We don't have any peat on Graemsay though there are many peat beds around Orkney. I think in times past the islanders may have had peat rights on Hoy but that is lost in the mists of time. So I know very little about the process. However my camera guru, Derek Mayes, has recently started the annual peat cut and kindly offered to write about it to educate us all! Here's his first entry......
…Each year, at about this time in mid to late April, I begin to open up my peat beds. I do not own the peat nor the land but our house-deeds allow for extraction, for personal use, any amount of peat from the nearby headland.
April 22nd. Always the toughest day – the first. Cool breezes, the chance of a shower and with limbs and muscles weak after a winter of passive exercise!
I take the spade on the five-minute walk from the house to the ancient beds. I am the only one who cuts here but the beds, whole headland really, have been used by the whole community for a couple of centuries I guess. The evidence is easy to spot, overhanging walls of old cuttings, standing water along the foot of many, track-ways and damaged ground.
Over the years, extraction has probably lowered most of the headland by the height of a person. In many places the peat has been removed all the way to the underlying rock and sandy drift.
Cutting has to be done methodically as the top turfs need to be placed back on the ground, repairing as one extracts and progresses. There’s good evidence for careless extraction and so I have undertaken, over my eleven years, to repair areas where my predecessors have been careless.
The faces are hard and cracked after 10 months of wind, rain and fierce sunshine. The outer exposed faces are like concrete and cannot easily be cut from the face itself, only from above..
So the first task is to remove the top, heathery blanket. A long portion (two spades wide) atop the bed is stripped and the turfs laid onto the ground behind me – there is about a metre of bare ground from the peat face to the vegetation. This would allow a wheelbarrow - in the old days a pony - to progress along the beds
It is backbreaking and I can only manage an hour. The topmost peat, (under the rough turf) is very fibrous and dry, containing the oldest roots of the heather and other heathland plants. This lightweight peat is called the Greenback (I call them fluffies - because they are!). It is very hard to get the spade through, because of the fibrous nature, so only the sharpest, flattest spade will do.
These are quick drying peats, so I can make them into quite big piles for the wind and sun to do their bit. It’ll take me three or four visits to get down to the Tusker peat – lovely, black, pastry-like structure. After two one-hour visits I now have three piles like the one seen in the photo above.. The roman numeral is 22 – 22nd April.
More from Derek soon....