1 EAGLETON NOTES: August 2018



Wednesday 29 August 2018

The Peats - Part 3

Of course the work didn't end there. The pile of peats had to be stacked. This was an art in itself but art with a purpose. The peats on the outside were placed in such a way that the rain was directed away from the centre of the stack.  These stacks are at the Arnol Blackhouse which is looked after by Historic Scotland.

Peat stacks at the Arnol Blackhouse on Lewis

Overall, working at the peats could be a wonderful or hellish experience depending on the day and the circumstances. I can recall being out on the moor on a perfect late spring or early summer midge-free evening listening to the merlin, curlews and other birds and the gentle wind with not another sound to be heard. I can remember picnics and comradeship and fun which lessened the hard work. On the other hand, in the days before midge nets, I remember bringing the peats home when every peat that was lifted brought with it a cloud of wretched little creatures which filled the ears, nose and eyes. 

And then there was the lost wellington boot. Some of 'the family of incomers' were out cutting at Marcel's peat banks out on the Pentland Road (where the Stornoway grazings were).  Suddenly Marcel started to sink into the peat. By the time the rest of us had stopped laughing Marcel was up to his thighs in the muddy peat and we realised that this was a situation that needed some attention and thought. Eventually an extremely annoyed Marcel was extricated from the mire minus a wellington boot. That was the end of the evening's work. I always imagine that at some time in the distant future the single boot will be discovered amid bemused speculation.

Today there are few banks being cut: few people have the time or the inclination and the ease and warmth of other forms of heating is very attractive. I notice that there are a few banks being cut but it seems to be on a very small scale and so far I've only see one or, at most two, people involved on any bank. Culturally I suppose it is a sadness as that part of society's life has gone. Environmentalists, though, will be happy: peat is hardly a green fuel environmentally.

The End.

Saturday 25 August 2018

The Peats - Part 2

Harvesting the peats comprises a number of processes: turfing; cutting and throwing; turning; lifting and stacking into stooks or cruachan
(at least twice); and, finally, getting the peats off the bank and into a lorry/trailer and taking them home.

Turfing is a solitary, backbreaking job which requires strength and a very sharp spade to cut through the heather and turf to lift the top off the peat to expose it for cutting. The turf removed is placed into the (usually sodden) area left from the last cut. This provides a footing for the thrower in the next stage.

Cutting and throwing requires two people and a peat iron (to a Leòdhasach, a tairsgeir (pronounced tarashker) or to a Hearadh a iarann mònach);  a cutter; and a thrower (surprisingly). The cutter slices through the peat to a depth of about a foot and a width of about a hand. The peat will then drop into the hands of the thrower who throws it onto the turf either below or above the bank. A single set of cuts will usually be about 5 peats wide by the number of peats deep which for us varied from two to four. So room had to be found on the ground adjacent to the peat bank for a minimum of 10 peats at every cut. Throwing the peats onto the bank so as to minimise the space between each peat and minimise the effort (it was a very physical job because a wet peat is heavy) requires considerable skill, stamina and practice.

Our peat banks out on the Coll Common Grazings (with thanks to Adrian for improving the image quality)

Turning. When the peats have been cut for long enough to dry on the top (which, of course, depends on the weather) they are turned over to allow them to dry on the other side.

Add caption
Lifting and stacking into cruachan. This was, even in the '70s, considered 'women's work'. I recall being looked at askance (even by the females present) when I said in the office one morning that I'd been lifting the peats the previous evening. It was as if my very manhood was being challenged. The photo shows my tairsgeir which I keep for purely sentimental reasons. In the photo of our peat bank above, Carol is lifting and stacking the peats into cruachan. When in a cruachan the peats hopefully dry thoroughly ready for taking home.

Getting the peats off the banks was a 'family' effort. There was one drawback making it one of the hardest parts of the process for us: the bank was traversed by two drainage ditches. The peats had to be barrowed down to each ditch, dumped and thrown over to the next section until they ended up at the end of the bank which was elevated above the river. With hindsight I would have thought we would have put planks over the ditches but, presumably, there was a reason why we didn't. The 10 ton lorry reversed up to the bank and the peats were thrown into it. Once home the peats were unceremoniously dumped and we all retired for a beer or two.

