Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 65 - The Flitting Time

Scotland Magazine Issue 65
October 2012


This article is 5 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

The Flitting Time

James Irvine Robertson looks at the history of moving cattle

All that keeps the United Kingdom from being the most densely populated country in Europe is the endless, aching emptiness of the Highlands. Fly above the hills in a helicopter and the only sign of human activity may be the odd winding track carved for deer stalkers and, every 20 miles or so, a narrow singletrack strip of tarmac that links tiny settlements.

Walk the hills and you can pass the day without meeting anyone. Perhaps you will see some deer, a circling eagle, or sheep, although these are few these days, and hear the croak of a raven or grouse.

But set amidst the heather of the eastern mountains and the sedges that climb to the peaks of the wetter west the observant will notice vivid green patches of sweet grass, often alongside a burn that tumbles along the bottom of a corrie or glen.

Amongst them may be the odd hump and hummock or even a few stones poking through the turf that do not look natural. That scrap of pasture will have been fertilised by a thousand years of cattle dung and those humps would have been shieling huts where generations of people lived over the summer. For the hills were not always empty. These high grazing grounds, the shielings, were an important part of the Highland agricultural system.

The growing season in the Highlands does not really begin until well into May. Before the people left a century or more ago, the bottom of the straths and glens were dotted with little townships. The land around them was striped - curved strips of barley adjacent to oats, barley or flax demarcated by a weedy furrow. Higher up, the slopes were chequered by meadows of grass in various shades of green and rankness. A wall of turf or stone, the head dyke, ran along the flanks of the hills and beyond lay the moors and mountains. In spring the animals would be hungry and weak. Often cattle would have been tapped for their blood over winter to add precious protein to the monotonous diet of porridge or later, potatoes and were carried out on stretchers to pick at what little grass or fodder remained. Then, in mid May, to protect the growing crops from marauding livestock as much as to find fresh pasture, the emigration to the shielings would begin.

When the snow had melted, the little flitting would take young men and young animals up to the hills. The first task would be the repair of the little huts; some were merely piled sods. If stone was around these shelters could be neat miniatures of the cottages down in the villages. Thatch would be heather, bracken or any other suitable material and chinks in the walls would be plugged with mud or moss. Although it was summer, frost could come at any month of the year.

Then came the big flitting. Under the watchful eye of a member of the birlay court, which settled disputes between tenants, to ensure that nobody overstocked the shieling pastures, a caravan of ponies piled high with cooking pots, peats, pails, barrels and butter churns would follow the cattle and sheep. Men stayed behind in the village to tend the crops so the emigration was of women, girls and boys. The journey could take a full summer's day since the sheiling lands of the estate on which the village was situated could easily be 20 miles or more distant.

Unless marked by a stream, boundaries were not always clear and, in early days, clashes between tenants were frequent; latterly the disputes were in the law courts between lairds and cost only money rather than blood.

The business of the shielings was fattening cattle ready for sale in autumn to the drovers who would build a herd and drive them through the Highlands to the great markets at Crieff, on the edge of the Highland line, or into the lowlands to Falkirk. Almost as important was milk, butter and cheese from sheep as well as cattle, not usually for home consumption but to be handed to the chief or landlord as payment of rent.

Girls and women would spin, either wool or flax, as well as milk the livestock and churn the butter. Hygiene was not high on the agenda. Hair in butter was considered desirable as it added strength. The rarity of genuine Highland targes today is explained by the discovery, once they were no longer needed for warfare, they made perfect lids for the butter barrels.

The long sunlit days at the shielings were the valued times before the dark winters. A continual traffic of young men from the glens to the high pastures found privacy for themselves and their sweethearts in the accommodating depths of the heather. Children tickled trout from the mountain burns and guarded the livestock against foxes and eagles and were ready to give warning should rustlers from neighbouring clans or estates threaten their beasts.

'In summer evenings when the cows had been milked and the bere or corn ground, the pipes played up a lively pibroch, and young men and maidens danced on the green sward, while the older people resting in the heathery knolls looked benevolently on.' This was the description of a shieling above Loch Lomond.

We look on our hills as immutable, giving the characteristic image of the Highlands. But they owe the way they look to mankind. We first stripped them of their forest clothing; we then covered them in cattle, sheep, ponies and goats creating a diverse botanical mix. Next we took off the people during the Clearances and left only sheep which slowly turned much of the heather into cropped grass. But the poisonous bracken encroached since sheep cannot trample it into subjection in the same way as cattle. Now a change in the agricultural subsidy system means that money goes to the land owner rather than to the livestock farmer.

Sheep are no longer needed and empty bracken-covered hills will become the norm save where we keep heather to shoot grouse.