Shielings and summer pastures

Many of us will have happy memories of reading Johanna Spyri’s ‘Heidi’ published in 1881, where the young heroine joins her grandfather high in the Swiss mountains as he and young Peter look after a herd of milk goats grazing on the sweet Alpine pastures.

In the winter when the snows arrived, the goats were brought back down to the shelter of the valley bottom farms. This is an ancient practice known as transhumance where members of a community or farming family (often the youngsters) took their animals (cows mainly in the UK but also sheep and goats) some distance from the family farm to graze them on remote pastures during the summer months. They lived with their beasts, milking them daily and bringing the milk or cheese made up on the hills regularly back to the main farm or village.

Grazing cattle on hillside pastures in the summer,  leaving the valley bottom meadows to grow the hay for winter fodder is a common practice still seen in the Yorkshire Dales, but there is evidence in Wensleydale that a more extensive form of transhumance was practiced in earlier times. This evidence is largely from place names. Ian D. Whyte describes this in detail in his paper ‘Shielings and the Upland Pastoral Economy of the Lake District in Medieval and Early Modern Times.’

Shielings were actually the little huts that the herders lived in while looking after their beasts. Here is an eighteenth century description of one in Scotland:

“I landed on a bank covered with sheelins, the temporary habitations of some peasants who tend the herds of milch cows. These formed a grotesque group; some were oblong, some conic, and so low that the entrance is forbidden without creeping through the opening, which has no other door than a faggot of birch twigs placed there occasionally; they are constructed of branches of trees covered with sods; the furniture a bed of heather; placed on a bank of sod, two blankets and a rug; some dairy vessels; and above, certain pendent shelves made of basket-work, to hold the cheese, the product of the summer. In one of the little conic huts I spied a little infant asleep.”
Thomas Pennant (1776) ‘Voyage to the Hebrides’

In Wensleydale we have quite a few examples of the use of two of the Norse words for shieling which are ‘saetr‘ and ‘skali‘ along with ‘sed’ and ‘side’ for related pastures.

Looking at a map of the western end of Wensleydale we can see the settlements of  Marsett;  Swinesett;  Countersett; Burtersett and Appersett, where the ‘-sett’ part of the name derives from the Norse ‘saetr’. All are south of the river Ure interestingly.  High on the hillsides to the south of Hawes we see Wether Fell Side and Backsides named for summer grazing areas.  To the north of the Ure we see the village of Sedbusk again named for a summer grazing area and Skell Gill, a farming hamlet north of Askrigg whose name derives from the Norse ‘skali‘ with  an area of pasture called Marsetts nearby. Way up on Fossdale Moss we see the name Pickersett appearing several times on landscape features like Pickersett Nab.  Similarly we see Humesett Crag north of Appersett. Presumably these places were just too marginal for the shielings they are named for to have been permanently settled.

Unlike Heidi’s experience where valley bottom farms sent family members high up into the mountains during the summer to tend their milk cows and goats away from the main farm – here, it seems, the transhumance was up and down the length of the valley with the main farm down dale to the east and the temporary summer sites,  up dale to the west.

So far we have no evidence of an actual shieling building such as has been found in the Howgills near Sedbergh. Crosedale shieling was excavated by the Sedbergh and District History Society in the 1990s. They found the stone foundations of a small rectangular building (about 10 metres x 5 metres) set on a levelled platform dug into the natural slope of the hillside. Nearby was a similar building which they left unexcavated. Read more about it on our Out of Oblivion website.

Historic England have published a research paper on shieling sites in the north of England called ‘Introduction to Heritage Assets: Shielings‘ which has examples of different sorts of shieling sites that have been studied elsewhere.

Dating such sites is difficult, not many have been excavated and being temporary there aren’t many artefacts to be found even when they are. Historic England suggest that most shieling practice in the north of England dates to between the twelfth and seventeeth centuries. The use of Norse words for what must have once been shieling sites in Wensleydale suggests an earlier origin here. Ian D. Whyte in his article about shieling in the Lake District mentioned above, also suggests that such sites were originally established by Norse  immigrants in the ninth century.  He describes the shielings as becoming permanently settled in a gradual process which began in the lower valleys and then moved up into the higher parts of the area. The process was almost complete by the thirteenth century with a few isolated examples of shieling continuing into the fourteenth century in the higher more remote areas.

Life up in the shielings must have been pretty primitive, but it also had its rewards. This wonderful description of a shieling last used in 1946 by a family on the Isle of Lewis sums it up:

“Furniture was very scant, a wooden box acted as a table and also for storing the pails. The bottom of the bed was filled with dry heather and fianach – moorgrass – put on top of the heather beds were very comfortable. The food on the shieling was always something that did not take any length of time in cooking as there was usually only the one pot. It consisted of oat bread, kippers, eggs, salt herring and salt fish. There was plenty of cream and creamy milk to go with the food. The milk had an appetising taste which you could only get on the shieling, it is known as ‘Blas an Sliabh’ (taste of the moor).”

From the Ness Historical Society’s archive quoted in Historic England’s publication on shielings (referenced above)

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