The islanders who keep alive the controversial practice of digging peat

ON a windswept, soggy bog on the Isle of Lewis, Margaret Rowan and Donald John Morrison make an unlikely pair.

She is originally from Essex, a relative newcomer to the island and a Harris Tweed weaver. She stands in six inches of murky water and presses down hard on the tairsgear. “Hurry up,” complains Donald John, as she pauses for breath.

A Lewis islander born and bred, he is now 81 years old and the laborious process of extracting peat, drying it, and carting it home to burn over winter is embedded in his DNA.

These days his arthritic hips are playing up, so Margaret, more than 20 years his junior, has taken over the task of plunging the peat iron into the damp bog and,

with a squelch, extracting another slice

of soggy peat.

With the wind whipping around them and grey clouds swirling overhead, Donald John defies his aches, bends down to grab the precious fuel and throws it on to

the bank.

He could just install oil or electric heaters for his home, but collecting the peat is as much about keeping tradition alive as it is fuel for heating.

For hundreds of years, dark brown peat from some of the most unspoiled peatlands in Scotland has provided the people on the Isle of Lewis and neighbouring Harris

with their annual supply of fuel for heating and cooking.

The hard task of cutting through the turf, extracting the damp peat, drying it, moving it from the moor and carefully stacking it alongside croft walls became a social tradition, bringing families and neighbours together in a combined effort that

would see them all through the harsh winter months.

These days, however, the pair cut solitary figures on a lonely moor in Ness.

Not only have the days of communities joining forces to cut peat dwindled, but its extraction has also become controversial for the damage inflicted on precious

peat bogs which play a vital role in capturing carbon.

While debate focuses on protecting Scotland’s internationally renowned peatlands ahead of the COP26 climate summit, Edinburgh filmmaker Alison Pinkey followed neighbours Margaret and Donald John, along with a small group of fellow Lewis islanders, as they went about the annual ritual of cutting peat while reflecting on the traditions and deep cultural importance to the community.

Filmed earlier this year and part of

BBC1’s Our Lives series – which explores diversity and traditions across the British Isles – it joins the pair, along with John Norman “Corrags” Macleod and his son Andrew, and Isles FM host Danny Mackay, as they return to the peat banks tied to their crofts to carry out a task which has been part of island life for generations.

For Donald John, this year’s journey to the blustery peat bog near his Eorodale cottage is particularly poignant: arthritis and the physical demands of the task mean it may be the last time he plays an active role in a process that he has been involved in since he was just five years old.

Collecting the peat, however, and croft life is not what it once was. Homes on the island have modern heating, while full-time jobs mean fewer people have time to devote to cutting peat.

“Collecting the peat has died out now,” he says. “I do it because I enjoy being

out there.

“It used to be that when it’s time to bring it home, you would get nine or 10 people coming to help. If you got a damn

good day of sunshine, you’d have a picnic out there, make a nice pot of tea and

have sandwiches.

“It’s not like that now.”

For him, the task of collecting peat begins before March ends, when he would start the back-breaking task of removing the top layer of turf to reveal the deep brown peat beneath.

“That is the hardest part,” he adds. “The ground can be hard if it’s been freezing, but I’ve not seen snow for years.

“We used to have bad winters, now the only snow I see is on television.”

Extracting the peat takes around three months – once the digging and laying it out carefully to dry is over, comes the challenge of bringing it home.

In days long gone, women would load peat slices into creels strapped to their backs, often knitting while they trudged home with their load.

In Danny’s case, the peat is pulled back to his croft by a red 1955 Ferguson TEF tractor bought by his father and used every year since – a link with a disappeared generation who treasured the precious

peat for heating and cooking.

“I like being in the peat and thinking about the different people I’ve cut with there and the conversations we’ve had,”

he says.

“Back in the day it was very much a communal thing, we would help the neighbours and the neighbours would

help us.

“As you cut down through the peat you are cutting down through time, knowing you are carrying on the traditions and connecting yourself to the past.”

For Margaret, who moved hundreds of miles north to Lewis six years ago to fulfil

a dream of becoming a Harris Tweed weaver, the traditions and skill of peat cutting are more recent.

“Donald John showed me where the peat banks are at my house and I’ve learned

a lot from him and others about the traditions – it’s like history being passed down,” she says.

There is more to cutting peat than just digging it out, she adds.

The cut peat has to be laid out properly so it dries, while care has to be taken to replace the upper layer of turf to protect the peat below. There is pride in the task too.

“I like doing things with my hands, and there’s a pattern or rhythm to cutting peat that is not unlike weaving,” she adds.

“There’s lot of tradition in cutting peat, the way to do it or not to do it. It’s frowned upon if you don’t do it right.

“I’ve had lots of admiring comments about my peat stack and that makes me

feel part of the community.

“They are impressed with the herringbone pattern – I suppose being a weaver I should be good at that,” she adds.

Like generations before, John ‘Corrags Macleod is teaching his son Andrew, 21, the process of turfing, cutting, throwing and lifting peat.

“Years ago,there would be teams of six or eight people, it was a community thing, neighbours would do it together,” he says. “I can remember for six weeks we would always be in someone’s peat bank every Saturday, whether it was my own or my neighbour’s, the mother-in-law, the fellow across the road…

“But, as time passed, oil came, electric heating. It has slowly started to die.

“Are people just too lazy to do it? Maybe. More people are working full-time now than there used to be.

“Plus, they’ve got the wife and the husband both working, so a lot of people don’t have the time to do the peat.

“And if they’re working, they can afford the oil and a coat, so they don’t need

peat any more.”

There is a conflict between protecting peat, retaining traditions and making use of a readily available fuel, he adds.

“We have one of the highest areas for

fuel poverty. Look back 40 or 50 years ago there was no fuel poverty on this island because everyone cut peat and it heated their houses.

“It was your own hard labour that

heated your house for the year, everyone had stoves and used peat.

“Having peat to heat your house seems frowned upon now.

“The houses are built without chimneys, they are all-electric and the opportunity isn’t there to use peat.

“I find that stupid.”

Some islanders now use machines to chop into the peat, often extracting significantly more than can be achieved

by hand.

For others like Margaret, the process

of completing the job using old tools is more satisfying and less environmentally damaging.

“It’s not about getting it done, it’s about doing it myself,” she adds. “It’s about the process.

“When cutting by hand and for your own domestic use, I don’t think there is any problem with cutting peat.

“Some people are against it for ecological reasons, but it’s not a gigantic amount that is being taken and it is a huge part of a lot of people’s lives up here.

“It’s a way of life, and a tradition for such a long time. It’s a shame if it didn’t last.”

l Our Lives: For Peat’s Sake will be on BBC1 on September 8, 7.30pm.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992