A shieling (Scottish Gaelic: àirigh), also spelt sheiling, shealing and sheeling, is a hut, or collection of huts on a seasonal pasture high in the hills, once common in wild or lonely places in Scotland and northern England. 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. The isolated nature of shielings may have provided opportunity for sexual experimentation.
Shielings appear in folksongs such as Mairi's Wedding, Robert Burns's Bessy and her Spinnin' Wheel, and William Sharp's Shieling Song. The dwellings feature, too, in music such as Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's tune "An island shieling", and in poetry such as Edward Thomas's "The Shieling".
The term shieling is Scottish, originally denoting a summer dwelling on a seasonal pasture high in the hills, particularly those used by shepherds, and later coming to mean a more substantial and permanent small farm building in stone. The first recorded use of the term is from 1568. The word "shieling" comes from shiel, from the Northern dialect Middle English forms schele or shale, probably akin to Old Frisian skul meaning "hiding place" and to Old Norse Skjol meaning "shelter" and Skali meaning "hut".
A shieling, whether an isolated dwelling or in a group, is a hut or small dwelling, usually in an upland area. Shielings were often constructed of locally-available dry stone, or turf. 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, though 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, though 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. Some authorities consider shielings to differ from farmsteads in lacking an enclosure, though they may be surrounded by a bank and ditch, or by a dry stone wall.
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.
Farmers and their families lived in shielings during the summer to have their livestock 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 placed at the far end of the upland grazing land from the migrants's 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 later. 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.
Derek Cooper, in his 1983 book on Skye, suggests that the isolation of shielings gave opportunity for "sexual experiment[ation]", and in evidence identifies a moor named Àirigh na suiridh, the bothy of lovemaking. The song Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach contains the lines "And we'll rear them in a shieling on the Braes of Rannoch, in the brush-wood enclosed hut of [sexual] dalliance."
Ruins of shielings are abundant in high or marginal land in Scotland and Northern England, along with place-names containing "shield" or their Gaelic equivalents, such as Pollokshields in Glasgow, Arinagour on the island of Coll, Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, and "Shiels Brae" near Bewcastle. Turf-built shielings have often gradually eroded and disappeared, but traces of stone-built structures persist in the landscape. 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 and enclosures indicate that in these cases they became farmsteads, some of which evolved into contemporary farms.
The well-known folksong Mairi's Wedding preserves the word in the phrase "past the shieling, through the town". A Gaelic song (covered on Uam by Julie Fowlis) is Bothan Àirigh am Bràigh Raithneach ("A shieling on the Braes of Rannoch"), while the 'weaver poet' Robert Tannahill's song to "Gilly Callum" begins "I'll hie me to the shieling hill, / And bide amang the braes, Callum..."
In his 1899 story The Lost Pibroch, Neil Munro refers to the shieling as something temporary: "the women, posting blankets for the coming shieling..."; "It was about the time Antrim... came scouring through our glens..., with not a shieling from end to end, except on the slopes of Shira Glen..."; "...for never a shieling passed but the brosey folks came pouring down Glenstrae, scythe, sword, and spear, and went back with the cattle before them..."
The temporary nature of the shieling, and its location high in the Scottish hills, are alluded to in the musicologist William Sharp's Shieling Song of 1896, which he published under the pseudonym "Fiona MacLeod": "I go where the sheep go, with the sheep are my feet... / O lover, who loves me, / Art thou half so fleet? / Where the sheep climb, the kye go, / There shall we meet!"
The shieling could be on a Scottish island, as in Marjory Kennedy-Fraser's delicate tune "An island shieling", recorded on "Songs of the Hebrides" by Florence McBride. Edward Thomas's poem "The Shieling" evokes the loneliness of a quiet old highland building that "stands alone/Up in a land of stone...A land of rocks and trees..."
Shiel is found in a 1792 Robert Burns song, Bessy and her Spinnin' Wheel: "On lofty aiks the cushats wail, / And Echo cons the doolfu' tale; / The lintwhites in the hazel braes, / Delighted, rival ither's lays; / The craik amang the claver hay, / The pairtrick whirring o'er the ley, / The swallow jinkin' round my shiel, / Amuse me at my spinnin' wheel." Shiel is found again in a 1792 Robert Burns poem about a dairy shieling, The Country Lass.
The 'Lone Shieling', built in 1942 in Canada's Cape Breton Highlands National Park, is modelled on a Scottish 'bothran' or shepherds' hut of the type that was used during the summer when it was possible to move the sheep up on to the hills to graze. It has the same design as the Lone Sheiling on the Scottish isle of Skye, romanticised in the lines "From the lone shieling of the misty island/Mountains divide us and the waste of seas – Yet still the blood is strong, the heart is Highland, And we in dreams behold the Hebrides."