The Shieling Project
Nature Notes by Aidan Smith
The glens of Scotland were once home to bustling communities that lived off the land and led what we would perceive today as a simpler way of life. On occasion, while out rambling amongst the majestic mountain scenery, I have stumbled upon the ruins of the shielings where people would once have lived.
In the Gaelic, a shieling is ‘a roughly constructed hut used while pasturing animals’. The Shieling Project, in Glen Strathfarrar, is a modern-day social enterprise that aims to get people outdoors and more in tune with the land by recreating a lifestyle based around the shieling. For the first week of our summer holiday, we joined the project’s family camp. Each family slept in their own bothy but came together around the communal spaces of Am Bothan Bìdh, the food bothy, and An Talla, the hall for dinning, socialising and entertainment. It is interesting to see where modern comforts have been introduced by the project over the years. Tents became bothies, roll mats became mattresses, and torches became solar powered lighting. Composting toilets and hand pumped showers remain.
We were not the only community making use of An Talla that week. The corrugated sheeting and turf that helped keep it in place was quiet most of the time, but around mid-morning, as the sun’s heat strengthened, slow worms emerged to bask and warm their blood. At fifty centimetres in length, you would be forgiven for thinking they are a snake. They are actually a lizard, but they have no legs. Blink at them and they will blink back, unlike the snake who has no eyelids. The slow worms were not put off by our presence. I guess it helps them that our being there would deter, for example, badgers and adders for which a slow worm would make a tasty snack. Slugs and spiders from part of the slow worms diet and they were plentiful. Come mid-autumn, the slow worms will bury into the ground and hibernate until spring. They also have neighbours. Common lizards would join them on occasion, but, unlike the slow worms, they were not hanging around if we got close.
There is an old ruined shieling that sits partway up the hill behind the camp. It is now a place of solitude, infrequently visited, the old ways and traditions have gone. Only the red deer stop by to prune the topiary.
Wading through knee deep heather to visit this one-time shelter gave me time to reflect. Our landscape and lifestyles used to be different. Bog-wood shows where forests used to stand. The kids have not missed their gadgets. I have drank more water this week than I have used for washing or flushing toilets. Nature clings on, adapting to our changes where it can.