Sunday, 29 June 2008


Peat banks are a familiar sight in the Hebrides. Clearly visible in many areas, especially on the Isle of Lewis where the peat bogs are very flat, These peat banks provide excellent fuel similar in many ways to coal. Virtually the whole of the Hebrides is covered in a deep layer of peat which continues to grow each year. Peat has been used as a household fuel for many centuries. The deeper layers are rich in anthresite which the main constituent of fine coal. With the prices of oil and coal on the rise, it appears that islanders are turning in favour of their very own fossil fuel and cutting the peats more than in recent years when the cutting had dwindled considerably.

The ‘proper’ cutting instrument is the tarasgeir. Local Blacksmith Calum 'Steallag' Macleod has this year been busy with requests for tarasgeirs, As he said in late April: "They really dwindled down to me making only about half a dozen about three years ago, but this year I've made around 30 odd already." And that was before the beautiful weather in May and early June. The increase is still a far cry from the days when the smithy and his father made around 100 new tarasgeirs a year. He continued: "We used to make about 100 or so a year back then. I remember the most I ever made was over 150 one year – it was a year when there was a crisis with the oil and the prices really went up. "

Iain MacIver, The Stornoway Trust Factor, also revealed that there has been an increase in interest in applying for peat bank permits. "Last year there was more interest than the year before and this year there is more interest than last," he said.

The photograph above shows a close-up of a peat bank which has recently been cut. Slices of peat are cut and spread out across the moor to dry. The tarasgeir enables the peat to be cut, lifted & thrown in one movement (apparently I am misinformed - see GB's comment).

Once cut the peats are left in a little groups of three or four to dry and then turned over for the other side to dry out. Gathering the peat was a social occasion. The whole village would travel to the moor to gather the semi-dry peat into mounds to dry further. In todays' modern society this tradition has disappeared as people do not have the ability to take holidays at the same time, but it is still fairly common to see whole families working together to gather the peats. In fine weather it can be an enjoyable experience, especially for children.

After a couple of weeks the peat is virtually dried through. At this stage the peat was gathered into larger mounds called peat stacks. Some people pile their peats rather attractively – others will make so with a pretty basic stack. Today the peat is usually gathered into peat sacks (otherwise known as plastic sacks!) to be transferred to the home by lorry.

This is a picture of GB and some of the family at his peat bank in the 1970s.

He stopped cutting peats for winter fuel in the late 70s or early 80s and many other people did likewise. Since then the number of peat banks being cut has diminished gradually year by year. But a combination of the rising price of oil and the beautiful weather have brought people out in much greater numbers this year to renew their peat cutting.

And here is the finished product. These are some of Steve’s peats from 2008 – cut and dried already by mid-June.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The Highland Midge


In most parts of the country the weather tends to be the first item of a conversation - irrespective of whether it is between friends, acquaintances or complete strangers. On the Isle of Lewis there is an equally popular alternative - midges.
The female Highland Midge (Culicoides impunctatus) is a vicious little so-and-so that bites while both sexes can fuss around one's eyes and ears and mouth and generally annoy one.

It is known in Gaelic as meanbh-chuileag (tiny fly) and, as it's Gaelic name suggests, it is very small in size, with a wingspan of about 1.4 mm., a body length of slightly less than that and a weight of about 0.5 microgram. The transparent or membranous wings contain six or seven dark blotches and these form a distinctive pattern which differentiate the Highland biting midge from closely-related species, such as the garden midge (Culicoides obsoletus). When it is at rest, the midge's wings are positioned over its back, with one wing on top of the other.

In one study, 500,000 midges were collected, emerging from an area of just 2 metres by 2 metres. On that basis, a space the size of a garden barbecue area may have more than 1 million midges. That's enough to spoil anyone's party!

Allegedly, at wind speeds of over 8.8 kilometres per hour (5.5 miles per hour) midges are unable to fly, and will land on ground vegetation. Unfortunately the midges on Lewis have not read this piece of research and tend to fly when the wind is quite a bit stronger!

After fertilisation the females require a meal of blood for the eggs to develop fully. This bloodsucking, or haematophagous, behaviour involves feeding on mammals, typically red deer (Cervus elaphus) or cattle, and, to a lesser extent, sheep. Other mammals, including humans, are fed upon when the opportunity arises.

Research has shown that, in her quest for blood, the female midge is attracted to dark-coloured moving objects, particularly where they are associated with carbon dioxide, which is given out in the breath of mammals. In addition, the midge has a well-developed olfactory sense, which it uses to detect the presence of several chemicals in the body odour of humans and other mammals, such as acetone and lactic acid.

Once prey has been located, the midge cuts through a soft area of skin with specialised mandibles and mouthparts. The mouthparts are then rolled into a tube and inserted into the wound, to suck up the blood. If the midge is undisturbed it will drink for up to 4 minutes, by which time the abdomen is distended and swollen. When she has found a blood meal, the female midge releases a chemical called a pheromone, which acts as an attractant to other females. This leads to mass attacks, involving hundreds or even thousands of individuals, at the height of the midge season in July and August.

