Repopulating the Braes: Shieling practice, upland seasonal industries and agricultural practice in post-medieval Scotland
PhD Researcher, University of Glasgow
In June 2021 I received a ScARF Covid-19 bursary to support fieldwork for my PhD research, which involved the excavation of a series of Post-Medieval upland features in Gleann Leac-na-Muidhe, Glencoe. This research explores the relationship between shieling practice and other upland seasonal industries in the Post-Medieval Highlands and Islands, and in particular aims to re-evaluate interpretations and narratives around these upland landscapes – to reflect the range of taskscapes, interactions and movements occurring there seasonally. Various studies of shieling landscapes have been attempted before, from Albert Bil’s (1990) placename and archival research on the shielings of the Central Highlands, to surveys by the Uist Community Archaeology Group, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) at Ben Lawers, Bennachie, Mingulay and Mar Lodge, and the work of the Ben Lawers landscape Project, however these traditionally have been limited in scale, and as of yet there has been few attempts to create a synthesized narrative of the practice (Atkinson 2016; Dixon and Fraser 2007; Newman 2019; Raven 2005; RCAHMS 2010). Studies of similar transhumance practices in Scandinavia and Ireland have started to dispel tired romanticised narratives around this practice (Costello 2018; Costello and Svensson 2018; Svensson, 2015).
This will be undertaken by exploring a series of case studies across upland Scotland including shieling landscapes in Glencoe, Mar Lodge, Torridon, Ben Lawers, Glen Rosa, Canna and Mingulay, utilising archival research, walkover survey, test excavations and aerial map and LiDAR interpretation, the research aims to explore the variety of activities and interactions occurring within these upland landscapes. This research will provoke and inform the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) in reinterpreting and presenting these features within their portfolio to the visiting public – in turn informing and changing people’s understandings of these landscapes in the past. This interest in repopulating the highland landscape archaeologically stems from an interest in activist scholarship, the contemporary politics of land reform, rewilding and repopulating in Scotland – and what role archaeology should play in a just transition to economic and ecological sustainability for these landscapes.
Through this fieldwork myself and a team of fellow PGR students from the University of Glasgow and volunteers from the NTS excavated two shieling hut structures and a platform within this tributary glen just a short walk from the NTS Glencoe visitor centre. Over the course of these excavations we were able to unpick the chronology of these structures, and to begin to piece together some of the variety of activities that were occurring within this landscape. In particular the recovery of a possible ‘smooring stone’ placed carefully over an internal hearth feature within the larger shieling hut we excavated represents a nice link to oral traditions from the Gàidhealtachd (Carmichael 1928). In the other excavated shieling hut a piece of preserved cruck frame was recovered – hopefully analysis of this will enable us to unpick some of the activities involved in the construction of these structures.
This programme of excavations, of which there is still more to be carried out, was informed by a series of walkover surveys carried out by myself and teammates which identified and mapped a previously un-surveyed area of this estate landscape. It is my hope to return in the summer of 2022 to carry out additional excavations on possible charcoal burning platforms and a large drystone shieling hut structure in the vicinity of these features – this would further our understandings of the chronology of this shieling ground.
By carrying out this research, and beginning to build a picture of the past busyness of these upland landscapes it is my hope that this research shall provoke reinterpretations of these upland landscapes and shift the narratives around shieling practice, away from romanticised notions of isolated and liminal sublimity, towards a recognition of this diversity of activities and interactions occurring – which presents a far more engaging and realistic notion of the past experience of these places. Those notions of romanticised emptiness have, and continue to, inform popular attitudes towards the highland landscape and often are utilized to marginalize the contemporary communities of these landscapes in policy and development decision-making (Community Land Scotland 2020; MacDonald 2001; Macdonald and Macdonald 2009). I was able to present the results of this fieldwork at the recent Scottish Archaeological Forum (SAF 2021) conference in Glasgow, where discussions around representing the past busyness of these landscapes, and what role the archaeologist – and our narratives – might play in the current tension between visions for rewilding and repopulating upland landscapes, proved fruitful. Spurred on by these discussions, I have an interest in how archaeological narratives around the past nature of activity in these landscapes can be mobalised to push for policy change and provoke a revaluation of the future of the upland landscape by policy makers and the wider public (Maclean 2021). Thus a key output of my research will be a series of policy documents intended to deploy archaeological narratives to push for a just transition for contemporary communities in the Highlands and Islands – something which will be increasingly needed with the rise of the ‘green Lairds’ which seems likely to entrench current patterns of land ownership and further price local communities out of decision making and landownership (Community Land Scotland 2020).
Due to the constraints and additional barriers resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing restrictions the delivery of this fieldwork would not have been possible without the assistance of the ScARF bursary I received – which supported the hire of a van to transport equipment to site, and ferry the team. As such I would like to thank the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework for their support. I would also like to thank Elizabeth Robertson, Scott McCreadie, Alex Yeo and Thomas Warner for their help with the survey and excavation – and the National Trust for Scotland as stakeholders in my research.
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Bil, A. 1990. The Shieling 1600-1840 The case of the Central Scottish Highlands. John Donald, Edinburgh.
Carmichael, A. 1928. Carmina gadelica : hymns and incantations with illustrative notes on words, rites, and customs, dying and obsolete. Oliver and Boyd.
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Costello, E. 2018. Temporary freedoms? Ethnoarchaeology of female herders at seasonal sites in northern Europe. World Archaeol.
Costello, E., Svensson, E. 2018. Transhumant Pastoralism in Historical Landscapes; Beginning a European persepective, in: Costello, E., Svensson, E. (Eds.), Historical Archaeologies of Transhumance across Europe, EEA Themes in Contemporary Archaeology. Routledge, London.
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Raven, J.A. 2005. Medieval Landscapes and Lordship in South Uist (PhD at the Department of Archaeology). University of Glasgow, Glasgow.
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Svensson, E. 2015. Upland living. The Scandinavian shielings and their European sisters, in: Larsen, B., Mygland, S. (Eds.), Nordic Middle Ages – Artefacts, Landscapes and Society. University of Bergen, Bergen, pp. 289–300.