What is Peat?
Most of you who read this will live in a comparatively modern house, heated and fuelled by gas and electricity - coal is nothing like as common as it used to be.
But go back a hundred years or so in this area, and the average croft house would have peat as it's heating, not only for actual heat itself, but also for water / kettles and so on. Sometimes, you might hear a reference to the "peat reek" - that is, the smell of a peat fire blazing in a croft house, the family gathered around its edge listening to stories of old!
It's a romantic picture, isn't it? It doesn't tell you of the smoke and dust that settled everywhere, or that peat itself may burn for a long time but doesn't put out much heat at all!
Peat is the partially decomposed and compressed remains of vegetable matter. In the wettest places the soils become waterlogged and the bacteria and fungi which would normally break down dead plant parts cannot survive, creating a build up. These peat bogs have a unique flora of plants which are specialised to cope with the damp conditions.
Sphagnum mosses often carpet the ground, creating beautiful splashes of emerald green and russet red. The leaves of these mosses are like little sponges – in the past they were used as wound dressings because of their absorptive properties. All the nutrients which plants need are locked up in the preserved peat so plants have other ways of getting their food. Sundews use a pad of sticky hairs to trap insects which they slowly digest. Butterworts do the same on their sticky rosette of leaves. Peat was the only fuel used by the crofters and was cut with a peat knife, "torasgian", from the peat moss in the spring. The turf was removed from the surface of the ground with a turf parer, "cabar lar", and the peats were then cut and built into small stacks to dry. They were carried home in the autumn (usually by the women, the world’s workers!) in a "peat creel" - a basket made of willow, hazel or birch.
A Peat Hag......
While there are still a number of houses in the area that burn peat, they are in the minority nowadays. Each of the householders will have a particular area close by that they cut the peat from - this is called the "peat hag" But the typical croft house was a pretty cold and damp place, particularly during the winter. The house this piece is being written in just now dates back to the early 1800's, was thatched until the 1930's, and had an earth floor until about 1954. The total heating system in 1989 consisted of two coal / peat fires, several rooms having nothing at all. Insulation? You jest! It was not a warm house.......but it had character!
Coal is still used as a principal heating source in many houses here. Although you do not find this in many large towns nowadays, the weekly visits from the coalman are still a feature of most communities, and it is not many years ago that this was the accepted way in which a house would obtain most of its energy - electricity was not necessarily a standard feature of the small communities in this area until comparatively recently with the coming of the "Hydro.". The Scottish Highlands were one of the pioneering areas of the UK in the setting up of several huge schemes to produce electricity from water - Hydro Electric power. The "Hydro" became incorporated into the language of the country, and it was a common turn of phrase to tell somebody that you "were getting the Hydro in"