To reach us here in the north end of Lewis, you will have driven, cycled or walked by miles of moorland. Some of you may think the peatlands look like quite a bleak, or uninspiring landscape, but peat has been a valuable, natural source of fuel to islanders both historically and today.
As you have passed by homes, you may also have seen stacks of peat built up outside, and wondered how these blocks are cut and used. In this article, we discuss the process of the peats - when it is cut, when it is dried, and when it is stacked, ready for use in the fire during the long winter months.
Cutting peat is an arduous job and usually the whole family, or a group of neighbours, get involved. Food for lunch is often taken out to the moorland as the job is long and difficult. Many crofters are keen to cut the turf from the peat bog prior to lambing season, which takes place between March and April.
The peat beneath the top turf is richer, hence why the top layer of mossy, heathery ground (barr fhadas) is removed. Traditionally, the turf is removed in sections using a tairsgear, an iron tool used to cut peats, and then begins the process of slicing peat from the peatbank. The process is usually to cut 4 peats deep to the back, and then you begin to cut downwards, but this can vary. The rectangular blocks of peats removed from the peatbank are thrown to the side and left on the moor to dry. They are usually placed upright on the top to give them a better chance of drying.
Nowadays, there is a machine that can be placed on the back of a tractor, which can replace the backbreaking task of cutting using the tairsgear. However, this machine only removes one part of the process – after they are cut, peats still need to be rotated manually and dried. Many people too still favour the traditional peat cutting process, without the use of the machine.
Once the cutting is complete, the turf removed in the beginning is put at the bottom of the bog to repair the previous year’s damage. This ensures that the peatbank can be used by each successive generation of family members to come.
After weeks out on the moor, the peats are beginning to dry. They are taken from the moor and transported to the houses, nowadays usually by tractor. A peat stack will be made outside homes - this is known as a cruach. Peats are stacked close together, and the black peat is stacked on the outside of the pile so that rain can run off them. Then, they are ready to be used on the fire, on the cold, wintry nights.
During the winter on the Isle of Lewis, the days are very short, and the darkness very long. In the depths of winter, we average about 6 ½ hours of daylight. Whilst this does make for wonderful stargazing opportunities and chances to catch the Northern Lights (Na Fir Chlis), it does mean that many more hours are spent inside the house, often with the fire blazing. Many homes burn peats in their open fires during the winter, with the pungent, smoky smell trailing out of chimneys across the villages. It has a very distinct smell - if you have ever smelled or tasted a “peaty” whisky, you will have an idea of the scent!
If you are interested in learning more about peat cutting or peat itself, some book titles that may interest you are:
Robin A. Crawford, 2018, Into the Peatlands – A Journey through the Moorland Year, Birlinn Ltd
Donald S. Murray, 2018, The Dark Stuff: Stories from the Peatlands, Bloomsbury Natural History