Near us, there are some mountain bothies; one, Arenig, has recently been vandalised. That got me thinking about these remote and very basic huts, now used by hardy walkers and climbers – and by (possibly local) vandals. When you look at this shot of the Arenig bothy from The Mountain Bothies Association website, you do realise exactly how basic they are, how rough the terrain around them is and how determined the vandals would have been to go up there and trash the door and window, but there you go. The word ‘bothy’, incidentally, probably comes from the Gaelic bothan, meaning ‘hut’, but the Welsh for a small cottage is (unsurprisingly similar) bwythyn. And that’s just what many of them originally were. Very small… Some, especially in the Highlands, belonged to river watchers – but many were originally used by shepherds.
They are a world away from the downland shepherd’s hut, especially in its more florid and floral Country Living incarnation (though I have a friend with a delightful shepherd’s hut, and she’s got the balance absolutely right). When you’re somewhere isolated with your flock, whether that’s somewhere on the South Downs or somewhere in the Southern Uplands, you have to have somewhere to put your stuff – sheep salves, equipment, bits and pieces for lambing and for yourself. It’s particularly vital when you’re up in the hills or indeed when you have to be near your flock at all hours, wherever you are. Upland shelters were essentially temporary, like Scottish sheilings, but they’re rather different; sheilings were clusters of one-roomed cottages where people lived while looking after their cattle in the summer, and are often in more accessible locations. In Wales, hafodau had a similar function and were also sometimes in groups. Oh dear, I have got distracted. Anyway, I started thinking about shepherds and their shelters, possibly sparked off not just by the Arenig shelter but by a recent addition to the genre near here: a shipping container. There’s a whole heap of difference between Country Living and country living…
So, in upland Britain, shelters were often rather makeshift lean-tos, sometimes shared with the animals. One reason they tended to be small was so that the animals could huddle and keep warm that way, and that must have included the shepherd in some of the wilder parts of Britain. In the Highlands, however – this is before the Clearances and the arrival of new breeds of sheep and new methods of shepherding, I’m not getting on to that or I’ll start throwing furniture about – sheep just went with the people to the shelling. They were a smaller breed and were generally tethered by day and housed at night in ‘sheep cotes’. Even so, the mortality rate was severe.
Distracted again. Back to the downland huts.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the familiar wheeled shepherd’s hut came into wider use, generally on Downland farms, on the rolling chalk of southern England (this shot comes from a 1938 edition of Sussex County Magazine, and is by G. A. Lock.) Wheeled huts, naturally, were impractical in rough or boggy terrain. Roofs were often of corrugated iron, and the wheels were iron too – reminding me of Terry Pratchett and Granny Aching’s hut in The Wee Free Men; Pratchett’s Discworld is firmly grounded in this-world reality. On a more, er, exalted literary level, Gabriel Oak has his shepherd’s hut in Far From the Madding Crowd; in fact, it’s so essential to his character that it puts in a very early appearance. ‘The hut stood on little wheels, which raised its floor about a foot from the ground…’ says Hardy, going on to describe the interior a few paras later, in a description which is almost country living with caps, as indeed is much of Hardy (hrumpf). ‘The inside of the hut … was cosy and alluring, and the scarlet handful of fire in addition to the candle, reflecting its own genial colour upon whatever it could reach, flung associations of enjoyment even over utensils and tools. In the corner stood the sheep-crook, and along a shelf at one side were ranged bottles and canisters…’
Let’s take a quick look at reality. Sometimes, when shepherd’s huts are being restored, the restorers find graffiti. One Dorset shepherd (source: Dorset Life) engraved his thoughts: ‘This weather is enough to make a man swear black is white and red is blue and chills through the ass of his trousers…’. Yerss. However, the traditional huts did have stoves, as Hardy describes – affording some warmth for the shepherd and any lambs needing it – and they had windows, too. These were usually on three sides, so the shepherd had a good all-round view of the flock. Even outside lambing time this was useful: sheep were often used as ‘moving dunghills’, keeping ground manured, and constrained by hurdles to ensure a particular patch was well fertilised. The hinged stable door would be angled away from the prevailing wind, of course. (Illustration by John Vince, from Old Farms.)
But the wheeled huts have a longer history than just the nineteenth century; there’s a sixteenth-century reference (Maskal, 1596) – ‘…in some place the shepherd hath his cabin going upon a wheel for to remove here and there at his pleasure’ – and a fourteenth-century manuscript illustration. It’s even got the windows, and I think I prefer the shingled roof to one in corrugated iron! Shepherds have, of course, always needed some form of shelter and there’s been speculation that Shepherd’s Bush – now about as far away as you can get from rural life – was named not after someone called Shepherd but after an actual ‘shepherd’s bush’, a green shelter, one made out of hawthorns (they were the preferred choice), grown and shaped into a living cave. An alternative was a shelter hollowed out of a bank, also sometimes called a hut.
Rather more like the bothies, and definitely fitting the description of bwythyn (small cottage), were the ‘looker’s huts’ of Romney Marsh, though there’s a Fay Godwin photograph of a downland wheeled hut on the Marsh. But more permanent buildings were the norm and it’s estimated that there were probably about 350 on the Marsh in their heyday. There are probably about 12 or so today. When I lived in London, Romney Marsh was one of our favourite places for a day out (especially when followed by tea in Rye), and I often noticed the strange brick-built, blocky buildings and wondered what they were; now I know (there’s a reconstructed one at the visitor centre in New Romney; my photo was terrible and this one comes from Romney Marsh Visitor Centre’s website). Lookers could live in their huts for six or seven weeks around lambing time, but by the 1950s they had largely fallen out of use, at least for their original purpose.
As, indeed, had most shepherd’s huts. They represented a real investment – most were owned by the landowners rather than the shepherds as they could cost as much as six months’ salary. Farming changed and they almost disappeared, being left to commentators on Hardy or those people interested in old farming techniques, so the present revival of interest can only be a good thing; they’re part of rural history, after all. The situation was already changing before WW2 (during the war some were used as Home Guard outposts) as sales declined in the 1920s and 30s: one manufacturer only sold a single hut in 1930-1, and none at all the following year. But shepherds and sheep farmers still sometimes need something, and nowadays you might see an old caravan in the corner of a field. Or, as on that farm near here, a shipping container. Something tells me they won’t be refurbished and treasured in the same way, though…
Millet, The Sheepfold: Moonlight (somewhere between Barbizon and Chantilly)
Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore