Caithness Field Club

The Shielings
Gordon Wilson

The summer camps which were vital to the early northern croft economy.

The summer camp crofting system - now out of date - was even then uneconomical. By modern standards a Crofter's return was invariably small and disappointing, no matter how hard and diligently he worked.

The Crofter's sole aim was to survive. He needed to produce sufficient food for the family and animals to carry them through the long winter months when living was very hard and little could be obtained from the land.

Around the crofts, cattle, sheep and goats were largely in enclosures or tethered, requiring little attention and minimum of labour as they were unlikely to stray, thus giving more time to the cultivation of crops.

At the shieling there were no boundaries - open moors for miles and miles. Animals could wander all over the common grazings.

Shieling - in gaelic is called "An Airidh" - strictly speaking, it refers to the driving of the beasts to the summer camps in the hills. Having cropped the lower pastures it was necessary to move them to the succulent upper fields for the summer, then drive them back when Autumn came.

On these summer drives, the animals were accompanied mainly by the young women and girls. This was an ideal arrangement. They were better at working with cows and goats for milking and the making of cheese and butter. It should be pointed out that the men and boys remained at the crofts repairing and renovating the roofs, walls and enclosure ready for the winter winds. Some men would also go to the Fishings. The living quarters at the shielings were very basic. Stone walls and double turf roof; normal household furniture was dispensed with. Seating was a simple plank stretched between two flat stones and equally, meals were eaten from a readily improvised table. The only necessary utensils taken with them were milk pails, churns, cheese vats and coques (round wooden bowls).

The fire was of peat and was seldom allowed to go out; when not in use for cooking it was banked to smoulder away and was easily re-kindled when next required. There was no scarcity of fuel as they were surrounded by peat bogs; the customary habit was to have a small peat stack at the lee of the shieling for immediate use. Sleeping arrangements again were very basic; just fresh heather and bracken and sometimes dried mosses all of which were readily available.

During the day, the women worked on the dairy produce and the girls watched the animals did not stray too far.

Water supplies were readily available as most shielings were sited at nearby mountain burns. This simplified the cleaning and washing up, also the watering of the stock.

These hardy summer camps now lie mostly in disrepair, abandoned to the elements. However, a few have been renovated and turned into summer holiday homes. It is only on the west coast and the islands that many remain which are still worked.