Midges are crepuscular in their behaviour, meaning that they are most active around dawn and dusk, when light levels are reduced. Light is the most significant environmental factor for their biting activity - on a bright sunny day, few midges may be encountered, but on a dull, overcast day, substantial numbers may bite, even in the middle of the day.

Sadly, although it is so numerous, the Highland biting midge is not a major food source for any insectivorous animals or birds.

In parts of the Highlands it has been estimated that up to 20% of the summer working days in outdoor jobs such as forestry are lost due to midge attacks. Even a simple task such as tying bootlaces becomes impossible when midges are at their worst. For the summer months of the midge season, this miniscule insect, by dint of its biting habit and sheer numbers, is a dominant factor in life out of doors in the Highlands and Islands, causing significant changes to human behaviour. There is a positive side to this though, as the midges have undoubtedly contributed to keeping the north and west of Scotland sparsely populated, and therefore as wild as they still are today.

Culicoides midges of one sort or another are found throughout the world but one of the few places they are not present is New Zealand - which could explain why GB finds it so attractive to go there for his other summer.

For further information the brilliant book 'Midges in Scotland' by George Hendry is a must.

Now the important bit - how to combat them.

Two chemicals in common usage in midge repellents are DEET (Di-ethyl toluamide) and DMP (Dimethyl phthalate). Eureka is a well tried repellent which contains Geranium and Lavender. Bite Free, from the same manufacturer, is another repellent and has citronella, lemon grass and eucalyptus amongst its ingredients. Avon's Skin-so-soft body oil (in spray-on form) is also said to be very effective for some people.

Another herbal repellant, whose principal ingredient is Bog Myrtle, is available from

Some people dab a little vanilla extract on their wrists, neck and behind the ears. Rubbing a lavender flower in the same areas is also said to help.

It seems to be a matter of personal preference - perhaps related to one's own body chemicals and behaviour - as to which has the best results. Another recipe is to mix witch hazel with a few drops of tea tree oil, lavender oil, or peppermint oil in a squirt bottle. Lightly mist your body. You can also add one of these essential oils to an unscented organic lotion for a bug repelling moisturizer.

By far the most effective safeguard against the midges is a midge hood made of netting and these are widely available nowadays, as are full midge suits. At one time no 'real man' would have been seen dead in a midge hood or midge suit but common sense (and the midges) have prevailed and they are now quite popular not only with tourists but with islanders as well.

Wearing light coloured clothing is also said to help but at the end of the day - "The Midges Rule - OK!".

Monday, 2 June 2008


There are two phobia websites that have wonderful phobia names on them - phobia guide and phobia list.

How about these for examples:-
Agrizoophobia - Fear of wild animals.
Anthrophobia - Fear of flowers.

Arachibutyrophobia - Fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth.
Batrachophobia - Fear of amphibians
Bufonophobia - Fear of toads

Chiraptophobia - Fear of being touched
Chronomentrophobia - Fear of clocks

Diplophobia - Fear of double vision

Dishabiliophobia - Fear of undressing in front of someone

Ereuthrophobia - Fear of blushing
Galeophobia - Fear of cats
Gatophobia - Fear of Cats
Gephyrophobia - Fear of crossing bridges

Herpetophobia - Fear of reptiles, amphibians and creepy crawly things
Hodophobia - Fear of road travel

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia - Fear of long words (How can you expect someone with Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia to tell you what is wrong with them? Shouldn’t it have been given a name like Abphobia?)

Ichthyophobia - Fear of fish
Kainolophobia Fear of novelty.
Kakorrhaphiophobia Fear of failure or defeat.
Lachanophobia - Fear of vegetables
Leukophobia - Fear of the colour white
Logizomechanophobia - Fear of computers.
Gynophobia - Fear of darkness

Mageirocophobia - Fear of cooking
Metathesiophobia - Fear of changes
Microphobia - Fear of small things
Mottephobia - Fear of moths
Nephophobia - Fear of clouds
Nyctohylophobia - Fear of dark wooded areas, of forests at night

Ochophobia - Fear of vehicles
Onomatophobia Fear of hearing a certain word or of names.
Ornithophobia - Fear of birds
Ophidiophobia Fear of snakes.
Ophthalmophobia Fear of being stared at.
Porphyrophobia - Fear of the colour purple

Pteromerhanophobia - Fear of flying
Rhabdophobia Fear of being severely criticized.
Sesquipedalophobia - Fear of long words

Suriphobia - Fear of mice
Taurophobia - Fear of bulls

Trichopathophobia - Fear of hair
Venustraphobia Fear of beautiful women

Vestiphobia - Fear of clothing

And, best of all, as a concept, is Zemmiphobia - Fear of the great mole rat.