Talking Turf: preserving a rural way of life

Participants in the project handle the turf
Participants in the project handle the turf
Dr Sam Harrison speaks about his experiences preserving a rural way of life in Scotland with the Shieling Project.

At the Shieling Project we are very excited about turf!  What is it I hear you ask? It’s the top layer of grass, roots and soil that we walk over everyday. 

This everyday surface is actually a fantastic building material and was used to build houses, walls, and importantly for our project, shieling huts. 

Folk would cut this top layer of ground and layer it up to create the walls of the bothies they would stay in over the summer, up in the hills or out on the moors, herding the cattle. This was the shieling, and at our project we work with children, young people, and adults to celebrate this tradition and ask what it means today.

As part of the 2017 Year of History Heritage and Archaeology, we were lucky enough to receive funding from HLF to run a programme called Talking Turf. 

So far we have worked with over 550 people, delivered over 5000 hours of learning, and have built over 100 metres of wall with over 12 tonnes of turf. 

Participants have attended through our summer camp as well as trips with their schools or through our adult volunteering days.  We start by looking at some of the wonderful old photos of shielings which were taken towards the end of the era of shieling life, and show the different types of huts and what they were built from. 

Having built something real and beautiful, groups get a direct understanding of this aspect of shieling life.

We also have some great information on local shielings from our archaeological dig undertaken last year. We talk about what it would have been like to find the hut a bit worse for wear after a hard winter, and in need of repair, and what folk would do about it.  But the best way to understand this story is to get our hands dirty.

To begin, you need rolls of turf (cut by our handy machine turf cutter – nick-named the turfasaurus), these will then be trimmed and shaped using saws and spades. Then it’s a question of getting stuck in.  Building with turf is very easy, it’s about layering it up, keeping it straight, filling in the holes, and having some fun packing it down by walking on top. 

In a quiet moment we will use the more traditional turf cutting tool, the flauchter spade, and reflect on the qualities of this great sustainable building material (which we are now covered in). Having built something real and beautiful, groups get a direct understanding of this aspect of shieling life.

You can read more about this work on the Shieling Project's website

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