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.

1 comment:

Scriptor Senex said...

"The tarasgeir enables the peat to be cut, lifted & thrown in one movement."

I think that that may be true of s Shetland or Orkney peat iron which is made for one-man (it was always the man's job to cut) operation but the Lewis and Harris irons are made for two person operation. The iron wielder cuts. The peat falls into the arms of the thrower who lobs it onto the bank in the best available space.