‘A Few Summer Shielings or Cots’. Material Culture and Buildings of the ’45 by Hugh Cheape, National Museums of Scotland

The story of the ’45 Rising has been told and retold over the years. The title above takes its phrase from the classic retelling by Robert Chambers in the early nineteenth century where he describes the wavering fortunes of the Prince:’… for his accommodation and concealment a few summer shielings or cots could be fitted up amongst the hills’. There is no shortage of literature or even of myths about Prince Charles Edward Stewart. The main sources are almost all in print, are well-known and thoroughly plundered, and it is rare for fresh material to come to light or to revolutionise our views of the episode. Some recent scholarship has served up new insights which help us to gain more of an understanding of the events and their context, the dramatis personae and their motivations.

The material culture of the episode, apart from the more obvious elements of weaponry and dress, is not so well-known or understood. It has the capacity to add a dimension to the historical corpus and another facet to the prism through which Prince Charles Edward and the ’45 are refracted.

The physical setting of the ’45 is all important for our appreciation of it, and, we imagine, familiar, more especially in the Highlands and Islands whose landscape may have changed less than the adjacent Lowlands. As we read the contemporary accounts of actors in the drama, we can often visualise what is being described such as the locus of an event or the presence of an historical’ character at a site or against the backdrop of rugged hills. Such insights are readily gained in the magnificent and unashamedly partisan collection of Bishop Robert Forbes, the Episcopalian and Jacobite minister of Leith who made it his life’s mission to gather at first-hand the accounts of participants in the’45. Accumulating his manuscripts between 1747 and 1775, he called his collection the ‘Lyon in Mourning’.

Those whom he interviewed rarely paused to expand on the material culture of the world in which they moved; it was too familiar and mundane to be mentioned or described. Sometimes however we receive an incidental but vivid glimpse of the material details of life in early eighteenth century Scotland. Alexander MacDonald, Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair, the poet and Jacobite propagandist employed a lively metaphor when ensconced in Leith with Bishop Forbes giving his version of events. He paused in his account to say:

Bheir mi nis a’ chorra-shiomain dhuit fliein gus am faigh mi tuilleadh gaoisid
(‘I shall give yourself the rope-winder now till I get more horsehair’),

by which the narrator uses the image of the rope making tool to suggest that he would leave the business of assembling the record to Bishop Forbes while he, MacMhaighstir Alasdair, gathered more material for the narrative.

Another vivid reference which evokes not only the world of 250 years ago but also the contemporary world helps to bring to life the experience of those skulking in the hills in the summer of 1746. Iain Frangach, ‘French’ John MacDonald of Borrodale, guiding the fugitive Prince Charles Edward beyond the cordon of troops into the Braes of Glenshiel, wrote in his own manuscript of ‘Prince Charles Edward Stewart’s Miraculous Escape after the Battle of Culloden’ about a day in July:

‘The evening being very calm and warm, we greatly suffered by mitches, a species of little creatures troublesome and numerous in the highlands; to preserve him from such troublesome guests, we wrapt him head and feet in his plead, and covered him with long heather that naturally grew about a bit hollow ground we laid him.’

In the absence of descriptive and circumstantial detail, evidence of material culture can be found scattered in a wide variety of other historical sources, though it is rarely explored in conventional accounts of the 1745 Rising. Such detail is worth examining in order to enlarge our understanding and appreciation of the ’45 and perhaps to correct the imagery evoked by uncritical and reverential accounts of events and personalities. The contemporary world relies increasingly on the visual and the graphic, and unwittingly can mislead when evoking the setting of eighteenth century Scotland. If we can marry the material culture to the narrative, we can throw more light on the physical setting of the ’45 and identify with and perceive more clearly the backcloth against which the drama was played out.

In surveying the scenes of the Rising for example, attention is often drawn to the house in which Bonnie Prince Charlie stayed, the building in which he took shelter, or the bed in which he slept. There are several sites with such associations and claims may be made for landscape and buildings that lead us to assume that they were only slightly antique versions of what we now behold at the time when Bonnie Prince Charlie passed that way.

In the days and weeks between April and September, 1746, for example, Prince Charles Edward was, in the Gaelic phrase, fo’n choille, in other words a fugitive and an outlaw with a price on his head. He survived the flight to be taken off on a French ship from Loch nan Uamh on 19 September. In the brief and laconic words of ‘French’ John MacDonald who was a witness to the scene, the Prince embarked from:

‘…Borrodale, where he first landed, and after refreshing himself weel, directly went aboard, and with a fair wind set sail next morning for France, and left us all in a worse state than he found us’.

