Glenlyon History Society

Comann Eachdraidh Ghleann Lìomhann

The Glenlyon HS, Scotland, is run by local residents of Glenlyon (map) with an interest in the local history of the glen.

A Highland Parish

Alexander Stewart, 1928

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 12

SHEILING CUSTOMS

NOTHING in the life of the Highlands had a greater fascination for the young than the custom of repairing in the summer to the higher hill grazings called 'sheilings.' The romantic associations of the sheilings are well known in song and story, and they seem to have cast a peculiar spell over the minds of evicted tenants who were forced to emigrate to other lands. Their feelings are well expressed in the oft-quoted lines -

"From the lone sheiling in the misty island
Mountains divide us and a waste of seas,
But still our blood is true, our hearts are Highland,
As we in dreams behold the Hebrides."

At one time the sheiling custom prevailed all over Scotland, in the Lowlands as well as the Highlands, in the outer islands as well as on the mainland. It also existed in Norway, Switzerland and other continental countries where mountain ranges abound. It is possible that the sheiling custom prevailed under the old Celtic system which existed in Scotland before the fourteenth century, but no reference is made to sheiling lands in the oldest extant charters. They are, however, mentioned in charters before the end of the fifteenth century and by the beginning of the seventeenth they had assumed considerable importance. In the days of clan feuds and cattle-lifting the risk involved in sending cattle to distant sheilings prevented the development of the system. But after the Revolution of 1688 the Government was strong enough to enforce some measure of law and order, and with the increased security of life and property' in the Highlands the people resorted more frequently to the sheilings. They got a set-back through the disorders caused by the Jacobite risings, when the sheiling huts often sheltered the hunted followers of the Prince. The end of the seventeenth and the whole of the eighteenth centuries was the period during which the sheilings were most frequented. From the end of the eighteenth century the higher hill grazings were gradually converted into sheep farms and the sheiling custom began to disappear

In the heyday of the sheilings the young people could be seen in early summer trekking with cattle and horses, sheep and goats from the sheltered, cultivated low-lands to the higher grazings in the glens and corries among the everlasting hills. For the site of their simple temporary dwellings-huts built of turf and stone and covered over with divots-they chose the little sheltered, green valleys. There beside clear streams they carried on their dairying opertaions [sic] for several weeks. The milk they converted into butter and cheese for the use of the family during the hard months of winter when the flow of milk ceased and the food supply ran low.

In song and story the simple life of the. sheilings is described as one of peace and plenty. But such descriptions are mostly from later writers who, lamenting the changes coming over the Highlands, dwelt on the brighter aspects of past customs and regarded them as good because they were old. No doubt the life was exhilarating and full of healthy enjoyment .and simple pleasures; and, on the whole, the people were much more contented than they are now. Nevertheless the life was severe enough and at times there was real hardship, when meal was scarce and dear and when the cattle were lean and milk scanty. These periods were more frequent in spring than in summer, and the change from them to the greater plenty of summer, which coincided with the journey to the sheilings made the life of the latter all the more welcome. Hunting, fishing and spinning as well as dairying were engaged in, and the economic value of the productions may be gathered from a statement in the New Statistical Account. The writers, contrasting their own times in the first half of the nineteenth century with the second half of the eighteenth century, write :- "The changes that have taken place since the former account was drawn up are quite striking. Then most of the people in the Parish removed for the benefit of their grazing to the sheilings. There they remained for several months during the summer season, the men chiefly employing themselves in hunting and fishing and the women in spinning and attending to the dairy. And among the middle class of tenants instances were not uncommon of families paying the rent in this way by manipulating lint of their own growth. Now nothing more is done than what is barely required for family use. . . . The milk cows are generally housed every night summer and winter, and the dairymaid's musical voice is no longer heard in the fold."

After the higher grazings were converted into sheep farms and the more distant sheilings closed to the tenants who formerly had the right to them, the practice of going to the nearer, lower sheilings lingered on. But even these gradually disappeared. By the middle of the nineteenth century the sheiling customs were almost extinct in the greater part of Scotland. Ruined huts, however, still mark the places to which our ancestors made their yearly pilgrimages.

In a Parish so extensive and with such good summer grazings as Fortingall the practice of repairing to the sheilings was carried on on a large scale. The sheilings were allocated according to the ownership of the lands at the time of allocation - mostly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. When the lands changed hands the old allocation of sheilings, in many cases, remained. This was the reason why the tenants of Comrie and what was called the Barony of Drummond Hill, which extends from Kinghallin eastward on the south side of the Lyon, had the rights to the sheilings of Glenmore, at the foot of Schiechallion. At one time these lands belonged to the Robertsons of Struan, and though they passed later into the possession of the Breadalbane family they still retained their old sheiling rights. In the same way the Fearnan tenants had the sheiling rights of the Carie Corrie on the Rannoch side, until the Struan estates were forfeited after 1745. Fearnan then came into the possession of Lord Breadalbane and the tenants lost their rights to the Rannoch grazings.

