Peat Cutting in Stratherrick

The smell of burning peat is one of the most evocative and familiar accompaniments to a Highland landscape and the journey of the fuel from bog to hearth is a very old  but now less common activity in Stratherrick than formerly.

Peat is simply decomposed and waterlogged vegetation, partly pickled in its own decaying and acidic juices and the whole process is dependant upon poor drainage and exclusion from any attempt by man to cultivate the locations where it is found. It can accumulate at the rate the rate of about 1 inch (25mm.) per century, so is a renewable resource.

The quality and density of peat is variable depending upon how it has been formed. If this happens in a low lying sump or basin it will accumulate at a faster rate and  probably contain fallen trees and branches but will be much less dense than that formed on a more exposed moor where the main constituent is likely to be grass, heather and pollens. Most of the peat which has been cut in Stratherrick has come from basin formations and is lighter in colour and less dense than a typical peat from say, Caithness and Lewis which can approach the performance of coal when burnt.

Angus Macgillivray of Gorthleck claimed the best local peat came from an area which is now surrounded by a plantation on the west side of the Pass of Inverfarigaig road half a mile from Errogie. In the same locality there are signs of old cuttings a little further down the road at Aultnagoire under the power lines. Many of the old peat cuttings have been swallowed up by plantations over the last 50 years and in other places the trees have been planted in such close proximity that they have cut the essential drying wind and sunlight which is essential during the early summer months.

When you know what to look for it is quite easy to recognise the tell tale signs of old peat cuttings, usually a linear depression in the heather with a fairly straight edge although sometimes the man wielding the tushker may have produced a curved line over many years. Often a step-in will be visible in the face being worked. One of the best examples which is visible from the road is approximately a mile east of Errogie on the low side of the main road which was probably the local fuel for the residents of Old Errogie, Torshelly and Charleston on the hill above. A short distance further east the only workings still in use today sit in the fork of the road where it splits to Strathnairn at the Cadhal an Odhar.

Peat was cut at Loch Bran and on the south side of loch Garth near Corriegarth and again on the roadside near the summit of the Suidhe on the road to Fort Augustus. This last site fulfilled two of important essentials. It was high and exposed for good drying and transport home would have been downhill! There are old cuttings on the Dunmaglass side of Meall Don in Errogie and at Loch Ceo Glais and doubtless in many other forgotten locations.

The time to cut is usually from the 1st of May when frost is less common and usually there is a good drying wind and no midges yet. The first stage is to strip of the overlying heather and moss in turf sized lumps and this is carefully laid down again when the peat has been removed and the only sign of activity will be a slight step down in the moor. The heather and moss will take root and the cumulative process  start all over again. A heavy rutting spade can be used to prepare the bank but any sharp spade and a hake (a two pronged fork at right angles to a short shaft to remove the overburden) will do the job.

Actual cutting of the peat is done with a tushkar or peat iron which is simply a spade with a blade with a right angled flange. I’ve always cut vertically from above but have seen it done horizontally in Moray and Aberdeenshire. The wet peat comes away from the peat bank and the assistant standing in the cutting can either thrown it up by hand or pitched up onto the bank with a fork. Tushkars are usually made by a local blacksmith and the design varies around the Highlands and Islands.peat cuttingCaithness, and the islands use a single shaft with a blade that produces a peat roughly the shape of an oversized telephone directory whereas the Stratherrick model has a “T” cross bar and narrower blade to produce a peat more in the proportions of a log. I think this local variation has evolved because our peat is quite fibrous and it is necessary to give a slight twist to loosen it from the peat moss. Of course it is also necessary to keep a sharp edge on your tushkar in order to cut through the peat. The best burning peats are usually the last cut just before the hard is reached and this may be up to a metre down.

After they’ve been cut and thrown up onto the bank the peats should be dry enough within 10 days to set up on one side in groups of three or four or in a herring bone pattern row. In a good drying year they can be ready to take home after a further four weeks or to bag off or build into a stack beside the cutting until they can be taken home by tractor and trailer before the autumn rains make access to the peat moss too difficult. Once they arrive back at the house the peats are either built into another outside stack or stored in a shed.

Stratherrick peats burns long and slow and are very good at lasting through the night particularly if they are “smoored” or partly covered with some of their own ash.

Alex Sutherland

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