During his triumphal progress and his wanderings through the Highlands and Islands, he took shelter in many houses as well as sleeping in caves or under the stars. With very few exceptions, the structures and buildings which sheltered the Prince and his Jacobite supporters are no longer in existence.

It is instructive for gaining a better understanding of the material culture of the day to look at some of these buildings. A good example of one of the Prince’s refuges is Culloden House, a little more than three miles to the east of Inverness where the Prince stayed on the eve of battle on the night of 15 April 1746. Edward Burt, an English accountant on road survey duty with General Wade’s forces in the Highlands, described the house in one of his ‘Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland to his Friend in London’ about 1725:

‘This … is a pretty large Fabric built with Stone, and divided into many rooms, among which the hall is very spacious. There are good gardens belonging to it, and a noble planted Avenue, of great length, that leads to the House, and a Plantation of Trees about it. This House (or Castle) was besieged in the year 1715 by a Body of the Rebels, and the Laird being absent in Parliament, his Lady baffled all their attempts with extraordinary courage and presence of mind.’

This was of course the house used by the Prince but it was destroyed by fire not long after the battle of Culloden and rebuilt in 1772 in its present form of a Georgian mansion house with its distinctive central pedimented block with wall-head balustrade and two smaller flanking blocks.

The first two houses in which the Prince stayed in Scotland were modest structures but entirely typical of vernacular dwelling houses of the period. When the French privateer Du Teillay carrying the Prince arrived in the Hebrides on 23 July 1745, the first landing was made on the west side of Eriskay, on a stretch of shore known since as The Prince’s Strand’. The party decided to stay the night hoping to meet with Clanranald and MacDonald of Boisdale. The house in which he stayed survived into the twentieth century and apparently was demolished in 1901 or 1902. A picture of this house, probably from a photograph taken by the publisher and historian Walter Blaikie in August 1898, shows a long, straw-thatched building of the byre-dwelling type and a verbal description mentions the central hearth and a clay floor.

Following the fruitless interview the next day with Alexander MacDonald of Boisdale who suggested politely but briskly that His Royal Highness should return home whence he had come, the Prince’s party sailed across the Minch to landfall in Arasaig on 25 July, St James’ Day. The Du Teillay anchored in Loch nan Uamh and the Prince went ashore at Borrodale, the home of Angus MacDonald, one of the leading Clanranald tacksmen, where he remained either on shore or on board ship until it left the Loch on 4 August. The Prince then took up his quarters in Borrodale House until 11 August when he went by sea round to Kinlochmoidart.

The farmhouse of Borrodale as it stands today is sometimes described as the house in which the Prince stayed but it is clear from the contemporary record that the building was destroyed in 1746. The low wing to the east of the main structure is probably the only trace of the original MacDonald house, representing a structure of approximately the same dimensions or ground plan, rebuilt first in the mid-eighteenth century but considerably altered and modified over the years since then. The house in which the Prince stayed at Borrodale merits close attention by historians of the ’45 not least because on all maps showing the movements of the Prince during the Rising, the densest convergence of lines occurs at this pint in Arasaig. Not only did the Prince stay longer here than in almost any other single spot, but he visited this house more times than any other between July 1745 and September 1746.

The evidence for its destruction and all the other dwelling houses in the neighbourhood is clear from contemporary descriptions. ‘French’ John MacDonald, Borrodale’ son, alludes directly and indirectly to the loss of his family home several times in his own narrative. This had been the action of Captain John Fergusson of the Furnace who may well have exceeded his commission in his contempt for the western clans and Clan Donald in particular. It is suggested that Maj. Gen. John Campbell of Mamore, later 4th Duke of Argyll, who was in command of landward troops had a more lenient if not sympathetic attitude and though he would have driven off cattle and confiscated weaponry, would not have allowed his troops to carry out such summary pillage and destruction. John Campbell of the Argyll Militia reported back to his Commanding Officer, Gen. Campbell, on 31 May 1746:

‘On the 29th Inst after it was dark I sent a Detachment of 150 Men to Moydart with orders to drive all the Cattle they could meet with, to search the Houses for Arms &c but not to burn them as I intended to go thither myself. The Party arrived by break of day but Captain Ferguson of the Furnace having the night before landed Capt. Miller with his Command consisting of Eighty regulars and 120 of the Argyllshire levies which gave the alarm. So that all the cattle were drove to inaccessible mountains, Kinloch Moydart’s House was plundered and afterwards set fire together with all the little Huts in the neighbourhood.’

