Digging Where We Stand: Memories from the Àirigh/Shieling for a post-Covid new world

This month’s Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches contribution is from Fraser McRobertFraser is the Copyright Officer for the Tobar an Dualchais Project, and a postgraduate student of Material Culture and Gàidhealtachd History at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye.

There is no doubt that these past few months have completely changed the world as we know it.

Our hyper-globalised, high-octane way of life was stopped in its tracks in a matter of weeks, and many of us found ourselves confined to our local communities, with a great deal of spare time on our hands.

The TaD team have – fortunately – been able to continue working from home, and over these past few months I have been lucky enough to have conversations with some of our contributors and their families, speaking about recordings from the past, but naturally reflecting on those times and comparing them with the situation we find ourselves in today.

Shieling on Barvas River – I F Grant Collection, Edinburgh Central Library

One conversation of note was with a relative of a contributor who was recorded in the early 1950s.

After sharing her memories of going to visit her great-uncle as a child 70 years ago she remarked on the strange times we live in, and hoped that this current crisis would perhaps make us reflect on our way of life and strive for a less individualistic and more community-centred way of life – perhaps that which she had known as a child.

In a lecture in June 2018, the ethnologist and previous TaD columnist, Mairi MacFadyen, referred to Alastair McIntosh’s idea that we should ‘dig where we stand’ in order to find meaning and to regain a ‘sense of place’.

Mairi then explains: “The idea is that by researching and learning about our own history and the place we are living, we – as individuals and as groups – can regain some control over the understanding of our lives and our inter-connectedness.

“The idea here is that memories make dreaming the future possible.”

I truly believe there has never been a better time for us to dig where we stand, and as we experience the rush of adrenaline as we finally experience the freedom to travel and experience a change of scenery, it brings one aspect of traditional Highland life which is abundant in the Tobar an Dualchais archive – the traditional practice of spending the summer months at the àirigh, or the shieling.

Ruined shieling below Sron Mhòr, Geisiadar, Lewis by Sarah Egan Creative Commons Licencing

Going to the àirigh is the Highland version of the long-practised custom of transhumance – the seasonal moving of livestock and people, still practiced today in many parts of the world including the mountainous regions of Norway, Alpine and sub-Alpine Europe, and the Pyrenees.

In the Highlands, the practice was widespread until the early to mid-19th century when much of the moorland on which the communites had their shielings were claimed by the landowners and used for sheep runs, and for hunting.

The memory of the shielings lingered on, however, and on the Tobar an Dualchais website we have recordings from places such as Arran (tracks 29591; 29598), Mull (track 82293), and Glen Lyon in Perthshire (track 37607), where the contributors are well aware of the custom of going to the shieling in their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. 

In the Outer Hebrides the practice lasted longer, especially in Lewis, where the traditional flitting to the shielings lasted until the early 1950s, as Joan MacDonald of Claide, Shader explained to Dr John MacInnes in 1963 (track 59057).

Even today, many shieling huts remain in use for recreation, as infamously portrayed by Lewis rock trio Peat & Diesel in their song Brandy in the Àirigh.

From what we can deduce from the recordings on Tobar an Dualchais, it was mostly the children and the young women of the community who would stay at the àirigh, where they would make butter and cheese from the milk of the cattle, and in some cases – as Angus Henderson of Mull explains – of the sheep.

Ruined Shieling at Ben Idrigill, Duirinish by Richard Dorrell – Creative Commons Licensing (1)

Historically, this allowed the unenclosed crops in the township to grow undisturbed, and it allowed the livestock to take advantage of the superior seasonal grazing on the hills.

The higher quality of the milk from cows grazed on the shielings is well attested to in the TaD archive (track 82293), and to this day is prized in other transhumant cultures such as that of the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, where the rich milk of cattle grazed on summer pastures is seen as a key ingredient of the local Mont d’Or cheese.

In a series of recordings by John Paterson, Donald MacDonald of North Tolsta explains how – in Lewis – the whole community would help with the move, which normally took place around Là Buidhe Bealltainn – the first day of may.

The flitting took a lot of effort, but it was also a time full of excitement, for man and beast:

A’ mhadainn a bha sinn a’ dol dhan àirigh, bha a h-uile duine sa bhaile an-àirde tràth a’ mhadainn sin … beathaichean is coin, is eich aig a h-uile duine […] an crodh … bha iadsan ag aithneachadh gun robh iad gus dol dhan mhòinteach cuideachd … cho luath ’s a gheibheadh iad a-mach, bha an sean chrodh a’ dèanamh air a’ mhointeach”.

“The morning we were going to the àirigh, everyone in the village was up early that morning … the cattle and dogs, horses […] the cattle … they knew that they were going to the shieling … as soon as they were let out, the older cattle headed for the moor” (track 62042).

Everything that was needed had to be transported to the àirigh, including cats for hunting the rats, but according to Donald MacDonald, dogs were not taken to the àirigh.

On the first day the men would prepare the shieling huts, and the women would prepare a meal for everyone who had helped with the move, before leaving the children and younger women once everything was prepared.

In Lewis the people stayed at the àirigh until the beginning of August.

Children went to school from the àirigh, and they would come home at the weekends to go to church, often bringing fresh milk with them.

Aside from the factual accounts of like on the àirigh, there is a substantial amount of songs and stories in the Tobar an Dualchais archive with connections to the àirigh.

The àirigh, being somewhere where young people gathered and courted (track 31173), has many love songs asociated with it, including the well known Bothan Àirigh am Braigh Ràineach (track 14798) recited here in 1959 by the Rev. William Matheson, a love song from Perthshire in which a woman longs to be with her sweetheart at a shieling on Rannoch Moor:

Gheibh sinn crodh às a’ Mhaorainn

Agus Caoraich à Gallaibh

’S ann a bhios sinn gan àrach

Air àirigh am Bràigh Raineach

We’ll get cattle from the Mearns

And sheep from Caithness

And we’ll rear them

On the shieling in Rannoch Moor

There are also many songs and stories of the supernatural connected to the shielings, most likely due to their situating beyond the head dyke of the township, and the fact that they were most commonly frequented by young people and children.

Some of these stories are particularly violent, such as that told by Belle MacIntosh in 1957, in which a water horse in the guise of an old woman asked to stay the night in a shieling, but in the morning had killed on of the girls staying in the shieling, leaving the bedclothes covered with blood (track 31453).

Another recording, of a Mrs MacLucas of Benderloch, Argyll, speaks of a forestry worker who saw a fairy woman at a shieling while working in Glen Duror.

According to the story, shortly after seeing her he fell on his saw and was killed (track 10254).

Stories and songs of the àirigh are omnipresent in Gaelic culture, and in the Tobar an Dualchais archive, and it is clear that they were an incredibly important part of community life in some parts well into the 20th century – a rite of passage central to Gaelic cultural life.

If we take ‘digging where we stand’ literally, in the Highlands – although it is not always obvious – we are never too far away from an àirigh and from the stories and way of life of times gone by.

A seemingly uninteresting grouse moor can sometimes be hiding a rich past full of memories, stories, and a way of life which is now almost forgotten.

So in these strange times we live in, go out, find an àirigh and visit it.

Imagine the hustle and bustle of the flitting, and the stories that would be told there, and welcome the new sense of place that will await you.

The website www.tobarandualchais.co.uk contains some 50,000 oral recordings on songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.