and enclosures indicate that in these cases they became farmsteads, some of which evolved into contemporary farms.[7]

Scottish shieling songs[edit]

Many Scottish songs have been written about life in shielings, often concerning courtship and love.[18] Several of these are in Alexander Macdonald's 1914 Story and Song from Loch Ness-side, including "Cha teid mi Choir Odhar", "Chunacas gruagach ‘s an aonach", and "A fhlesgaich is cummaire", all from Perthshire, and "Luinneag Airidh" (a shieling lovesong).[18][19] The song "Chunacas gruagach ‘s an aonach" includes the lines

"Many times often you and I,
Have been at the shieling[c] on Brae Rannoch.
On the hillock of the waterfall,
Where we were resting.
In the bothy of the dalliance,
With a brushwood screen for door.
My mouth placed on your fragrant mouth,
And my hand would be round you, my love."[18]

The song is similar to the famous[18] "Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach" (The Shieling bothy on Brae Rannoch).[18][21] Shielings are mentioned in the folk song "Mairi's Wedding",[22] in the weaver poet Robert Tannahill's song "Gilly Callum",[23] and in the musicologist William Sharp's "Shieling Song" of 1896,[24] and in the title of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's tune "Island Sheiling Song".[25][26] Edward Thomas wrote a poem called "The Shieling".[27] The Scottish poet Robert Burns mentions a "shiel" in his song "Bessy and her Spinnin' Wheel"[28] and his poem "The Country Lass".[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Also spelt sheiling,[1] shealing, sheelin, and sheeling.[2]
  2. ^ These were small raised platforms to construct haystacks on, to keep the hay as dry as possible when there was no room to bring it inside the shieling.[17]
  3. ^ The word used in the original song here is Scottish Gaelic: àirigh.[20]


  1. ^ "sheiling". Collins Dictionary. Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  2. ^ "Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary: Sheeling". 1913. Archived from the original on 31 December 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2013.
  3. ^ Roger Hutchinson (2010), Father Allan: The Life and Legacy of a Hebridean Priest, Birlinn Limited. Page 112.
  4. ^ Cooper 1983, pp. 124–125
  5. ^ "shieling". Dictionary. Retrieved 5 May 2013.
  6. ^ "shiel". Webster's Third New International Dictionary. Vol. 3 (3 ed.). 1986. p. 2094.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Introductions to Heritage Assets: Shielings". English Heritage / Historic England. May 2011. Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 22 January 2017.
  8. ^ Ramm, H.G.; McDowall, R.W.; Mercer, Eric; Royal Commission on Historical Monuments (1970). Shielings and Bastles. London: H.M.S.O. pp. 9–43. ISBN 978-0-11-700468-9. OCLC 540235.
  9. ^ a b Cheape, Hugh (1996). "Shielings in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland: Prehistory to the Present". Folk Life. 35 (1): 7–24. doi:10.1179/043087796798254498.
  10. ^ Britnell, R. H. (2004). Britain and Ireland 1050–1530 : economy and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 268. ISBN 0-19-873145-0. OCLC 56436869.
  11. ^ "Case Study: Transhumance and Shielings". ScARF. Retrieved 7 September 2022.
  12. ^ Bil 1990, pp. 233 "Shieling settlements often survive as prominent ruins in present-day upland areas [of the central Scottish highlands]", 235 "Surveys of present-day ruins also confirm the widespread distribution of this single-apartment design.".
  13. ^ "Scottish National Dictionary 1700-". Dictionary of the Scots Language. Retrieved 24 December 2018.
  14. ^ "Learn Gaelic". Learn Gaelic.Scot/Dictionary. Archived from the original on 26 December 2018. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  15. ^ "Scots Words and Place-names". Place-Name Glossary. Archived from the original on 10 December 2018. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  16. ^ "Galashiels". Scottish Places. Archived from the original on 10 December 2018. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
  17. ^ Griffiths, Karen (15 June 2018). "Stackstands and stackgarths". Yorkshire Dales National Park. Archived from the original on 5 September 2022. Retrieved 5 September 2022.
  18. ^ a b c d e Gauld, Munro; Langhorne, Ceit (March 2021). "The Musical Heritage of Glenmoriston: A Scoping Exercise" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 September 2022. Retrieved 7 September 2022.
  19. ^ Macdonald, Alexander (1914). "14 "The Ceilidh" (songs in Gaelic)". Story and Song from Loch Ness-side (PDF). Inverness: Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Publishing Company. Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 September 2022. Retrieved 7 September 2022.
  20. ^ Ó Dónaill, Niall (1977). Foclóir Gaeilge–Béarla. An Gúm. Archived from the original on 5 September 2022. Retrieved 5 September 2022.
  21. ^ Fowlis, Julie (2011). "Na h-òrain air 'Uam' / The songs on 'Uam'". Julie Fowlis. Archived from the original on 14 October 2012. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
  22. ^ Roberton, Hugh S. (1937). "Lewis Bridal Song (Mairi's Wedding)". Songs of the Isles. London: J. Curwen & Sons. pp. 20–21. Archived from the original on 7 September 2022. Retrieved 5 September 2022.
  23. ^ Tannahill, Robert; Ramsay, Philip A. (1853). The works of Robert Tannahill: with life of the author, and a memoir of Robert A. Smith, the musical composer. Edinburgh: A. Fullarton and Co. p. 14.
  24. ^ Sharp, William (1896). "Vocal settings of 'Shieling song'". The LiederNet Archive. Archived from the original on 12 March 2017. Retrieved 26 March 2013.
  25. ^ "Music Fragments & Various, c 1900–1925". The University of Edinburgh. Archived from the original on 13 October 2022. Retrieved 13 October 2022. Envelope marked 'Duets': letter from Marie Thomson, Edinburgh, 15 September 1923, 'The Road to the Isles', manuscript, arranged for twopart chorus by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, 'Milking Croon' and 'Island Sheiling Song' and 'Pulling the Sea-Dulse', manuscripts, arranged for two voices by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser.
  26. ^ "Discography section 14: Ma-McKay" (PDF). National Library of Scotland. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 February 2013. Retrieved 26 March 2013.
  27. ^ Thomas, Edward (1878–1917). "The First World War Poetry Digital Archive: The Shieling". (originally Faber & Faber). Archived from the original on 26 April 2014. Retrieved 26 March 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ Burns, Robert (1792). "Bessy and her Spinnin' Wheel". Archived from the original on 5 October 2018. Retrieved 7 December 2018 – via
  29. ^ Burns, Robert (1792). "The Country Lass". Archived from the original on 5 October 2018. Retrieved 24 December 2018 – via


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