Tradition recalls these acts of destruction and the universal fear and dislike felt among the Gaels for Captain John Fergusson. The burning of the houses in Morar and Arasa ig is said to be alluded to in the mock elegy for Captain Fergusson by John MacCodrum, the North Uist bard, in 1767:

‘S iomadh tir ‘n do thog e smuid
Talla muirneach chuir e dhith.

(‘In many a country did he raise smoke
Many a cheerful hall did he destroy’)

Father Norman MacDonald, priest in Moidart in 1816, confirmed the facts of the burning from local tradition in his own day.

A contemporary description in French of the Borrodale House of the ’45 has survived in the memoirs of Guillaume Frogier de Kermadec, a lieutenant on Le Mars, one of the French ships sent to aid the Prince’s cause in 1746. It bears out what we already know about these buildings. Le Mars and LaBellone anchored in Loch nan Uamh on 30 April, within days of the defeat at Cufloden and missing the Prince himself by no more than four days. Frogier describes their reception and the state of the fugitives whom they met. He himself went shore:

‘…remarquer le pays et savoir de quelle facon vivaient ces pauvres montagnards.’
(‘… to look at the country and to see how these poor Highlanders lived’)

He comments on Highland dress, weapons, and customs. The houses, he writes, were built of earth or of rough stones and thatched with straw or heather, and, more significantly, there was scarcely anything to distinguish the houses of the great men of the community from those ‘of the most humble’. He went into Angus MacDonald’s house, le seigneur de l’endroit, and described it as consisting of only one room which was extremely poorly lit:’…at nine o’clock in the morning, in the month of May, one could only read in there by the light of a candle’. The furniture consisted of a poor table, a single chair, and two beds like sheep pens in which there was a little straw and a horrible-looking ‘counterpane’ covering the straw. This description of a single room thatched dwelling as the tacksman’s house is entirely consistent with the evidence of buildings of comparable status elsewhere in Clan Donald territories and in the Highlands and Islands.

Detailed descriptions are rare but one or two examples will suffice. ‘Spanish’ John MacDonell of Scotus in Knoydart, one of the leading Glengarry cadet families, in recounting his part in the ’45 in his autobiography, described in detail his attempt to recover the 1,000 guineas stolen from him when acting as a courier between France and the Prince in April 1746. An ambush was set in a house in the district of Lochbroom in order to confront the MacKenzie tacksmen with their crime: The house of meeting was all one floor without partitions, and the door in the middle.’

Edward Burt, travelling in the Highlands in the 1720s, was as interested in the status of a building as in the details of its construction when:

‘… approaching the House of one of those Gentlemen, who had notice of my coming … he afterwards invited me to his Hut, which was built like the others, only very long, but without any partition, where the Family was at one end, and some cattle at the other.’

After the debacle of the field of Culloden the Prince rode off up Strathnairn with a select but diminishing band of supporters. A stop was made at Gortleck where he met the prevaricating Mac Shimidh, Lord Lovat. The existing structure is said to be the original house. Passing Fort Augustus, the party arrived at Invergarry early in the morning of 17 April, possibly about 2 am and rested and slept in the Castle itself until about three o’clock in the afternoon. Competing versions suggest that he stayed in Droynachan within a mile of the Castle.

This structure, though ruinous, still stands on the western shores of Loch Oich and is in one sense typical and in another, atypical. It is a typical tower-house of Scottish vernacular and baronial style, built in the early-seventeenth century for the remarkable and exceptionally long-lived MacDonell of Glengarry, Domhnall MacAonghais MhicAlasdair (l543-1645). A tall Z-plan tower of substantial masonry rising to five storeys, it was partially destroyed in the Civil War, repaired, and then made uninhabitable by the Duke of Cumberland’s forces in 1746. Though part of the ground-floor is stone vaulted in the manner typical of tower-houses, the main block has been unvaulted and has contained large open areas such as the obligatory Great Hall of about 14.5 x 7m. The lack of masonry vaulting and the number of joist holes still evident in the inside walls suggests an abundance of local mature timber available to the builders, a resource extraordinarily common in parts of the West Highlands.

As a tower-house of massive proportions Invergarry is less than typical of West Highland dwelling houses, but the generous use of massive timbers points to an aspect of the material culture of Clan Donald territories that may not be appreciated. When it was reported that the house of MacDonald of Barrisdale in Gleann Meadail on the north shores of Loch Nevis was burnt, it is said that the family took refuge in a hut built of wattles. This is a detail entirely typical of the once well-wooded mainland of the west coast. One of the government factors reportingto the Commissioners of the Forfeited Estates in 1753 wrote:

‘The whole houses of the country are made up of twigs manufactured by way of creels called wattling and covered with turff. They are so low in the roof as scarce to admit for a person standing in them, and when these are made up with pains they endure ten or twelve years. They thatch them with rushes.’

