Sunday, July 9, 2023

Huts of Healing (II)

shieling: photo George Logan


My experiences working on Day of Access, a place-aware project sharing experiences of wild nature with the vulnerable and disabled, rekindled my interest in transhumance–the pastoral tradition of summering in the hills–and I wanted to reflect on whether it offers new approaches to recuperation. I’ve asked some friends to add their ideas. 


Like rewilders, the chronically ill have to understand gentle rhythms of rest and activity: they must creatively adapt to limit, find the resilience that puts down roots in spoil, visualize the slow recovery of the stressed ecology of their own body. 


The old traditions of recuperation, sanatoria, and cottage hospitals are long gone.

What might the new Hutopian movement mean for the chronically ill? Can we imagine huts for those who can’t walk, huts made for viewing–like the view-hut at Outlandia, or James Turrell’s sky-spaces–and can we create huts made for healing?

Outlandia: photo Luke Allan

I envisaged ‘day of access’ as a concept reaching so far along the left wing of disability activism that–at least in my imagination–it overlaps with rewilding. By reintroducing bodies in states of ecological collapse onto the hill, I had a dream of re-establishing the relationship between environmental remediation and human recuperation. I discovered they were once connected.


For the chronically exhausted person–or wild landscape–healing is a slow process. 

When I see the ecologists I revere posting photos on social media that proudly show off new saplings thriving in Glen Quoich or Dundreggan, their excitement is, to me like a carer’s joy in finding a cure for someone.

shieling: photo George Logan

People argue whether we should refer to ‘remediation’, ‘rewilding;’, or ‘restoration’, but to me it’s all healing

In my imagination the ferment of ideas that currently animate Highland rewilding are akin to an eco-political satire.


‘Antlers’ and ‘Summitism’: the stars of the hill

‘Access’: shuffling on stage with a stick

Ecologist’, in a head-scarf, stood by a cut-out pine 

Green Laird’, patrician, with a Scandi accent straight out of Ibsen’s ‘En Folkefiende

Pine-planting Tribe’: the mechanicals 

Rewilding’ and ‘Rewetting’: cousins who arrive for the fifth act

Hutopianism’: a wood-and-corrugated-iron hut at the back of the set 

Sustainability’: a house curtain made of make-believe


I included ‘access’ here as, although it seems to play no practical role in the care of the landscape, it adds a new, and in my view necessary, symbolism of vulnerability, solidarity, and the potential for change.


Of course, any practical notion of rewilding as a practice of healing requires some caution: the Scottish government recently chose a private finance initiative to incentivise ecological repair. Dearie me. We already know the problems with privatised medicine. As Fraser MacDonald cautions, ‘A number of Scottish estates­ ­– sated with decades of publicly subsidised draining, burning, and plantation forestry – are now being paid to make good their own damage’ (‘On Marshy Ground’, London Review of Books, 15 June 2023).


In my speculative vision of progress, I wonder if, or how, can we make disabled access to the hills, and the healing of wild places, into life practices that are as desirable as ‘conquering’ summits or shooting stags?

Allt 'a Mhadaidh, NTS Mar Lodge; photo Hannah Devereux

For most people place-names aren’t thrilling–it’s rather like asking ‘can poetry be popular?’– but they do guide people, like John, George and myself, towards a vision of dwelling and sense of belonging. 

In my case, as someone who can’t walk far–2oo yards–names are also associated with access and recuperation. Wild nature is healing: wild things are ‘similars' to pain. Being up close with them is comforting.


let yourself lie fallow, rest like a meadow

accept the stray joys of wildflowers

   and melancholy reality of thistles

leave a pliant impression in moss

Cnoc Ruighe na h-Aon Oidhche, photo Hannah Devereux

Names make the best guides to past, present and future ecologies:


Leabaidh an Daimh Bhuidhe

(the bed, abature, or haunt) of the (yellowy or lucky stag)

Cnoc Ruighe na h-Aon Oidhche

(the knoll or knowe) of the (one-night shiel, summer-hut)


These names are complex images of human and more-than human rest. 

The first is a stalker’s name that refers to a tor on Ben A’an, Shining-one Ben, once frequented by a fair stag. His abature, or bed, made it onto the map. 


The second is a forgotten shieling on Geallaig Hill, Shiner Hill, whose name was collected by Adam Watson. The 'one-night refers' to a traditional Gaelic folk-tale and the name recurs in the Hebrides.


Of course, tweedy stalkers still wander these hills, imitating the pastiche hunting cult of the 19th century elite. 

The rich’s lust for status helped to eradicate the pastoral tradition of transhumance which Cnoc Ruighe na h-Aon Oidhche represents.



shieling below Carn an Tuirc; photo Mhairi Law

We speak of ‘wild’ landscapes as if they were empty of people. Shielings return us to the long durée of Gaelic peasants summering on the hills. Their names are a reminder the sunny slopes were flecked with dwellings.



Birch Shieling

Ruighe Allt a’ Aitinn

Juniper Shieling Burn

Ruighe na Cruinnich

Misty Summering

Ruighe Dorch

Eerie Shieling

Bealach Airidh an Leir

Shieling on the Way Where Seeing Doubled


The Foresters Shiel


shieling: photo George Logan

George Logan shares my interest in dwelling, sense of place, and healing. 


All is silence now and a silence within; once there was the bustle and sounds of people and animals, no more. 


The people of the shielings will have had their periods of silence also, of individual reflection and an awareness of things more profound that a surrounding landscape can bring.


