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.
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.
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.