I remember it like it was yesterday. We bairns were sitting up the hill, bottle of cream soda in hand, watching the adults work. I don’t think I’d ever been so far away from ‘adult supervision’ before and I felt nervous. Would they hear us if something went wrong? Would they remember to take us home? And with those thoughts beginning to take root in my mind, we skipped back down the hill to join our parents’.
In truth, we were little more than 10 metres away, but like everything when you’re little – distance, time, space – it seemed much greater. Those were the days when the summer holidays went on for an age, and mornings at the peat hill felt like an eternity. Those were happy days of childhood where, as the adults worked, we splashed around in lochs, chased imaginary fairies and searched out frogs amongst the Sphagnum moss.
Learning how to cut peats at a young age and enjoying nature's classroom.
When I was growing up, our family cut peat every year to fuel our old Rayburn, and like generations before us, this was carried out in the voar (spring) of the year. Peat is condensed vegetation that, once broken down and, over thousands of years, forms a thick moorland topped with rough heather that flowers a vibrant purple in autumn.
Peat regenerates, albeit slowly, at a rate of about 1mm a year which means that the blanket peatlands in Shetland, making up 50 per cent of the islands, have taken thousands of years to form. Mostly composed of Sphagnum moss, peat is an incredible ecosystem for the birds, plants and animals that inhabit it. Despite having few trees, and despite this, peatlands are the most efficient carbon sink in the world.
Shetlanders have always worked in sync with the seasons, and the peat season was no different. Beginning in April, peat banks would be flayed using a tool called a ripper. This meant that the area that you cut – your bank – would be prepared, or flayed, by removing the top layer of heathery turf, exposing the brown, chocolatey peat beneath.
Photo shows a flayed peat bank, and a tushkar, the cutting tool used to cast peats.
Flaying is done once the hill has dried out after the long winter, and once the oil has risen in the moor – known as the lӧmishӧn (oily shine). It usually takes a good north wind at the end of March to really dry the hill. As peatlands are wetlands, they act like a sponge, retaining water. Winter in Shetland is wet and the ground, in many places, can become a boggy, impassible quagmire so work in the peat hill can’t begin until the moor is ready.
Casting peats using a tushkar.
Once the flayed bank has been given another week or so to dry out, it’s time to go back with what mother calls her ‘weapons of mass production’ – namely, a tushkar and a shovel – to begin the next process, casting.
Casting is the process of removing rectangular-shaped slabs of peat from the moor, building them into a wall, allowing air gaps between each peat to let the wind pass through to begin the drying or curing process. Casting should always be completed in May, and there are many stories about the inferior quality of a ‘June peat’ (and lord forbid you dare to cast beyond June!).
Peat casting, depending on the length and depth of your bank (and the ability of the caster), could take more or less time. Peat banks all differ depending on the thickness of the peat and the quality of the moor. It’s relatively easy to get a peat bank in Shetland. Many houses, particularly those on croft land, come with peat-cutting rights that are written into the title deeds, or you may own the ground already. Otherwise, you can rent a bank from the local council for a nominal fee of about £20 a year or, like we do, rent from a landowner.
Cast peats with the tushkar. This photo shows the depth of the peat which is cut down to the hard bedrock beneath.
Again, once the peats are cast, they are left to the elements to dry before returning to raise them. If the weather is fair, a week is all that’s needed between casting and raising. Raising the peats is the process of building them into little triangular-shaped tee-pees of three to four peats. This is the first time the hand of man will touch the peat, and they can only be handled once the peats have developed a water-repellant skin. When peat is first cut, it has the consistency of butter but, once cured, it can be as hard as coal.
Now the peats are left again for another spell of drying before you can return to roog (place them into bigger piles) and turn them. This is when mam turns her peats into what she calls ‘ministers’ to dry.
Mother and her 'ministers''
By this stage, we are into mid-June, and it’s time to start getting the peats home. A seasoned peat-pro will always aim to have their peats home by midsummer, but sometimes weather and work commitments will see them bagged in the hill into early July. When the peats are dry, they are bagged up in sacks and taken home. Most are brought home in trailers, but others will use quads or tractors. In the past peats were carried home in kishies (woven, straw baskets), generally by women who would maak (knit) as they went, or on the back of ponies who wore klibbers (wooden pack saddles) onto which kishies were suspended.
Other people had to take their peats home by boat. Some islands have no peat, Skerries for example, and they cut their peat on neighbouring Whalsay. Closer to home, there was no peat in Burra or Trondra so they would cut peat and boat them home from neighbouring isles, particularly Hildasay or Clift Sound.
Once the peat is home, it must be stored, and for those with space, they’re kept inside, and dry. More traditionally, they are built into a peat stack.
Peats built into a peat stack, Gunnister, Shetland.
