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Peat cutting

My name is Archie Campbell. Here in Benbecula my neighbour, Donald Innes, and I are spending a day in the early summer out on the moor cutting peats. We start by clearing away the turf with spades. This leaves a bank of peat ready for cutting.

I cut away the beginning section still using my spade. Then, when we have more room to work I change to the peat knife and begin the real cutting.

It’s Donald’s job to throw out the cut peats. They are thrown onto the ground. They will lie there to dry for a while.

As we move along, the marks left by the peat knife can be clearly seen at the top level of the bank.

After a while we get into the rhythm of the work, and we begin to cut and lift at a faster pace.

After a hard morning’s work the time comes for a lunch break, and a chance to eat, drink, and rest. It’s also a time for exchanging news and stories. Peat cutting is more than just hard manual work. It’s a social activity as well.

In the afternoon Donald tries his hand at cutting, and I do the lifting. When we get to the end of the bank we cleared first thing in the morning that’s not the end of the day’s work. We’ve just completed the first level.

Now we have to go back to where we started, and dig a second level out. This time, instead of laying them out on the ground to dry I build them into a wall. There are holes in the wall to let the wind blow through and help the peats to dry.

Finally, at the end of the first day I show Donald how to make small stacks or “rùghain” with the peats lying on the ground – again to help them dry. I’ll come back to do more of this work in a couple of weeks.

With the first day’s work done, Donald and I make our way back home off the moor.

After a couple of weeks the peats have dried a little, and I return to build more of the small stacks, the rùghain. The peats are easier to handle, now that they’ve lost a lot of water.

At this stage there’s no need to move the peats that were built up into the wall, but, even so, there’s a lot of work in building the small stacks with the ones that were lying on the ground. The next stage will be to bring them all home off the moor. That will need a tractor and trailer.

All in all, it takes quite a long time to collect and bring home the fuel for the winter.

But, on a cold winter's day much later in the year, I think it was time well spent.

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