Fuel poverty has prompted a revival of peat-cutting on Lewis

Picture: Robert Perry
Picture: Robert Perry
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IT IS early one morning in May, the Hebridean sky huge and blue, and Norman Macleod and Peter Urpeth, two old pals from Lewis, are walking out on to the moor, tools slung over their shoulders, ready for another day at the peats.

We are a mile or so inland from the village of Back, in the north-east of the island.

Norman, a wry, friendly 52-year-old in blue boilersuit and deerstalker, points out the highlights of the 360-degree view with proprietorial pride – the Cuillin, the Shiants, the pale peak of Stac Pollaidh. He also notes, nearer to hand, the deep brown scars in the landscape where, over the centuries, peat has been dug out. To an outsider with no eye for it, the vast moors of Lewis can look like a bleak homogenous expanse, but to native families of longstanding they read as both personal and community histories, narratives carved with metal and muscle into the land. “That peat bank was opened maybe 25 years ago,” says Norman, gesturing. “My father opened it.”

.Picture Robert Perry

.Picture Robert Perry

Norman’s father, Kenneth, died last year. He taught Norman how to cut peat. They worked together for many years. The two of them, in 1979, first opened the banks that Norman and Peter are cutting today. Kenneth Macleod was from a generation which relied on peat for fuel. They had to cut. They had no choice. In 1923, the summer was so wet that people couldn’t get their peat for the winter, and they froze in their homes. Few could afford to buy coal. In those days, everyone cut peat. At one time there would have been almost 70 familes from Back alone out working on the moors. Now it’s just four.

Slowly, though, it seems that folk are returning to the peats. The reason, once again, is partly economic – steeply rising prices are making keeping the house warm unaffordable for many in the Western Isles, an area with low levels of household income; in Lewis, there is no mains gas supply and much central heating is oil-fired. “In 2001, oil was 19p a litre,” says Norman. “The last time I bought some it was 70p a litre.”

The Western Isles have the highest rate of fuel poverty in Scotland; it is estimated that around 60 per cent of all households are affected, with many islanders, especially the elderly, being forced to make decisions between eating and heating. Against such an economic background, it is little wonder that being able to dig your winter fuel from the ground for free should become attractive. One cutter sums it up – “If you’re time-rich and money-poor this is a really good thing to do.”

So, while it would be overstatement to suggest that the moors of Lewis are as busy with peat-cutters as they were at one time, it is now quite common, as you drive across the island, to see the bend and rise of distant digging figures. It is becoming, once again, part of the sound and rhythm of the summer, a beat underpinning the fluid melody of the larks.

Picture: Robert Perry

Picture: Robert Perry

For Peter Urpeth, Norman Macleod’s pal, peat-cutting is not just practical but a pleasure, too. He is 49, a writer and pianist, and though originally from Romford has lived on Lewis for 15 years, having married a local woman and raised a family. His wife grew up on a subsistence croft, and Peter was keen to pick up on her family’s knowledge. Cutting the peats, for Peter, is a way to honour the tradition and, in a sense, dig his way into a community to which he is a relative newcomer. “There’s a practical reason I do this – for heat and hot water,” he says. “But I’d do it even if I didn’t need to.

“When you get your peats home and into a stack, to me that’s a better year end than Hogmanay. There’s a real sense of having achieved something.

“I find it totally addictive, really. At the early stage of turfing, you are here on your own for a few days. You can be out for hours and hours and hours, and it’s as if time doesn’t exist. You feel very close to the place.”

Peter and Norman dig together. Peat-cutting, generally, is a two-person job. Peter cuts, Norman lifts. He uses a traditional cutting tool – the Gaelic word for it is tairsgeir, pronounced tarashker, which is about 3∫ft long with a wooden shaft and angled steel blade. It is the approximate size and shape of an ice hockey stick. Peter inherited his tairsgeir from his father-in-law. It is thought that it was made many years ago by the late blacksmith Steallag Macleod, who died in 1972.

