Beltane @ The Shieling Project

Published: 26 May 2023

The Centre exists to enable individuals, communities and organisations to act towards a sustainable future through education, research and partnership. We support interdisciplinary, cross-campus and cross-sectoral solutions to climate change. Recently, the centre co-sponsored the ‘Beltane @ the Shieling Project’ event.

The Centre for Sustainable Solutions exists to enable individuals, communities and organisations to act towards a sustainable future through education, research and partnership.  We support interdisciplinary, cross-campus and cross-sectoral solutions to climate change. Recently, the centre co-sponsored the ‘Beltane @ the Shieling Project’ event.

At the end of April, Ben Murphy and Rosanna Crawford organised the Beltane @ the Shieling Project event, which celebrated the traditional Gaelic May Day Beltane festival. Held over one and a half days, the event consisted of workshops, presentations, activities and a panel discussion on the themes of land use, wellbeing and biodiversity. SEDA Land, the Centre for Sustainable Solutions  and A Future Worth Living In, a sustainable finance consultancy, all co-sponsored the event. Rosanna and I both worked at the Shieling Project last year and knew it was the perfect venue to hold an event on these themes. We were excited to share the Project with other young people working in sustainability and land use in Scotland.

The Shieling Project is an off-grid learning centre in the Highlands of Scotland. The project is all about outdoor living, learning and resilience. The tradition of the shieling where folk lived outdoors all summer herding the cattle, gives us a window onto the past, but also helps us look forward to a sustainable future.

Beltane is celebrated midway between spring equinox and summer solstice. It is a Gaelic celebration of the return of the fertility of the land, and would have been a time when livestock would have been put out to pasture. The word ‘Beltane’ roughly translates as ‘bright fire’ and, as such, one of the most important rituals in the Gaelic calendar.

Nature Prescriptions and Wellbeing

The primary reason for holding the event was for Melissa Stancil, a doctoral researcher from North Carolina, to share her research undertaken at the Shieling Project in 2022. Melissa is researching culture-specific nature prescriptions and was able to share her preliminary findings in a fascinating presentation that encouraged all attendees to reflect on nature and wellbeing, and what they mean in modern society. We also wanted to create a space for young people working in the areas of land management, conservation and public health to connect and build networks.

Ben Murphy introducing the weekend to attendees

Following Melissa’s presentation, attendees were taken on a site tour and then chose between two workshops. Megan Rowland, a deer management officer at NatureScot, spoke about bridging divides in deer management and conservation (and her baby Nancy did a good job of trying to steal the show!), and Melissa took people on an experiential nature walk. The event built an atmosphere of reflection and a  recognition of alternative and often opposing viewpoints with workshop facilitators encouraging discussion and critical engagement with topics.

Rural depopulation and conservation

In the afternoon, we were joined by Simone Piras (a rural economist at James Hutton Institute), Ariane Burgess (Green MSP for Highlands & Islands) and Wendy Reid (Ulva Development Manager for North WestMull Community Woodland Company) for a panel discussion on rural depopulation in the global context. Simone presented a series of maps from different EU projects on rural depopulation, which painted a stark picture of urbanisation across Europe. Areas that are particularly affected included Spain and Italy, as well as Eastern Europe – predominantly due to changes in agricultural production and job losses. One phenomenon unique to the UK was the shortage of housing, and there was a lot of discussion on how big a barrier this is for living and working rurally, especially for young people. A key point that came out of the conversation was for young people to engage with local and national democratic processes to get their voices heard on issues that matter to them, especially at the local community level. A walk up the Glen towards the old Shieling site was then led by Jean Langhorne, Shieling Project Director and Olly Williams, site manager. This preceded a dinner - cooked on the project’s hand-made pizza oven!

Panel discussion on rural depopulation, chaired by Rosanna

There was some weariness on Sunday morning after a traditional ceilidh, but some winnowing soon woke everybody up! Afterwards, we separated for the final workshops. Donna Young and Kirsten Glover from Rural Housing Scotland shared their Smart Clachan Toolkit, while Col Gordon talked about the history of organising around land and its relevance today.

Gathering round the fire, for a traditional Ceilidh with poetry, music and song

Photovoice Research

We then all gathered in the hall for one last time to hear about an ongoing photovoice research project being led by Ben and Melissa. Photovoice is a participatory action research method that is used to amplify voices that are often silent in political arenas. A few event attendees were invited to be part of the project, and before the event they selected a prompt for their photos: “To me, this is rural sustainability”.

Melissa explained the background to the project, and then participants shared the photos that they had taken and their interpretation of the prompt. The photos had been taken all over Scotland, from the Borders to Assynt... Reflecting on rural sustainability in this way prompted some feelings of frustration for the way things are, but equally hopes for a better future.

There were feelings of hope for the future and the participants came to the conclusion that a manageable and tangible action is to have more gatherings like this event going forward.

Ryan, a photovoice participant

Many event attendees echoed this sentiment. It was great to see people making connections and sharing experiences, as well as the enthusiasm for more opportunities to come together, discuss ideas and also have a bit of a ceilidh! When we organised the event, we thought it was filling a space for more formal networking. However, it turned out to address the challenges of meeting other young people living rurally, especially people who share your interests, and it gave people the space to talk about challenges, but more importantly, it also gave people the space to have a good time together.

Rosanna and I wanted to hold this event because there is a real lack of opportunity for young people who work in land use and sustainability, or who live in rural areas, to meet and talk about issues that matter to them. It was brilliant to see people make connections over the course of the weekend, and we hope we can hold more events like this in the future.

Explore some of the speakers and topics from the event:

If you're interested in hearing more about this event or talking about the issues discussed in this blog, please contact us:

By Ben Murphy, Education Officer, Centre for Sustainable Solutions.

First published: 26 May 2023