“A shieling on the braes”

Last Thursday afternoon at Moniack, a group of us signed up for a hike. I expected the trek to be stepping out the front door — there were plenty of scenic hillsides near Moniack Mhor all around. Instead, though, we divided up and hopped into cars to get to the Abriachan Forest Paths, about ten minutes away.

“We have a choice of where to go,” the guide said. “To a forest of tall old trees, or up a bit to see a shieling.”

“Oh, a shieling!” I put in before anyone else had a chance. “I’d love to see one.”

No one objected, although I had a hunch most had never heard of shielings. I knew about them because of a description in Alistair Moffatt’s “Highland Clans.”

In springtime clansmen undertook the ancient journey of transhumance, driving their black cattle and sheep up the hill trails to the high pastures and the shielings. These were temporary huts and in the light northern nights they were where herdsmen (often women and children) summered out with their animals in the mountains. In Gaelic the shielings were known as summertowns and the clachans as wintertowns. Around the cooking fires in the high pasture tales were told, songs sung and away from the older people, understandings exchanged.

I had pictured a shieling as a wooden lean-to structure. No doubt the style of them varies from region to region. This shieling had a turf roof, so it blended well into the heather.

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