To be continued....

Wednesday 22 August 2018

The Peats - Part 1

When I came to the Outer Hebrides in the '70s two of the common forms of heating were an open fire and a Rayburn Stove (definitely not an Aga). Ours was like the one shown and the same (hideous) colour. But then colour is a matter of taste and whilst I love blue I don't like that blue.

We had replaced the open fire in the living room with a solid fuel burning stove. The Aga and the stove were both fed on a diet of peat with some coal when more heat was necessary or the peat ran out.

Peat was an integral and essential part of Island life in those days. Every household had it's own peat banks out on the moor in the Township's Common Grazings. 

There was a ritual to cutting 'the peats' (as individual peats were called) which involved the whole family and, to an extent, the community. Being incomers we didn't have any family on the Island. However we came at a time when the local Council (with which I had come to work) was new and so there were a lot of incomers came to work at the same time as I did. We all formed our own 'family' for friendship, babysitting and peat-cutting etc. Many of the friends I made all those decades ago are still close friends today.

We were fortunate to have excellent banks with a mixture of dark (higher carbon) and light (more fibrous) brown peat. The banks were in a straight line probably 75 or more metres long which would easily provide enough peats for the house for a year.

Our peat banks out on the Coll Common Grazings
 To be continued.......

Friday 17 August 2018

Er, Pardon?

I'm not sure how many posts I've started over the last however many days since the last post. I never managed to finish any of them. However I'm now back home from my 'three days away'. And therein lies the tale and (with apologies to John Steinbeck) the fact that the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley.

I've learned one thing, though: never travel light. I always take the kitchen sink: two if available. Twelve days ago on the Monday when I left on the ferry I knew that I would be back after my pre-op check on the Tuesday and a service for the Volvo. Apart from anything else my accommodation was only available for a few nights. So I travelled very light (by my standards).

At the pre-op the nurse practitioner said that the consultant surgeon wanted to see me.  He did and we had a chat. He then casually said "Right. I'll see you on Monday." Er, pardon? 

Apparently when the pre-op had been moved because of my visitors the operation had not but the letter hadn't arrived before I left home. 

The ferry was fully booked and I couldn't get back to Glasgow if I returned home. So I had to find alternative accommodation and get additional 'supplies'. Fortunately I do keep some necessities and clothes at my friend, Anna's.

So on Sunday night I found myself, once more, in Ayr Hospital and on Monday I had my kidney stent renewed and some radio therapy damage tidied up again. I was out on Tuesday and home on Wednesday night. Yesterday I was shattered despite a good night's sleep but by this morning after 8½ hours without moving a muscle I was alive again.

I've no plans to be away from the Island again until September so, hopefully, I'll be back in Blogland and catching up with what has been happening in my absence.

Sunday 5 August 2018


I have been frustrated this week by a fault on my phone line causing an absence of the telephone. This is not a problem for me because I can use my cellphone but it does mean that anyone trying to contact me cannot do so if they don't have my cellphone number. It also means, of course, that my internet connection is affected. Most of the time for the last 4 or 5 days I've had little or no internet. So I haven't been reading many blogs.

It has made me realise that I am very reliant indeed on my internet connection. I use it for my laptop and phone and iPad which is fairly obvious. Without those I can't communicate with my son (in Italy) or my friends in New Zealand or anywhere else for that matter. However my radio, television and music also rely in one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent on the internet as does my printer and Alexa and Siri (whom I use for reminders and timers amongst other things).

There is no 3G or 4G here either so I can't use my phone for the internet.

BT have been brilliant and have kept me informed and could actually have had an engineer here on Friday (and the fault mended yesterday) but I was out all day on Friday so he came yesterday (Saturday) afternoon. He identified exactly where the problem is (293 metres from my house) but didn't carry the necessary equipment to enable him to dig up the cable. Today is Sunday and tomorrow is Bank Holiday but they are hoping it will be mended tomorrow.

I'll be away on the early morning ferry though.

It's been an interesting week and I'll post about it soon.