Peat Cutting - Western Isles Traditions
Peat Cutting - Peat traditions - Tools - Western Isles History - The Isle of Lewis - Isle of Harris
Traditionally, peat has been an important natural fuel source for most households throughout the rural communities of The Isle of Harris and The Isle of Lewis, indeed throughout the Western Isles.
What is Peat?
A definition of peat is said to be an organic soil that has more than 60 percent organic matter and exceeds 50cm in depth. Here in the Western Isles the depth of the peat can reach down to twenty feet!
Peatland is an area where peat is found, it is also referred to as a bog or moss. Peat is really partially decomposed vegetation, the main part of its composition is derived from the sphagnum moss, which is held in the waterlogged land.
The peat deposits being there because the amount of water going into the soil exceeds the amount of water escaping. The amount of water retained essentially prevents dead vegetation decomposing. The effect of this is that over a long period of time the plant remains are preserved and form into accumulations of peat.
Climate Begins to Warm Up
How and When The Peat was Originally Formed In The Western Isles
However the climate began gradually to warm up and by 7000 years ago when the warming peaked the lower valleys supported dense woodlands.
Pine and Oak trees were prolific in the lowest parts of the land, with birch, willows, sedges and grasses on some areas
Many many years ago, there was the last Ice Age (fifteen thousand years ago) and the land then would have been quite different to that of today.
Dominated By Glaciers
The Island would have been dominated by glaciers, and bare rock summits, some being only ice free during the few odd warmer summer months.
Major Climate changes 7000 years ago, leading to peat formation
Around 7000 years ago the rainfall became much heavier and the peat formations of the Highlands and Islands started to occur.. The waterlogged soil turned acidic making the chemical nutrients needed for plants, which were being washed out and what therefore was left was just PEAT.
Peat Formations in the Western Isles
The actual peat deposits here in the Western Isles were probably formed between 2800 and 4000 or so years ago. Its said that the peat around Callanis started to appear some 2800 years ago whilst other islands were perhaps a little earlier with their peat formation.
Peat Cutting Has Changed the Surface of the Moors
It is true that peat cutting over the centuries has changed the surface of the moors. In some places ancient lichens on the higher surfaces are a sign that the original surface levels were higher.
The picture to the right is that of old peat banks, seen near The Bridge to Nowhere at Garry - Isle of Lewis.
The tradition of cutting peat, used for fuel is still carried out today by many crofters.
The picture below is that of old peat banks, seen near The Bridge to Nowhere at Garry - Isle of Lewis.
Peat as a Fuel Source - Cooking and Eating
For hundreds of years the peat has provided the people on The Isle of Lewis and Harris with their annual supply of fuel for cooking and heating.
Although as the centuries have passed, and modern technology, electricity, oil and gas have now taken over in the main extent.
It is still a fact that there are still quite a few islanders and crofters who still use peat as their fuel source.
During May and June, you can sometimes see the villagers on the Moors cutting the peat.
You can still see all over the islands the peat banks on the peat moors. The best banks are those with the deepest profiles. The peat from the lower levels gives the densest, blackest peat. The peat from these levels burns the longest and hottest and so is more cost effective.
When one purchases a house on the Islands it is very often the case that you are "allotted" a peat bank. You cant just go anywhere to cut the peat, and your "given area" may not necessarily be right close to your property.
To cut someone else's peats would be unimaginable Peat banks are seen all over the Outer Hebrides, especially in the Isle of Lewis, where the peat bogs are really flat. most of the peatland of the Outer Hebrides is used by the crofters as rough grazing for the sheep and cattle, with just the small areas of peat land being set aside for the cutting of peat for the villagers.
Peat Cutting - Quite Labour Intensive - A Social Tradition
To get the peat to your home and ready for use is actually quite labour intensive and there are several processes that the peat has to go through. In the past the whole process was carried out not by one individual, but by a group of people, usually several families who got together to help each other. To a certain extent this does still happen in The Western Isles.
Cutting, Drying & Transporting The Peat
Peat Banks and the Peat Cutting Process.
The peat banks are a familiar sight throughout the Western isles and the old peat workings can be seen throughout the Isle of Lewis and Harris. The peat cutting is the first process. The peat cutting really is a job that takes a lot of physical work and is back- breaking. The top layer of the sedge marsh (am barr fhad) is peeled away so that the strip of soft peat to be cut is exposed. Many of the peat banks actually have local names (usually Gaelic names)
Slices of peat are cut out and laid across the moor to dry out. There is a special tool, a kind of peat iron - or tairsgear (the gaelic name for the tool) which facilitates the peat coming away in slabs, usually a foot or so in length and a few inches thick. The tool has a long wooden handle with an angled blade on one end. The sharp cutting edge of the peat iron slices through the soft peat in a downward movement and, with a backward pull of the main handle of the tool a rectangular block of peat is dislodged and usually this is just thrown to one side leaving it to dry on the moor for anything up to a few weeks.
Peat Stacks (cruach in Gaelic)
Once dried,the peats will be taken to the crofts and usually large stacks are built, . These can be built into various shapes nowadays, but traditionally they are broad, curved at each end and tapered to a point about 2 metres high. Peat stacking follows local customs and a well built peat stack can be a work of art both visually and functionally. It can take several months for the peat to dry out sufficient to "burn" well and so its quite a lengthy process
Peat Colour - Dark Brown - Insides were used as a tobacco substitute
The peat slabs are dark brown. wet and smooth on the outside, however the insides contain fibrous material that is an orange colour, and it is documented that the fibres or "calcas" as they were called would be smoked instead of tobacco in times gone by