From this point, the Prince was truly fo’n choille and sheltering away from populated areas and lines of communication. Shielings and temporary seasonal structures were utilised. The Prince and his companions set out from Kinloch Arkaig at about 5 o’clock in the evening of 18 April and walked across the bealach to the head of Loch Morar. He was sheltered in ‘a small sheal house near a wood1, on the Meoble side of Oban, by Angus MacEachen of Oban, the son-in-law of Angus MacDonald of Borrodale. Another account suggests that this building served as a pen or gathering place for animals and may have been only seasonally occupied.

Temporarily occupied shielings were the commonest form of shelter for the fugitive Prince but their apparently low status as buildings tends to except them from detailed description. In the circumstances however, they were ‘fit for a Prince’. These were the hill pastures occupied during the summer months by cattle and other stock which were carefully tended by their owners. These grazings were customarily at some distance from the main settlement or township which, cleared of stock, reserved the cultivated ground for the unhindered growing of crops. This is an ancient practice often referred to as ‘transhumance’ which has been common in Europe and elsewhere in the world where the occupiers of the ground have been constrained by climate and topography to move their flocks and herds to seasonally available pastures. This way of life remained in use in Scotland until the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by which time hill pastures were either neglected or taken over by large numbers of Blackface or Cheviot sheep introduced during the Clearances. The use of shielings survived into the twentieth century in areas of the Hebrides such as Lewis and allowed the practice to be studied closely as a living tradition. So many of the shieling sites are still in evidence in the upland areas of western Inverness-shire and in Clan Donald territories and can also be studied on the ground.

Characteristic of the shielings and today still the mark of their identity are these small buildings used as shelter and dwelling in the weeks and months of seasonal occupancy when principally the women and children tended the domestic stock, milking the cows (and sheep), and making butter and cheese. These were known as bothain and have been distinguished as bothan cloiche, ‘stone bothies’, and bothan cheap, ‘turf bothies’, used respectively where appropriate raw materials were available for building. Construction involved foundations of stone with turf walls and turfs over roofing timbers which themselves were often removed back to the township in the winter while the shieling was not in use.

Some surviving examples of shieling huts in Lewis are of older, cell-like type, constructed entirely of stone, corbelled in to the apex and overlaid with turf. They were circular or oval, 2-3m in diameter and up to 2m high. The more commonly found type of shieling, both on the mainland and in the islands, was a chambered structure of roughly circular or oval construction, about 3m across and 1.5m high with a roof of turf overlaid on timbers. One end would be used as a fireplace and about half of the internal area would be used as bed space, separated off by a line of kerb stones and raised to form a platform on which heather bedding was laid. The bothain, standing singly, in pairs, or in groups of three or four, up to exceptionally eight or nine, were sited on or close to areas of better pasture generally between the 50m and 350m contours. They would be in easy reach of the townships and probably no more than two miles from the permanent habitations. They were customarily built on small plateaux in sheltered positions, in proximity to a supply of fresh water which served to water the beasts and keep the dairy utensils clean. Some shielings were located for concealment where animals and people could seek refuge, a necessity during the long period of clan feuding of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and a fortunate expediency also during the Jacobite Wars of the eighteenth century.

The details of layout and construction did not attract scrutiny and comment until the time when they were falling out of use. Hugh Miller, the Cromarty stonemason and author, described a shieling in Eigg still in use in the 1840s. The finer details caught his attention:

‘The shieling, a rude low-roofed erection of turf and stone, with a door in the centre some five feet in height or so, but with no window … There was a turf fire at the one end … while the other end was occupied by a bed of dry straw, spread on the floor from wall to wall, and fenced off at the foot by a line of stones. The middle space was occupied by the utensils and produce of the dairy – flat wooden vessels of milk, a butter-chum, and a tub half-filled with curd; while a few cheeses, soft from the press, lay on a shelf above.’

Had the Prince landed in Eigg, doubtless he would have found shelter in a place such as this, and from Hugh Miller’s description of this small summer arcadia, it could in our imagination be ‘fit for a Prince’.


  1. Longhouse of the byre-dwelling type in Eriskay in which Prince Charles Edward stayed in July 1745.
  2. Both, Cnoc Dubh, Ceann Thula bhig, Uig, Lewis. Scale; 5 feet to one inch. Shieling hut of stone with turf cladding, showing low doorways, hearth, bed space and shelves built in the thickness of the wall, drawn in Lewis in 1863.