1 EAGLETON NOTES: The Peats - Part 3

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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.

31 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. Very interesting. One would have thought the job could be mechanised at least to a degree.

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    1. Adrian it can be mechanised. There was investment in machines attached to very large tractors that produced 'sausage peats'. They were available commercially for a while but I believe the demand just wasn't sufficient to make it worthwhile to continue.

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  2. Interesting to see this having recently read about the peat gathering(?) on Lewis. Great to see the pictures as I haven't seen it before.

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    1. Serenata, oddly enough I'm not sure that there is an English term for gathering or harvesting peat. It is usually referred to by the individual action. If one were to ask whether someone used peats then you would usually say "Do you cut the peats?". All other actions flow from that.

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  3. A very clear and informative photo of those peat stacks - thanks. (Next time I happen to read about cutting and stacking peat, my "inner image" of the process will be a lot clearer!) Any chance of an image also showing the burning...?
    Poor Marcel, being laughed at before getting help... Your comment at the end of that story makes me imagine a future Time Team digging on the peat banks (finding the boot). (Following a Time Team season on one of my cable channels just now; not sure which season. I suppose it must be a rerun even if I can't remember seeing it before.)

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    1. I'm glad that you found it informative. I've probably posted an image of the peats being burned but I will oblige and post another one which I took not that long ago.

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  4. I enjoyed these three posts Graham. You were highlighting what for centuries has been an important source of fuel - for warmth and for cooking - where ever there are peatlands. It is kind of sad that the use of peat as a fuel source is in sharp decline but as you suggest the taking of peat is not exactly environmentally friendly.

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    1. I rather enjoyed it YP. It was a bit irritating to have to re-create it having already done it once and lost it somewhere in the blogosphere but the revised version was probably better anyway.

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  5. oh no, was it hard to get your friend out? Sounds like peat has a consistency like the mudflats in our nz estuaries, so hard to get anyone out of those.

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    1. Amy, it was very difficult to get our friend out. He commented a couple of days ago when he say the post that he remembered it well, if not fondly. The consistency is usually rather thicker than the mudflats but the base of the bank can get very sodden and then it is rather like the mudflats.

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  6. The End? But so many questions remain! How long did it take you to get your year's supply of peat cut and ultimately stacked? I'm guessing it was the evening's "entertainment" for weeks. Did you have your own stack/s at home or share with your neighbours? Did any family's allocated peat bank ever "run out"? Does anyone ever find bits of archaeological interest when they're cutting through the banks?

    It is amazing that except for the use of the lorry and the invention of wellingtons, this whole process hasn't altered for probably centuries. A true link with the past.

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    1. Pipistrello to cut enough peats for a family house for a year could take four people many evenings working. It was often a 'Saturday job' where you went out for the day several weeks running (weather permitting). The rest was done piecemeal as time and weather permitted. It did occupy a great deal of time though. Most families would have their own peat stack at home. Often people who were too old to cut peats any more would have them supplied by relatives and friends. You have reminded me that many peats were carried on the women's backs. I shall do a post on that. I'm not aware of any archaeological finds in peat banks in the Outer Hebrides. There have been iron age dwellings and mills discovered but I'm not sure if any of them were under the peat.

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    2. Well, as a perfect coincidence, tonight I finally watched a documentary we recorded last year on Iron Age bog bodies that were found preserved in peat! They featured specifically bodies found in Ireland and Denmark. Not so far from the Outer Hebrides ... Yet more questions remain!

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  7. Peat has a long history and is intertwined with culture.

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  8. The stacking of those piles of peat is an art in itself!

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    1. It was, Lee, and it was not easy, I can testify to that. A good peat stack was a matter of pride (as well as practicality to keep the innards dry).

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  9. Near my people's home in Shropshire was a disused Peat area, I found a small pile of ancient lumps in one of the outbuildings. I didn't try burning it. I should have.

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    1. Cro, it would have certainly provided an interesting smell.

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  10. Thank you Graham. Such an interesting series of posts.

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  11. Thanks for the mini series on a subject that provokes questions about Lewis Life (in the old days!) and gets Google going to find out about No 42.

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    1. Potty, it's good to know that you are a follower of The Hitch-hikers Guide To The Galaxy.

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    2. And May 4th be with you too!

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    3. Ah. And a Star Wars fan too. The Battle of Yavin. I remember it well.

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  12. This series made for fascinating reading, thank you, Graham!

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