Once the peat has been dried, it forms a hard skin which acts as a water-repellent, so when it rains, the water beads up and the peat stack can shed it. Larger peats are placed on the outside, and the smaller, crumblier peats are placed in the centre.
This leads on to another point about peat – no two peats are the same, and the part of the bank they were cut from will determine their quality and density. This leads to a whole new language, the language of peats; that speaks of clodds, skyumpies, mossy paets and faels. The deeper into the peat you cut, the darker and denser the peat becomes, these peats, the clodds, are the ones that will burn the hottest and are saved for the coldest of winter nights. When it burns, the smell is distinctive and pure.
Today peat is generally burnt in small stoves as a secondary heat source in place of logs, but at one time they would have been the only source of fuel for heating and cooking. Peat would have blazed in open fires, and fires would never have been allowed to go out; they were banked down at night and teased back into life in the morning. The best place in Shetland for a visitor to experience this is at the Crofthouse Museum.
Shetland's Crofthouse Museum is the best place for visitors to experience a real peat fire.
What does the future look like?
Burning peat is a destructive process as it is a fossil fuel, but it’s important to point out that those who cut peat only take what they need and they ensure that the hill is kept in good condition, putting in drainage ditches and channels to keep water moving. In fact, without effective peatland management (which is in essence what peat cutters do) the hill becomes degraded, and landslides are more likely to occur causing more harm to the peat bog than cutting alone.
That’s not to say that peat cannot be exhausted. St Ninian’s Isle is an example of an island that once had peat, but by the 1790s the peat had been exhausted and the community left.
St Ninian's Isle used to have peat but it was all used by the 1790s when the community left.
It’s also important to note that peat has not always been part of the landscape in Shetland and, in fact, is arguably only here because of human intervention in the ecosystem.
When the first farmers arrived here during the Neolithic period (about 5-6,000 years ago), they introduced grazing animals and began to clear the rough shrubland that was natural to the isles. They would have encountered a very different Shetland to that of today. The islands’ were blanketed in a ground covering of woodland: low-growing hazel, birch and willow. These didn’t form dense forests or woodlands but clung to the hills and slopes, locking the soil beneath in place. The climate – with the wind and salt spray – would have stunted much of the growth. However, archaeological evidence shows that these small woodlands did make up a significant proportion of the islands.
The introduction of farming had a massive impact on the landscape. The tree roots from the shrubby woodland stabilised the land and held the soil together. Without tree roots, the soil becomes unstable, and both soil and nutrients can be washed away, degrading the land. Roots act as a fantastic vehicle for distributing nutrients through the ground as they pull them up through the soil and deposit them again when leaves are shed. Without this natural process, all the nutrients sink to the bottom, inaccessible to crops, creating a solid iron pan, causing the land to become waterlogged. This, in turn, creates Sphagnum moss which breaks down and forms peat that spreads as the soil further degrades, making an acidic, unworkable, boggy landscape. That’s how the peat was formed, in a nutshell, all those thousands of years ago, as people began to populate the islands.
Shetland Amenity Trust recognise the importance of our peat bogs, and run the Peatland Restoration Project which aims to raise awareness of the importance of blanket peat bogs. Storing more than three times more than rainforests, problems occur when they become degraded. Some of the work the trust carries out involves re-wetting areas, diverting water and preventing further erosion.
The Lang Kames and Petta Water, this is an area of blanket peat moor and the site of a giant windfarmin Shetland.
The greatest threat to our peatlands are not those who back-breakingly cast peats every year, but the big businesses who are driven by money and greed. At the moment Viking Energy is planning a massive 103-turbine site in the heart of Shetland’s peatlands which will cause irreversible harm to the blanket peat and important habitats for breeding birds such as the red-throated diver and whimbrel. This wind farm will have little to no community benefit, and the effects on the natural environment could be catastrophic if given the go-ahead.
This blog has merely scratched the surface; there is so much more to say about peat. Archaeological finds discovered in the peat for one, and the many modes of transport that brought them home. The sense of community as families came together to help one another in the hill and the common goal of getting the task done. There was the lore involved with the peats; of only cutting them when the oil rose in the moor, and of casting on a waning moon.
There is so much more that could be said, but perhaps these can wait for another day.
I would love to answer any questions that you have about peat, so feel free to leave a comment and I'll get back to you.
With love and stay safe,
“Visitors want to have the best experience; they want to see Shetland through the eyes of a local. They want to taste the salt on their faces, smell the sea and bear witness to the wind in their hair. They want to drink in the sights, the smells and the sounds of an island community. They want to be shown the places they would otherwise not discover. They want to piece together the fascinating jigsaw and truly discover Shetland; this is the trip they have dreamed of.”
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Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.
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Copyright ©Alexa Fitzgibbon
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