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Sunday 28 April 2013

The tradition of peat cutting...

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......

From Derek....

…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....


  1. very interesting I know some people get a bee in their bonnet over cutting peat but I think that for fuel done this way it is perfectly acceptable (not so much for garden use but thats a whole other issue)

    Interesting to hear Derek's account he obviously has a way with words, it was a very descriptive evocotive account :)

  2. How very interesting, Sian. I've passed the link to DH who I know would want to read this. Some of our neighbours on the north coast still use peat for heating and cut their own, but it's fascinating to hear how it's done.

  3. This is so interesting - I had never heard before how peat is harvested. It is wonderful to hear of the care the writer is taking to preserve this resource as he extracts it. :)

  4. Derek,
    I'm fascinated by this. I do have a few queries: (1) Why can't you use the "fluffy" parts you dig up? Wouldn't it be easier to burn? (2) Why go so far down and what makes the deep peat so good for burning? Years ago I remember someone with a blog, mentioning that there had been a lightening strike on the peat blog (I can't remember where it was, I believe in western Ireland) and the peat was burning - could that happen? Could it continue to burn out across the lower peat layer, or do you think they were talking about the top-most layer? and (3) Do people still burn peat for heat? I've heard that the smell of burning peat is one you will never forget.

  5. I can answer most of those...
    I (Dot and I) do use the fluffies. They are the peats just below the heather turf. They dry quickly, light easily and flare wonderfully on the fire.
    I cut to the existing levels (old ones) because that is the way - anything else would look odd and be hard to manage. But the lowest, dark, compressed peat, when dry, burns like coal - hot and long lasting.
    Moorland peat fires are often reported. I don't think lightning causes many. They are usually caused by bad management during Muirburns. Once alight, the smouldering moves deeper and is very difficult to extinguish; some fires burn for years. Peat is still highly valued in the north and west of Scotland, many parts of Ireland, Shetland and, of course, Orkney. In these places it is cut commercially and possible to buy bulk amounts to see the householder through a winter's cooking and heating - some people still burn little else. It's not a lot cheaper than quality coal.
    It may be possible for you to purchase bagged peat or briquettes and try it for yourself - ask at garden centres or fuel suppliers. Obviously I do not mean loose peat based compost!
    Here is a web link
    The smoke-aroma is, indeed, wonderful. But, I need to say, it is not a clean fuel. It soots and tars up the lum, produces a talc-like ash which gets everywhere. Smoke IN the house is not very nice. It is best used in a closed stove, like an Aga solid fuel or a focal lounge-stove like our delightful Morsø. We don't use it for central heating nor cooking.
    My next episode comes soon.

  6. Hi Derek - you don't know me but I am Pete Knapton's wife and have a friend who lives in Shetland and visited here recently - I came for wool week but all the old crafts are fascinating and the Peat cutting tools and history lovely to see and read about - We are actually in Wales at the moment but live in Shropshire now. Ruth

  7. I live in Wales and wonder if it was done here...