Peat for Heat

An update for Natasha who posed a question following Commissioner, Andy Holt’s short video on raising the peats.

Dear Natasha,

You asked about the cutting and recovery of peat for fuel. There are local variations in the process, depending on which part of the Highlands and Islands it takes place. I live on a small island off the west coast of Shetland, Papa Stour and the peat was worked out many years ago. We used to visit a lady on the isle who remembered going to cut peats as a child. The families travelled by open boat, rowing and sailing, to the Island of Papa Little, about 5 miles across St Magnus Bay. This must have been sometime around 1920-30. We go by boat, our own or the council-run ferry, and drive a mile or so to our peat bank just outside the village of Sandness. Most Crofts in Shetland have a bank which goes with the Croft, but it is possible to get one by contacting someone called the peat constable who administers the system on behalf of whichever estate your preferred bank might be situated.

The process. First the bank, which in our case is around 30 yards long, is flayed. That is, we cut the top turf about one spade depth and two spade widths wide. We remove this in sods about one foot cubed and lay it in a line along the bottom of the bank to prevent erosion. Then we begin cutting using a special peat cutting tool, a cross between a narrow spade and a knife. In Shetland this implement is called a Tushkar. The first row of peats are tossed as far away as possible from the edge of the bank to leave room for the subsequent rows, which are built up into a wall along the top of the bank. When the cutting is finished we leave it to dry for a while. Could be days like this year with the fine dry weather. Could be weeks like last year’s very wet summer. Then comes the bit in the film, the raising. Each peat is built into little wigwam-shaped structures of 4-6 on end to allow further drying. This last process may need to be repeated once more in a poor summer. Finally when it’s dry, we bring a trailer, load the peats into it, bring it home and put it in our peat shed. In our case we build it into a stack in the shed which has slatted sides which allows for more drying. I hope this is helpful.

Best Wishes, Andy


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