The Shieling Project: Survey and Excavation at Allt Mòraig

Aerial view of site

In March to April of 2016 AOC’s Inverness office worked with Dr Sam Harrison of the Shieling Project to investigate a shieling site at Allt Mòraig, near Struy, Highlands. Shielings are summer dwelling sites associated with transhumance – the seasonal movement of livestock from lowland grazings to upland grazings. The Allt Mòraig shieling site is situated in the hills that form the south ridge of Glen Strathfarrar (right), roughly 2 miles southwest of the modern village of Struy. It falls within the old parish of Kilmorack and its first documented depictions are on the 6-inch-to-the-mile 1876 1st Edition Ordnance Survey (OS) map. The map shows the site as abandoned, with three unroofed structures depicted by the Allt Mòraig, indicating that the shielings had therefore been built, inhabited and abandoned before this date.

This recent phase of work consisted of a walkover survey and archaeological evaluation, and was undertaken to lead to better understanding the landscape setting, form, function and the period of occupation of the site. The results aimed to help educate and inform the outreach programme of the Shieling Project and greatly enhance the learning outcomes, both for teacher training programmes and school class activities. The results will also directly inform the reconstruction of a shieling on the site, a future aim of the Shieling Project.  

Allt Moraig montage 

The survey recorded 27 archaeological sites at Allt Moraig, comprising 22 turf and stone shieling structures, an enclosure wall, a platform and some pits. The evaluation, undertaken over two of the shielings, provided information about the turf and stone construction and layout of the buildings. Fragments of a redware vessel were recovered from one floor level, providing a potential mid 18th century date for occupation of the shieling. 

Structure B under excavationTwo of the sites were selected to be investigated through archaeological evaluation. Structure B (right) was selected due to the substantial remains of the building evident below the turf. Structure O appeared to sit on a small tell, indicating possible multiple occupation phases, and was selected to determine if this was indeed the case.

From the two structures excavated it was clear that natural terraces were utilised with minimal or no landscaping taking place. It is not clear whether the areas were deturfed prior to construction or if turf was brought in to preserve the good grazing on the site. No evidence of roofing fabric was noticeable in the collapsed structural material – good pieces of material could have been removed or rotted away. Floors within the structures consisted of hard packed dirt surfaces with some fragmentary areas of laid flat stones creating a rough paving or flat surface. Walls had been primarily constructed from turf with flat stones used at the base of the gable end wall in Structure B and some larger boulders incorporated into the wall in Structure O. Some of the corners in Structure B had been revetted or incorporated with small-medium angular stones creating stone-edged faces.

Structure B was one of the few shielings thought during the survey to have contained an internal partition wall. It would likely have delineated spaces rather than fully separating the structure into two cells. It may have marked a sleeping area and opposing activity area nearer the entrance. The location of the entrance in Structure B was represented only by an exterior paved area on the east side of the structure. The presence of the base of a pot dated provisionally to the mid 1700s on the floor surface underneath the wall collapse could place the use of this shieling in the mid 1700s.

During the excavation AOC’s archaeologists were joined by a hardy team of volunteers who helped with excavation and recording. They remained cheerful and motivated through the very varied weather on the site and were a huge asset to the project. Each day a new local school group visited the site and got involved in identifying the sites and structures, processing soil samples and hearing stories of the shieling around the stove. The project had a very successful (and thankfully sunny rather than snowy) open day welcoming over 50 visitors to the remote site.

You can find out more about the Shieling Project and how to get involved  via their website or Facebook page.