The tenants of Chesthill and the lower parts of Glenlyon had Tullich and Corrie Chraobhie in the Braes of Glenlyon as their sheiling ground, but their rights lapsed after Chesthill was sold by the trustees of Commissioner Menzies to his cousin, Alexander Menzies. The tenants of the Roro lands, the ancient patrimony of the MacGregors, had as their sheiling ground the side glen of Lochs. Lochs, however, was. converted into a sheep farm early in the nineteenth century, and in 1895 it was made into a deer forest. But, as we saw, after the more distant sheilings had been lost to them, the tenants of different parts began to repair to the nearer glens and corries. Thus the Roro tenants betook themselves to the grazings behind Ben Lawers, while the Chesthill tenants went to those of the pass that leads from Invervar to Rannoch. With those changes, however, the heyday of the sheiling system in the Perthshire Highlands had passed.

The Braes of Rannoch, including the Moor and the two sides of Loch Ericht, were used as sheilings by the tenants of the lower lands. Some of these higher lands, where deer and goats abounded, were later than the rest of the Parish in being turned into sheep farms. In the district between the Braes of Rannoch and Lochaber goats were at one time so numerous that a kind of sanatorium flourished there with a doctor in charge of it. To it tuberculosis, patients resorted to drink the goats' milk and whey from those moorland dairies and to breathe the bracing mountain air. Most of the patients came from the cities of the south and their pilgrimage took place in summer when the natives were at their sheiling grounds. It is interesting to contrast this pleasant picture with the description we have of the miserable conditions under which poor people lived two hundred years ago.

Intervening glens, mountain barriers and unbridged rivers often separated the people from their sheiling grounds, but these did not deter them from making their annual journeys thither. In fine weather it would be an enjoyable mode of life, but in cold wet weather it must have entailed considerable hardship. The Fearnan tenants, for example, had on their way to their sheiling grounds to cross the Lyon, and when there was no bridge across the river it must often have been difficult for them to get their cattle and the household articles which they required for the summer across. In autumn when they made the return journey they would be laden with kegs of butter and kebbucks of cheese. The men were in the habit, also, of harnessing their horses to logs and planks of Rannoch fir. These they used for repairing their houses or' making into homely articles of furniture. On the Invervar pass there is a large boulder where the Fearnan people used to rest on their way to and from the sheilings, and Dr Cameron says it was known as Clach nan Sailean or the log stone.

Before leaving the subject of sheilings it may not be inappropriate to relate the circumstances in which one of the most popular songs of the sheiling, Crodh Chailein, always a favourite song with Highland dairymaids, had its origin. The incident which called it forth took place some time between the close of the wars of Montrose and 1655, the year in which Campbell of Glenlyon, afterwards notorious in connection with the Massacre of Glencoe, attained his majority. Captain Campbell and a younger brother, Colin, were at the time under the guardianship of their uncle, John, the lain mentioned in the song. A part of Cashlie was left in life-rent to Colin by his grandfather, Duncan Campbell, the grandson of Donnachadh Ruadh na Feileachd. Duncan, who attained to a good old age, survived by several years his son Archibald, the father of the two youths. At his death he entrusted his two grandsons to the care of his second son, lain.

Now there was a standing feud between the MacDonells of Keppoch and the Campbells of Glenlyon, since the time of Cailein Gorach, Mad Colin, the son of Donnachadh Ruadh - a feud which had its origin in an attempted creach which met, as already mentioned, with summary justice at the hands of Mad Colin. The Keppoch men thought that the minority of the Campbell youths would prove a suitable opportunity to have their revenge. Accordingly they came down in great force on. the defenceless sheiling of Cashlie and took away every hoof of cattle from its green meadows. They even carried off the two dairymaids who were in charge of the milch kine.

While on the march the elder maid somehow contrived to break the legs of one or two of. the young calves. This delayed the progress of the raiders and allowed time for their pursuers to overtake them. Probably it was while resting for a short time amid the rich pastures of Glenmearan, one of the passes that lead off the head of Glenlyon, that this musical Highland maid first expressed her feelings in the touching strains of the song. It is said that she was singing it when the Glenlyon men came on the scene. A desperate struggle followed the arrival of the Campbells, but in the end the Glenlyon men were successful. In the fight the younger dairymaid, a girl named Macnee, was slain, but the authoress of the song, whose name has not come down to us, accompanieid the rescuing party back to the neighbourhood of Meggernie Castle. Her further stay at Cashlie was deemed unsafe.

At the spot where the young girl was slain a cairn, which is still known as Carn Nic Cridhe or Macnee's Carn, was raised to her memory. In allusion to the sad incident and the derelict calves the following lines occur :-

"Ged dh' itheadh na fithich
Nic Cridhe 's na laoigh,
Gu'n tugadh crodh Chailein
Domh bain' air an raon."

"Though the ravens should eat up
The calves and Macnee,
Crodh Chailean would give me
Their milk on the lea."

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