All Lewis blacksmiths, once upon a time, made small identifying marks that would allow a tairsgeir from, say, Ness to be distinguished from one forged in Stornoway. Steallag’s was three dots on the top of the blade, a mark that his son Calum – also known as Steallag – still hammers into his tairsgeirs. Calum is, at the age of 77, the last blacksmith on Lewis making the traditional tools. “At one time, I’d make about 100 in a year, but that dwindled a few years ago down to nearly nothing,” he says.

“Then, all of a sudden, the price of oil started going up and people started wanting them again.” He makes a few dozen in a year. “If a tairsgeir is looked after it’ll last a lifetime.”

Macleod has a smiddy in Stornoway – an extraordinary space from a distant age, brown as the moors, smelling of rust and ash and smoke. While the dawn streets are quiet, he likes to light the forge. Despite the intense heat from the flames, you can still see the breath clouding in front of his face as he bends over his anvil and beats a red-hot blade into shape. “It warms me up in the morning,” he says, examining his finished work with bright blue eyes. “That’s it ready for work.”

The peat, as it is cut by the tairsgear, comes away in slabs – known in Gaelic as fàds – which are about a foot long, half a foot wide and three inches thick. They are wet and smooth and dark brown; the mind reaches irresistibly for comparisons with chocolate fudge cake. Inside, though, some fàds are fibrous and orangey in colour; these fibres are known as calcas, and in the old days people would smoke them in lieu of tobacco. “They were the poor man’s fags,” is how one cutter puts it.

Peat is made from partially decomposed vegetation, mostly sphagnum moss, held in a waterlogged basin of land. It is though that the peat moors of Lewis began to form around 7,000 years ago. Each millimetre in depth is reckoned to represent a year; so Norman Macleod’s feet, as he bends to lift peat, are 1,000 years deeper than his hips.

The Western Isles have more than 145,000 hectares of blanket bog, of which approximately three quarters is in Lewis. It is an important biodiversity site. At one time, peatlands were common across much of Britain, but drainage for agriculture and industry, plus a move from peat to coal, gas and oil as preferred fuels, has meant that Lewis now, together with the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, are the largest remaining landscapes of this type. There is some evidence that peat was being used in the Outer Hebrides to make fire from around 1,000 BC.

The timing and duration of the peat season is weather-dependent, but tends to begin in April with turfing – the removal of the first few mossy, heathery inches. Cutting proper begins in May. The cut fàds, after a few weeks lying on the bank, are built up into piles known as rùdhan, which resemble houses of cards. There they are left to dry and then brought home for stacking. This final gathering of the peats, in which family and neighbours muck in together, is often followed by a good meal and a few drams. The whole process from cutting to stacking can take three months.

As the peat has to last through an entire autumn and winter, the stacks outside Lewis homes tend to be large and are the approximate shape of an upturned boat. They stand out in the flat landscape, dark reflections of distant snow-capped peaks, such as Suliven, glimpsed across the Minch on the mainland. Peat stacks – the Gaelic is cruach – are part of the Hebridean aesthetic. Built to withstand an often tempestuous climate, they are also beautiful in their own way. “A local guy 20 years ago actually tried to get a peat stack into the Tate,” one cutter recalls, “and the gallery refused on the grounds that it wasn’t art as it had a practical application.”

If one was seeking on Lewis for a man who could, truly, be said to be an artist of the peat stack, the search might well end with Donald Mackenzie from the village of Eòradale, in the community of Ness. The view from his croft shows, on one side, the house where, 77 years ago, he was born, and on the other side, a diminished but still impressive peat stack built according to a distinctive herringbone structure that recalls both the design of some Harris tweeds and the pattern left on island beaches at low tide.

Donald has been cutting peat since he was 14. His mother, he remembers, carried the fàds on her back in a creel. He is reluctant to accept praise for the skill of his stacking, insisting that he builds in that way simply because it stops the stack from falling down.

Donald was, for much of his life, at sea – sailing cargo boats to Canada and New Zealand and working as a whaler in South Georgia. He also spent a number of years as a guga hunter – one of the men of Ness who, each year, sail from Lewis to the remote, uninhabited island of Sula Sgeir, there scaling guano-slick cliffs in pursuit of gannet chicks, a local delicacy. “It’s a wonder,” he laughs, “I’m alive at all.”

