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Behold the Hebrides
The Peat Gatherer


I THINK that in many ways the women of the Hebrides are unlike the women in any other part of our Islands. To one who knows the Western Isles and is familiar with the conditions under which the people live there, this difference is requiring of no explanation. At the best, life in the Hebrides is severe, particularly in the remoter parts, where the inclemency of the weather and the poorness of the soil render the lot of the island-crofter anything but a happy one.

Like the men, the women in the Isles have throughout the centuries become hardened and accustomed to their environment. They are able to face all weathers; and, indeed, when the harvests on land and sea fail, as they so frequently do, they can endure hardships and privations which the average mind would find impossible to believe.

Let us consider for a moment how the Isleswoman toils each year at the peat-moss, in order that an ample store of fuel may be laid in for the cold, wet winter with its long, dark nights. A great deal of labour is entailed in the cutting and stacking of peats; in fact one often wonders if economically they are really worth the trouble expended on them. The peats are invariably cut by the women-folk, especially in those parts where, at the time of cutting, the men of the townships are absent at the fishings. Then there is the setting up on end of the peats in small groups, so that they may dry. This is followed by the building of huge stacks at the roadside, or at some convenient place from which they can be ultimately carried home in a cart.

The carrying of the peats is done almost entirely by women and children, who trail all day long with laden creels between the peat-moss and the spot where other members of the family are busily engaged in stack-making.

You must bear in mind that the peats have to be attended to in all weathers; and the days which have been assigned to them are seldom spent otherwise, unless torrential rains, which are anything but uncommon in these regions, have made the peat-moss inaccessible, or impossible to work.

In some parts of the Western Isles the home-bringing of the peats depends on the state of the tide, as in Uist, for example, where cartloads are conveyed across a wide sandy ford when the tide is far out. At other places, perhaps, the women creel-carriers are obliged to arrange their journeys to and from the peat-moss when the stepping-stones across the narrows of some sea-loch are above the surface of the water.

The cutting and stacking of peats a few miles north of Stornoway affords an interesting example of how the island women work according to the state of the tide, because they set out for the extensive peat-moss on the other side of Loch an Tuath, or Broad Bay, when the tide begins to ebb. If the tide should happen to be full in the forenoon they go to the peats in the early morning, and spend the whole day at the moss, returning home barefooted across a great stretch of sheen-white sands in the evening, when the tide is low again. This route is considerably shorter than walking round the head of this broad, flat bay, because the tide recedes for many miles and leaves a vast area of what is practically dry land, except where one or two streams have to be crossed.

The folks at Steinish and Coulregrein, two little villages at this side of Loch an Tuath, usually bring their peats home in boats, which they load during the daytime, and which they row across the bay in the darkening, when the tide is suitable. Thus they are enabled to unload their peats almost at their doors, and are saved the trouble and anxiety of carting home their fuel along difficult roads and pathways.

But the women in the Western Isles do many other things. They spin and they weave; they are in attendance at the shielings; they assist at the fishings; and they work earnestly at garner-time, even though the harvests are never too abundant.

Of these duties I have made brief mention elsewhere.


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