Studying high places | Eugene Costello

19 February 2019


The sounds of human activity are scarce up here. The rush of the wind against your hopefully waterproof jacket is the main accompaniment to your travels. The brushing and occasional crackle of heather under foot, followed by an unforeseen squelch in the wet peat, are less constant sounds but assure you that progress is gradually being made. Direction is provided by sight, a glimpse of a possible structure in the distance, or a patch of green that suggests the accumulated visits of animals and people over time. They are now less visible, since herders no longer maintain a presence in this landscape and the sheep roam more freely and with less supervision than the all-important and valuable cow. If they are present at all, hill walkers keep to marked pathways, linear scars of gravel following an inevitable and unexciting course to the summit of whatever lump in the country they have decided to ascend that weekend. It is a great thing, of course, to absorb a wider view of one’s world from a mountain-top, a minor version of the ‘overview effect’ on astronauts perhaps. But a walk through a mountain range that goes the hard road over heather, bog, stream and moor grass, and examines less prominent nodes in the landscape that once had more significance for farmers offers an alternative experience. Indeed, if it is taken so far as to be a study, it offers a window on the lives of these people and their livestock.

The practice of transhumance

The general public can rest assured that this task is not as daunting as it sounds. Many scholars, not only myself, have been attracted to the study of ‘high places’ associated with past human activity, particularly the herding of animals. It was and remains common practice in many parts of the world for farmers to move on a seasonal basis with their livestock to upland areas. The term ‘upland’ is of course a vague term and is intended to include Alpine mountains, high plateaus as well as lower hills that are only a few hundred metres above sea level. Summer pastures can also be exploited on agriculturally-marginal lowland areas, such as semi-wooded pastures, floodplains or heathland. Really, the environments in which people herded animals are as diverse as the Earth itself, since pastoralism – the practice of livestock-rearing – has taken place across the world ever since herbivores were first domesticated approximately 10,000 years ago in the Near East.

The motivation behind seasonal re-locations could vary, but in the transhumance practised in Europe in medieval and post-medieval times (which I study) there was a combination of wanting to free up land at home for various crops while taking advantage of summer growth in uplands (that would not otherwise be made use of). All told, the practice allowed farmers to keep more livestock than they would have if using only the land they had access to around their main or home settlement. Access to a distant summer pasture was often a customary right of commonage held by a group or groups of non-elite peasants, or access could be obtained through a more formal written agreement that a farmer or landlord with many animals paid money for (sometimes to the exclusion of peasants). In those parts of Ireland that I have studied to date – the Galtee Mountains, south Connemara, south-west Donegal – it was generally small tenant farmers who relied on summer pasture by the 18th and 19th centuries, and the available ethnographic and documentary evidence relating to this period suggests that their grazing rights were held on a customary basis. However, the origins of these rights and the extent to which they changed over time due to interaction with elite structures remains the subject of on-going research.

What is interesting about transhumance from a human point of view, whatever form or scale the movements took, is that it involved the construction and maintenance of seasonal dwellings by herders. Shelter was required if one was to stay in these places overnight for several months each year, even if it was the summer. In parts of western Ireland over 250m in altitude, for example, rainfall in June, July and August has been above an average of 100mm a month during recent decades ( Even if temperatures were amenable to sleeping outdoors, this level of rainfall meant that indoor shelter at night-time was essential for herders. However, there was little luxury. Accounts of Irish transhumance or ‘booleying’ taken down from elderly people in the 1930s and 1940s stress the simplicity of summer dwellings on the hillsides: they were usually one-roomed structures fit for three or four young people. Their walls could be made of stone or sods of peat or both depending on local raw materials, and their roofs are said to have been covered with heather – an important point for archaeologists to note since none of these structures are still in active use. Even those which were used up to 100 years ago have now fallen in on themselves and the expertise to rebuild them has disappeared!

As I have discussed in recent academic articles, these places became important focal points of social activity in their own right within rural communities. It was mainly young people, and unmarried teenage girls particularly, who were sent with livestock to the hill pastures, so it is common to find references in the Irish Folklore Commission’s archives to the enjoyment of herding. Some of these reminiscences are obviously romantic and probably underplay the hardships that youngsters faced. Teenage girls and even younger girls had to milk cows morning and night, churn the milk into butter and also carry out other important tasks like knitting and spinning. These were vital sources of cash income for tenant families in the post-medieval period and allowed them to tap into the market economy, offsetting some of the difficulties they faced in their everyday life (e.g. the threat of crop failure, leading to food shortages for both humans and livestock in winter). Young people therefore assumed great responsibility as a result of the practice of transhumance. Indeed, comparative research with the Hebrides in Scotland and in Scandinavian countries is beginning to suggest that seasonal movement to upland commons seems to have been a rite of passage, a learning process that formed part of their transition to adulthood in peasant communities. Having grown up on an organic cattle farm myself, I am conscious of the learning processes that I have gone (and continue to go) through. Yet the practice of booleying involved far more movement and manual labour than I ever experienced. Indeed, such a lifestyle is now very much at odds with the teenage years of the vast majority of young people in an increasingly urbanised and service-oriented Europe.