His wife Katie thinks it’s the sailor in him that makes him insist peat-cutting should be done just-so. Does he agree, then, that there is an art to stacking peat? “There sure is,” he says. “When I started, the old folk were very particular. If you didn’t cut them properly, you got a good telling off.” He sighs. “They’re not so particular nowadays.”

On a moor not far from Eòradale, Calum Macdonald and his family are hard at work. Calum is 43 and works offshore, but always makes sure he is home around this time to cut peats for both his own family and his father-in-law. Joining him today are his wife Chrissie, their children, eight-year-old Ryan and six-year-old Kiera, and brother-in-law Coinneach. Earlier, before leaving for the moor, the kids were playing Nintendo DS by the heat of the peat fire. Calum has been cutting peat since he was not much older than his son. “I like to keep the traditional values alive,” he says.

“For me it’s not really about the money. And there’s nothing better on a cold winter’s night than to have a blazing peat fire and be sitting there with a dram or a glass of wine.”

Out on the moor, it is perfect cutting weather; sunny but with a bit of breeze to keep you cool. The land shimmers in a haze as the hot air above the land meets the cold air above the water. Over four hours, Calum and his family cut a length of peat bank 120ft long by 4ft deep. The proper rituals are observed: the first cut layer is thrown on to the top of the bank; the second laid along the edge in stacked diagonals, which give the bank a dragonish look; the third thrown out beyond the bottom of the bank. Peat banks are essentially heritable property, managed by the village grazing committees, and every crofter knows where his or her bank – or poll – is located; to cut someone else’s peat without permission would be unthinkable.

Many of the banks have local names. Poll a’mhinisteir, for instance, is the bank of the minister, an area of the peats that at one time would have been cut for the manse as a form of tithe. “Och,” says Chrissie as Calum wipes the peaty blade of his tairsgeir on the heather, “that’s a good day’s work.”

The most significant benefit of peat-cutting, perhaps, beyond its immediate practical use, is that it keeps the islanders, who tend to live in coastal villages, in touch with the vast, wild interior of Lewis and therefore with their own pasts.

Dotted here and there on the moors are shielings, or airidhs, small stone or wood-and-metal dwellings that would have been built as temporary residences in the days when cattle were brought inland for summer grazing. These days, they tend to be used as weekend getaways for those with an appreciation for the moors, and as shelters during the cutting season. To walk among the cluster of shielings at Cuishader, in the north-west of Lewis, is a rather eerie feeling. Some are ramshackle, but obviously still in use, including one surreal presence – a converted 1940s bus, streaked with rust, which has somehow ended its days here, far from any road.

A little nearer the coast is an abandoned shieling, its turf roof collapsed inwards, fireplace choked with weeds; a Gaelic Bible, swollen with damp, falls open at the Book of Job, releasing a few woodlice that scuttle like shamed sinners for the dark corners of the room.

For Anne Campbell, a 50-year-old artist and crofter native to the village of Bragar, the peatland and shielings upon it have huge cultural importance and psychological resonance. For her, this place means as much to the people of Lewis as the Outback does to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. It is a place of stories; family and village legends, and tales of the supernatural handed down – like a well-kept tairsgeir – through the generations.

Anne, following the example of her late father, always walks barefoot on the moor when going to the peats or visiting her shieling. She considers it an idyll in the spring, the quiet broken only by the wind in the heather and the whistling of the golden plover, which her mother used to say was singing, “Samhradh cridheach, the e a’ tighinn” – a hearty summer, it is coming.

“It’s such a great feeling of freedom to be out, away from everything, getting your water from the loch and making your fire, and nothing around you but birds,” she says. The huge horizon lets you see for miles and miles and miles. It’s a very contemplative landscape.

“I like being among our own peats and thinking about the different people – parents and aunties and uncles and grandparents – who I’ve cut with there, and the conversations I’ve had. As you’re digging down through the peat, also you’re going down through time."

She pauses for a moment. “Everything is still there. Everything is preserved in the peat.”