Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Peat digging in the Highlands...

Is that a petrified log I spy?

'Fraid not it's me in a state of collapse.

Good job the photo's fuzzy!

Eons (early eighties) ago I spent five years on the NW coast of Scotland
living a self-sufficient life.

Rowan sitting sunning herself on a rock on the left hand side of the picture

Truly self sufficient...
no hand outs, living by your wits and hard graft.
Goats, hens, ducks, pet lambs given by crofters, which we reared to eat.
Being pets I didn't need a dog, I just used to stand on the top of the hill beside the house and holler.  Their replying bleats filled the air as from far and wild they trotted home.
In many ways it was a good life, although the relationship didn't stand the test of
unending toil.
We grew vegetables, I could never get runner beans to grow there, too harsh an environment I suppose.
I milled grain in a mincer-type mill (not hugely successful!).  
Made bread, oatcakes, water biscuits, drop scones,
crowdie, yogurt and semi-hard cheese.
I used to spin and knit, selling my wares to visitors in the summer.
The biggest expense of time, but well worth 
the extreme effort was the peat.

The peat banks allocated to our croft were eight miles away,
north along the coast towards Drumbeg.
Parking in a passing place, we would walk a quarter of a mile along a track,
 then a climb to the top of a heather covered hill.

The grassy tops have to be removed first to expose the black gold beneath.
Being the feeble female, I was the one who's job it was to throw out the cut peats.
You catch them as they fall and throw them behind you, aiming to lay them out as neatly as you can, in order that each one lays flat on the heather.
The laid out peat obviously takes up far more room than it did
slumbering in its million year bed.
The idea of throwing them behind you, is to not catch up with yourself,
if you do, you get in a bugger's muddle not having anywhere to throw.
I got so proficient that I could throw them neatly one after the other in neat rows.
It won't surprise you to know I had a waist in those days!
The picture is of me having thrown out some of the winter's supply.
A breather before the afternoon shift.

They are then left there for a week or ten days,
depending on the weather, to allow a skin to form.
Back I'd drive, with man who couldn't,
to then stack them into threes to dry more fully.

The next trip is to build a stack were they will stand,
 until the big push to get them home.
This next stage I think was the hardest.
The peats were bagged up in hessian sacks, then balanced on our shoulders, carried down the hill to the track, where I used to wheelbarrow them along to the van.
Pack them in, then drive back the windy, sheer drop into in sea, single track road home.
This trip I did dozens of times to fill the store.

Fuel for free? 


  1. My dad used to dig peat when he was a lad:) He said it back breaking work but it kept him fit.

  2. Whereabouts did your dad dig peat Mary Ann?


    1. In Donegal. He used to work for aunt I the Glenswilly area during the summer. Lots of peat there:)

  3. This life sounds like a dream - don't you ever get the urge to go back to it?

    1. Err... No Nilly, that old saying 'When poverty comes in the window, love flies out of the door!' is so true.

      For all that, I still would do it again; at the time like so many experiences in my life, I've thought folk are never going to believe this! Looking back even I sometimes have to pinch myself at the twists and turns, good and bad. What I really like about blogging is you can be yourself. I find it very soothing when my head is fit to burst with memories and off the wall every day thoughts, I can record them, without fear or favour.


  4. Oh my goodness, I'm exhausted just reading your post Lin. What an incredible life experience though. xxx

    1. Is it any wonder me frigging thumb throbs Viv? Now you know and ~ I haven't even mentioned my life on the farm... yet!


  5. I am trying to stay of 'tinternet and doing "stuff", but you are luring me back with this post. You see, my granny lived in Scotland (in the Abernethy forest) and had her own peat patch which I remember being taken to see at about the age of 9. We visited in summer always so I never got to see how it burnt so would be interested to hear about that. As for crowdie, it was always one of the two things offered at suppertime on our "piece" (sandwich). The other thing offered was honey (still on the comb) which I detested. Crowdie to me tasted sour - and I used to refuse it and be told to "do without then". Now I want to relive this slightly and make some crowdie to see if my tastes have changed.

  6. That should have read "trying to stay off 'tinternet and do "stuff"..........".
    My brain is addled!

    1. Peat has a very distinctive smell when it burns. Our peat, fuelled the Rayburn, hot water and kept the house cosy. Piece... I'd forgotten that word, carry-out was also new to me then. I kept bees and way back I wrote a blog post about being horribly stung when I foolishly opened the hive, common-sense told me not to.. well I did and paid the price. Heather honey on the comb is so good for you; like the crowdie try it now, your tastes I'm sure will have changed.

      The one thing I have taken with me since leaving Scotland, is just how generous the Scots are. Them being tight... is a myth.

      Hope your 'stuff doing' is going well, I've missed your odd posts.


  7. Ah yes........ being stung. The same granny took me for a walk when I was still pushchair size and the wheel went over a wasps' nest in the ground, bursting it. Granny panicked and ran for help leaving me with wasps plastering my head, face, neck and of course hands with which I was trying to beat them off. My father was apparently at a distance and years later would tell me that he had had to clear a fence to get to me and often wondered where he had got the agility that day. I live with a fear of anything buzzing round my ears to this day.

    I do rather miss Scotland actually. We had amazing times there in the tiniest of houses in the forest. No electricity or running water and just days to do as we pleased in the woods.