Just the sough of wind in the grass and knowing what has been, in the company of ruin and ghosts, signs that life through change goes on. 


Moments, no matter how brief, of connecting and being in harmony with place is universal and restorative, less so now than in the past perhaps (?) but is it not those moments we seek, when all is one.


shieling: Bridge of Lee, Glen Lee; photo John Smellie

Reviving the shieling tradition would be one way to parcel up vast sporting estates into patches of land we could all care for, replanting hillsides with huts, not shooting butts. 






transhumance would be more popular if it was commonly known as summering



in the remote glens those patches of green once held potatoes



each hill dwelling cast a net of names over its surroundings



history frames shielings and huts as archaic, yet they meet a contemporary need for the remediation of upland ecology



what if we made shielings, huts, & place-names the basis of land management?


Shieling ground enclosures, Glen Taitneach: photo by George Logan

Reading Adam Watson’s place-name collections it seemed to me that, wherever there were shielings, there was a more intense clustering of names, marking where to pick berries, the shape of a skyline, and local springs.


I was touched to find shielings were once cherished by convalescents, who would take their daily dose of wild tea and ‘cuach ghorm’, a blend of butter and herbs.




shieling: Glen Lee; photo John Smellie


John, my ‘place-aware’ pal, went off in search of some heather-thatch glamping huts he’d read about–in an account by the local schoolmaster, Alexander Ross–built by enterprising 18th century farmers, in upper Glenesk and Glen Lee. City nobs would rent them for good air and goat’s milk. The photos record John’s trip: 


Most of the recordings of the Highlands at that time were penned by outsiders, tourist writers really, so it’s good to Alexander Ross’ reminiscences. He knew the people and places intimately and his descriptions give a completely different perspective on life in the glen.


What struck me was the autonomy of the local farmers. The huts for recuperation were their idea, not something imposed from above, and the project really was akin to what we know as modern agritourism, perhaps even eco-tourism. The Scottish government didn't define agritourism until 2021, yet what was going on in upper Glenesk ticks all the modern definitions: purpose-built, quality farm accommodation, serving farm grown, local produce, plus laying on of rural activities. 


My guess is that, at that time–and place–farmers and their families had a relative amount of personal security. The farms were leased on a lifetime basis and the annual rents were low, so there was the means to plan and invest for the longer term. Sadly, and typically, Glen Lee was completely depopulated by mid 1800's.


Something I noticed about the huts I visited in both Glen Lee and Effock, was they were all the same dimension and layout as the later type of "genuine" shieling huts built in the summer grazing sites a couple of miles higher up Glen Lee. Canmore describes them: 


"The later ones are rectangular, about 29ft (8.8m) long by 12ft (3.6m) wide, with rounded corners, sometimes with two compartments, and with a smaller hut measuring about 18 by 12ft (5.4 by 3.6 m) standing near by, but not attached. These date from the second half of the 18th century").


It could be that tourists were being provided with an "authentic" experience, living in a shieling hut–but one supplied with all mod-cons, quality timbered floors and lofts, according to Ross.

shieling, Bridge of Lee; photo John Smellie

Inspired by John’s research, I dream that our place-awareness will culminate in the return of Magic Mountain idylls to the Highlands, with every ruined shieling flowering into a ‘hut of healing’, and, more prosaically, the revival of cottage hospitals, not least for those suffering from Long Covid. 


I remember how, a year into ME, on the way back from the Glastonbury Festival, I visited a Welsh hill farm made over as a cultish yoga centre. A slate pigsty had been cleaned out, and I had one of those brief mad thoughts the afflicted suffer from: I could live in that. As if being pillowed on stone was a rhyme for pain. 


Bugger Stoicism. Now I want my comfy ‘hut of healing’, which will allow the vulnerable to dwell in landscapes where disability or pain means they no longer feel they belong. 


Inspired by Shan Shui poets on remote mountainsides, I dream of dwellings where I’m allowed to be in the wilds without walking–a memory of the croft hostel on Berneray, before the causeway and plague of cyclists zooming through, or the anomaly of a dry and accessible MBA bothy.


It seems impossible, but I did dream such a hut, inspired by mad Suibhne and, with the help of Bobby Niven and Iain MacLeod, it became reality. Sweeney’s Bothy, on the Isle of Eigg, offers short creative residencies for creative types and an ideal view-hut for the walking constrained.

Sweeney's Bothy, AF

the first dream of the ill is a hut –

the simple life, stacked firewood,

a warm stove, an understanding mattress,

blankets, a jug of cool spring water

in a chronically ill body one can become

cabined or caved in darkness

a hill is understood in different ways

from the shelter of a hut or stood on its summit

 imagine if every hill track

led to a hut of healing


manifesto for huts of healing, AF

AF, with John Smellie, George Logan




Dwelly gives dorch as dark, dusky, sombre, or murky.


Fairy vision is sometimes described as seeing doubled. John MacInnes interprets the fairy as a metaphor for the imagination: ‘from this shadowy realm comes the creative power of mankind’.


I was first told shieling had been places of recuperation by Hanna Tuulikki, via a Gaelic informant. 


Cuach ghormsee: ‘The Sheiling: Its Traditions and Songs’, Gaelic Society of Inverness, 1888.


Some of the texts are from AF: ‘manifesto of huts of healing’, unpublished, and ‘Hutopia’, in Màchines a’ Penser (Prada Foundation).

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