Encountering living knowledge

What memories of this way of life survive today? While making the climb up to the remains of summer cabins and huts, I have frequently come across hill farmers who still keep sheep on the commons (Indeed, where the hills are now held in private ownership, I meet them beforehand in their houses and farmyards!). Exact details on the way of life people maintained over one hundred years ago in booleying are very rare and decreasing by the year as the elderly folk pass on. The information which usually survives relates to the location of former summer dwellings, and from which direction people came to use them. This is still very helpful in fieldwork as it helps me to confirm which sites were genuinely associated with summer herding in the recent past. The names by which they are known vary. In some places, the practice died out too long ago for the terminology to remain in cultural memory. But in Connemara, particularly the Irish-speaking area of Carna, the huts are still known as bráca (singular; pronounced, BRAW-kuh) or brácaí (plural; pronounced, BRAW-kee). This translates to English as a ‘lean-to structure or hovel’. The word bothóg is used in Donegal (pronounced, BUH-hohg), and translates to English as a ‘cabin’, although this word could be used for any small dwelling house. In the south-west of the Galtee Mountains, the part which lies in County Limerick, memories are scarcer but the word buaile (‘boola’) is used to refer to the places where young people looked after dairy cows in summer. This word can have several meanings but one of them is ‘milking-places in summer pasturage’ and it is, moreover, the word that originally gave rise to the term ‘booleying’ (buailteachas in the Irish language).


Figure 1: Remains of a relatively well-built summer 'booley' house in Knocknascrow in the Galtee Mountains, occupied up to c.1875.
Figure 1: Remains of a relatively well-built summer 'booley' house in Knocknascrow in the Galtee Mountains, occupied up to c.1875 (image: Eugene Costello)


Figure 2: Plan of the above booley house in Knocknascrow (Eugene Costello)

Encountering the tangible remains

But what legacy has ‘booleying’ left in the landscape? To re-join me on that walking journey in the Galtee Mountains, as I ascend towards a likely booley site, it is clear that the archaeological remains are not what you would call ‘monumental’. I approach it from the south, getting on to drier heath as I near, which eventually gives way to a patch of green pasture around the structure itself. It is the remains of a small house, built of stones gathered from the mountainside. With only one door, and one room, you can imagine the simplicity! However, there are undoubtedly features here that not longer meet the eye. A hearth would surely have been kept lighting inside this little booley house both day and night over the months it was occupied, smouldering sometimes and revived in the morning or evening. The choice of fuel by the 19th century was undoubtedly peat, and indeed the cuttings are still visible in blanket bog on the higher ridges of the mountain range. In earlier centuries, wood was probably more plentiful.

In its interior space, measuring about 4.5m by 3m, several teenagers and children could have made their beds for the night. According to folk tradition in many parts of Ireland, a simple bed of heather did the job. At night-time, songs and music would have filled the house, with visitors from neighbouring sites arriving to join in. Daytime brought work, however, and once the cows had been milked the girls would set about churning the milk into butter as they did the day before. Others, perhaps the boys, would have walked with the cows as they roamed about looking for tufts of purple moor grass amongst the heather. I can see the ground they traversed around me but their exact course each day has not left a trace apart from the vegetation, which changed over time as farmers kept greater or smaller numbers of livestock on the mountain.

The wind is swirling hard around me, and I am reminded of the fundamental task I came to complete. I turn my attention back to the small dwelling house where my feet are planted. As the clouds begins to spit, the cosiness of the place is hardly palpable now. Its roof is long gone and the walls have tumbled. But I reach into my backpack for the pencil and the measuring tapes, and I fix up the drawing board that has made the journey with me. Not long, and I will have it recorded and described in detail, allowing me to illustrate to the wider world the materiality of life in these high places. It will remain a ruin, however, and what a shame that its occupants were not still here to tell their own story.

Further reading:

Costello, E. 2015. Post-medieval upland settlement and the decline of transhumance: a case-study from the Galtee Mountains, Ireland. Landscape History 36(1), 47-69.

Costello, E. 2017. Liminal learning: social practice in seasonal settlements of western Ireland. Journal of Social Archaeology 17(2), 188-209.

Costello, E. 2018. Temporary freedoms? Ethnoarchaeology of female herders at seasonal sites in northern Europe. World Archaeology 50(2), 1-20 (‘Online First’ version).

Costello, E. & Svensson, E. (eds.) 2018. Historical Archaeologies of Transhumance across Europe. EAA Themes in Contemporary Archaeology 6. Routledge: London.

Ó Danachair, C. 1945. Traces of the “Buaile” in the Galtee Mountains. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 15: 248-252.

Ó Dónaill, N. 1977. Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla. An Gúm: Baile Átha Cliath.

[The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of gloknos, CRASSH, or the University of Cambridge]


Image: Anton-kurt (public domain)