Cutting peat

June 2023

Since installing a multi-fuel burner in our living room in the winter of 2020/2021, we’ve wanted to gather peat to use as fuel, to add to the wood and coffee logs we’ve been burning in the colder months of the year.

Peat is a traditional, cost-effective fuel which has been cut and burned by folk in the Scottish Highlands and Islands for generations. It is composed of decayed vegetation and organic matter which has formed in acidic, wetland conditions. It is believed the peat that covers much of the Hebridean islands today was formed around 3000-4000 years ago.

The best peat banks are said to be those with the deepest profiles, as these produce dense, black, carbon-rich peat which burns hotter and longer.

One of the peat banks on the island of Great Bernera

Peat cutting is traditionally a highly organised endeavour, often involving whole families working the peat banks in the springtime for days, cutting, stacking and gathering the slabs. The practice has become less common in recent decades, as alternative forms of heating fuel became available.

However, due to rising energy costs and people’s desire to be less dependent on imported fuel, peat cutting may actually make a comeback. We, for sure, would like to reach a higher level of self-sufficiency in terms of creating our own sources of energy.

In order to access the peat, the top layer of fresh vegetation must first be cut away; this is the most physically demanding part of the process. After that, a peat iron, known in Gaelic as a tairsgear, makes cutting the soft peat underneath as easy as slicing a hot knife through butter.

A special tool called a 'tairsgear' makes easy work of slicing through the soft peat
Gloves and wellies are required as it can be muddy work
The freshly-cut slabs are laid on the grass to dry

The soft peat slabs are then laid across the grass to dry for a couple of weeks, then turned and stacked, often on wooden pallets, to dry some more. When fully dried, they are gathered up, bagged and taken home ready for the following winter.

A few hours of work in the springtime have produced our fuel for the winter

4 thoughts on “Cutting peat”

  1. Helen,
    I am sorry – but I find it hard to believe that you are using peat. It is one of the largest stores of CO2 on earther and far longer to replace itself than wood. We have spent time and energy trying to replace potting compost etc to not be peat. This for an example https://www.irishtimes.com/news/environment/why-peat-is-most-damaging-fuel-in-terms-of-global-warming-even-worse-than-coal-1.3674537
    It really is the worst thing you could be doing for the planet.
    Love to both,
    Duncan

  2. While it is a traditional source of fuel in the Highlands and other places, there is significant evidence showing that the role of peatlands or bogs is critical for storing carbon. Peat is the single biggest store of carbon in the UK, holding the equivalent of 20 years of all UK CO2 emissions and keeping it out of the atmosphere. Many people fighting climate change advocate leaving peat where it is rather than burning it and releasing the CO2 into the atmosphere – see this FoE link https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate/why-peat-good-climate-and-nature

  3. Thank you Duncan and Gill for your comments. I totally get where you’re both coming from, as I used to think like that myself.

    However, I’ve come to realise more recently that the sudden rush to restore peatlands all over the world is not in fact based on solid science. We need more woodlands, not more wetlands, especially up here in the Outer Hebrides where centuries of destructive deforestation has resulted in swathes of barren landscapes that can’t support the population. Fortunately, many people (including us) are actively working to plant trees again to help restore these islands to their original, natural beauty and abundance.

    Far from it being the worst thing we can do for the planet, cutting our own peat in our small corner of the British Isles is doing a lot less damage than, for example, the mass-produced solar panels, wind turbines and storage batteries that we’ve invested in, when you consider the social, economic and environmental effects that the extraction of the raw materials and the manufacture of this equipment are causing.

    I am aware of what is being reported in the mainstream media and, to be honest, I don’t believe most of it (although the ‘alternative’ media is not much better). And I definitely don’t trust international organisations such as ‘Friends’ of the Earth. Check out where they get the majority of their funding.

    Thanks again for your comments and for giving me the opportunity to respond. There’s a lot more I could say, but this blog is not the place for that. If you’d like to discuss this with me further, I’d be happy to get on a call with you. Just let me know 🙂

    With love and gratitude,

    Helen

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