Sunday, 18 May 2008

The Shielings

Saturday 17th May 2008

This afternoon we went back home from Callanish via the single-track back Achmore road which joins up with the Pentland Road and which Google Maps seem to have mislaid. The road has lots of shielings on it. Shielings were summer habitations that were crucial to the wellbeing of crofter families as they provided a base from which to graze cattle on the lush moorland heather and grass.

This annual migration from the villages to the moor during the summer allowed residents to move their livestock away from the more fertile arable land near the villages to allow crops to be grown and harvested during the spring and summer months. The shielings typically formed moorland ‘villages’ and were mainly populated by the women, with the men remaining behind to cultivate the land, clean the byres of waste and manure, re-thatch the dwellings and generally repair and prepare the homestead for the year ahead.

Nowadays some of the shielings are used as little 'holiday' cottages for visiting for a day or for working out of to do the peats. A few peat banks are still cut throughout the island and if folk are lucky the may own one next to the road.

Norman MacLeod of 5 Melbost, Borve, describes how crofting families like his own used to move out to the shielings with the cattle during the summer :
"The usual time to go to the shieling was after the 15th May when the village was cleared of all stock and sent to the common grazing. There were no fences on the crofts at that time to protect what was sown or planted. The cattle were kept out at the shieling until August then they were taken into the enclosed winter grazing known as the 'fence'. We were the last family in Melbost, Borve to regularly go to the Shieling - that was the Summer of 1946. We had four dairy cows and a calf.

A few of the shielings are now no more than a chimney stack poking up into the sky.

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